26 December 2016

The Name Game: Titles


Titles matter. What would have become of the Dr. Seuss Christmas classic if he'd called it "The Tale of the Green Monkey-like Creature Who Decided to Be Mean and Steal Presents from a Small Village"? Obviously, we'll never know, but is there anyone under the age of five who hasn't seen or read How The Grinch Stole Christmas?
I'm still amazed that one of the major plays of the 1960s, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, ever reached the stage, mostly because the title was too long to fit on theater marquees. Most people can't give you the full title, but theater groupies call it Marat/Sade, which does fit on most posters. Not that anyone performs the play anymore.

So, what is a good title and how do you come up with it?

A good title catches the reader's eye and tells her something about the story. If the book is part of a series, the title should announce that, too. John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee series used designer colors: copper, azure, crimson. The early Ellery Queen mysteries featured a nationality: The Chinese Orange Mystery, The Roman Hat Mystery, The Siamese Twin Mystery and so on. Sue Grafton's alphabet titles are approaching "Z" and Janet Evanovich is up to number twenty-three. A letter means Kinsey Milhone, and a number tells us Stephanie Plum is back.

Hank Phillippi Ryan's Charlie McNally novels all use a monosyllable followed by "Time." Drive Time, Face Time, etc. Lynne Heitman's books about former airline executive Alex Shanahan are Hard Landing, Tarmac, and First Class Killing. Karin Slaughter often uses one-word titles that suggest violence: Fractured, Criminal, Fallen, Broken, Undone.

Early on, my cover designer told me short is better, not just because it's punchier, but because it's easier to fit the words around other artwork.

Simple, huh?

But what if you don't have a series yet? OK, what's a major event or object in your story? Use it. That's how we got Rear Window, Mystic River and The Maltese Falcon. Maybe you can refer to a character, as Carol O'Connell does in Mallory's Oracle and The Judas Child. Thomas Perry does it with The Butcher's Boy, and Elmore Leonard gave us Up in Heidi's Room and Get Shorty. Using a character for the title goes clear back to the Greek tragic poets Oedipus the King, Electra), and Shakespeare named many of his plays after characters (extra credit question: name all twenty-seven of them).

If you don't want to use a character, how about a literary allusion? For centuries, authors have looked to the Bible or mythology for ideas. The Sun Also Rises, Ulysses, Tree of Smoke and Lilies of the Field are among zillions of them. Later writers referred to earlier writers: Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd (Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"), Thackery's Vanity Fair (Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress) Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath ("Battle Hymn of the Republic") and thousands of Shakespeare quotes. At one time, I could assign my classes fourteen different works with titles that came from Macbeth, including Frost's "Out, Out--," Anne Sexton's All My Pretty Ones, Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, and Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes. Robert Penn Warren, Mary Higgins Clark, and Jonathan Kellerman are among those who tape into children's rhymes: All The King's Men, All Through the House, Along Came a Spider...

Many contemporary writers use song or movie titles because they carry emotional links for people of their own generation (Who were you killing when this was Number One?). The late Ed Gorman used oldies, such as Wake Up Little Susie,
and Sandra Scoppetone uses twists on big band tunes, including Gonna Take a Homicidal Journey. Evan Lewis pays homage to earlier mystery writers with a play on Dashiell Hammett: "The Continental Opposite."

My wife hated the original title of my first novel, and she must have been right because every agent this side of the Asteroid Belt turned it down. She finally convinced me to change it, and we agreed on Who Wrote the Book of Death? The play on the song title suggests violence and the story involves writers using pseudonyms. I liked the first title, too, but maybe nobody else remembers Vaughn Monroe.

What was that title? Ghost Writers in the Sky.

When I got the idea for a novel that involved rock and roll, I began a still-growing list of song titles as starting points. Most of my stories use songs that suggest the story line, including "Running On Empty," about a couple discussing their crumbling marriage while driving, and "Stranglehold," about a guitar player who is accused of throttling a singer with a guitar string. The first rock and roll mystery became Blood on the Tracks, a Bob Dylan LP in the 70s, and the PI eventually became Chris "Woody" Guthrie.

The sequel was going to be Hot Rod Lincoln. Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen recorded the song in Detroit, where the story took place, so I thought it was perfect. But the car thief in question became a minor character in the revisions and my cover designer and I struggled for the flip side. We tried most of the other car songs we could think of: Spring Little Cobra, Little GTO, Little Red Corvette (Why are they always little?) and they just got worse and worse. Pink Cadillac? Neh. My designer suggested Hyundai Bloody Hyundai, which we loved even though we knew it was only a place-holder.

At the last minute, my wife--the brains of the outfit if you haven't guessed already--came up with the winner: Oh Lord, Won't You Steal Me a Mercedes Benz. The caper involves a car thief, a stolen Mercedes, an embezzled fortune, and a pregnant stripper, so the title captures everything we needed. As the Three Stooges would say, Poifect!
My genius cover designer put up with a nine-word title because he could arrange the short words around the strong graphic he'd already chosen.

Remember, you can't copyright a title, so you could call your book David Copperfield or The Great Gatsby if you wanted to--although I wouldn't recommend it. Ditto Gotterdammerung. And you can uses a working title while you hammer out your first draft and change it when you discover what the story is really about. Most of my works are out there in at least their second title, and some their third or fourth. My most recent novel, Dark Gonna Catch Me Here (a line from Robert Johnson's "Crossroads Blues"), may be the only book that kept the same title from the very beginning.

Who knows? Maybe I'm finally learning how to do it.

Now, how do YOU pick your titles?

25 December 2016

Christmas Past & Present


Since this is Christmas Day and many of you will be busy with friends and family, I will merely use today's blog to share some Christmas cards with you. The following are custom made Christmas cards based on some of my short stories published in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine for certain years, one card a year for fifteen years. These cards are created by a friend of mine (Mike) with some great artistic talent, but then Mike can also fly a Huey over, under or around things while using a delicate touch on the stick. Each card is then mailed to Linda Landrigan in AHMM's office in Manhattan during the month of December for that year as part of my marketing plan. Hopefully, these cards will keep me in the editor's mind, remind her that she published at least one of my stories that year and then prompt her to think kindly of me when she reads my next story in her slush pile.

So, here's the artwork part of the card for this year. It's based on the escape of The Little Nogai Boy and The Armenian from the Chechen leader's mountain fortress in "The Great Aul," AHMM July/August 2016 issue. Santa doesn't appear in the story, just in the card to give it a seasonal flavor. Part of the mystery in the story was where the rope came from for the escape.




























This one is the artwork from last year's card featuring "Ground Hog Day" from the Holiday Burglars in AHMM May 2015 issue in which Yarnell and Beaumont tunnel into the mansion of a crime lord to steal a painting. Naturally, nothing goes the way they planned.
































Here's one from "False Keys" in my 1660's Paris Underworld series (AHMM December 2006 issue) involving a young orphan who survives as an incompetent pickpocket in a community of criminals.










And, here's "Across the Salween" (AHMM November 2013 issue), from my Shan Army series set in the Golden Triangle of Southeast Asia in a time of opium warlords and mule convoys with armed guards to protect them from rival warlords. The Chinese on the card is supposed to say Merry Christmas, but then I neither speak nor write Mandarin, Cantonese nor Simplified Chinese.


Well, hopefully Santa will find you and yours, wherever you happen to be during these special holidays.

In any case, regardless of your religion or personal feelings for this winter time period, I wish you Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Feliz Navidad, Joyuex Noel or whatever else you choose to celebrate at this time.

Have a good one !!!

24 December 2016

My Christmas Wish: Literacy for All


Melodie’ll be right with ya. Christmas Eve and there I am at the shop and whadya know. In drops Santa. Seems in Brooklyn, somebody stole the hubcaps off his sleigh, knowhatimean? So just happened to have a set in stock, came in fresh this afternoon, a perfect match, indistinguishable from the originals, if you get my drift. Vinnie slapped them on while Solly helped cinch down the loot, er, gifts in the back. Solly didn’t do so good ’cause when Santa lifted off, whadya know… there’s a few items what fell off the back of the sleigh.

We was real heartbroken about that, especially when Gina and Velma walked in and gave us hell. Don’t mess with Velma. My coglioni still hurts from last year when I told her, “Baby, I got yer yule log right here.”

Gina was a little mollified when Santa sorta dropped his December issue of Ellery Queen and there was a Steve Steinbock report all about her. Well, not exactly her, but her mouthpiece. Ya got to add the word ‘mouth’ to that or she gets all unaccountably insulted. Anyways, this is what the review gotta say:
Melodie Campbell, The Goddaughter Caper, Raven Books, $9.95. Gina Gallo tries to steer clear of her family's questionable business dealings. But when she discovers the body of a local Peeping Tom in the alley behind her shop, fate forces her hand. She and various cousins find themselves in a topsy-turvy mess of missing bodies, a surplus of coffins, and geriatric misbehavior. Campbell's writing is always funny. The Goddaughter series, of which this slender novella is the fourth volume, is part of Orca Books' Rapid Reads imprint, making it a fast, fun read.
That put her in a lot better mood and she didn’t dislocate no more body parts. She thinks you might enjoy it too, maybe find one in your stocking, capisci?

— Pietro ‘the Limp’ Peyronie (as dictated to Velma)

My Christmas Wish: Literacy for All

by Melodie Campbell (Bad Girl… only not so bad today)

Last year, I had the honour of being guest speaker at the Hamilton Literacy Council AGM.  This wonderful organization provides one on one tutoring to adults in Hamilton who don't know how to read.  The teachers are marvelous.  They are mostly volunteers.

The theme for the AGM was all about wishes.  Dream Big.  That sort of thing.  And so the staff came up with a brilliant idea for centrepieces for the AGM.  Each table had a crystal globe in the centre of it, like a snow globe.  Each globe had a different note inserted into the middle.  And on the note was the dream of one of the students from the literacy council.

I picked up the globe on my table. The note inside it read:

"I want to work in a store someday."

I felt my throat constrict.  My eyes started to tear.

Many of us work in stores when we are in high school or college.  It is our 'starter job' - the one we can't wait to leave after graduation from school to get the better job for which we trained.  I remember working at a mega grocery store.  Eight hours on my feet, unrelenting noise, and lots of lifting.  I was so grateful to leave it.

I thought about our student who wrote that note.  What she wanted most in the world was to become literate so she could work in a store.

Because she couldn't work there now.  She couldn't read labels.  She couldn't read sales slips.  Most stores have computers.  She couldn't read the text on the computer screen.

She couldn't even fill in the application form to work there.

Literacy has always been a cause dear to my heart.  I write a series of crime books for adult literacy students who are reaching the advanced certificate stage.  I donate all the proceeds from my book launches to the literacy council.  But at the AGM, this student opened my eyes and reached my heart.

In our society, we expect everyone to be able to read.  Jobs today require it.

All my life, I have imagined how sad it would be to be unable to read a book.  Imagine how it would feel to be unable to fill out a job application.

My fervent wish this Christmas is the gift of literacy for everyone.  May everyone in my town, Hamilton, and my country, Canada, be able to read.  May everyone in the world have the chance to learn, and may teachers and tutors everywhere continue to make it happen.

Merry Christmas to all.

23 December 2016

Keeping Resolutions (at least the reading one)


By Art Taylor

Back in January at Criminal Minds, another group blog I've been a part of, I talked about the importance of New Year's resolutions and listed my own for 2016. As the year progressed, I've been better about some of those resolutions than about others: we fell down, for example, on the plans for our four-year-old son to plan and cook meals once every couple of weeks, though he does still enjoy helping from time to time (reminder: don't try to make resolutions for others), and the cats and I still have a testy relationship sometimes (because, you know, cats). But one resolution I did stick with was reading War and Peace—all 365 chapters, one chapter a day.

I've long been a fan of Anna Karenina—one of my favorite novels, in fact, and I've read the whole thing three times—but War and Peace had always seemed daunting. The first time I tried to read it, several years ago, I made some brief headway then lost momentum as other things got in the way. Eventually, I just moved it back to its place on the shelf. But when I discovered—a fluke—the number of chapters in the book... well, suddenly a plan presented itself. Bird by bird, as they say—or in this case, chapter by chapter. And since the chapters are so short (most of them), it couldn't take any more than a few minutes a day.

As it turns out, that's exactly what it took—not much more, even with the occasional longer chapter. I had both a hard copy of the book on my nightstand and then an e-book version, both on my Kindle and on my phone, which basically meant that I could fit in the reading whenever it was convenient: sneaking in a chapter first thing in the morning before the day got started or checking off that day's chapter late night before turning in; reading a chapter on my phone while I was waiting somewhere (including long, long stoplights); even reading an occasional chapter aloud to our four-year-old son when he was having trouble getting to sleep—and to his credit, he began to follow the characters and plot, asking at times for more stories about "that girl that everyone likes." (He did eventually learn that her name is Natasha, and he was as charmed by her as everyone else, it seems).

My point here may seem to be about time management—breaking down big projects into bite-sized pieces—but there was another lesson here. Many times when I'm reading a book, I push through it at a much stronger pace: some novel I'm reading for class, for example, or a book I need to review, deadline-driven in both instances. And even with the books I read for pleasure, I often find myself eager to finish them for one reason or another: enjoying the plot and rushing to find out what happens next; wanting to move on to other books calling to me (always a long TBR list); or just feeling like it's been hanging around the nightstand too long, and I simply need to get it done.

But my purposeful pacing with War and Peace forced me into a different way of reading. It's not just that I only had to complete one chapter a day; it's that I completed only one chapter a day—never deliberately moving ahead to the next, even if I suddenly had extra time or some greater interest in what lie ahead on the next page. (It seems, however, that I wasn't diligent enough in keeping track of my pace at times, since I've finished the book a week early—so likely I read a chapter in the morning and then another at night some days, forgetting to mark it off on my to-do list.)

In any case, reading at that  pace meant that I was immersed in War and Peace for longer than I've ever spent with a book. I lived with it—and in it—for nearly a full year.

I'm not certain that I can fully express how this changed my experience of it, though I did feel that I got to know the characters in a different way (so many of them in this case!) and that I inhabited the scope of the novel more fully by letting it expand in time, so to speak, in the time in which I dwelled inside of it. And the reading did become habit—to the point that I'm already feeling the absence of the book in my life, something missing now.

...which leads me to wanting to repeat the experiment with some other big book on my want-to-read list: Bleak House is tops there probably, and East of Eden too, one of my wife's favorites and one she has long wanted me to read. Or then, maybe, a big group of short stories read in deliberate progression: all of Chekhov perhaps or all the Father Brown mysteries or....

I'm just musing over possibilities now, of course—but also curious if others have every tried such a thing, to live with/inside a book for such a prolonged period of time, and which book, and what you thought of the experience. Looking forward to hearing your own stories in the comments section!

A HOLIDAY BONUS

From one extreme to another, here's a much shorter bit of fiction as a free gift to readers of the blog: my story "Parallel Play" from the recent anthology Chesapeake Crimes: Storm Warning. It's not hardly a seasonal story (no tinsel, no gifts, no glad tidings, little gladness at all), but it might be just the thing for some cold, dark winter night ahead—since it's definitely one of the darker stories I've ever written, and one of the coldest too maybe. I've posted it on my own website here, and I hope you all might enjoy!

22 December 2016

The Haunted Man and the Ghost's Bargain


As I happened to mention last year ("Ghoulies and Ghosties"), ghost stories were one of the key features of a Victorian Christmas.  And Dickens wrote more than one of them for the holidays:

One thing "The Haunted Man" shows is how obsessed Dickens was with memory, and his analysis of how memory fits in/creates who we are.  From the opening scene, where he describes a portrait with the motto, "LORD, KEEP MY MEMORY GREEN", to the very last moment, it is a novella about memory.  It has what is perhaps the first experiment in memory erasure in literature, which makes it a forerunner of Charlie Kaufman's "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind".  Although in this case, it isn't love that makes our self-induced amnesiac go for the darkness.  Mr. Redlaw, brilliant professor of chemistry, comes back from his overflowing lecture halls to his lonely abode and sits and broods among his beakers about the endless, unbearable wrongs that have been done to him.  Depressive, full of resentments, letting his mind feed and fester on them like rats in the walls, Mr. Redlaw is ripe to the point of rotten for any promise to get his own back. And what comes, well - here's Dickens:

Christmas Eve!  (No chains clanking, no wailing in the hallways - but on the wall, where Milly Swidger (his landlady) put it), "the healthy holly withered on the wall, and dropped—dead branches."

Image result for the haunted man dickensThen, "As the gloom and shadow thickened behind him, in that place where it had been gathering so darkly, it took, by slow degrees,—or out of it there came, by some unreal, unsubstantial process—not to be traced by any human sense,—an awful likeness of himself!"
[This Spectre, this Phantom, listens to Redlaw's litany of woe, and, finally, offers him a solution]:
“Hear what I offer!  Forget the sorrow, wrong, and trouble you have known!”
“Forget them!” Redlaw repeated.
“I have the power to cancel their remembrance—to leave but very faint, confused traces of them, that will die out soon,” returned the Spectre.  “Say!  Is it done?”
“Stay!” cried the haunted man, arresting by a terrified gesture the uplifted hand.  “I tremble with distrust and doubt of you; and the dim fear you cast upon me deepens into a nameless horror I can hardly bear.—I would not deprive myself of any kindly recollection, or any sympathy that is good for me, or others.  What shall I lose, if I assent to this?  What else will pass from my remembrance?”
“No knowledge; no result of study; nothing but the intertwisted chain of feelings and associations, each in its turn dependent on, and nourished by, the banished recollections.  Those will go.”
“Are they so many?” said the haunted man, reflecting in alarm.
“They have been wont to show themselves in the fire, in music, in the wind, in the dead stillness of the night, in the revolving years,” returned the Phantom scornfully.
“In nothing else?”
The Phantom held its peace.  But having stood before him, silent, for a little while, it moved towards the fire; then stopped.  “Decide!” it said, “before the opportunity is lost!”
“A moment!  I call Heaven to witness,” said the agitated man, “that I have never been a hater of any kind,—never morose, indifferent, or hard, to anything around me.  If, living here alone, I have made too much of all that was and might have been, and too little of what is, the evil, I believe, has fallen on me, and not on others.  But, if there were poison in my body, should I not, possessed of antidotes and knowledge how to use them, use them?  If there be poison in my mind, and through this fearful shadow I can cast it out, shall I not cast it out?”
“Say,” said the Spectre, “is it done?”
“A moment longer!” he answered hurriedly.  “I would forget it if I could!  Have I thought that, alone, or has it been the thought of thousands upon thousands, generation after generation?  All human memory is fraught with sorrow and trouble.  My memory is as the memory of other men, but other men have not this choice.  Yes, I close the bargain.  Yes!  I WILL forget my sorrow, wrong, and trouble!”
“Say,” said the Spectre, “is it done?”
“It is!”
It is.  And take this with you, man whom I here renounce!  The gift that I have given, you shall give again, go where you will.  Without recovering yourself the power that you have yielded up, you shall henceforth destroy its like in all whom you approach.  Your wisdom has discovered that the memory of sorrow, wrong, and trouble is the lot of all mankind, and that mankind would be the happier, in its other memories, without it.  Go!  Be its benefactor!  Freed from such remembrance, from this hour, carry involuntarily the blessing of such freedom with you.  Its diffusion is inseparable and inalienable from you.  Go!  Be happy in the good you have won, and in the good you do!”
Image result for row of holly  Image result for row of holly  Image result for row of holly

In case you can't guess, this does not end well.  Mr. Redlaw finds that, as he goes out into the world, he does indeed have the power to transmit the power of complete oblivion of all memories of wrong, hurt, sorrow, trouble of any kind:  and the results are horrific.  
He goes to the deathbed of Milly's brother-in-law, a man dying of alcoholism and vice, who calls to his father (old Mr. Swidger, Milly's father-in-law) “Father!  I am dying, I know.  I am so far gone, that I can hardly speak, even of what my mind most runs on.  Is there any hope for me beyond this bed?” 
But just then Redlaw touches him, just to help...  With the result that the man closes his eyes; puts his hands over his face, and then emerges, and shouts out, scowling, “Why, d-n you!  what have you been doing to me here!  I have lived bold, and I mean to die bold.  To the Devil with you!”  And dies, unrepentant, unreconciled, unloving and unloved...
And it spreads - touching the dying/dead man makes old Mr. Swidger and Milly's husband, William Swidger quarrel over the deathbed as to which of them is the more selfish, old Swidger for still being alive or young Swidger for not giving him enough, i.e., everything.

And it spreads - to everyone Redlaw touches, even with his shadow, all lose all sense of gratitude, goodness, charity, hope...  until finally even Redlaw knows that he is an infection, and he is horrified by himself.  He flees back to his lonely room, withdrawn from everyone - from the Swidgers, from a poor student he was meant to help, from Milly...  But he can't escape himself, and the worst is, perhaps, when he realizes that he destroyed all the good within himself when he sent his memory away with the Phantom. 
Redlaw and the BoyThe only one he cannot hurt is a homeless orphan off the streets who Milly Swidger took in:  "A bundle of tatters, held together by a hand, in size and form almost an infant’s, but in its greedy, desperate little clutch, a bad old man’s.  A face rounded and smoothed by some half-dozen years, but pinched and twisted by the experiences of a life.  Bright eyes, but not youthful.  Naked feet, beautiful in their childish delicacy,—ugly in the blood and dirt that cracked upon them.  A baby savage, a young monster, a child who had never been a child, a creature who might live to take the outward form of man, but who, within, would live and perish a mere beast."  
This boy never changes.  Hard, starving, snatching, growling, snapping from beginning to end. Redlaw's touch makes no difference to this feral beast:  and, when the Phantom returns, Redlaw begs to know why.  
“This,” said the Phantom, pointing to the boy, “is the last, completest illustration of a human creature, utterly bereft of such remembrances as you have yielded up.  No softening memory of sorrow, wrong, or trouble enters here, because this wretched mortal from his birth has been abandoned to a worse condition than the beasts, and has, within his knowledge, no one contrast, no humanising touch, to make a grain of such a memory spring up in his hardened breast.  All within this desolate creature is barren wilderness.  All within the man bereft of what you have resigned, is the same barren wilderness.  Woe to such a man!  Woe, tenfold, to the nation that shall count its monsters such as this, lying here, by hundreds and by thousands!” 
Only one creature can touch the boy; only one creature can save the people whom Redlaw has damaged and destroyed; only one creature can (perhaps) heal Redlaw himself:  Milly Swidger.  Milly, the angel in the house, whose only child died immediately after birth, who has the answer that Redlaw has never even thought of as to why humans need the memory of trial and trouble:  
Read "The Haunted Man" and find out what that answer is.   
‘LORD!  KEEP MY MEMORY GREEN!’ 

21 December 2016

The Superhero Slept Late


I usually write these things weeks in advance.  Had one all set up, but I'm kicking it aside because of something that happened today (Tuesday).

7:30 AM.  Still dark out.  I was rushing around getting ready to go to work, when the doorbell rang.

It seldom does, and at that hour of the morning?  Almost unheard of.

I opened the door.  There was a girl, or young woman.  Middle or late teens.  I had never seen her before.

The term is flat affect; I looked it up.  No expression.  Monotone voice.  Symptomatic of schizophrenia, depression, autism, or brain injury. 


Not that I'm a diagnostician, of course.

"I was wondering," she said, "if you could give me a ride to Ferndale."  Ferndale is fifteen miles away.

"No," I said.

"Okay.  Thanks."  And she walked away.

I shut the door and immediately started second-guessing myself.  What should I have done?  What would  I have done if I was more awake and not rushed?

Drive her to Ferndale?  Not  a chance.

Invite her in?  I don't think so.

Ask her what was going on? (What was that lost soul doing, walking up or down my hilly suburban street in the dark on a chilly morning at, did I mention, 7:30?)

"The Mask" by W. H. https://www.flickr.com/photos/wolfgangfoto/3206913459
Offered her something to eat?  Offered to contact the social workers (which at that time of day, would have meant calling the cops)?

I realized, eventually, I should have offered to give her two bucks, which would have paid for a bus to Ferndale.  Maybe that's what she was hinting at/hoping for.  If she had asked for busfare I like to think that I would have  shelled it out, even in my semi-sleepy condition.

But by then she was gone.

I read crime.  I write crime.  My brain cranked out a dozen plots to explain the event, some with her as victim, some as villain.  I'll never know what really happened.

But I'll tell you this.  I think we all wonder from time to time how we would react in an emergency.  I seem to have gotten an answer, and it's not one I'm proud of.  This is, after all, the season to err on the side of trusting people.

Maybe I could have been a little more up-to-the-occasion if I had been more awake.  Maybe not.

But merry and happy to you and yours.




20 December 2016

Remembering Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill in Books and Movies


When Raymond Chandler talked about a man neither tarnished nor afraid navigating the mean streets, I have no doubt he was talking about that man walking the streets of Los Angeles’ Bunker Hill neighborhood.
For my first SleuthSayers post on February 24, 2015, I wrote a column called Adventures in La La Land (http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2015/02/adventures-in-la-la-land.html), where I talked about Los Angeles, how it influences my writing and memories of growing up here. One area that I didn’t mention then was Bunker Hill. That is Bunker Hill, Los Angeles, not that “other” one on the East Coast.

And since my story Ghosts of Bunker Hill appears in the December, 2016 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine (though I think it’s only available on newsstands until today, the 20th) I thought I’d take this opportunity to rectify that, especially as Bunker Hill has influenced both that story and my writing in general.



If you’ve been to the Music Center in downtown L.A. you’ve “been” to Bunker Hill. If you’re into film noir, you’ve “been” to Bunker Hill. Many times. Numerous film noirs—as well as movies in other genres—were shot there: Criss Cross, Cry Danger, Kiss Me Deadly, Joseph Losey’s M, The Brasher Doubloon, Backfire, the Judy Garland version of A Star is Born, The Glenn Miller Story and Angel’s Flight, an interesting, gritty, ultra low-budget noir. And L.A.’s Bunker Hill has stood in for many other cities as well.

Bunker Hill in transition
Bunker Hill was L.A.’s first wealthy residential neighborhood, right near downtown. It was filled with glorious Victorian mansions, as well as offices, storefronts, hotels, etc. After WWI the swells moved west and the neighborhood got run down and became housing for poor people. It wasn’t shiny enough for the Powers That Be, who wanted to build up and refurbish downtown. Out with the old, the poor, the lonely, in with the new, the young, the hip. The wealthy.

By the time Raymond Chandler, who had lived there a couple of different times in his life, was writing about it he was calling it “shabby town”. In The High Window (1942), he said:

Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town. Once, very long ago, it was the choice residential district of the city, and there are still standing a few of the jigsaw Gothic mansions with wide porches and walls covered with round-end shingles and full corner bay windows with spindle turrets. They are all rooming houses now, their parquetry floors are scratched and worn through the once glossy finish and the wide sweeping staircases are dark with time and with cheap varnish laid on over generations of dirt. In the tall rooms haggard landladies bicker with shifty tenants. On the wide cool front porches, reaching their cracked shoes into the sun, and staring at nothing, sit the old men with faces like lost battles.
―Raymond Chandler, The High Window

Bunker Hill is also where John Fante (and his character Arturo Bandini) lived when he first moved to Los Angeles from Colorado. The struggling writer wrote about that experience:

One night I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, down in the middle of Los Angeles. It was an important night in my life, because I had to make a decision about the hotel. Either I paid up or I got out: that was what the note said, the note the landlady had put under my door. A great problem, deserving acute attention. I solved it by turning out the lights and going to bed.
―John Fante, Ask the Dust

Angels Flight photo by Rarmin
And Bunker Hill is where the famous Angels Flight funicular railway is/was. As a kid, I got to ride the original Angels Flight, which was a thrill then and still is in memory. I guess Bandini preferred to walk alongside it instead of riding in the little cars:

I took the steps down Angel’s Flight to Hill Street: a hundred and forty steps, with tight fists, frightened of no man, but scared of the Third Street Tunnel, scared to walk through it—claustrophobia. Scared of high places too, and of blood, and of earthquakes; otherwise, quite fearless, excepting death, except the fear I’ll scream in a crowd, except the fear of appendicitis, except the fear of heart trouble, even that, sitting in his room holding the clock and pressing his jugular vein, counting out his heartbeats, listening to the weird purr and whirr of his stomach. Otherwise, quite fearless.
―John Fante, Ask the Dust

Angels Flight was later moved up the street and a “new and improved” Angels Flight was put in, but it closed not too long after it opened. So it might have been new, definitely not improved. And it makes me think of the old saw about how they don’t make ’em like they used to. I talk more about it in the Adventures in La La Land post and in Ghosts of Bunker Hill:

I stood at the bottom of the hill, staring up at Angels Flight, the famous little funicular railway in the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles, that brought people from Hill Street up to Olive. I desperately wanted to ride those rails up to the top. But now the two twin orange and black cars were permanently moored in the middle, suspended in mid-air, ghosts from another time.
―Paul D. Marks, Ghosts of Bunker Hill


***

Fante also described Bunker Hill like this:

The old folk from Indiana and Iowa and Illinois, from Boston and Kansas City and Des Moines, they sold their homes and their stores, and they came here by train and by automobile to the land of sunshine, to die in the sun, with just enough money to live until the sun killed them, tore themselves out by the roots in their last days, deserted the smug prosperity of Kansas City and Chicago and Peoria to find a place in the sun. And when they got here they found that other and greater thieves had already taken possession, that even the sun belonged to the others; Smith and Jones and Parker, druggist, banker, baker, dust of Chicago and Cincinnati and Cleveland on their shoes, doomed to die in the sun, a few dollars in the bank, enough to subscribe to the Los Angeles Times, enough to keep alive the illusion that this was paradise, that their little papier-mâché homes were castles.
― John Fante, Ask the Dust

It was a tough life in the tough part of a tough city for the young writer and his alter ego:

Down on Spring Street, in a bar across the street from the secondhand store. With my last nickel I went there for a cup of coffee. an old style place, sawdust on the floor, crudely drawn nudes smeared across the walls. It was a saloon where old men gathered, where the beer was cheap and smelled sour, where the past remained unaltered.
― John Fante, Ask the Dust

In the late 1950s and 60’s, the Powers That Be decided they wanted to get rid of the “blight” and modernize downtown. To that end, they began a massive redevelopment of the area, including leveling or flattening some of the hills, changing street configurations, removing and demolishing houses and other buildings. So by the late 1960s/early ’70s it was all torn down and redeveloped and progress was achieved.

In Ask the Dust, Fante said, “I crossed Hill Street and breathed easier when I entered Pershing Square. No tall buildings in the square.”

Bunker Hill today, photo by Lan56
Today’s Bunker Hill would be unrecognizable to Bandini. But maybe not completely to Fante, who lived till 1983, though he was dealing with serious complications from diabetes so he may not have seen what it became. As the narrator in Ghosts of Bunker Hill says,

Bandini had said there were no tall buildings in the Square. He should see it today. Steel and glass spikes sprout from every available space. And when nothing’s available the wrecking ball makes a new empty lot. Much of the park greens have been cemented over, with little pinpricks of green here and there, like a garnish on the side of your plate.
―Paul D. Marks, Ghosts of Bunker Hill

***

I may have a somewhat romanticized view of Bunker Hill. We do tend to romanticize the past, don’t we? I’m sure it was a hardscrabble and even dangerous life for the people who lived there after the swells moved out and it became “shabby town”. But with its gingerbread elegance and the “secret passages” of Clay Street (which no longer exists), with the winding roads going up and down and the hills, I have to say that I love the old Bunker Hill. And I’m glad so much of it is preserved in movies and writing.

Newel Post "borrowed" from Bunker Hill
I also feel very lucky that I could explore it with a friend before it was totally razed. We did our own little archaeological expedition of several of the houses and I even "borrowed" the top of a newel post from the long and winding interior stairway in one of those houses (see pic). A true relic of L.A.’s past, it’s a prized possession.

Los Angeles isn’t known for venerating and preserving its past. Everything here is new or wants to be. People come here to start over and every few years the city tries for a rebirth. But parts of Bunker Hill were preserved. Some of the old Victorian houses were moved to Carroll Avenue near the Echo Park section of L.A.. The characters in Ghosts of Bunker Hill live in a restored Victorian on Carroll Avenue and appreciate what they have:

Every time I walked those creaky wooden floors, I felt the presence of the past. The people who’d lived there. Not ghosts, but history, something Los Angeles often doesn’t appreciate. Carroll Avenue was close to downtown, where I worked. But the whole short street looked like something out of early 1900s L.A. I loved everything about it. 
―Paul D. Marks, Ghosts of Bunker Hill


Haskins house on Carroll Avenue, Photo by Laëtitia Zysberg

So I hope you’ll give Ghosts of Bunker Hill a shot and if you like it the sequel, Bunker Hill Blues, will be in a future issue of EQMM.

###

19 December 2016

Basketball


Yes, I know football season isn't completely over but round ball has begun. Way back in the dark ages when I was in high school, girl's basketball was rather boring. Pardon me while I loosen my corset. We could only play half the court. In other words there were three teammates on one half of the court and we were guards. We had to guard the forwards of the opposing team. When we got the ball we could dribble the ball to the center line that divided the court and pass the ball to our forwards who could then work the ball down to take a shot. I guess they were afraid we'd have a sudden case of the vapors and swoon and fall to the floor and have to be revived before the game could continue. But in all honesty beginning in the 1890s when women started playing BB, they had to wear long skirts, Only their heads, feet and hands could show. I'm assuming they had to wear corsets and petticoats so guess the idea of swooning was not actually a bad idea. I'm not sure when girl's were allowed to play five man, full court basketball. Everything I found on google mentioned 1971 but I know that wasn't correct in Texas. Seems like it might have been late fifties. One of my younger sisters played all through high school in the mid to late 60s and played by boy's rules.

My oldest son, Phil Lee (not my oldest child) played basketball in Junior high. His son, (who was Phil's oldest child) Jarred born in '89 played in junior high and his daughter, Jackie was born in '93 also played in junior high. Think they both started in Little League Basketball leagues before Junior High. Jackie was a very good player and had an excellent coach early on. She wasn't big enough to play high school or college ball as they wanted girl's who were close to six foot tall. But Jackie wanted and hoped to coach basketball when she graduated from College.

Jackie graduated from Texas State University in December of 2015, a short year ago. She got married in January of 2016 and her first teaching coaching dreams came true this past September, She's the Girl's Freshman Coach at Hays High School in Buda, Texas. Buda is a bedroom community just a few miles south of Austin, TX.

Jackie's Freshman Girls team played in a tournament, this past Saturday, Dec 11th at Bowie High School in Austin. I was excited to be able to attend and watch my granddaughter coaching girl's basketball. Talk about being thrilled. I had watched my son play, both grandchildren Jarred and Jackie play and now getting to watch my granddaughter coach was awesome.

Not only did her girls play. they won the Freshman Girls tournament. And it wasn't easy either. They played their first game at 1:30pm. If they won, then they would play the second game at 4 and if they won the 2nd they would play the third game at 6:30. The idea being you keep playing if you win. And the Hays Freshmen Girls won all three games.

Jackie's Mom, Dad and Maternal Grandmother came from Fort Worth to watch. My youngest son, Roger Grape, and youngest grandson, Lucas Grape-Kreuger who both live in Austin attended. So with myself, the Paternal Grandmother, in attendance, the coach had almost as many fans as the team did to root and clap for them.

This was just an awesome experience for me and I wanted to share it with all of you.

Merry and Happy to each and everyone of you. May your holidays and the New Year be the Best Ever.

18 December 2016

The Tattletale Doll and other Tales


IoT, or Internet of Things, refers to the interconnection and integration of electro-mechanical devices (‘things’). It’s often thought of in the context of home automation (heating and air conditioning, lighting, door locks, entertainment, security, and even the promise of a digital butler), but the growing IoT can be used in numerous and yet unimagined ways.
The robots are coming and they can’t be stopped. At first blush, you won’t recognize them. They don’t possess arms, legs, or even wheels. They don’t have scary or friendly faces– they don’t have faces at all.

To be sure, development of what we think of as robots is proceeding apace. Bipedal ’bots can run, jump, gently lift an egg or crush a steel can. A few years ago, the US Army sponsored deployment of a creepy-looking headless, mechanical pack mule.

The devices I’m talking about may be called voice agents or digital assistants. Physically, they may more closely resembles a carafe, a thermos bottle, or a cigar box. Compared to R2D2, they have more in common with the cutsie robotic dogs and dolls seen in toy stores. They’re verbal assistants.

The Next Voice You Hear…

Artificial intelligence is still in the Model T stage, but it’s come a long way since the famous Eliza program that carried on a conversation of sorts. The new devices not merely entertain, they can help with small things. Not many things yet– they have limitations and a long way to go, but they can control your lights, thermostat, entertainment center, and home security. They can wake you up and put you to sleep.

Most can read you the news, make notes, look up recipes, set timers and answer simple questions. “How many teaspoons in a cup? How many grams is that? Halve that recipe. Repeat. What should I do for heartburn?”

Each plays games and tells goofy jokes. They can play music through your stereo or their own surprisingly decent speakers. Ask, and they can tell you about Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson Airplane, Jefferson Davis, or TV’s the Jeffersons. If you zero in on a musician, ask the gadget to play their music. Some of these devices remember the context of the previous question.

Keep an ear out for occasional jokes, little ‘Easter eggs’, so to speak. For example, ask Google Home who shot the sheriff, and she replies, “Bob Marley, but he didn’t shoot the deputy, if that makes a difference.”

The current players are big names you already know: Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft. I’ve been living with one of these gadgets for the past couple of months. It’s not entirely ready for prime time, but that day will soon arrive. One is on my shopping list for friends.

Amazon Echo
Amazon Echo, Tap, and Dot, aka Alexa

Amazon Labs market the Echo, its little sister, the Tap, and the family baby, the Dot, all with personalities known as ‘Alexa’ but can also be called ‘Amazon’. Prices run $140 for the Echo, $90 for the Tap, and $40 for the Dot.

The company claims a skill set of 3000-some tasks, including reading audiobooks to you. Unlike the competition, it can order items from Amazon, (“Alexa, quick, order toilet paper, same-day service.”)
  • You can’t miss a question posed by an Amazon customer: “I have 2 children, one named Alexa and the other named Amazon. Will this present any problems?” The 100+ answers are a riot.

Apple Home Kit
Apple Home Kit, aka Siri

Siri can be found on the iPhone, the iPad, the latest Sierra MacOS 10.12.x, and now aboard the Apple Home Kit. Unlike its main competitors, Apple doesn’t offer a stand-alone device, which can be regarded as both an advantage and disadvantage. It’s nice to have one or more go-to spots without pulling out your phone. But it's convenient if you’re in your basement and want to adjust the thermostat without running upstairs: simply tell your iPhone or Android to switch on the furnace and adjust the temperature. Your kids arriving home can turn on the lights and unlock the door with their phone.

With an iPad, Siri controls devices like lighting, iTunes music, and Apple TV. Apple is rumored to have a ‘smart dock’ in the works, so they may make it possible to have both a central location and the ability to carry around the controller. Apple also has the largest ‘ecosystem’ and best integration, although that may change rapidly as Google and Microsoft gear up.

Google Home
Google Home Assistant, aka Hey Google

Unlike the competition, the $130 Google Home doesn’t have a catchy wake-up name like Siri or Alexa, but it features a plucky female personality. Ask her to play trivia, and she becomes downright excited, bouncing off the walls of her tiny Genie bottle.

Google Home connects with Google Chromecast and can entertain you with Netflix, play internet radio and music, flash family photos on the screen, or show you a movie without your leaving your chair. One advantage is that home owners can place more than one device in the house, so a person can carry on conversations room-to-room.

Considering its massive search engine, Google would seem to have advantages over the competition, but it lags in areas, even though it has been buying up controls companies like Nest and investing in IoT research for home automation. One of the apparent issues is that Google was slow to reach out to third-party developers, so its non-home-grown actions number in the dozens compared to Apple and Amazon’s hundreds of tasks. Expect that to change sooner than later.

Microsoft Cortana
Microsoft Home Media Center Voice Assistant, aka Cortana

Cortana, Microsoft’s personal digital assistant, has received good reviews for understanding human language. However, with the fewest connectable devices, Microsoft is playing catch-up in the smart-home market.

The Redmond company has teamed up with Insteon, a player in the IoT scene. At present, the companies expect users to control their home automation with Windows computers, tablets, or Windows Phones, which seems to severely limit the market. However, Microsoft has brought Cortana and their search engine Bing to the iPhone and Android platforms, so they may intend future synergy there.

I’m surprised Microsoft hasn’t leveraged their popular X-Box into a home control system, but the company may be way ahead of me. Considering the source of the name Cortana, they should have a natural fit…

Apple and Amazon users seem happy with the Siri and Alexa names. Fans of other platforms appear less pleased with ‘Hey Google’, and downright hostile to the name Cortana. See, the name comes from the robotic AI in the first-person-shooter game, Halo. The game is fun, but bloody and violent, so many consider the awkward name inappropriate in a family setting… not that anyone expects their house to burst forth with an alien invasion.

The Others

Other companies are known for components or infrastructure in the home automation and IoT markets, including the venerable X-10, iHome, and a broad range of firms. Lack of cooperation among the major players may be offset by the interchangeability brought by the smaller team players.

A sampling of participants include mControl, HomeSeer, SmartThings, JDS Technologies, Vivint, and Iris. Honeywell, Nest, and others make thermostats and HVAC controls. Z-Wave and Zigbee are known for general controls and home IoT networking.

Concerns

All of us should be concerned these devices constantly listen. Supposedly they ignore anything until their name is called, “Hey Siri, hey Google, hey Alexa.” But the question arises about any listening post in your own home: How difficult would it be to imbed a listening device within your listening device? What if the police, or your opponent’s political party, or China where these things are made, or Mother Russia wants to listen in? But wait… a military contractor already does… listen in, that is, to your children.

Apple and Google have gone to great lengths to earn the trust of their customers. Thus far their reputations appear to be well deserved, but how difficult is it to hack any of these devices? Moreover, unless you tell them not to, all these companies upload dialogue to the cloud for voice analysis. The purposes don’t appear nefarious– yet. If you disable cloud processing, voice recognition will be less than optimal, but you can decide the risk.

Let me introduce to you two devices that listen to your children and upload the data to a military contractor.


Cayla, the Doll with i-Que

Meet My Friend Cayla. She and her brother i-Que Robot are clever playthings from Los Angeles-based Genesis Toys. Cayla is au fait with Disney and Nickelodeon, so the little conspirator can urge your small one to tug your skirt and demand more and more product.

These dolls ask for considerable information, learning your child’s name and your name. Thanks to your IP address, they know where you live, but that doesn’t stop them from asking your child for their hometown and school. Aww, it’s so cute to see your child interacting with a toy recording device.

Because that’s exactly what it is. The dolls upload conversations of anybody in the room to a Boston defense contractor that sells “voice biometric solutions” to military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies. Your child’s talk… and yours.

Additionally, its internet connection is insecure and can be easily subverted and hacked. Bad guys could sit outside your home and listen to your conversations.

If you already own one of these dolls, consider what to do. If you hang on to it, take a couple of safety steps. First, the doll communicates through the internet via Bluetooth, probably through your phone or laptop. Disable that connection when it’s not in use. And shut off the damn doll.

Sorry to go all bah-humbug on you. But really, I want you to have a happy Chanukah and a wonderful Christmas in the privacy of your own home.

Is there already a voice assistant in your home or perhaps your Christmas stocking? What are your experiences? What are your thoughts?

“Hey Alexa, Siri, Google… read my award-winning story back to me.”

17 December 2016

Twenty Years of B.A.M.S.



by John M. Floyd



I'm not much of a goal-setter, in my writing. Like all of us, I try to do a good job of writing stories and submitting them to markets--but beyond that, I don't feel there's much I can do. If something gets published, great. If something good happens after it's published (awards, other recognition, etc.), that's icing on the cake, and I'm honored and grateful if/when it does. But that's out of my control.

Having said that, I think there are certain things that most mystery writers have on their bucket lists. One might be to win an Edgar, or even to be nominated. Or to win other writing awards, or to have a story picked up for a film. If you're a writer of short mysteries, an additional dream might be to appear in the annual MWA anthology or an Akashic noir anthology.

I've been fortunate enough to grab a few of these golden rings, as have most of you. One of my fantasies was realized last year, when I had a story chosen for The Best American Mystery Stories 2015.

The B.A.M.S. file

I would guess that almost all of us have looked through volumes of Best American Mystery Stories at one time or another. For those who might be interested, here's a quick overview of the series, and the procedure by which the included authors are selected.

The B. A. M. S. anthologies began in 1997 and have always been published by Houghton Mifflin (later Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). In his introduction to the debut edition, series editor Otto Penzler explained that he identified and read all the mysteries published during the previous calendar year--1996--and chose the best fifty, which he then turned over to a guest editor. That editor, Robert B. Parker in this case, selected what he thought were the best twenty stories for the publication; the remaining thirty were listed in a close-but-no-cigar honor roll in the back of the book, called "Other Distinguished Mystery Stories of 1996." This process has been continued every year since. Those lucky enough to be in the "top 20" are notified, early in the year, that their stories will be featured in the book. Contracts are then sent out, the writers are paid, and the anthology is published in the fall.

Where does Otto go to find all this original fiction? "The most fruitful sources," he said in the B.A.M.S. 1997 intro, "are the mystery specialty magazines, small literary journals, popular consumer publications, and an unusually bountiful crop from anthologies containing all or some original work." Apparently the field consisted of around 500 stories at first, and has now expanded to become 3,000 to 5,000 stories a year. His colleague Michele Slung apparently does most of the initial culling, and is, according to Otto, "the fastest and smartest reader I have ever known."

The names of all the guest editors can be found in the opening pages of every edition, but they're so impressive I'll list them here as well:

1997 - Robert B. Parker
1998 - Sue Grafton
1999 - Ed McBain
2000 - Donald Westlake
2001 - Lawrence Block
2002 - James Ellroy
2003 - Michael Connelly
2004 - Nelson DeMille
2005 - Joyce Carol Oates
2006 - Scott Turow
2007 - Carl Hiaasen
2008 - George Pelecanos
2009 - Jeffery Deaver
2010 - Lee Child
2011 - Harlan Coben
2012 - Robert Crais
2013 - Lisa Scottoline
2014 - Laura Lippman
2015 - James Patterson
2016 - Elizabeth George

20/50 vision

As I mentioned earlier, the stories featured in the anthology are the top twenty of the year, chosen by the guest editor. Those named in the Distinguished Mysteries list in the back of the book are the runners-up, the "rest" of the top fifty that were originally chosen by Otto Penzler.

I restated that because most folks don't know about it--including, until recently, me. At the 2012 Bouchercon I had the opportunity to meet Lee Child, one of my favorite authors. I remember saying to him (babbling, probably), "I saw that one of my stories was listed as "distinguished" in The Best American Mystery Stories 2010 . . . and, well, since you were guest editor that year, I'd like to thank you for that honor." He said something kind and gracious and we both went on our way. What I didn't realize at the time was that my story was in the "distinguished" list because it was one of the fifty that Otto had selected, not one of the final twenty that Child chose. What I'd done, essentially, was thank him for not picking my story to be in the book. Good grief.

An SS/B.A.M.S. history

From looking at my own editions of the series, snooping on the Internet, and pestering my fellow mystery writers for information I couldn't find elsewhere, I have created the following unscientific report of current and former SleuthSayers who have wound up either in Best American Mystery Stories or named in its "Other Distinguished Mystery Stories" list. Please forgive me, and correct me, if I've overlooked anyone.

year       included in book (top 20)              named in "distinguished" list (the rest of the top 50)

1997 ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
1998 ----Janice Law--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
1999 ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2000 ----David Edgerley Gates-------------------John Floyd----------------------------------------------------
2001 ----------------------------------------------------David Edgerley Gates-------------------------------------
2002 ----David Edgerley Gates-------------------R.T. Lawton---------------------------------------------------
2003 ----O'Neil De Noux--------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2004 ----------------------------------------------------O'Neil De Noux, David Edgerley Gates----------------
2005 ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2006 ----------------------------------------------------O'Neil De Noux-----------------------------------------
2007 ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2008 ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2009 -----------------------------------------------------Dixon Hill-------------------------------------------------
2010 -----------------------------------------------------Art Taylor, John Floyd-----------------------------------
2011 ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------
2012 -----------------------------------------------------Eve Fisher, Janice Law, John Floyd--------------------
2013 -----O'Neil De Noux, David E. Gates-----Janice Law, B.K. Stevens-----------------------------------
2014 -----------------------------------------------------David Dean, Elizabeth Zelvin--------------------------
2015 -----John Floyd---------------------------------David E. Gates, Rob Lopresti, Art Taylor--------------
2016 -----Rob Lopresti, Art Taylor-----------------David E. Gates, R.T. Lawton, John Floyd--------------

Observations

Here are some things I found interesting about the above chart:

- As you can see, not one but TWO SleuthSayers have stories that made it to the top 20 and into the book this year: Rob Lopresti and Art Taylor. Both are tremendously deserving of the honor, and--not surprisingly--neither of them is a stranger to the limelight. Both have been recognized with multiple awards and honors over the past several years.

(Art Taylor and I seem to have a strange connection: This year, when he made it into the book, I made the "Other Distinguished Mystery Stories" list; the year I managed to get in, he was in the "distinguished" list; and one year both he and I had stories listed as "distinguished." In other words, I always root for Art all the more, because if he's involved I seem to have a better chance of sneaking somewhere into the picture as well.)

- For the first 18 years of the series (before the 2015 edition of B.A.M.S.), only three SleuthSayers had stories featured in the book (top 20): David Edgerley Gates three times (2000, 2002, and 2013), O'Neil De Noux twice (2003 and 2013), and Janice Law once (1998). And only recently have two SleuthSayers been in the top 20 in the same year--O'Neil and David in 2013 and Rob and Art in 2016.

- When you combine the SSers included in the book and those named in the "distinguished" list, David Edgerley Gates has made the top 50 an astounding seven times (2000, 2001, 2002, 2004, 2013, 2015, 2016), I've made it five times (2000, 2010, 2012, 2015, 2016), O'Neil four (2003, 2004, 2006, 2013), Janice three (1998, 2012, 2013), Art three (2000, 2015, 2016), R.T. twice (2002, 2016), Rob twice (2015, 2016), and Dixon Hill, Eve Fisher, Bonnie Stevens, David Dean, and Liz Zelvin once each.

- David Edgerley Gates's stories were either included or named in the "distinguished" list in four out of five consecutive editions (2000-2004) and in another three out of four (2013-2016). Also, O'Neil De Noux's stories were either included or distinguished in three out of four consecutive years (2003-2006). A lot of fine stories over short stretches of time.

- In only six years out of B.A.M.S.'s 20-year history have no SleuthSayers been included in either the anthology or the "Other Distinguished Mystery Stories" list--but in one of those no-SS years (1997) Criminal Briefer Melodie Johnson Howe was featured in the book, and in another year (2011) CBer Angela Zeman appeared in the "distinguished" list. And by the way, Angela was also included in the book in 2004 and Criminal Brief founder James Lincoln Warren made the "distinguished" list in 2010. (I couldn't resist mentioning those colleagues; Criminal Brief was the forerunner to SleuthSayers, and Rob, Leigh, Janice, and I were all CBers in a previous life.)

- In the before-I-forget department: Frequent SS guest-blogger Michael Bracken was named to the "Other Distinguished Mystery Stories" list in 2005.
That's my take on Best American Mystery Stories and its connection with our blog. If nothing else, it might steer you to some SleuthSayers' stories in the old volumes you might already have on your bookshelves. (In the course of putting this column together, I wound up going back and reading a lot of them.) May ALL of us be represented often in B.A.M.S.'s pages in the future.

Many thanks to Otto Penzler, to his assistant(s) and his guest editors, and to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, not only for providing us with outstanding reading material but for giving some of us the opportunity, and the great honor, to be a part of the series.

Here's to another twenty years!




16 December 2016

Too Sexy?


by O'Neil De Noux

How much sex (if any) should be in a crime fiction novel? I don't know the answer.

I feel Dasheill Hammett and Raymond Chandler would have written sex scenes if it had been acceptable in those days. Then again, maybe I'm wrong. I've been wrong before.

I think THE MALTESE FALCON called for Sam and Brigid in bed, called for a closer, more physical relationship, more loving relationship, which made it harder for Sam to turn her in. Maybe it would have cracked his hard facade or scratched it at least. Of course, I could be crazy. Why tinker with an almost perfect novel?

THE MALTESE FALCON (1931)

I would have liked to know exactly what was in those photo taken of Carmen Sternwood in THE BIG SLEEP. It's not easy being half-French and half-Italian with all these hormones.

THE BIG SLEEP (1946)

When I wrote my first novel GRIM REAPER in 1986, I wrote it as true and violent and as hyper-realistic as I could and when LaStanza had sex, I didn't fade to black. I also used the harsh language we used when I was a homicide detective - where cursing was commonplace. Still is in police stations and especially detective bureaus everywhere. My old partner travels a lot and visits detectives all over and says Russian police and Italian police and others curse all the time and deal with 'scumbags' just like we do.

Back to sex. I seem to have sex scenes in most of my books. Cops and private eyes like sex. Not as an after-thought but as a main attraction a lot of the time. After all, there are 7.5 billion people on the planet and I've heard of only one immaculate conception. So people are doing it. A lot. But I understand reading about sex makes some people uncomfortable.

EARTH
Population 7.5 billon, one immaculate conception

A reader once emailed me that sexs scenes in my books were unnecessary since everyone knows how to make love. I asked if the reader did it as well as my character did it in the book. Did the reader knock pictures off the wall and lamps off the end table? No response.

Many of the readers who email me mention the sex in the books with positive comments, some like it a lot. Yet, a recent email from another reader said the 713 word sex scene near the climax of HOLD ME, BABE (did I just throw a climax in?) ruined the best book that reader has read all year. Ruined?

 Sexy crime novels with sexy covers

So do we show the reader the moves, the dialogue, the sex act or fade to back? I like a good sex scene, just like I like good dialogue, a good shootout and well, just about anything good in a crime novel. So I'll probably continue to describe the sex in my books. We working mystery writers take our genre where we want to take it.

How do y'all feel about this?

www.oneildenoux.net


15 December 2016

In Pace...


by Brian Thornton

How's this for an interesting literary character:

Half-Japanese, Half-American, born on Pearl Harbor Day. The result of a one-night stand between a married Japanese diplomat and an American naval officer. Adopted by American citizens teaching in Japan, moves to Washington state when he was three.

Blind in his left eye from the age of one, as a result of cancer discovered and removed from his optic nerve at that time. As a result, like David Bowie, has "two-tone" eyes: one brown, the other light green. Always self-conscious about it.

Full height in adulthood: 5 feet, 1 inches. Weight: 125 lbs. Resulting "Little Man, Big Gun" complex is a direct contributing factor to his eventual death. Being short, he is determined not to be "small" and is a gym rat for his entire young adult and adult life. Held several of his high-school's weight-lifting records for his weight class for decades after graduation. Bears a striking resemblance to the rockstar Prince, if Prince were three inches shorter and more muscular.

Gets saddled with the nickname "Flippy" because of his penchant for doing backflips at the drop of a hat (usually at parties, usually with girls present.).

Gives himself the nick-name "The Magician" in late elementary school. Incredibly imaginative: starts writing first fantasy novel in 6th grade, shortly after finishing "The Hobbit." Not surprisingly, this first novel closely resembles "The Hobbit." Goes on to be the most obsessive "Star Trek" fan in his immediate circle of friends. While these personality traits bode well for his prowess at all-night sessions playing "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons," they do little to help him with the opposite sex.

The irony? This is a shorter, more muscular Prince. Women LOVE him. He never really gets over being shy around them, unless they're dating his friends.

Kicked out of junior high school during his eighth grade year for telling his principal to "take a flying f*ck at the moon." The context: he had shown up at school drunk on beer consumed on the way to school, smoked pot with a couple of friends before first period, then went about his educational day, obviously both hammered and stoned. Gets grounded for a year by his parents (and they make it stick). Moves schools and never gets in trouble (at school) again.

In high school plays both sax and tuba in the band. Imagine a five foot tall tuba player in your marching band. Picture that. Also sings BASS in the choir (picture that!) and appears in several theatrical productions.

Favorite album: Pink Floyd's "The Wall," because "It's so nice and depressing."

Graduates high school at 19 (that lost eighth grade year, you know).

In college does all of the following:

Changes his major six times.

At a party held at a friend's lake cabin drinks so much that he demonstrates alcohol-induced psychosis, ranting about his remorse at killing a non-existent childhood friend "Raymond". When pressed as to why he'd done it, claims it was because his father, Satan, told him to do it. All this much to the amusement of friends in attendance at said party.

Hosts a party at his parents' place while they're out of town. Drinks so much that he passes out. Wakes up the next morning rolled up in a carpet (those friends, again), with a note taped to one of the beer bottles he'd emptied the night before, sitting right in front of his face, so the first thing he sees when he wakes up is the sentence: "Let this be a lesson to you: never pass out at your own party."

Bonds immediately and permanently with every child, dog or cat he ever meets.

Works at the public library stocking shelves for years while trying to figure what to major in. Eventually gives high education up for trade school, finds a job as a machinist, moves to the Portland, Oregon area to take it.

Almost immediately regrets his decision. Quits his job within the year. In a move laden with irony, takes a job as a custodian at a middle school. LOVES it. Sets in motion the process by which he changes his residency so he can go back to school, this time majoring in education.

This from the guy, a son of two teachers, who swears up and down that he will never, ever become a teacher.

Doesn't get the chance.

In June of his thirty-eighth year, goes target shooting with a friend. Afterward, while they're cleaning their guns, the friend warns him to watch where he's pointing his pistol. He laughs, tells his friend not to worry, puts the gun to his temple, says, "See? Not loaded."

Then, he pulls the trigger.

The bullet tears through his brain.

He dies later that day.

Okay, I have a confession to make. This isn't some made-up character. This was my friend Jeff.  This post was originally intended for publication on December 8th, the day after his birthday.

He died sixteen years ago. There isn't a day goes by that I don't think of him and attempt to honor his friendship and his memory. To this day, I still miss him, and regret that my wife and my son will never get to experience his sunny bonhomie, his loyalty, his endearing wit, and his occasional bouts of charming awkwardness.

One of the ways in which we bonded as teenagers (aside from Dungeons & Dragons- yep, I didn't date much in high school, either!) was over our mutual love of literature; especially Shakespeare. So let me end with the same quote from Hamlet that I delivered at his funeral:

"He was a man. Take him for all in all. I shall not look upon his like again."

In pace requiescat, old friend.