19 March 2017

Florida News – Sudden Death Edition

by Leigh Lundin

Florida postcard Death and Texas

Florida’s corporate prisons face a major problem. Our inmate population is so huge that even a death a day from guards and other inmates can’t cure the overload. We proudly possess the second largest death row in the nation and we can’t kill the convicted fast enough. Believe me, Florida tries and we compete fiercely.

Surmounting our rivalry with Texas came with bitter disappointment. Just as we pulled ahead of the Lone Star State, California came from behind to pass us both. That sound of gnashing teeth means we’re still Nº 2.

The Supreme Court keeps telling us our capital punishment statutes aren’t constitutional. Hey, as long as jurors had a ⅚ majority and it was fishing season, we were good to kill. We didn’t need no stinking 100% unanimosity. If a misguided jury decided the accused didn’t deserve death, our statutes allowed a hanging judge (who in Florida isn’t?) to override those wussy jurors and impose a death penalty anyway. How dare the Supreme Court tell us that’s not fair!

The Florida legislature raced forward and not only patched statutes making it easier to execute, they also enhanced the Shoot First / Stand Your Ground law, making it even easier for Floridians to kill each other and stray tourists caught in the crosshairs, not that anyone bothers aiming.

Originally, like Britain and most of North America, we relied upon the Castle Defense, a code aimed toward preserving life. If your land or your home was invaded, your first duty was to retreat, phone 911, and fire a warning shot if you were armed. You weren’t authorized to kill unless you were in imminent danger.

The Shoot First / Stand Your Ground law changed that. The NRA didn’t like the idea of strategically retreating and especially didn’t want good ammo going to waste. The SF/SYG law allowed you to shoot anyone who trespassed or stood in your way if you felt fearful. As has been noted, the legislation was written by white people for white people. Whereas a few hundred citizens have escaped prosecution or conviction, ask black folks how well that law worked for them.

Flush with the heaving, panting bosomy excitement of seeing the SF/SYG metastasize across the country, Florida decided it could do better. The new, enhanced law, making its way through the Florida legislature, adds new benefits for lucky gun owners.
  1. Just as SF/SYG removed the requirement of first attempting to retreat, the new and improved revision says you won’t even have to stand your ground. You could actively pursue your victim, er, fear-causing-person.
  2. In the original SF/SYG incarnation, you merely had to show you were afraid. The revision places the onus on police and prosecutors to prove beyond a reasonable doubt the use of deadly force was not justified. A perpetrator relying upon the new law, could without risk, ask for a hearing, claim self-defense, ask a judge for immunity from criminal and civil prosecution, and thus short-circuit a trial.
  3. If (2) seems in conflict with (1), don’t worry your pretty little non-Floridian head about facts and logic. (2) still applies.

Choice and Challenge

Along comes a bad guy named Markeith Loyd. He’s big, he’s scary, he’s black. He kills his pregnant girlfriend and goes on the lam, as golden-age crime novels say. While visiting a WalMart a few minutes from my house, he and a lady cop, Sgt. Debra Clayton, recognize each other. Before she can react, he shoots– kills her– and continues on the lam.

Markeith Loyd
Markeith Loyd © Orlando Sentinel
In mid-January, authorities captured the fugitive after he discarded his weapons and surrendered, then sustained “minor facial injuries as he resisted officers,” according to Orlando Police Chief John Mina. While I’m cynical about how he gave up and subsequently obtained facial injuries, I’m pleased to report police didn’t overreact.

Florida polished its latest in capital killing laws and salivated at the prospect of frying Loyd in the ‘new’ Old Sparky. If anyone deserved electric execution, Mr. Loyd did. As some might argue, he merited death writhing in ‘the chair’, his hair smoking, skin cooking, eyes bulging and face contorting so much executioners close the curtains to the sensitive in the viewing room.

And then…

Aramis Ayala
Aramis Ayala © Blue Lives Matter
Orange/Osceola County State Attorney Aramis Ayala, did the unthinkable. The first and only black State Attorney elected in Florida said enough, no more will I seek the death penalty. Quoting concerns about the latest version of Florida's death statute, she correctly added no evidence shows the death penalty improves public safety for citizens or law enforcement, it's costly and drags on for years for victims' families. Despite a spurious claim from the Governor's office, at no time did she say she wouldn't fight for justice– quite the opposite in fact.

Virtually everyone in the Sunshine State gasped in horror. All turned against her… women, men, black, white, Florida Republicans and Democrats (all four of them). Kinder blogs called her misguided. Some claimed she was blinded by BLM. The cruder, calloused, and clamorous referred to her as a traitor… and worse. One man is floating a petition demanding the Governor fire her.

Who couldn’t understand Police Chief Mina’s anger? Who could blame the families of the two women killed if they too were frustrated? No one could, not even Aramis Ayala.

One trait her multitude of opponents couldn’t accuse her of was a lack of bravery. She appears tiny but holds an outsized heart… in the senses of commitment, compassion and fortitude. People like her take the heat but eventually help turn the tide toward justice. Think of those who preceded her who just said no:
  • the suffragette who sought the right to vote.
  • the woman who wouldn’t sit in the back of the bus.
  • the little girl who attended school surrounded by the National Guard.
  • the teen who protested the Vietnam War.
  • the Son of Man alone in the Garden of Gethsemane.
She gave a comprehensive well-reasoned explanation for her decision without mentioning moral issues or her personal feelings on the topic. While fully cognizant of the desire for revenge and retribution, I admire what Aramis Ayala is trying to accomplish as she stands alone. That doesn’t negate the feelings of victims’ colleagues, family and friends, but her decision makes her a heroine… even if she’s wrong…but history says she isn’t.

The drama was far from over.

Our corrupt Governor Rick Scott (I use that term advisedly about a man who committed the largest fraud in Medicare/Medicaid in history and was fined $1.7-billion) read the polls and flew into a rage. He pulled Aramis Ayala from prosecution. Scott installed his own minion to erect the legal scaffolding around Markeith Loyd and grease the skids to the death chamber in that jewel of Florida, beautiful, exciting Raiford.
To reiterate, Gov. Scott removed a duly elected official from my county and substituted his own choice of prosecutor, subverting yet again our election process.
Could a defense attorney argue on appeal that Florida’s governor stacked the deck against the defendant? It would take someone with far more legal knowledge and imagination than I to construct such an argument, but clearly the governor is not above meddling in the legal system, a dangerous precedent. Ayala has received some support from state attorneys and at least one public defender who question Scott's subverting the election process and pressuring state lawyers to do his bidding.

Wait! We have good news! Florida is back on track for executions. With luck, the day may come when we no longer defensively chant, “We’re Number 2! We’re Number 2! We’re Number 2!”

Oh! If you feel like killing someone, come to Florida where your chance of prosecution is rapidly diminishing. We need the tourism dollars.

18 March 2017

On Killing and Consequences

Thomas Pluck
Thomas Pluck
Thomas Pluck is the author of Bad Boy Boogie, a Jay Desmarteaux crime thriller coming from Down & Out Books in 2017, and Blade of Dishonor, an action adventure which Mystery People called “the Raiders of the Lost Ark of pulp paperbacks.” He has slung hash, worked on the docks, and even swept the Guggenheim Museum (but not as part of a clever heist). He hails from Nutley, New Jersey, also home to criminal masterminds Martha Stewart and Richard Blake, but has so far evaded capture.

NOTE: I met Thomas at Bouchercon 2015, and have been a fan of his novels and stories ever since. Please join me in welcoming him to SleuthSayers!
— John Floyd


by Thomas Pluck

Normal people don't like violence, but they sure enjoy reading about it. And those of us who write violent stories are often called hypocrites when we decry violence in the real world. If you glorify violence, you may be inspiring it. But then again, you can inspire violence with a story that includes little. Just ask Salinger.

I have experienced violence, witnessed violence, and trained in violence. And I write stories that often depict violence. Yet I do not support violence, except in defense. You can call me a hypocrite if you like, that's your prerogative. But the difference is that I know the consequences of violence, and if anything, I write about those consequences more than the violence itself.

On Twitter, director Jeremy Saulnier recently got into a tiff (which seems to be what Twitter is best for, lately) when he supported a woman's charity run that was against gun violence. He writes violent films, such as Blue Ruin and Green Room. The troll said that audiences just see violence and react with "awesome! His head blew up!" To paraphrase, Saulnier replied "have you seen my movies?"

Truffaut famously said that there were no antiwar films because "to show something is to ennoble it" and later amended it, saying he never saw an antiwar film, because in the end they are all pro-war. Violence is exciting, and no matter how brutal you make it, someone will be titillated. In fact, you may only jade the audience. We're a long way from when Derek Raymond made readers flinch with the opening to I Was Dora Suarez. We've seen war films and crime films with limbs dangling by a thread. Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, Don Winslow's The Cartel, both dare the reader to continue, as the bloodshed mounts. I don't recall anyone swearing off crime fiction or westerns after reading them. Because they show the consequences.

It's a kind of shell shock. The adrenaline scours your veins and leaves you feeling empty. Everyone loves a good revenge tale, but there's a reason Sicilians say "when you set out for revenge, dig two graves." The other one is for yourself. Because revenge is a fantasy of justice. The only justice that would truly satisfy us requires a time machine. We can't be the person we were before we were victimized, and the dead can't be brought back. And as Gandhi said "an eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind." Revenge, if unchecked, would eventually kill us all. The Vikings had the blood price, to end such disputes. If only it were so easy.

Violence is not pretty and it always has a price. My great-uncle Butch (to whom I dedicated Blade of Dishonor) never spoke about his time in World War 2, except once. With tears in his eyes, he wept for the enemies he had killed. "They were just kids forced off to war, just like us." He was years past ninety when he came to that conclusion, and I am grateful he taught it to me. Because we stop glorifying violence by making our villains human. They can be evil humans, but they must be humans. Rare is the person who wakes up and says, "what evil can I do today?" Even the people we would classify as evil, the utterly selfish, who seem to take glee in trampling others on their route to success, have to say that their victims were weak, and deserved it. They couldn't face it otherwise. Psychopaths without empathy, cannot feel other's pain, but they feel their own acutely. They are not superhuman. The psychopath we perhaps know the most about, Carl Panzram, refused to believe that anyone thought differently than he did. That we were all out for ourselves, that we were just good at hiding it. There was no proving Panzram wrong; it's not as if he would have broken down in the face of true altruism. His mind simply would not permit such a belief to exist.

In Bad Boy Boogie, I studied "killology," as Lt. Dan Grossman calls it, which is the study of killing and how it affects professional soldiers and police. I also researched victims of abuse and bullying. Having experienced it myself, I wanted to know how those who avenged themselves felt. And it was no cure. As one character says, "It doesn't get better. It gets bitter." And Jay Desmarteaux, who begins as an acolyte of vengeance, who sincerely believes "some people just need killing," undergoes a journey of discovery that not only exposes the evil that people will commit to protect their deepest inner selves, but how killing affects the psyche, no matter how just a killing we tell ourselves it is.

One reader called Jay "Parker on steroids." For a fan of Don Westlake's work, that's as great a compliment as I may ever receive, Jay will crack a joke, and worse, he will regret the killing he's done, two things the outlaw demigod Parker would never do. But even Parker is more than a shell, though we don't see much evidence until the later books with Claire. He isn't a true sociopath. Once Claire comes into the picture he extends his circle of empathy to include her, and views attacks on her as if they are attacks on himself. This is a brilliant, subdued portrayal of how a killer deals psychologically with the world, and Westlake does it with incredibly entertaining stories that still have a large following.

And while Parker leaves a trail of bodies through the series, often for revenge or "to set things straight," the deaths put him and Claire at risk. The birds come home to roost. And it doesn't take away from the entertainment, or turn it into a "message story." The violent world of Parker always cuts both ways, just as in the real world.

17 March 2017

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

By Art Taylor

Yesterday was my birthday—March 16, for anyone reading this later—and having a birthday so close to St. Patrick's Day always made it one of my favorite holidays as a child. I was and still am insistent about wearing green on March 17—my favorite color generally—and I remember wearing a shamrock pin to school one year as well. When my dad filled out the 1980 U.S. Census, he put down Irish for the question on ancestry (at my urging), though I don't think either of my parents have actually traced that back. (The likelihood is that it's true, given the predominance of Scotch-Irish settlements in my native North Carolina.) In another little quirk: At one point, much younger of course, I thought I might actually be a leprechaun—wishful thinking for those of us of smaller stature.

More recently, when my wife Tara and I got married, we went to Ireland on our honeymoon—including being in Dublin for Bloomsday!—and a few years later, I led a student group to Ireland again for a creative writing Winter Study Abroad. And I'll admit that I have a fondness for Irish writers and for stories set in Ireland. I was reading just recently some of Edna O'Brien's short fiction, and William Trevor's stories are (as anyone who's read him knows) among the best ever, and then another Irish writer, John McGahern, wrote an odd little story that still stands as one of my favorites: "The Beginning of an Idea." As with so many crime fiction fans, Tana French is at the top of my list of great mystery writers today, and just this week, I was excited to see that another friend in the mystery community, Sheila Connolly, has a new book out in her County Cork series: Cruel Winter—which was timely in several ways, since the big winter storm helped to welcome it into the world! There's dozens more writers I could likely point to here, but these are the ones that jumped to mind first.

Despite my long-standing love of Ireland and the Irish, however, I have to admit that I no longer count St. Patrick's Day as a favorite holiday. In fact, some aspects of the day have overwhelmed my otherwise long-standing enthusiasms for it—and the same is true of New Year's Eve (which may already give you a hint of where I'm going with this). 

Now, anyone who knows me well knows how much I appreciate a nice cocktail, but especially at my advancing age (circling back to that birthday I mentioned in the opening), going out on a raucous drinking binge is about the last thing I want to do, and in my mind both New Year's and St. Patrick's have become synonymous with those types of parties: crowded bars, overindulgence, and all the fall-out from that overindulgence—ultimately less a toast to the occasion than an excuse for excessive alcohol consumption.

Or maybe I'm just being curmudgeonly. 

For those who still do head out for public celebrations of St. Patrick's Day, are my impressions actually the case? Or have I fallen prey to some stereotypes about the festivities?

And maybe a better question: For those of you who, like me, admire Ireland and the Irish, how do you raise a toast to today? 

I'll be sipping a glass of Green Spot myself at some point—and maybe revisiting a favorite story or two. And I'll be sporting some green too—one tradition that I inevitably keep. 

However you celebrate, Happy St. Patrick's Day to all!
 

16 March 2017

A House is Always Interesting

by Eve Fisher

For a variety of reasons (AVP, amenities, doctors, and the fact that we go down twice a week minimum) my husband and I are moving from our small town to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, 50 miles down the road.

Sioux Falls, photo courtesy Wikipedia
Sioux Falls is growing by leaps and bounds.  There are whole villages of suburbs stretching south and west (mainly because our airport is in the northeast, btw).  Condos have grown up around the interstates.  However, we don't like suburbs much, and all the condos we saw were too small, and we wanted to live central Sioux Falls, which is a hot, hot, hot! market.  There were at least 3 houses that we wanted to see but couldn't even get in to view - they were no sooner on the market than bought. We put in offers on three, yes, three different places:  the first one turned our bid down, and upon reconsidering, we didn't rebid.  The second one failed inspection (huge foundation problems).  But the third, hopefully, is the charm!  I am working on the mortgage papers (everything's on-line these days, dammit!) probably as you read this.

House shopping is interesting and exhausting.  I remember back when we first house-shopped in 1991 (we'd rented the place we were living over the phone), and it was an educational experience. One memorable house had a room with bright orange and green plaid vinyl wallpaper, with orange shag carpet, and, in the kitchen, vintage orange appliances.  No, we did not buy it. Another place was beautifully done, until you opened the basement door and the reek of mold and mildew was enough to knock you down.  Another place was obviously the future home of someone who would formally entertain at the drop of a hat.  (We're the pot-luck or pizza types.)

Old houses are fun.  The history, the charm, the leftover stuff.  In our last house, we found an old-fashioned cream-skimmer that dropped behind the kitchen sink in the summer kitchen out back, decades ago.  I remember once I visited a friend in Chicago, who was remodeling an old house into apartments, and found 4 old books tucked away in the attic, including a first edition Harriet Beecher Stowe's "The Mayflower".  He was going to throw them away, so I leaped up and claimed them. They've had a good home ever since. And I remember living in an urban neighborhood in Atlanta, decades ago, with a bunch of roommates (starving artists all), and visiting with the little old lady who lived in the bungalow next door - turned out she'd been born in that house, and had never moved in all her 81 years.  I remember being gob-smacked by that.  I couldn't imagine staying anywhere 81 years.  I still can't.

Roderick Usher,
by Aubrey Beardsley
(note - not creepy enough)
Old houses can also be creepy.  I know of two houses in our small town that have had suicides, and at least one with a murder.  One of the original morticians' houses was bought and transformed into a family dwelling, and the owners put their master bedroom where the viewing room used to be.  There are also a couple of houses that just look WEIRD:  you know, the kind where you get the feeling that Roderick Usher uses it as his summer home.   I remember one house we looked at in Tennessee:  we walked into the back room, I turned to Allan and said, "Redrum", and we walked out. Quickly.

A lot of mysteries and thrillers have been written about what happens after the house is bought and/or inherited.  One of the great disappointments of such novels is Agatha Christie's "Postern of Fate", which is - well, the only way I can put it is that it's a real mess.  The Beresfords are too old, as was, sadly, Ms. Christie.  On the other hand, I love Christie's "Sleeping Murder" - which is NOT Miss Marple's last case by a long shot. The slow reveal of the fact that Gwenda Halliday Reed actually lived, as a child, in the house she bought in case of love at first sight still makes the hair stand up on the back of my head. Shirley Jackson's "The Haunting of Hill House" has the house itself as a central character, and God help all who stay in it.  And, speaking of Roderick Usher, the House of Usher went down with a pretty spectacular crash, didn't it?

"Northanger Abbey" -
1986 BBC production 
But that's often the point.  Gothic fiction, whether classics from the 18th century, like "The Mysteries of Udolpho", "Otranto", "The Monk", etc., all the way down to modern Gothic romances, all revolve around mysterious old houses.  Some are spookier than others:  the whole point of Catherine Morland's joy in being invited to the eponymous "Northanger Abbey" is that, to her eyes, it looked likely to have had a murder or two done in it, and she could hardly wait to find the body.  God knows her reading literature had taught her that if you can't find a dead body, or a hidden tunnel with an instrument of torture or two, or the remains of the missing first wife in an old ruin, where can you find one? Instead, being Jane Austen's creation, she found a husband, and the main mystery turns out to be the laundry bills left behind by Eleanor Tilney's secret love.


In true Gothic fiction there are always dark castles, dungeons, tunnels, empty graves, full graves, murders, rumors of murders, supernatural events, monsters, and sometimes all of the above.  ("Dark Shadows" captured all of these in one magnificently campy afternoon soap opera from my early teen years:  click on the picture above to see Barnabas Collins finally set free from his coffin...)

There is always a young, virginal heroine (even in modern Gothic romances) with a mysterious past, who is often revealed to have been born noble.  The hero is always courageous, although he is often a suspect (at least for a while) in the shenanigans going on around the place.  The villain of the piece is a control freak tyrant who will have things his own way no matter what (calling Mrs. Danvers...).  If the villain is married, his wife is completely under his thumb (Countess Fosco in "The Woman in White").  There is often a crazy relative, usually locked up. There is always a mystery.  And the heroine always feels that there's something seriously wrong, then that something's wrong with her, then that she's under threat, and, at various stages, worries about her own mental health...

How the heroine gets to her location varies.  Sometimes the heroine is a relative (Maud is practically willed by her father to Uncle Silas), sometimes she's the governess ("Jane Eyre", "Nine Coaches Waiting"), sometimes she's an invited guest (Catherine Morland).  But I believe - although I could be wrong - that "Rebecca" is the only one where the heroine marries the owner BEFORE she arrives at the house.  

But it's always about the house.  As Jo Walton says, "The essential moment every gothic must contain is the young protagonist standing alone in a strange house. The gothic is at heart a romance between a girl and a house."

So, the next time you go house-hunting, consider...  you might be looking at your next mystery, your next ghost story, or your next romance.

Will keep you posted on our move.







15 March 2017

The Cop and the Codex

by Robert Lopresti

This is the fourth in my exceedingly occasional series of reviews of nonfiction books of interest to mystery readers and writers.  These two have nothing in common except excellence.

The Job by Steve Osborne.  Steve Osborne was a New York City cop for more than twenty years.  One day, after his retirement, he was invited to speak at a Moth event.  For those of you not in the know, The Moth is a radio show on NPR (also available as a podcast).  They record live events where people tell true stories, and pick the best ones for airplay.

Osborne had twenty-four hours to prepare his telling and was shocked to find hundreds of people in the audience.  ("I would rather have chased a guy with a gun down a dark alley than get up on that stage.")  But he did and it was a hit and he appeared many times more on the show.

Which resulted in The Job, a collection of essays about life as a cop.  It is full of crazy incidents and fascinating details.  Take this example, which happens to be from the very story that got him started on The Moth.

Normally most cops don't like hanging around where you work because if you're active, meaning you make a lot of arrests, guys get out of jail and don't necessarily have fond memories of you.  You don't want to have to deal with them when you're off duty, especially when you're with someone you care about, like a girlfriend.  It's not that you're scared of these guys, it's just that you have better things to do with your free time than getting into an off-duty confrontation.

This particular story is about a convict who does have fond memories of being arrested, much to Osborne's astonishment.

Another tale I liked was about the city's obsession with keeping squatters out of Tompkins Square Park which resulted in one cop car patrolling the inside of the locked park every night while a sergeant in another car circled the outside.

Osborne worked for some time in Anti-Crime which he described as the best or most-active cops in any precinct.

Our job is to go out and hunt.  And it is like hunting - very much so.  All night long we ride around searching for bad guys who are looking to commit a crime.  Our job is to find them before they commit the act, and be there when the crime happens.

The most powerful part of the book occurs when Osborne is on the Bronx Warrant Squad and goes, with his crew, to locate and arrest a gang member.  They find the fugitive's mother who tells them her son is dead.  What happens next is a tiny shred of shared humanity than any novelist would have been proud to dream up.

The Aleppo Codex by Matti Friedman. A "codex" is simply a book-shaped book, as opposed to a book in the form  of a scroll.  In synagogues Bible texts are always read from scrolls, but the synagogue in Aleppo, Syria, was the home for hundreds of years to a codex, written by hand more than 1,100 years ago.  Known as the Crown of Aleppo it contained not only the books of the Hebrew Bible (more or less what Christians call the Old Testament),  but also annotations on how the vowel-less words were to be pronounced, and exactly how the text was to be written out.  It is the ur-text from which a millenium of scribes have reproduced the sacred books.  Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher, had that very copy on his desk when he was writing his book on Jewish law.

The Aleppo synagogue was destroyed during the riots in 1947 after the UN vote that paved the way for the creation of the state of Israel.  The Codex - or most of it - survived the catastrophe and eventually made it to Israel.

All well and good, you might say, but what does this have to do with crime writing?  Never fear; I will offer you  tales from three different genres.

Spy thriller.  In order to protect it, the Jewish community of Aleppo spread the word that the Codex was destroyed in the fire.  Years later they arranged for a cheese merchant to smuggle it into Turkey, wrapped in cheese cloth, inside a washing machine.  An Israeli agent then got the merchant, his family, and the treasured text into Israel.

Courtroom drama. The cheese merchant gave the Codex to a government official, much to the shock of the Syrian Jews in Israel who felt it belonged to them.  Understand that I am wildly oversimplifying, but in those early days many Israeli officials, who were from the European side of the family, considered the Oriental (i.e. Middle Eastern) branch to be quaint and primitive.  The president of the state (a major player in the Codex story) referred to "the most backward Jewish tribes, whose cultural possessions have no responsible curator."

Naturally the Syrian Jews who had successfully curated the Codex for hundreds of years went to court to get it back.  Matti Friedman, the author of this book, uncovered the partial transcripts of the trial which, frankly, don't make the government officials look good.

Theft.  The official story is that most of the first five books of the Codex (The Torah or Pentateuch, the most vital part of the Bible to any Jew) were destroyed in the synagogue fire, but Friedman builds a solid piece-by-piece case that the majority of those pages were in tact when they arrived in the care of an Israeli institute.  A few years later they had vanished.

And things get messier.  Consider the death of a rare book dealer two years after he  allegedly offered to sell most of the missing pages to a collector for a million dollars:

The case was never solved.  Officially, in fact, there was no case, as the Hasid had died of a heart attack, in a hotel room that happened to have been rented by someone using an alias, who then disappeared without a trace.

Certainly convinces me.  Nothing to see here, folks.

Two fascinating books.

14 March 2017

The Sensitivity Police

by Paul D. Marks

Before I get to this week’s post, a little BSP. I’m thrilled to announce that my short story, “Ghosts of Bunker Hill,” was voted #1 in the 2016 Ellery Queen Readers Poll. In fact, I’m blown away. I want to thank everyone who voted for it! And I’m tempted to give Sally Field a run for her money and say, “You like me, you really like me,” or at least my story 😉. If you’d like to read it (and maybe consider it for other awards) you can read it free on my website: http://pauldmarks.com/stories/ 


***
And now to the subject at hand: I recently came across an article in the Chicago Tribune titled “Publishers are hiring 'sensitivity readers' to flag potentially offensive content.” That, of course, piqued my interest. And I will say at the outset that I’m a free speech absolutist. If you don’t like something don’t read it, but don’t stop others from saying it or reading it.



After all, who’s to say what’s offensive? What’s offensive to me might not be to you and vice versa. That said, I see things every day that I disagree with. I don’t like to say that I find them offensive because I think that word is overused and I also think people tend to get offended too easily and by too many things.

As writers I think this is something we should be concerned about. Because, even if you agree with something that’s blue-penciled today tomorrow there might be something you write where you disagree with the blue-pencil. Where does it end? Also, as a writer, I want to be able to say what I want. If people don’t like it they don’t have to read it. I don’t want to be offensive, though perhaps something may hit someone that way. But we can’t worry about every little “offense” because there are so many things to be offended about.

It’s getting to the point where we have to constantly second guess ourselves as we worry who might be offended by this or that? In my novel, White Heat, I use the N word. And don’t think I didn’t spend a lot of deliberating about whether I should tone that down, because truly I did not want to hurt or offend anyone. But ultimately I thought it was important for the story I was trying to tell and people of all races seemed to like the book. I think context is important. But even without context, as a free speech absolutist, I think people should be allowed to say what they want. There used to be an argument that went around that the way to combat negative speech was with more speech, but that doesn’t seem to be the case today. As former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Fear of serious injury cannot alone justify suppression of free speech and assembly.”


And, of course, publishers have the right to publish what they want. But limiting things doesn’t change much. It just goes underground.

The Tribune article says, “More recently, author Veronica Roth - of ‘Divergent’ fame - came under fire for her new novel, ‘Carve the Mark.’ In addition to being called racist, the book was criticized for its portrayal of chronic pain in its main character.” So now we have to worry about how we portray people with chronic pain. Again, where does it end?

I’ve dealt with chronic pain. Should I be offended every time someone says something about those things that I don’t like. Get over it, as the Eagles say in their eponymous song. The piece also talks about writers hiring people to vet their stories for various things, in one case transgender issues. If it’s part of one’s research I don’t have a problem with that. Or if it’s to make something more authentic. But if it’s to censor a writer or sanitize or change the writer’s voice, that’s another story.

There’s also talk about a database of readers who will go over your story to look for various issues. But again, who’s to say what issues offend what people? Do you need a reader for this issue and another for that? If we try to please everyone we end up pleasing no one and having a book of nearly blank or redacted pages. Or if not literally that then a book that might have some of its heart gutted.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t strive for authenticity but I think this kind of thing often goes beyond that. When we put out “sanitized” versions of Huck Finn or banning books like Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, which has also been banned and of which Wikipedia says, “Commonly cited justifications for banning the book include sexual explicitness, explicit language, violence, and homosexuality.”

The Wall Street Journal also talks about this issue, saying in part, “One such firm, Writing in the Margins, says that it will review ‘a manuscript for internalized bias and negatively charged language,’ helping to ensure that an author writing ‘outside of their own culture and experience” doesn’t accidentally say something hurtful.’ I’m not saying one should be hurtful, but I am saying one should write what they want to write. And if taken to the ultimate extreme then we would only be “allowed” to write about our own little group. And that would make our writing much poorer.

I’m not trying to hurt anyone. But I do believe in free speech, even if it is sometimes hurtful.

We should think about the consequences of not allowing writers to write about certain things, or things outside of their experience. Think of the many great books that wouldn’t have been written, think of your own work that would have to be trashed because you aren’t “qualified” to write about it. There are many things in the world that hurt and offend and that aren’t fair. And let’s remember what Justice Brandeis said.

In closing one more quote from the Journal article: “Even the Bard could have benefited. Back when Shakespeare was writing ‘Macbeth,’ it was still OK to use phrases like, ‘It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ But that is no longer so. The word ‘idiot’ is now considered cruelly judgmental, demeaning those who, through no fault of their own, are idiots. A sensitivity reader could propose something less abusive, such as, ‘It is a tale told by a well-meaning screw-up, signifying very little but still signifying something. I mean, the poor little ding-dong was trying.’”

*** 

And now for the usual BSP:

Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea is available at Amazon.com and Down & Out Books.


13 March 2017

What's In a Name



by Jan Grape

Naming characters can be easy or difficult depending on your own method of writing. Again, I have to say, every writer does things different. Every book or story can be totally different. That's what makes the good book even better. Naming the characters might not seem too important to readers but if a character lives in your mind forever, then you have to admit, naming them can be important.

Sam Spade, Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Scarlett O'Hara, Atticus Finch, V.I Warshawski, Phillip Marlowe, Jack Reacher, Harry Bosch, Sharon McCone, Kinsey Millhone, Rick Blaine, Charlie Allnut, Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson. All memorable characters that seem so real in our minds.

I decided to ask writers on Facebook to tell me how they choose a character name. Here are responses:

  • EllaDaye Flowers: You name then after your friends… LOL (I used EllaDay's name in a story that never got finished or published. I love her beautiful but unusual name. JG)
  • Jill D'Aubery: They usually tell me their names.
  • Joan Hall Hovey: Yes, I agree with Jill. They tell me their names; I just need to listen, If I've got it wrong, they let me know.
  • Orania Papazoglou: Weirdly enough, with me, the name often comes first. It's as if names have characters attached to them.
  • Janet Christian: Sometimes I mix and match the first/last names of people I've known. If the name is important to the "theme" of the character, I search by culture, history, time period and even actual meaning. In one novel, I gave a character an unusual name that had the meaning of "death." Guess what ultimately happened to him? The site I search is: www.meaning of names.com/
  • Kris Neri: Mostly, characters tell me their names. But when the right name doesn't come, I have some go-to techniques to stimulate name thought. I have a "name notebook" that I've built up for years. When I get a play program for instance, that credits lots of people by name, I rip out those pages with names and put them into the notebook. Anything that lists lots of names, goes into the notebook. I also look at TV credits at the end of shows or movies. Or read the white pages of phone directories. Once at the airport, I heard two names paged and I put parts of each of those together to form one name. Names are everywhere.
  • Lisa McClendon: All of the above for names of characters set in my own country. The book I'm working on now is set in France so I use a site that generates French Names...I just tap through the names until I find one I like. I try to never have similar names which is a challenge at times. At a minimum the top ten characters need to have names that start with different letters and do not sound alike.
  • Les Roberts: I try to use names that are not completely ordinary. Looking back on my third book (the first Milan Jacovich), I could kick myself in the butt for naming the romantic interest "Mary." It's a fine name, and I know many lovely people named Mary, but since then I've tried to name differently. In the book I'm writing now I got the first and last name from a young woman who is the cashier at my local Honda dealer. I'm not going to tell you what it is here, though because it's almost impossible not to steal.
  • Donnie Price: I was writing a short story with my then five year old daughter. I was stuck on naming the characters-she pointed at a phone book and said, "There is a whole book full of names, Dad."
  • Angela Crider Neary: The name of my cats. Of course my characters are cats, so that helps.
  • Jeff Baker: I've scrambled up names from football players in games that were on while I was writing. Then sometimes, I use names that are appropriate, a story I'm working on now has a sweet old lady who practices magic. Her name? Ellie Faye Morgan, a scrambled up version of Morgainne Le Fae... I read once that Eddie Murphy complained that white writers couldn't name black characters, so he renamed characters he played after friends he'd gone to school with (last names anyway.)
  • Jerry Kennealy: Pick an actor you like for his role - check him out on Google IMBD for the roles he's played - pick one of the names from his films.
  • Denise Dietz: For the villain I use names of people who have "done me wrong." Like Kris, most characters tell me their names, but if I'm really stuck I look at the cast and crew of a classic movie.
  • Terrie Moran: Usually the characters tell me what they want to be named. When they don't, I open an old phone book and pick a first name from one page and the last name from another. If the character isn't happy he lets me know and we change. Quite often the phone book name sticks.
  • Dona L. Watts: You can use mine anytime you want, hint hint...lol. (Dona is my niece. JG)
  • Jeff Cohen: Honestly I go by sound. I hate naming characters and wish I could change everyone I've ever written. But I wouldn't come up with anything I liked better and would end up changing them all again.
  • Susan P. Baker: Sometimes from a baby name book. Sometimes from the obits, if I see an interesting name, I save it. When writing about a particular geographical area, then by who lives there. With my mystery novel set in Fredericksburg, TX, I have mostly German and Spanish last names and some first names, too, like Rufina Gonzales is the defendant.
  • Gary Warner Kent: I go back to my high school and college yearbooks, then play with combinations, esthetics, sounds...the worst and best were one and the same. "Hyman Fartzenberry." True name.
  • B.K. Stevens: I taught for many, many years and never threw a grade book away. When I need a name that sounds real, I reach for a grade book. I also have a dictionary of names that I use when I want a name with a particular meaning. Some character names are allusions to literary works with similar themes for plots.
  • Eve Fisher: I do what B.K. does. Use old student lists. Also the SSA has the post popular names for every year for decades.
  • Leigh Lundin: I use a combination of techniques, often going by sound, but especially relying upon the meaning of names. For example, Linda and Belle mean beautiful, Morse and Morris mean dark. I used the Hopi name Chu’si, meaning ‘snake flower’, because a dangerous woman had qualities of both. I named a team of Zimbabwean/Rhodesian bad guys according to their ethnic backgrounds, Afrikaner, Zulu, etc. Both words of a Shona name, Magondo Svitsi, represent two different ways of saying ‘hyena’. (I actually built a database of names, their origins and meanings. Deborah Elliott-Upton tapped me a couple of times to dredge up names for her.)

Great information everyone. Thanks. Most ideas I use myself but the one about looking at credits of movies and TV shows is a great idea that I never have thought of and certainly plan to in the future. I used a grocery cashiers first name once, It was Dwanna. And in a western story I wrote the town I used was a real town between here and Austin called "Nameless." When they first named their town they first sent "Sandy," into USPS service. USPS wrote back and said, "No. There is already a Sandy." This went on for two or three other names the town council tried. Finally, they just said, "Well, dang it, we'll just call it Nameless" and that one passed the USPS. I drove out there to get a feeling for the town which really was only a community now. I wound up walking around in the cemetery and writing down names on the tombstones to use for character names.

I think character names are interesting and fun. You just never know when a name will become famous, like Jan Grape, for instance.

Additional Comment: you never know when something you wrote for SleuthSayers is read by a person who you don't know, but they were touched by what you wrote. I received a sweet note from a young woman who had been surfing around for information on her grandfather, Clark Howard who had passed away the first of Oct. 2016. I wrote a tribute to Clark back in October for SleuthSayers. Amanda Howard wanted to thank me for the nice things I said about Clark. Her grandparents had raised her and Clark's wife Judith had passed away in 2004 and she was Clark's caregiver until the end. I friended her on Facebook and told her I had known Clark and Judith when they lived in Houston, and thought so much of both of them. She was surprised yet pleased to learn I had known them way back that long ago. She is 27 now so she had not even been born then. Sometimes we forget how much good FB can do. And how much good SleuthSayers can do. We are lucky to have this, my friends. Thanks to all who make it possible.

12 March 2017

International GoodBooks

by Leigh Lundin

I love Looking Glass Alice and good books and well-done animation and charitable causes. When they come together, that's Wonderland. Check out this lovely Alice clip from the land of Stephen Ross— New Zealand.


The good folks at International GoodBooks (GoGoodBooks.com) can apparently deliver pretty much anything worldwide through Amazon channels. I haven’t tried it yet, but if you use their portal rather than Amazon’s, purchases are supposed to work the same but they get credit.

Brilliant, both the sentiment and the advert. Let me know how you make out.

For fans of the surreal Alice like me, Disney’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland is delightful and much better than the 2016 Through the Looking Glass follow-up. I also admired the computer game America McGee’s Alice for its brilliant music and surrealism.

Before leaving New Zealand and the phantasmagorical, check out this 1967 NZ classic by House of Nimrod, Slightly-Delic. (Page includes a free download.)

11 March 2017

Short Story or Novel?

by B.K. Stevens


My mother, of blessed memory, never took my pretensions as a writer very seriously. Even after Alfred Hitchcock's had been publishing my stories for over a decade, I could never get her to subscribe to the magazine. Once, I gave her a gift subscription as a Mother's Day present. She didn't renew it. "So they've accepted some stories from you," she said. "Who knows if they'll ever accept another?" She had a point. Who knew? Despite her skepticism, I kept giving her copies of the stories I'd published, and she always read them and often made shrewd comments. "Why did you throw that idea away on something so short?" she said after reading one story. "That was a clever idea, much better than the ideas for your other stories. You could've used it for a novel, maybe made some real money."

Again, she had a point. And I've never forgotten it--my mother was one of the smartest people I've ever known, and she had a way of being right about things. Over twenty years later, I've taken that story out again and am trying to turn it into a novel. I won't mention the title, since the attempt may come to nothing. But I figure after so many years, no one but my husband and our daughters will remember that story, so why not see if the idea will work as a novel? At any rate, the experience has gotten me thinking. Is there a way of knowing which ideas will work best as short stories, which will work best as novels? Obviously, I'm no expert on that subject, at least not according to my mother. So I decided to see what some far more successful writers have to say. Maybe my mother would have respected their opinions. (Then again, maybe not.)

In Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, Lawrence Block scoffs at the notion that novels require stronger seminal ideas than short stories do. The same ideas, he says, can work for either--in fact, short stories always require strong ideas, and novels often don't. He gets more "sheer enjoyment" from writing short stories than from writing novels, but each story "requires a reasonably strong idea, and the idea's used up in a couple of thousand words. I've written whole novels out of ideas with no more depth to them than short-story ideas, and I've written other novels without having had a strong story idea to begin with. They had plot and characters, to be sure, but those developed as the book went along." Most people, Block says, can't come up with enough ideas to make a living by writing short stories; he cites Ed Hoch as an example of one of those rare people who could. "So I take the easy way out," Block says, "and write novels." For most people, he believes, that's the more practical choice. So if you get a good idea for a story, stretch it out into a novel. I think my mother might have agreed.

John Gardner might have agreed, too, at least to some extent. In The Art of Fiction, he discusses several ways of developing an idea for a novel or story. One way is to start with an idea for a climax and then work backwards--how did this event come about? "Depending on the complexity of the writer's way of seeing the event," he says, "depending, that is, on how much background he [or she] feels our understanding of the event requires--the climax becomes the high point of a short story, a novella, or a novel." At the outset, the writer may not know which length will work best: "Writers often find that an idea for a short story may change into an idea for a novella or even a novel."

Gardner does think, however, that these three forms of fiction differ in fundamental ways. A short story usually has a single epiphany, a novella may have several, and a novel may have a completely different structure: "Whereas the short story moves to an `epiphany,' as Joyce said--in other words, to a climactic moment of recognition on the part of the central character, or, at least, the reader . . . the novella moves through a series of small epiphanies or secondary climaxes to a much more firm conclusion." Novels, on the other hand, should avoid a "firm conclusion" and make "some pretense of imitating the world in all its complexity." Gardner takes a swipe at mysteries and other traditional narratives when he says "too much neatness" mars a novel: "When all of a novel's strings are too neatly tied together at the end, as sometimes happens in Dickens and almost always happens in the popular mystery thriller, we feel the novel to be unlifelike . . .a novel built as prettily as a teacup is not of much use." So for Gardner, it doesn't seem to be that some ideas are inherently more suited to short stories than to novels. Instead, the crucial difference may lie in the writer's way of developing and resolving that idea--or, in a novel, of not resolving it.

Elizabeth Bowen, on the other hand, thinks short stories free the writer from the need to achieve the sort of resolution novels demand. In her introduction to the 1950 Faber Book of Modern Short Stories, she says many early English short stories, such as those by Henry James and Thomas Hardy, try to treat the same sorts of "complex and motivated" subjects novels do. That approach, she says, is a mistake: No matter how expertly crafted they may be, short stories that are essentially "condensed novel[s]" will not achieve the "heroic simplicity" that should be their trademark. In such stories, "shortness is not positive; it is nonextension." Consequently, these stories "have no emotion that is abrupt and special; they do not give mood or incident a significance outside the novelist's power to explore. Their very excellence made them a dead end; they did not invite imitation or advance in any way a development in the short story proper."

Bowen considers de Maupassant, Chekov, and Poe among the pioneers who truly broke free from the novel and explored the new, distinctly different possibilities the short story form offers. A short story, according to Bowen, should not begin with a complicated plan for a plot, as a novel might. Rather, it "must spring from an impression or perception pressing enough, acute enough, to make the writer write." Short stories must be carefully written, "but conception should have been involuntary, a vital fortuity. The sought-about-for subject gives the story a dead kernel." Bowen's ideas about the plot and structure of a short story are interesting enough to quote at length:
The plot, whether or not it be ingenious or remarkable, for however short a way it is to be pursued, ought to raise some issue, so that it may continue in the mind. The art of the short story permits a break at what in the novel would be the crux of the plot: the short story, free from the longeurs of the novel, is also exempt from the novel's conclusiveness--too often forced and false: it may thus more nearly than the novel approach aesthetic and moral truth. It can, while remaining rightly prosaic and circumstantial, give scene, action, event, character a poetic new actuality.
In fact, she says, the short story may have less in common with the novel than it does with some other art forms: It should have "the valid central emotion  and inner spontaneity of the lyric" and should be "as composed, in the plastic sense, and as visual as a picture."

Flannery O'Connor might take issue with Bowen's contention that a short story should spring from "an impression or perception." In both novels and short stories, O'Connor says in "The Nature and Aims of Fiction," "something has to happen. A perception is not a story, and no amount of sensitivity can make a story-writer out of you if you just plan don't have a gift for telling a story." She says the choice between novel and short story may depend primarily on the writer's "disposition." I can't resist the temptation to quote her comparison--or, rather, her friend's comparison--of the experiences of writing these two kinds of narratives: "She says that when she stops a novel to work on short stories, she feels as if she has just left a dark wood to be set upon by wolves." Since novels are a "more diffused form" of fiction, O'Connor says, they may suit "those who like to linger along the way" and have "a more massive energy." On the other hand, "for those of us who want to get the agony over in a hurry, the novel is a burden and a pain."

In another essay, "Writing Short Stories," O'Connor defines a short story as an interplay of character, action, and meaning: "A short story is a complete dramatic action--and in good stories, the characters are shown through the action, and the action is controlled through the characters, and the result of this is a meaning that derives from the whole presented experience." Of these three elements, character (or "personality") is primary: "A story always involves, in a dramatic way, the mystery of personality." Although she says a short story's action must be "complete," her understanding of "complete" definitely doesn't seem to involve the sort of "conclusiveness" Bowen sees as a flaw in many novels. O'Connor describes (without naming) her "The Life You Save May Be Your Own" as an example of "a complete story," even though the action breaks off in a way many readers might find abrupt (to put it mildly). For O'Connor, the story is complete because her exploration of the central character is complete: "There is nothing more about the mystery of that man's personality that could be shown through that particular dramatization." So perhaps writers shouldn't start by deciding whether an idea is better suited to a short story or a novel. Perhaps they should start by deciding if a character is likely to generate a good story. "In most good stories," O'Connor says, "it is the character's personality that creates the action of the story."

Edith Wharton, by contrast, thinks characters are supremely important in novels but not in short stories. As she says in The Writing of Fiction, "the test of the novel is that its people should be alive. No subject in itself, however fruitful, appears to be able to keep a novel alive; only the characters in it can." On the other hand, "some of the greatest short stories owe their vitality entirely to the dramatic rendering of a situation." The differences between characters in novels and those in stories are so great, in Wharton's opinion, that the short story could be considered the "direct descendant" not of the novel but of "the old epic or ballad--of those earlier forms of fiction in all of which action was the chief affair, and the characters, if they did not remain mere puppets, seldom or never became more than types." That seems harsh--did Wharton see the characters in her own "Roman Fever," for example, as no more individualized than "puppets" or "types"? Nevertheless, she insists "situation is the main concern of the short story, character of the novel."

Wharton shrugs off some other ways of deciding whether a subject is suited to a novel or a short story. For example, she says the number of "incidents, or external happenings" doesn't matter much. Many incidents can be "crowded" into a short story. But a subject that involves "the gradual unfolding of the inner life of its characters" isn't right for a short story, and neither is one that involves "producing in the reader's mind the sense of a lapse of time." Short stories should avoid such subjects and shouldn't try to achieve such effects. Instead, they should strive for "compactness and instanteneity" by relying on "two `unities'--the old traditional one of time, and that other, more modern and complex, which requires that any rapidly enacted episode shall be seen through only one pair of eyes." These limits, however, apply only to stories that are truly short; a remark Wharton makes at one point suggests she might have 5,000 words in mind as a typical length. She also mentions an "intermediate" kind of narrative. The "long short story," she says, might be suitable for "any subject too spreading for conciseness yet too slight in texture to be stretched into a novel."

"One of the fiction writer's essential gifts," Wharton maintains, "is that of discerning whether the subject which presents itself to him [or her], asking for incarnation, is suited to the proportions of a short story or a novel." It's too bad the writers quoted here don't offer us more consistent advice on such an essential matter. When I started working on this post, I knew these writers wouldn't agree about everything. I hoped, though, they might agree about something. Alas, that doesn't seem to be the case. If there's even a thread of consensus running through these essays and chapters, I missed it. At least I found the disagreements interesting; at least they pushed me to think about what I should focus on as I try to make that decades-old short story work as a novel. What about you? Do you agree with some of these writers more than with others? Or do you have other criteria for deciding whether an idea is better suited to a short story or a novel? I'd love to hear what you think.

# # #
Gardner discusses the novella as well as the short story and the novel; Wharton discusses "the long short story. This year, the Anthony ballot adds the novella (8,000 to 40,000 words) to the usual list of categories. So I'll just casually mention that my "The Last Blue Glass" (Hitchcock's, April 2016--9,470 words) would qualify as either a short story or a novella. So if your short story dance card is already full, you might consider "The Last Blue Glass" as a novella. You can read it here.


10 March 2017

Funerals. Damn.

by
O'Neil De Noux

Retired from law enforcement for a couple months and I've gone to three funerals. Men I worked with back in the 1970s-80s, back when we were young and the world was a gritty, exciting adventure. We were blue knights riding dark streets with .357 magnums in our holsters. Jefferson Parish was our beat, along the west side of the murder capital of America at the time - New Orleans.

 Police Mutual Benevoleant Association Tomb
Greenwood Cemetery  New Orleans


We road in one-man cars back then with radios in the cars. Some nights we'd handle 15-16 calls. I remember nights when I never saw another cop until we turned in our units at the end of the shift. We just heard each other on the radio. Other nights - oh, My God - what adventures. It was the best time of my life. Then I became a homicide detective and slipped into the dark side of life.

There were harrowing nights as a road deputy, of course, and lots of fun nights. I'll save those anecdotes for later blogs. Now it's funeral time, time to bury men I haven't seen in over thirty years.

Two of the guys we buried were in uniform, still cops. Familiar faces with wrinkles and jowls and faded hair or no hair. I'm a white-haired retired cop who has been a writer for 30 years. My 34th book is due out this month. Some have heard I'm a writer but most remember me as a homicide detective. Not a bad legacy because my partners and I were pretty damn good detectives.

Crown of  Police Mutual Benevoleant Association Tomb
Greenwood Cemetery  New Orleans

At the wakes we shared anecdotes, bizzare stories and sad stories, a couple stories of heroism. Several people came up to me to say they thought I was dead. Not yet. Hell, I thought they were dead. I was sure ONE of the men we buried last month had died years ago. I told him that as he lay in his coffin. He didn't respond.

Some remember I'm a writer. Here are quotes from the peanut gallery:

"Hey, you still writing books?"
"When are they gonna make a movie out of your books?"
"I read one of your books."
I asked, "Which one." Response was a blank look.
"Hey, I liked the book with the cocaine lady on the cover." (first edition of my 3rd novel)
"I didn't like a couple of your books."
I asked, "Which ones?" Another blank look.

Inevitably I got this -
"I've been meaning to contact you. Man, I got a great idea for a book. Case I worked. We need to get together and I'll give you the details. You can write it and we'll split the money."

I try to be polite, explaining I'm in the middle of writing a book now and have plots laid out for six more books and a file cabinet draw of folders with novel and short story idea. I DON'T NEED ANY IDEAS.

I tell him, "You write it. It's easy." I paraphrase what Hemingway once said, "There's nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein."
The anwer I got - "You still use a typewriter?"
"No, Papa did."
"Papa who?"
Not a literary group.

Greenwood Cemetery  New Orleans

On my way out of the last wake, an old buddy called out, "I loved your book."
"Which one?"
"The Mardi Gras Killer."
I stop, tell him I didn't write that book, never heard of it. Who could kill Mardi Gras? I've seen non-denominational Bible people screaming at the women flashing their breasts on Bourbon Street, but that didn't kill Mardi Gras. Oh, maybe there was someone killing people at Mardi Gras. What a unique idea.

Saint Louis Cemetery #1
New Orleans

Time to go back to my novel and bleed a little and wait until the next funeral. As Lawrence Ferlinghetti tells us, "The world is a beautiful place to be born into ... Yes but then right in the middle of it comes the smiling mortician."

Photos above by O'Neil De Noux.

www.oneildenoux.net



09 March 2017

Author Bill Fitzhugh on His New Book "Human Resources"

by Brian Thornton

Tonight's blog entry features an interview I recently conducted with Bill Fitzhugh, author of ten comedic novels with a variety of crime fiction elements to them, including his latest, Human Resources

I came across Bill's work quite by accident. Mutual friend and fellow funny guy author Steve Brewer introduced us over poker at Left Coast Crime a number of years back. I've never enjoyed getting cleaned out at poker more. Poker with Fitzhugh and Brewer is an experience I highly recommend you put at the top of your bucket list (and if you can get Parnell Hall, Matt Coyle and the Immortal Craig Faustus Buck into the mix, so much the better!).

So Bill is a friend from way back, and it's always fun to sit down and shoot the breeze with him. I remember reading Pest Control a few years ago, but didn't recall much about it (which is no slight on Bill or his work: I was tending a very sick infant at the time, and running on zero sleep), and hadn't read anything else by him, and didn't know much about his work, other than hearing at one point that Pest Control had made into a musical.

I like it when people I like are also good writers (and vice-versa), and so when I heard that Bill had a new book coming out, I made a point of getting my hands on Human Resources as soon as it was available, and dove in. 

LOVED it.

And with Bill launching a "shameless" (and clever) Facebook campaign to get his book some attention, I thought, "Hey, maybe I can get my blog readers (BOTH of them) to take a look at his work."

Hence, this interview. 


Now, bear in mind, I know Bill first and foremost as a guy who routinely kicks my ass at Texas Hold'Em and Ocho, and as someone whose work has been on my shortlist to read more of for a while, now, second. So I started asking questions, and got a lot thoughtful responses. 

This guy's stuff is well worth the time invested to read it.

Here's the interview:


You started out in comedy. Radio comedy, specifically, right? How did you get to the point where you rolled that in to a career writing crime fiction?

Well. I ‘started out’ in radio as a DJ at WZZQ-FM, a 100,000 watt killer fm rock station in the days just before the consultants got hold of the thing and killed it. One of my jobs was to write commercials and my tendency was always to write funny spots.  After moving to Seattle to attend UW, I met up some folks and we wrote, produced, and voiced Radio Free Comedy.  The show was pretty standard audio comedy stuff, so commercial spoofs, parody of game shows (we did a spot for the law firm of Shaftem, Dickem, Hosem, and Marx; game show called Bowling for Hours where condemned inmates could have extra hours added to their lives for hitting a strike!).  We turned that into a TV pilot that we couldn’t sell.  So moved to LA to write sitcoms.  Landed some fringe jobs then got fired from a show and it wasn’t ‘hiring season’ any more.  (TV used to be very cyclical and if you didn’t get hired during hiring season, you waited until the next one.)  So started writing screenplays.  First one was a mess.  Second one was Pest Control.  Couldn’t sell it to anyone.  All the studios passed.  Then I decided to turn it into a comic novel.  127 agents passed on it.  Then one bit.  He sold film rights to Warner Bros and publishing Avon and foreign rights as well.  So suddenly I was a novelist.  But I knew zip about crime fiction; that’s not what I was trying to write.  I was writing comic novels where people happened to commit crimes.

Your latest, Human Resources, is the third in a series. Can you tell us how this book, about a black market organ transplant ring, ties in with previous work such as Pest Control?

Yes and no.  It’s the third book involving organ transplants.  The Organ Grinders was first and dealt more with xenografting and biotechnology.  Heart Seizure was an idea I had while writing The Organ Grinders (the president needs a heart that is bound for a sweet old lady… the black helicopter people try to take the heart, the sweet old lady’s son steals it back and goes on the run, trying to find a hospital to do the XP before the feds catch him).  So Human Resources has no connection to Pest Control except that it’s a brilliant book that everyone should buy for themselves and their entire extended families.

Speaking of Pest Control, it was made into a musical. How did that come about, and what can you tell us about the experience?

The musical was actually done in 2008.  The producer (John Jay Moores) was a fan of the book.  He optioned the stage rights (nobody saw that coming!) and handed it over to James Mellon and the crew at NOHO Arts Center in North Hollywood.  The show was fabulous.  We saw it half a dozen times.  I had ZERO to do with the musical other than cashing the option checks and loving the show and the cast and crew.

(For some video of the play, including musical numbers, click here and here!)

Back to Human Resources: how much and what sort of) research did you have to do in order to believably (and it IS believably) recreate the workings of a black market organ transplant ring for this story?

I have tons of research for the previous transplant books and continue to gather more since I find the field fascinating.  This explains why I’m currently writing a play (with music) that revolves around organ donation.  The fact that we can do this Frankenstein stuff raises so many legal, ethical, and economic questions that it’s the gift that keeps on giving.

Who would you consider your influences?

I read a lot of Vonnegut as a kid and Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America and though I’m sure I missed a large % of what they were doing, I liked the absurdity.  I also read Steps by Jerzy Kosinski (which is just odd and semi-smutty in places).  I watched all the variety shows for the comedians and same with The Tonight Show.  Loved Carson’s monologue and any comedian he had on the show.  And I listened to a lot of comedy albums: National Lampoon Radio Hour, Firesign Theater, Bill “Would you like a drink” Cosby, and Dolemite!  Monty Python, etc.  Oddly I wasn’t influenced by Carl Hiaasen for the simple reason that I hadn’t heard of him until someone read Pest Control and they said it reminded them of Carl.  Then I read Carl.  He’s so good but we definitely do things differently.  He makes more normal situations funnier than I can.  I tend to take a normal guy and put him in absurd situations and find the funny in there.  Writers who weren’t influences: Hemingway, Faulkner, Bronte… Other non-influences are all the standard crime writers, Hammett, McDonald, Dorothy L, Agatha C., etc.  I've always loved crime movies and film noir but never read any of the 'greats' growing up.  I've read some of that stuff since being in the crime writing community but not much.

You shift point of view frequently, sometimes in mid-scene. Does this sort of “head-hopping” present a challenge to you at all? You seem to handle it pretty well, with the proof being that it’s not a distraction, so wanted to know what you thought of it. Many writers (and I number myself among them) find it a genuine challenge, especially changing POV mid-scene. (Thinking of the scene with the spider monkey, especially, here.).

I never really think about it.  The thing with the monkey I figured wasn’t a distraction because it was so clear what was going on.  It was strictly for comic effect.  And done only in that one scene.  Dave Barry did this much more in Big Trouble with the dog which is where I nicked the idea.

Building on the previous question, you occasionally slip from close third person into third person omniscient. Is there a rhyme or reason to how you do that, or is just something to do by feel?

You’d have to show me where I do this because I don’t know.  Not saying I don’t do it but I’m not clear on some things.  Okay, many things.  I always think I’m writing from third omniscient.  I want reading the book to be like watching a movie.  The reader knows and sees everything that’s going on even if the character in the scene doesn’t.

One example that springs to mind is the point early in the book where Detective Densmore meets Special Agent Fuller for the first time. You talk about how she's looking through CCTV footage at St. Luke's Hospital, tell the reader what she's thinking (you don't actually have internal dialogue, or anything like that, but it feels a lot like close third person), and then you talk about how, if she'd looked at the monitor behind her, she'd see the guy in the black SUV roll up and badge the security guard. Don't get me wrong, I think it was deftly done. Just wondered whether that sort of move was a conscious one on your part.

Nope.  I thought it was the same POV for all practical purposes.  Wasn’t trying to make any moves there.

You balance narrative with dialogue incredibly well. Any tips for writers who struggle with that balance?

Pro tip: Write for 20 years (radio commercials, sketch comedy, sitcoms, screenplays) and then spend another 15 years to write 10 novels, you’ll get better at it.  All of my early books could have 20% or so cut and the books would be greatly improved.  I used to insist on sharing all the ‘fascinating’ research I’d done and I would tell the reader what was going to happen, then show it happen, then tell them what just happened.  Elmore Leonard is great at giving you all you need and not a thing more.  I edited Human Resources more than any book I’ve written.  If you don’t need some bit of dialogue or narrative (in service of plot, character, or a really good joke) cut it.  This isn’t advice that I figured out; it’s old advice and it’s hard to make yourself do as much as you need to.

You've mentioned both Hiassen and Leonard now, and reading Human Resources those were the two fiction voices I found most similar to yours. Others that came to mind were narrative nonfiction specialists like Michael Lewis (The Big Short), Peter Hopkirk (The Great Game), and Stacy Schiff (Cleopatra: A Life). I mention these three authors specifically because you set your scenes in a very similar manner: quickly, thoroughly, and with a surprising economy of words. Also, another fiction author your work recalls for me is Ruth Downie, who writes an at times very funny historical mystery series set in ancient Roman Britain. This isn't to say that you two have similar styles, so much as you both put regular people into absurd situations, and let the story rip from there.

Is there a question pending, counselor?

Nah, I just really liked how you did all of the above, and I wanted our readers to know what they were in for when taking a crack at your work.

Anyway, you tell a compelling story, and the stakes in it are obvious from the first page What was it about organ trafficking that really grabbed you, to the tune of three books (and counting)? What is it that excites you most about telling this story, or this KIND of story?

The easy answer is: It’s life and death.  it’s also Frankensteiny.  Taking parts from the dead to give to the living.  Organs are useful only for so long after being harvested (they like to use the word ‘recovered’ now, but I like harvesting better) so that gives you an organic ticking clock.  In Heart Seizure (where the gov’t is trying to get the heart back from the guy who has run off with it because his mother is entitled to it), people keep asking why someone would do something so crazy and the answer is always ‘What would you do if it were YOUR mother?”  It’s not like someone has stolen your priceless piece of art.  You can live without that…  The new project (a play, more specifically a tragic-comedy in two acts with some singing…) is also about the property aspects of human tissue.  We can sell blood,  semen, eggs, bone marrow but not a kidney?  Who’s kidney is it?  There is an area of law where this is unfolding in the courts and it’s fascinating (to me at least).

You really nail the description of one of your main character’s PTSD-in a Stephen Crane, “Gee, it’s like he LIVED it, must have BEEN there” kind of way. How much research did that involve (and did any of it involve spider monkeys?)? Was there anything about it that really stuck with you?

I struggled with that.   I started writing this as a straight thriller.  But I’m no Lee Child.  God, what he does and how he does it LOOKS so simple.  But it ain’t.  After 70 pages I couldn’t go on with it.  Jake was having flashbacks and taking drugs to deal with the ptsd but i wasn’t buying any of it.  I put in in the drawer and thought about writing something else.  Eventually decided to write what’s in my wheelhouse.  So I rewrote it in my voice and stopped trying to be Lee.  In the course of it I cut most of the PTSD stuff.  There’s just the scene with him and Densmore and a vague reference or two elsewhere.  I read Elmore’s Mr. Paradise and liked how little he told me about the characters.  It wasn’t mired in backstory and stuff from childhood or some traumatic thing that led to the characters doing what they did.  What you got was a tiny morsel of someone’s background.  All that mattered to the story is what the characters said and what they did.  That was very freeing for me.  This was also true of the film adaptation of one of his stories (Life of Crime, based on The Switch, starred Jennifer Aniston).  They didn’t bother us with backstory on the characters.  We saw what they said and what they did.  That tells you most of what you need to know.

And that's where I was going with the question above. Everyone has read stuff where the character has the childhood trauma/debilitating physical or mental condition that occasionally (or in many cases, all too frequently) swamps the character and adds to the challenges said character must overcome in order to win through to the goal dictated by plot/action, etc. That sort of thing can be really effective when done right: but it is very difficult to pull off without hitting the reader over the head with it, and can (and frequently does) descend into unintentional parody. I really liked that you let the reader know about Jake's PTSD, and then held back and his actions dictate how much of a factor that was going forward. It's easy to do too much, and sometimes hard as hell to show restraint.

Thanks!  It’s possible to use a load of backstory to explain a present motivation but do it in as few words as possible since it kills momentum unless you are REALLY good at it.  Otherwise, I prefer to let character be revealed by what they say and do in the present.

A lot of writers who are very funny in person aren’t able to replicate that in their writing. You do both well. Do you have any suggestions for writers who would like to “write funnier”?

I don’t have any useful instructions for that.  I think I naturally see things in a funny way and I think I’ve honed it over the years and absorbed a lot of how it’s done by immersing myself in all the comedy stuff I mentioned in Question #5.  And I’ve spent years writing, as I said sketch comedy and sitcoms.  I toyed with the idea of stand up in the 80s when I was in Seattle and stand up was booming.  I hung with a bunch of local comedians but I didn’t have the courage to do an open mic because I never found a voice for on stage the way I think I found a voice on paper.

And finally, you've mentioned beginning your career as a DJ, and we've certainly had our share of long discussions of music. In fact you had your own show on Sirius for, what? Five years? So obviously music is important to you. What are you listening to lately, and do you ever listen to music when you write?

Never listen to music when I write as it draws my concentration from what I’m doing.  I don’t have any current artist or new release that I’m crazy about but I like to check out any artist that Jim Fusilli recommends as he has such wide ranging interests and great taste.

Thanks a lot, Bill, and good luck with both the sales of Human Resources and with your new musical project!

Thanks Brian! I enjoyed this.