04 August 2017

Where do you get your inspiration?


by
O'Neil De Noux

How many times are writers asked, "Where do you get your inspiration for a book?"

Since you asked, I'll tell you about an inspiration.

I was an army brat who lived in a lot of places, went to a lot of schools. From 1960 through 1963, we lived in Italy and I attended the Verona American School on a via called Borgo Milano in Verona. The school had an excellent library where I discovered a series of young adult novels written and illustrated by Clayton Knight. It was a series of WE WERE THERE books, featuring kids who witnessed historcal events, like WERE WERE THERE AT PEARL HARBOR, WE WERE THERE AT THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN and WE WERE THERE WITH THE LAFAYETTE ESCADRILLE.


I read them all, my favorite was WE WERE THERE AT THE NORMANDY INVASION because the kids were French and I'm French-American (half Sicilian-American but there was no WE WERE THERE AT THE LIBERATION OF SICILY probably because one would have to ask 'which liberation of Sicily?'). Also the soldiers in the book were paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division and my father was in the 82nd before he became an army CID agent.

Loved that book. I was maybe eleven when I read it but it stuck with me as I grew up and earned a degree in European History, became a cop, became a writer. It floated in my mind, not the storyline, not even the characters, but the vision of France during World War II.

After I started writing mysteries, I began to daydream about writing an historical novel about France during the war and slowly characters formed in my mind. Not at all like Clayton Knight's kids caught up in battle around D-Day. And no paratroopers.

A few years ago, I watched the movie IS PARIS BURNING? (Paramount, 1966) and my imagination created a storyline. Le Maquis. The French Resistance. Eventually my characters took shape and I dropped them into France in 1943 where the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS) and the French resistance wrecked havoc on the Nazi conquerors of occupied France.

My characters formed a special unit. A secret cell. A cadre of young operatives given the code names of archangels, including Samael, the angel of death. These agents called themselves Death Angels. And I let my mind wander with them from an opening scene blowing up a train to the assassinations of Nazi officers and French collaborators. Scene after scene played out in my brain until the Death Angels arrived in Paris to help liberate the City of Light.

Did a lot of research before I started writing. Then I let the character loose and ran after them and wrote down what the did.

Four characters: French resistance fighters Louis (code name Michael), Chico (code name Gabriel) and American assassin Jack (code name Samael) and the most lethal member, French courtesan Arianne (code name Jopiel).

My vision. My story. All triggered, prodded, inspired by thoughts of Normandy and le Maquis and Paris during the occupation.

cover art ©2016 Dana De Noux

Several of my mystery novels and short stories were also inspired by true events. I'll continue with another blog.

That's all for now.

www.oneildenoux.com



03 August 2017

Learning Experiences 101


by Eve Fisher

Image result for badlands gun range billboard machine gun sioux fallsI've mentioned in previous blogs a guy named Chuck Brennan, who got rich from payday loan stores.  In 2016, we South Dakotans shut those down by voting for a measure on the amount of interest could be charged. We capped it at 36%, but it's not enough(!), so Chuck picked up all his marbles and went home to Vegas.  He also closed a few other businesses he'd started, including Badlands Pawn, but left behind a radio station (KBAD-fm) and the Badlands Gun Range.

The Badlands Gun Range advertises frequently - shoot a Glock! shoot an AR-15!  shoot a Magnum! - and they frequently show women firing away, because we femmes are the latest target audience.  The latest billboard is "Shoot a machine gun!"   Which is fine.  A little adventure.  What the hell.  With, hopefully, an instructor, and they need one.

Because the billboard (would that I could have gotten a stillshot of it) shows this beautiful young slim woman holding a BIG machine gun as if it were a rifle, with the stock up on her shoulder, her face (no wussy safety glasses for her!) down over the sight, cheek right where you'd expect the recoil to be. Now maybe she's an expert, like Charleze Theron's Mad Max stunt double.  On the other hand, I'd say that if she really did fire it from that position, it would take out her shoulder, break her cheekbone (not to mention powder burns all down that side of her face), knock her back into a wall, and spray bullets all around the area in an unpredictable pattern that I would not want to be anywhere near.  But hey, it would be a learning experience.

Life is full of these learning experiences, especially for those who act first and ask questions later.  If at all.

Anthony Scaramucci at SALT Conference 2016 (cropped).jpgTake Anthony Scaramucci.  There are a number of lessons here:
(1) Goombas rarely become White House staff, because while the suit might look sharp, the attitude doesn't.
(2) Don't give an interview to a reporter on the record and toss around "f" bombs and "c" bombs like they're candy.  BTW, unlike most other news outlets, the The New Yorker (originally marketed by Harold Ross as "not edited for the old lady in Dubuque") actually prints those words in full, so that everyone can savor the crude.  Forever.
(3) All politicians and their representatives would do well to remember the scene in "Bull Durham" between Crash Davis and the umpire: Use the "c" word, and "You're outta here!"
(4) Study a little Greek tragedy:  Announcing that you're going to fire everyone is almost always a sign that the Fates are going to take you down.
From the pony-up and take responsibility department:

Image result for facebook pictures of people with booze and gunsThere was an inmate in one of the AVP (Alternatives to Violence) workshops I do, of whom I have spoken before, a convicted felon who was infuriated to be back in the pen on parole violation "just because" he'd posted a picture of himself - with a gun in one hand and a bottle of booze in the other - on Facebook.  I've been using his story (anonymously) in every workshop since, emphasizing the following lessons:
(1) Yes, your parole officer will check all your social media regularly.
(2) No, there is no right to privacy on social media.
(3) When it's your own damn fault, perhaps you should quit complaining about it.  Nobody MADE you put that crap on Facebook...
"A man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way." - Mark Twain
Maybe.

Slow learners:

(1) John Wayne Bobbitt, who, after being "bobbittized" and divorced from Lorena, was arrested for beating up his subsequent girlfriend.
(2) Anthony Weiner.
(3) A man I once knew who was paralyzed in a DUI - he was the one drinking - who kept right on drinking.  With a little help from his "friends."  The man with 12 DUIs, who still couldn't see that he had a problem...  The "closet" middle-aged alcoholic (except everyone knew) who couldn't understand why people didn't want to go drinking with them anymore:  "What happened to fun?"
NOTE:  But really, addicts of any kind shouldn't count.  Addiction is addiction, and those of us who have had many more miles of experience than we'd like with them know that every bottom has a basement, complete with trapdoor...
Samuel Parris.jpeg
Samuel Parris
(4) Richard Nixon.  To the end of his days, Richard Nixon never believed and refused to admit he did anything wrong even in his final speech to the country on his way out the door.  I don't know that he ever even grasped the saying that came out of Watergate:  "it's not the crime, but the cover-up".  I do know that he (and many others) never grasped, as Josh Marshall put it, "But only fools believe that. It's always about the crime. The whole point of the cover-up is that a full revelation of the underlying crime is not survivable."
(5) Samuel Parris, pastor of Salem Village during the Salem Witch Trials, who comes across not just as self-righteous, but kind of man who'd quarrel with a goat.  During the witchcraft trials, he submitted complaints, served as a witness and testified against many accused, and kept the court records.  All in good order, of course.  He was shocked when, after the trials came to an ignominious end, his parish sued him and wanted him GONE.  And, eventually, got him GONE.

Finally, there are the unbelievably hard lessons that only some people learn, and I do not know if that makes them fortunate or not:

Ursula K. LeGuin wrote a wonderful series of sci-fi novellas about the slave worlds of Werel and Yeowe, gathered in her books "Four Ways to Forgiveness" and "The Birthday of the World".

Perhaps my favorite is "Old Music and the Slave Women", from "The Birthday of the World":  In this, the main character (his nickname is "Old Music") a representative from the Ekumen (LeGuin's equivalent of the Federation), is kidnapped, held prisoner / hostage, and casually, brutally tortured by some young bucks of the Werel equivalent of the Confederacy.  A higher-up named Rayaye eventually makes the young bucks stop; Old Music survives; but the experience of absolute powerlessness in the face of gratuitous cruelty does not leave him.  He spends most of his time after that with the slave women, who sort of accept him.
"It did him good to know she trusted him.  He needed someone to trust him, for since the cage he could not trust himself.  With Rayaye he was all right; he could still fence; that wasn't the trouble.  It was when he was alone, thinking, sleeping.  He was alone most of the time.  Something in his mind, deep in him, was injured, broken, had not mended, could not be trusted to bear his weight."
Now contrast that with Psalm 7:8:
"The Lord shall judge the people:  judge me, O Lord, according to my righteousness, and according to mine integrity that is in me.
The first reading is why some of us cannot bear the second.  Corruption, violence and abuse at a certain level, whether early or late in life, are damaging, and the physical is the least of it, the easiest to cure.  The official definition of integrity is "(1) firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values (incorruptibility); (2) an unimpaired condition (3) the quality or state of being complete or undivided."  People who have lived a nice, normal life can say, casually, "Well, I'd never do that" or "I can't understand how some people can live that way" or "I don't see how someone could ever do a thing like that" or  (from Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath") "Them goddamn Okies got no sense and no feeling. They ain't human. A human being wouldn't live like they do."  They know what is right; their integrity is intact.  But integrity can be a luxury in the face of survival.

Viktor Frankl2.jpg
Victor Frankl

Victor Frankl understood this.  Survivor of concentration camps, a noted psychologist and author of the incredible "Man's Search for Meaning," he wrote:
“On the average, only those prisoners could keep alive who, after years of trekking from camp to camp, had lost all scruples in their fight for existence; they were prepared to use every means, honest and otherwise, even brutal force, theft, and betrayal of their friends, in order to save themselves. We who have come back, by the aid of many lucky chances or miracles - whatever one may choose to call them - we know: the best of us did not return.”



And you don't forget.  Once you know that you are capable of doing just about anything to survive, from collaboration to crime, from denial to participation...  well, that changes the dynamic.  At least internally.  Yes, that time is over, and outside all is right with the world.  But what if things change? The movie "A History of Violence" romanticizes it.  Tom Stall, a/k/a Joey Cusack, caught back up in a mobster's life, kills everyone he has to kill and then goes home.  Dramatic, exciting, and very clean and tidy.  For me - the quote from "Old Music and the Slave Women" is much more appropriate.  And this quote, from our own AVP manual:
Image result for alternatives to violence project"It is a cliche that 'Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.'  Like all cliches it has a considerable element of truth.  Nonetheless, one of the major purposes of any AVP workshop is to empower the participants, and to teach them to share power in community for the benefit of all.  This is essential because the negative side of the old cliche is as true as the positive:  'Powerlessness corrupts, and absolute powerlessness corrupts absolutely.'  All people need, for survival, a measure of power over their own lives and over their environment.  It is also true that all people have a certain amount of power within them, which can be repressed and alienated but cannot really be destroyed. If people are deprived of the legitimate use of their necessary power, they will use what power they have destructively and with violence."  - AVP Basic Manual
Abused children; victims of domestic violence; minorities trying to survive endemic, systemic racism; prisoners; a hell of a lot of refugees (including the Okies in "The Grapes of Wrath"); slaves of every era and every kind...  the powerless are everywhere, but generally invisible and unheard, shut away in their own world.

People with power often have no idea of how much their integrity is tied to their security, nor how much of their security is based on their power, or even how much power they actually have, because it's so deep-seated, innate, fundamental, habitual, historical, visceral, that it's like the air they breathe: it is the way things are.  They're the norm, the way everyone should be. Until someone threatens that power, or even strips it away.  Then you find out the jungle under the skin.

And that's what AVP is all about:
"If people are deprived of the legitimate use of their necessary power, they will use what power they have destructively and with violence.  It is therefore the business of every AVP workshop to affirm the existence and legitimacy of personal power and to give participants the experience of shared power exercised cooperatively, responsibly, and well."
Speaking of interesting lessons, I never thought I'd say this, but, thank you, O. J. Simpson, for taking AVP:
Image result for o j simpson parole hearingDuring his parole hearing, he told the parole board that the Alternatives to Violence course (AVP) he took there has been his most important lesson behind bars, and that he has often mediated conflict among inmates. He stated:  “I took two courses that I guess you guys don’t give too much credit to, it’s called Alternative to Violence. I think it is the most important course anybody in this prison could take because it teaches you how to deal with conflict through conversation.” - (AVP-USA)
Frankly, I thought he was always just another slow learner, but maybe the lesson's been learned.




02 August 2017

The Uncanny Valley of the Kings


by Robert Lopresti

I have been thinking a lot about the uncanny valley this year.  As I understand it, the concept was first described by Masahiro Mori in 1970, though it took a while to work its way into English.

Here's the idea, as I understand it: If something looks sort of human we tend to like it more until it looks too much  like a human and then we register it as creepy.  That creepy zone is the uncanny valley.  I suppose the evolutionary psychology explanation would be that there is an advantage to being turned off by someone a little too biologically far away to produce  successful offspring with.

Early this year I saw Rogue One,  the new Star Wars film.  There are two characters in it who appeared in the earliest films and have been reproduced here through computer imagery.  The first one I thought was a complete success; I felt totally convinced.  (On the other hand, a teenager who was with me said she "wasn't sure he was human."  So obviously not everyone bought it.)  And speaking of not buying it, the second CGI-built character, well.  To me, that one was the definition of the Uncanny Valley.  Unconvincing and just plain creepy.

A few months ago someone, I don't recall who, described Robert Goldsborough's novels about Rex Stout's character Nero Wolfe as occupying "the uncanny valley of literature."  In other words, they are recognizably not the real thing, but close enough to make a reader uncomfortable.

I bring all this up because July saw the release of The Painted Queen, Elizabeth Peters' last novel about Victorian Egyptologist Amelia Peabody.  If you aren't familiar with these charming books, hop to it.  Peters covered several decades in the adventures of Peabody's family.  When she finished her main storyline she started filling in "missing years" in the saga.

And this book does that, exploring the circumstances of the discovery (and mysterious disappearance and resurfacing) of a magnificent bust of Nefertiti.  Naturally, all the odd historical events turn out to be related to the actions of the Peabody/Emerson clan.

And what does this have to do with my main topic, you may ask?  Elizabeth Peters died before the novel was finished.  We have it because her estate asked Joan Hess  to finish the book.  It certainly made sense; Hess is a talented mystery writer with a sardonic wit not unlike Peters, and they had been friends for three decades.  They had even discussed the plot.

Of course, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, so is this dish a banquet or a case of too many cooks?  (And that metaphor is a bit uncanny too.) I will start by saying  that if you are a fan of Peters you should read it.

 But to my mind, the uncanny valley is definitely visible.  I may be completely wrong but I felt like I knew to the very page when Hess took over the pen.  One of the characters just jumped, uh, out of character, and never jumped back.

It disturbed me for a while.  All I could notice were what I saw as false notes.

But eventually, I got used to it.  I found that if I concentrated on the plot and not the character details I could still enjoy the book.  It felt something like watching a movie based on a familiar book: a similar experience, but not the same.

I am not criticizing Joan Hess for honoring her friend in this way.  (You might argue she also did it to make money.  I would reply: Good; I hope she does.  And I imagine Elizabeth Peters would agree with me.)  But I hope no one feels the need  to write more in the series.

By the way, the book takes place mostly in Amarna, not the Valley of the Kings, but you can't expect me to resist a title like that, can you?

01 August 2017

The Writer and the Dragon


by Melissa Yi, Patreon

I don’t want to write.

It’s a strange thing for me to say. I have been writing stories since I could hold a pencil. I remember transcribing stories for my friends in grade one, in self-taught cursive. When the teacher realized what I was doing, she said, “I don’t know what I’m going to teach you,” and walked away.

I realize that my reluctance to write at the moment is largely dependent on my energy levels. On Saturday, I penned an unexpectedly popular Facebook post about how doctors are getting cut to the bone. For example, on any money I manage to save for my own retirement (because I have to fund my own maternity leave, sick leave, retirement, the whole shebang), the Canadian government now wants to increase its taxation rate to 38%. After that post, I wrote 500 words, did a bit of yoga, and popped in to the ER for my day shift.

When I came home, I was so tired that my daughter was reading me interesting facts about bugs, and I fell asleep. It was the first time that my six-year-old read me to sleep.

On Sunday, I didn’t write, procrastinating for hours, until finally I described a fictionalized case I'd seen, and then I shut my computer down and asked who wanted to come with me to see a gigantic dragon-horse and a spider battle in the streets of downtown Ottawa.

“I don’t want to drive for two hours,” said my son. Actually, it’s more like three.


“I want to mow the lawn and get my motorcycle put back together,” said my husband.

“After I eat,” said my daughter. Score!

We were super late, and the real battle was finding parking and trying to wade through thousands of people streaming in the opposite direction while Anastasia and I held on to each other, a stuffed sheep, a lunch bag, and my purse. 

When we finally caught up to Long Ma, the dragon-horse, we were walking its wake, in the hot sun, while bathing in its exhaust.

It was nice to see it spread its wings and bawl and emit smoke from its head, but I was pretty sure Anastasia was hot and tired and couldn’t see much of anything. (“Do you see the wings?” “No. Oh. Oh, yeah.”)

Unfortunate. I was stoked about witnessing the North American debut of La Machine, the street artists from Nantes, France, headed by François Delarozière, but we ended up hot and tired and facing the exhaust from its hind end.


So we stopped, and Anastasia drank her milk, and it turned out the Library and Archives Canada was open, in all its air-conditioned glory, so we could refill our water bottles, use the facilities, and listen to recordings of “Sweet Canada” and “Jack Canuck.”

Mostly, Anastasia hid in a crevice and played with a magnetic board game, but it made me realize why tourists love coming to Canada: it’s safe, it’s clean, and so many things are free. I relaxed, sitting with her, playing her game, instead of worrying about writing. Anastasia had plenty of stories of her own. After about five minutes of playing the game the prescribed way, she called one of the peg people Donald Trump and booted him into the ocean.

Then she wanted to eat at Tim Horton’s. I found one on Queen Street that was open 24 hours, and I people-watched the entire time, from little kids running in the street to a homeless-looking man buying food and giving it to someone else.

I realized that this whole trip was a metaphor for the writing life. You launch your books/stories/articles. You’re hoping for something like La Machine’s crowds, where 750,000 people cheer you on. This is unlikely.

But you try. You keep building. And in the meantime, you try to enjoy the small pieces and pauses around your art, like your daughter pretending to punch Long Ma in the face. Because there are no guarantees in writing, or in life in general, so you might as well relish the ride.

31 July 2017

RIP Dick Wagner


by Steve Liskow

A few months ago, I wrote about Chuck Berry, a household name even if you don't like rock 'n' roll.

Three years ago yesterday, Dick Wagner, one of rock's great unsung pioneers, passed away from respiratory failure at age 71. I never saw a word about it in the newspapers or online, and only learned about it because Susie Woodman, my high school classmate and ex-wife of Dick's first drummer, posted it on Facebook.

When I mention Dick's name, most people say, "Who?" When I mention certain bands or records, their eyes widen and they say, "That was him?"

Dick played on over 30 gold or platinum albums and CDs, usually as an unnamed session guitarist, but those records include the blazing duet (With Steve Hunter) on Aerosmith's cover of "The Train Kept A-rollin'," backing Lou Reed on his Rock and Roll animal tour, and several Alice Cooper hits--most of which he co-wrote. He also played or wrote for Kiss, Meat Loaf, Peter Gabriel, Rod Stewart, Tina Turner, and Frank Sinatra.

Back in my deformative high school years, I knew of Dick as the guitarist/vocalist/songwriter/arranger of The Bossmen, a Beatles knock-off band in Saginaw, Michigan.
Dick wrote practically all their material, and you could hear him grow and develop as the Beatles did. By the time his band ended its run in 1967, it included Mark Farner, who would later perform with Terry Knight & the Pack, which morphed into Grand Funk Railroad. Dick went to Detroit and fronted The Frost, a good band that didn't make it, and started writing and producing. Other musicians and producers called him "The Maestro" because he could read music (a rarity for guitarists), write like a devil, and play guitar like a monster.

In the early seventies, he released an LP, but his label decided to call it "Richard Wagner." Of course it ended up in the classical bins and sold about twenty-six copies.

Dick's brilliance led to problems. He developed an Olympian cocaine habit--maybe from hanging out with Aerosmith--and he admitted to a sex addiction that led him to cheat on his first two wives with possibly hundreds of women. Eventually, he developed heart problems and had a nearly-fatal coronary in 2005. That and pressure on the brain paralyzed his left arm and he had to re-learn guitar after surgery and a long bout of physical therapy.

He began to tour again, often with musicians he'd known in Detroit including Mark Farner, and Dennis Burr. At about the same time, I connected with him on Facebook through my high school classmate, who still plays session keyboards and performs around Detroit. When I was looking for blurbs for my first Woody Guthrie novel Blood On the Tracks, Susie--who inspired my character Megan Traine--said I could drop her name to various Michigan musicians.
She knew or played with Dick--and Bob Seger, Ted Nugent, Meat Loaf, Alice Cooper, and members of both Savage Grace and ? and the Mysterians.

Most of them, surprise, surprise, never got back to me, but Dick said, "Send me your book. When do you need something?"

A few months later, he emailed me his blurb, short, sweet, and perfect. It's on the back of the book, and I sent him a copy.
By the time it came out, though, his health was deteriorating and he never mounted the comeback tour that was in the works. I read his memoir and found a CD of the Bossmen's songs on his old website. I was amazed how many of them I remembered from fifty years ago.

At an open mic last week, I played on of Dick's best-known songs as a thank you to a star who didn't have to give me a boost, but did.

"Only Women Bleed."

Thank you, Dick.

30 July 2017

Into the Jungle


by R.T. Lawton


Khun Sa
photo by Satham Pairoah
From roughly 1963 until 1996, a man with the chosen name of Khun Sa operated as an opium warlord in the region of Southeast Asia known as The Golden Triangle. This triangle consisted of a mountainous jungle area involving three countries: Burma, Laos and Thailand. The land was populated by many people of different ethnic groups, several of which were hill tribes. For centuries, Turks from the west, Mongols from the north and various waves of Chinese out of Yunnan Province had invaded this land and absorbed the local inhabitants. As a result, a great number of languages and dialects were spoken here. Religions ranged from Muslim to Buddhist to animalistic and variations.

#1 "Across the Salween"
AHMM Nov 2013
Khun Sa, which means Prosperous Prince in the Shan language, was a man with a murky past and a strong future. Most historians agree that he was born of a Chinese father and a woman from the Shan hill tribe in Burma. He lived in an atmosphere of treachery and shifting alliances among the various opium armies where only the strong and cunning survived. And, he was a survivor, but like the Germans in World War II, he eventually found that he couldn't fight a war on two fronts at the same time. The Burmese Army had finally squeezed his Shan Army into a small area where he had his back to a river. Being a survivor, he surrendered to the Burmese government and went on to become a thriving businessman in his retirement from opium warlord status.

opium field in Burma
After creating four successful series for Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (two other potential series didn't make the I'd-like-to-buy-it list), I was searching for something new to write. My first acceptance with AHMM ("Once, Twice, Dead")  had been set in the Golden Triangle at a time when the magazine's previous editor was looking for stories with an exotic background. This one was written as a standalone  with the protagonist not being a good candidate to start a series, however, the Golden Triangle was an intriguing background for a series. I'd been to Vietnam in 1967-68 (in-country in the highlands), so I had a feel for the area, plus reports on the mountain opium smugglers had crossed my desk over the years during my main career, and I now had a Chinese historian living next door at my current residence. True, his English isn't always the best, but his wife who speaks five languages, to include Mandarin and English, makes for an excellent translator when he looks up internet facts for the Chinese version of history's events, which are not always the same as the English version of the same happening.

#2 "Elder Brother"
AHMM Jan/Feb 2015
Then, I began brainstorming to come up with characters and story lines conducive to the Golden Triangle. With such a background location already rife with treachery, corruption and violence, it was easy to implement our frequently used writing technique of What If?  Since he real opium warlord supposedly came from a mixed race family, what if my White Nationalist Chinese (KMT) story warlord had two sons, one half-Chinese/half-Shan hill tribe and the second son was pure-blood Chinese. In oriental culture, the elder brother tends to have dominance, but a pure-blood considers himself as better than a mongrel half-breed. It now becomes a conflict between Elder Brother (the half-Chinese/half-Shan) and the younger pure-blood Chinese.

poppy dripping opium sap
from cut during harvest
Naturally, the elder brother is raised in the jungle and is comfortable in those surroundings, while the younger brother has grown up in the British school system in Hong Kong. The younger brother, our protagonist for this series, has studied Julius Caesar, Machiavelli and Sun Tzu, yet has no knowledge of jungle survival. After his mother died in Hong Kong, the younger son (as a young adult) finds himself taken out of the civilized world and transplanted to a jungle camp in the mountains of Southeast Asia. As his opium warlord father says, it is time he learned the family business and made his own way in the world.

#3 "On the Edge"
AHMM Oct 2015
Elder Brother has the position of Staff Captain and is in command of some Shan Army troops, part of his father's army. The younger brother has the rank of Sub-lieutenant and is in command of some of his father's Kuomintang troops (KMT), the old White Nationalist Chinese soldiers originally under Chiang Kai-Shek that went south out of Yunnan Province after Mao's Red Army chased them out of China during their civil war. And, as the KMT generals said after being stranded in Burma, an army needs an income and opium was handy.

Woman of the Mon tribe
Thus, we are presented with two half-brothers from different backgrounds, who have no love for each other, not to mention that only one of the brothers can inherit the position of opium warlord upon their father's demise. The competition begins and the reader has a front row seat on the safety of the sidelines to see every move made by the warring brothers, though sometimes the reader should look below the surface of what appears to be happening. Not all the enemies are within the family; other organizations and opposing opium warlords are also seeking any advantage they can take.
#4 "Making Merit"
AHMM July/Aug 2017

So far, AHMM editor Linda Landrigan has purchased five stories in the Shan Army series with #5 being "The Chinese Box", while one more manuscript, #6 "Reckoning with Your Host," is soon to be submitted to her e-slush pile.

To add spice to each story, old Chinese proverbs are often quoted in dialogue by our protagonist. Sometimes these sayings can be taken at face value, other times the wording may be twisted to fit the circumstances. Any way you look at it, the ride should be a new adventure for readers into a world that once truly existed. Root for whichever side you like, they are still people you wouldn't want to marry your sister or daughter. And if you should be unwise enough to take one home for supper, be aware that the pain between your shoulder blades could be the steak knife missing from your silverware.


Sleep well, and be glad these real life characters are on the other side of the world.

29 July 2017

Four Stories



by John M. Floyd



July has been a busy month for me, in terms of the SleuthSayers blog--it has five weekends, so it was my duty to post three columns, on the 1st, 3rd, and 5th Saturdays. For this last assignment, I thought it might be fitting (and, yes, easy) to talk about four of my short mystery stories that appeared in publications with a July 2017 issue date. Three of them were in magazines, one in an anthology.

Hitched with the team

First, I was fortunate enough to be featured alongside three of my fellow SleuthSayers--R.T. Lawton, O'Neil De Noux, and Steve Liskow--and two of my old friends--Joe D'Agnese and Robert Mangeot--in the July/August 2017 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (which actually went on sale last month). My story there, called "Trail's End," is the first of a new series featuring rural sheriff Ray Douglas and his lawyer/mystery-writer friend Jennifer Parker. The two of them are in sort of an on-again-off-again relationship and, not surprisingly, wind up in the middle of a murder investigation on their way back from a trip to New Orleans.

NOTE 1: After finishing several drafts of this story, I was having a hard time coming up with a suitable title, so I changed the plot around a little, placed the murder scene at a motel, put it at the end of a road at the edge of a swamp in the middle of nowhere, and named the motel the Trail's End.

NOTE 2: Someone recently asked me why the women in my stories are usually smarter than the men. I replied that I try to write fiction that comes close to the way things are in real life.

One more thing about this story. An old friend from my hometown named Cheryl Grubbs told me a couple of years ago that she hoped I would one day use her as a character in one of my creations. As fate would have it, Sheriff Douglas's deputy in this story is named Cheryl Grubbs. And by the way, the second installment in the series has been purchased by AHMM and will appear sometime in the coming months, so Deputy Grubbs will be back again then. Cheryl, if you're reading this, I hope you'll like her.

The book thief

My second July story, "The Rare Book Case," also came out in late June, but appeared in Woman's World's July 3 issue--WW copies go on sale almost two weeks before the issue date--and is an installment in my series about retired schoolteacher Angela Potts and her former student Sheriff Charles "Chunky" Jones. Most of the stories in that series were written for Woman's World, but other Angela/Chunky adventures have appeared in Amazon Shorts, Flash Bang MysteriesRocking Chairs and Afternoon Tales, and my short-story collection Fifty Mysteries: The Angela Files.

This one is set on the Fourth of July, and involves the theft of a rare first-edition novel from a locked case at Abner Smith's bookstore. The thief, long gone now, was seen by one of the store's customers but not by the owner, and when the sheriff is summoned certain things in the customer's description of the suspect don't seem to add up. Fortunately the bossy Ms. Potts--who as usual is on the scene even though she probably shouldn't be--is especially good at that kind of math, and saves the (Independence) day.

Maintaining law and daughter

My third story of the month, in the Summer 2017 issue of B.J. Bourg's Flash Bang Mysteries, is a new episode in a series I've been writing for a long time, featuring Sheriff Lucy Valentine and her mother Frances. Fran usually helps her daughter solve mysteries (whether Lucy wants her to or not), but her main goal is to get Sheriff Valentine married so Fran can become a grandmother, a mission that has so far been unsuccessful. Other stories about these two, which I've named the "Law & Daughter" series, have appeared in Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, Mysterical-E, Woman's World, Futures, Mouth Full of Bullets, Seeds, Kings River Life, my short-story collection Dreamland, and several anthologies.

This story in Flash Bang is called "Ace in the Hole," and involves the gangland kidnapping of a guy named Ace McGee, who seems to be destined for a late-night burial in a pit at a construction site. Working with Fran and Lucy to try to keep Ace alive and above ground is teenaged genius Donna Fairley, which is also the maiden name of one of my old IBM co-workers. (Warning to my family, friends, and acquaintances: you guys have a way of showing up as characters in my stories, so you better be nice to me . . .)

A neo kind of noir

The last of my July-dated publications, "The Sandman," is a standalone story included in the anthology Noir at the Salad Bar, from Level Best Books. (Actually this isn't the last one, but until just before time for this column to post, I thought it was. My fifth publication with a current date, a story called "Crow Mountain" in Strand Magazine, is described below. Hang on . . .)

"The Sandman" is possibly the most intense of the stories I'm discussing here, but I still tried to plug a bit of humor in. The title refers to a character named Sanderford, and the plot involves a couple of underworld loan-sharks who target the owner of a local bar. This mystery is more of a howdunit than a whodunit, with a few twists thrown in (I can't seem to resist that), and was great fun to write.

I'm especially honored to have been featured in this book alongside friends Michael Bracken and Alan Orloff. Noir at the Salad Bar was released on July 18.

Getting lucky at WW

I also have another Woman's World story, called "Mr. Unlucky" out right now, but its issue date is August 7 so I'm not counting it as one of my July stories. (That issue appeared at our Kroger store on July 27, so I picked it up yesterday along with a jug of milk and a loaf of bread. Seriously.) This was my 89th story to be published in Woman's World, and in recent weeks I've sold them #90 and #91. So far, 82 of those have been installments in my Angela-and-the-Sheriff series.

"Mr. Unlucky" is a whodunit about a robbery at a local furniture store, and involves a mysterious note on which is written the name of an old TV show and movie called Mr. Lucky. I'm a certified, card-carrying movie addict, so anytime I can work something cinematic into one of my stories, it makes it even more fun to write. Upcoming is a Labor Day story scheduled for the September 4 WW issue (on sale August 24) and a murder mystery in the September 18 issue.

Breaking news . . .

I only just found out that I also have a story in the current (June-Sep 2017) issue of Strand Magazine, just released. Yes, as I said, I know that makes five stories rather than four, but instead of changing the title of this post at the last minute, I figured I'd tack this onto the end. The story is "Crow Mountain," about a fisherman who encounters an escaped convict deep in the woods, and what happens as a result. If you pick up this issue, I hope you'll like the tale--it's a little different. And I'm proud to have been featured alongside one of my longtime heroes, Max Allan Collins.


Anyhow, that's my midsummer report. (You might notice I didn't mention my rejections, which are many.) If any of you have recent--or not-so-recent--successes to announce (publications, acceptances, completions, etc., of either shorts or novels), please let me know via the comments section below. Everybody likes hearing that kind of news.



Speaking of fortunate events, today is our wedding anniversary. Carolyn and I were married 45 years ago in a galaxy far, far away (Oklahoma), and tonight most of our kids and grandchildren will be here at our house for dinner. I can't think of a better way to celebrate.

Familywise AND writingwise, I wish all of you the best.








28 July 2017

No, No, Not Bootlegging... But Maybe Booklegging Or...?


By Art Taylor

As I'm writing this, here's what our dining room looks like:



But despite all the liquor brands you see here, I promise we're not bootlegging, we haven't robbed a liquor store, and we aren't planning a big party (at least not yet, and not a chance it'll be this intoxicating if we do).

Instead, we're packing—and when we needed boxes, I thought, "Where would be a place that gets plenty of packages, where the boxes are strong enough to hold fragile material and where they're also small enough that they won't be too heavy?" When the answer came to me, I felt like I was a genius—but since then, I've learned that a lot of people grab moving materials from their local ABC store. So much for genius.

My wife Tara and I are currently in the midst of a big move—not big in terms of distance (we're staying in our general area here in Northern Virginia) but it feels big, given the amount of time and energy we've put into staging our own home (packing, decluttering, cleaning, etc.) and the amount of work ahead before our moving day next Friday. One of the biggest things to consider are the books we have in nearly every room of the house—a problem I think most writers and readers share, of course, and which Tara wrote about herself in a recent column at the Washington Independent Review of Books. The weight of books is, in fact, one of the main reasons to use smaller boxes; it's back-breaking otherwise.

I don't want to simply repeat Tara's points, all of which are good ones—focusing on choosing a home based on space for shelves, on the hard decisions about whether to pack a book or purge it (ouch!) as we pack, or on the way the stager for our own place waved her hand and basically suggested "books begone" as we prepped it to sell! (We didn't take her advice.)

But Tara's column at the WIROB and my own last column at SleuthSayers a few weeks back, looking at books as objects, have gotten me thinking in another direction about books and moving.

In considering why she's been saving certain books and giving others away, Tara gauged several questions, including "Does it bring joy? Will I ever read this again? Where did I get it? Do I remember reading it?" and the kicker: "What if I need it again?"

As I'm packing books and considering potential donations to the local Burke Centre Library (which runs a great book sale, I should stress!), I've been working through the same questions and making some of the same choices—but I've also been hung up on a couple more: What does it mean that I insist on lugging from this place to the next (and in some cases have already lugged other times from place to place) books that I still haven't read and that, thinking logically, calculating time (and yes, mortality), I will likely actually never read? And why is it I'm still buying books at such a clip as well, even as I'm moving these and discarding others and....?

Those comments above about the physical weight of books take on a different weight here, I recognize—lugging unread books toward eternity.

I don't mean to be a downer here, and I've actually heard it said just the opposite: that buying more and more books actually represents a form of optimism—the ambition and expectation that you will indeed read them, despite the odds. And ambition and intentions can indeed work out that way: I've mentioned elsewhere my year of reading War & Peace from an edition that I carried from one house to the next after a failed attempt many years ago. And when I look at other books on my shelf, I see other similar projects ahead: I'm behind on the books by one of my favorite authors, Tana French, so those last two titles need to come along, of course, and then it would indeed be nice to spend a year working through all those Graham Greene novels, and there are so many of my friends in the writing community whose recent books I need to catch up on, and there's never any lack of anthologies and back issues of EQMM and AHMM and....  And so many books I'd love to reread too—so I can't get rid of them, can I? even though the newer, unread books should probably come first, so...?

I know this discussion veers once more into the question of books for reading versus books as objects—the overlap there—and I'll stress that I do use the library too rather than just buying indiscriminately. But I'm curious: How many books on your own shelves are unread? How many might you anticipate never getting around to reading? Do you hold on to them anyway? And if so, why? 

While you answer that, I'll be packing—bourbon boxes and vodka boxes and tequila boxes and....







27 July 2017

Anthony-Nominee S.W. Lauden Weighs In On The Novella


by Brian Thornton

As my faithful readers (BOTH of them) on this blog well know, I spent the first part of 2017 expanding a short story I sold to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine into a novella. The process of expanding an existing work inspired me to ruminate on recent revival of the novella as a viable art form. All this ruminating has been great fodder for my recent blog posts. I've talked about my own fumbling toward something resembling a process when writing a novella-length piece, even interviewed Down & Out Books' executive editor Eric Campbell about the viability of the novella (That post can be found here).

Last go-round I posted the first round of my interviews with two Black Orchid winning novella writers, fellow Sleuthsayers Rob Lopresti and Steve Liskow, on their own experiences with writing the novella (Read that one here). I intend to dig deeper with both Rob and Steve, but before doing so I wanted to add an old friend and recent Anthony nominee (for, what else? A novella!), Steve Lauden, to the mix.


S. W. Lauden
So, here's a bit about Steve, and then on to the interview:

S.W. Lauden is the author of the Greg Salem punk rock P.I. series including Bad Citizen Corporation and Grizzly Season (Rare Bird Books). His Tommy & Shayna Crime Capers include the Anthony Award-nominated novella, Crosswise, and its sequel, Crossed Bones (Down & Out Books). He is also the co-host of the Writer Types podcast. Steve lives in Los Angeles.

First off, congratulations on that Anthony nomination!

Thank you! Happy to be back at SleuthSayers, Brian. I dug your last post about novellas.

Which begs the question: why a novella?

Like many crime and mystery readers, I appreciate a fast-paced page turner. A lot of things demand my attention daily, so when I carve out time to read I like stories that grab me by the throat and don’t let go.

As a writer, I enjoy the challenge of trying to write those kinds of stories for my readers. I also think the shorter form gives writers a chance to spread their wings a little. At least it did in my case.

Did you initially set to write a novella full-on, or did you decide to expand a short?

My first novella, Crosswise, started out as a short story I wrote while on vacation in Florida. Something about the white sand beaches and crystal clear water screamed out for a series of murders. The bones of the novella were all there—the crossword puzzle theme, the star-crossed love affair between Tommy and Shayna, and the retirement home full of wisecracking New Yorkers—but not fully formed. Expanding to novella length allowed me to do that and more.

So what was it about the short story you eventually expanded into a novella that made you think: “This needs to be longer”?

Crosswise was a complete 5,000-word story when I got home from vacation, but the few people I showed it to encouraged me to keep going. I took their advice and got to about 30,000 words before deciding it was done. My editor, Elaine Ash, eventually recommended it to Eric Campbell at Down & Out Books who published it about a year later.

In retrospect, which do you think is more work: starting a novella from scratch, or expanding a shorter piece into novella length? 

I was convinced that Crosswise was a short story, so it was pretty exciting to realize I might have something bigger. That said, expanding a piece that already had a compact and well-defined story arc was daunting. It can be tricky to maintain a consistent voice and rhythm while expanding the plot. Those challenges contributed to the quirky tone and characters in “Crosswise,” so I’m actually pretty happy about it in the end.

The sequel, Crossed Bones, came out in May. For that one, I sketched an outline and sat down to write a 30,000-word novella from the start. I also knew the main characters a lot better by then. So, in my my personal experience, writing a novella from scratch is probably easier.

*           *          *           *          *

Check back in two weeks when I conduct a group interview of these three terrific authors to wrap up my series of novella-related posts. See you in two weeks!

26 July 2017

Old Dogs


David Edgerley Gates

Even before Rob Lopresti mentioned it last week - is there a rule about blondes? - I'd been watching the Brit cop show New Tricks, starting at the beginning of the series and working my way forward. I remember catching some episodes when they were broadcast on A&E or maybe Mystery, but I wasn't a regular. Just like discovering a new writer when they're already established (picking up a book from the middle of their catalog, and then going back to read all of their books in order of appearance), you get a stronger sense of brand loyalty, not to mention story dynamic and character, when you watch a series from the start. You see them correct the seasoning, too, and find the right beat. Riker is better with a beard. Barney Miller doesn't need a home life.

New Tricks was camera-ready pretty much right out of the box. They established a framework, furnished it with familiar devices, and peopled it with a comfortably solid crew. And something unpredictable happened. The show got legs, yes, but the anarchic energies of the game team, or whatever was in the water, made for an eccentric orbit. This is immediately obvious in the chemistry between the four character leads, and the writing plays off this as the series builds on itself. It's a symbiotic process.


The premise is reasonably straightforward. A fast-track Detective Superintendent is given the job of recruiting a cold case squad for the Met. She lines up three retired cops, each with particular strengths and weaknesses. They are, in fact, past their sell-by date, and the tensions between the three older guys and their younger, ambitious boss are about gender, and generations, and not a little about style. Which makes for easy targets, on the one hand, but some quieter subtext, on the other. The show can be surprisingly dark, comic relief a way to depressurize. The pilot for New Tricks came on in 2003, the same year as the American series Cold Case. Cold Case, though, was pretty relentlessly grim. Also the American show used flashbacks as a regular feature, reconstructing what might have happened.  New Tricks takes place entirely in the here and now, using only the POV of the detectives.


What makes it effective? The casting. This is as true of Jim Garner in Rockford as it is of Angela Lansbury in Murder, She Wrote. In this this case, it's the ensemble, and the way they rub off on one another (or rub each other the wrong way). Four old pros, basically. Alun Armstrong is one of those English supporting actors you recognize immediately, without remembering quite where it was you saw him last. Something of Dickens, maybe? You look him up, it's amazing, the range of stuff he's been in. James Bolam runs a close second. (It surprised me to see he once even did Andy Capp, the working-class comic strip character.) Amanda Redman has done Diana Dors, she was Ray Winstone's wife in Sexy Beast, and she's got a long line of British TV credits. Lastly, there's Dennis Waterman, with a career going back to the 1960's. Waterman was the second-billed lead (after John Thaw) in The Sweeney, a cop show that overturned convention, at least in the UK. Up until then, the idea that a cop would bend the law to put a villain away wouldn't have been spoken above a whisper. It's hard to overstate its influence. As big as Miami Vice here in the States, ten years later? Let's just say it's a name cast, so far as British viewers go. (Nor to scant the wonderful Susan Jameson, either, who plays Alun Armstrong's better half, and is married to James Bolam, in life.)


And part of the fun, on either side of the Pond, is the list of guest shots. Ooh, look, there's Patrick Malahide  (Inspector Alleyn, Balon Greyjoy), or Clare Holman, from Morse, and Lewis, and Lewis himself, Kevin Whately, playing against type as a rather dodgy school headmaster. Jon Finch, Rupert Graves, Phyllida Law, Claire Bloom, Peter Davison, Anthony Head. Cherie Lunghi, Jane Asher, Victor Spinetti, Art Malik, Honor Blackman, Camille Coduri, Rita Tushingham, Sylvia Syms, Jenny Agutter, James Fox, Nicholas Farrell, John McEnery, Roy Marsden. Sheesh.


The scripts are very canny, and consistent. They have the satisfaction of good joinery, tightly fit and pleasingly shaped. The usual red herrings, and the least likely, but the stories play fair. The procedural and the personal are interleaved, and they inform each other. The funny stuff surfaces in unlikely places, too, catching you with your guard down. Dennis Waterman's Jerry, who fancies himself something of a ladies' man: "I used to have a thing for older women." Amanda Redman's Sandra: "And now there aren't any." (The exchanges between the two of them given a slight extra edge by our behind-the-scenes knowledge that they were briefly an item themselves, back in the day.)

The show ran its course. At mid-point, it was one of the most-watched series in the UK. But after eight seasons, James Bolam left, and Alun Armstrong and Amanda Redman hung up their spurs after season ten. Dennis Waterman lasted into the opening episodes of season twelve, and then he too turned in his badge. New Tricks folded.


The lesson here isn't about losing stamina or overstaying your welcome. The lesson is about how they got it right in the first place. We know it's not as easy as it looks. Part of it's luck, part of it's having good material, part of it's showing up on time. The writers, the cast, the production values. They knew they were onto something, and it shows. What it is, is heart. They delivered.

25 July 2017

True Political Animals


by Barb Goffman

So much about politics divides our nation these days, but here is something I think we all can agree on: the death last week of the mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska, is a loss to us all.

You see, Talkeetna (two hours north of Anchorage, population less than 900) has for twenty years had the same mayor: Stubbs the orange tabby. Stubbs supposedly began his political career as a write-in candidate who garnered more votes than any of the humans on the ballot. He thereafter won several uncontested elections over the years. He even survived what's been billed an assassination attempt by a stray dog in 2013. (There's a newspaper in Alaska that claims Stubbs never was elected and his political career is effectively an urban legend, but I like what everyone else is reporting about Stubbs, so screw 'em.)

Anyway, it might seem silly to be sad over a deceased feline I never met--and it might seem sillier that said feline ran a town in Alaska for twenty years--but this cat did something few political candidates seem able to do these days. He brought his town together. Once he was elected, no one ran against him. His constituents actually liked him, and not for what he could do for them. They liked him just for himself. Isn't that refreshing?
Rest in peace, Stubbs.

That's not to say Stubbs accomplished nothing while in office. I understand he helped increase tourism because people wanted to meet him. And I daresay he promoted the idea that you don't have to look--or be--like everyone else in order to succeed, in politics as well as in life. Granted, Stubbs's job was apparently more symbolic than functional, but that makes Stubbs's accomplishments no less valid. So I salute you, Stubbs, for all your success. Thank you for your years of service. And may you rest in peace.

There's more where Stubbs came from

Stubbs was not the first animal elected to office in this country. Here are a few others. (Note: This information was gathered from multiple sources on the Internet. I haven't gone to each town to confirm, but why would anyone make this stuff up?)

In 1981, Bosco, a lab-rottweiler mix, was elected mayor of Sunol, California. He served for thirteen years, dying in office in 1994. His job was described as purely ceremonial, but he still got to be called mayor.

This isn't any of the Henry Clays,
but you get the idea.

In 1986, a political dynasty began in Lajitas, Texas, when Henry Clay, a billy goat, was elected as mayor. Since then Henry Clay Jr. and Henry Clay III have served in the same position.

In 1998, voters in the small town of Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, elected Goofy, a German shepherd, mayor. Goofy was eventually succeeded by Junior, a black lab, who was succeeded by Lucy Lou, a border collie, who remains in office today. Goofy's election stemmed from a fundraiser for a local church. People paid $1 to cast each vote.

In 2011, a cow named April was elected mayor of Eastsound, Washington. After not running for re-election, April was succeeded the next year by Murphy, a Portuguese water dog (like Stubbs, Murphy was a write-in candidate). Other animal mayors of this town have been Granny, a whale; Jack, a golden retriever; and their current mayor, Lewis, a dog (breed unclear). As with other towns with animal mayors, the job in Eastsound is ceremonial, and the voting each year is designed to raise money for charity, but the effect of teaching respect for animals is certainly real.

This isn't Duke, but it looks like him.
And last, but certainly not least, there is Duke, a great Pyrenees, who was elected mayor of Cormorant, Minnesota, in 2014. He has won re-election annually since then, and he continues to serve today.

So, readers, would any of your furry friends make good politicians? Please share. I'm particularly interested in what qualities they have that we all could benefit from. (And no comments, please, about how any animal is better than the politicians we have today. All of these animals have been elected in good-natured environments, and I'd like this blog to remain just as positive.)

And so we don't stray too far from the topic of writing, if you know of any crime short stories or novels involving the election of an animal or an animal serving in office, please share those too.

24 July 2017

Withnail & I


by Stephen Ross

Picture this: A large, empty, cavernous movie theater auditorium in the depths of winter. I'm in a jacket and scarf, and my breath is visible. It's a matinee screening and no one else came. The lights go down and the ruby red curtains part. A soulful saxophone echoes: a four a.m. version of Procol Harum's A Whiter Shade of Pale. Up on the screen, a man sits in profile in a darkened sitting room and smokes a cigarette. He's contemplating the universe, or he's about to face a firing squad.

This is a memory burnt into my mind. And I am lately reminded that it happened thirty years ago.

Thirty years ago, Kevin called me up on the telephone. "You should go see it," he said. He'd called to tell me about a movie that had opened a couple of days earlier. I don't remember his exact words, but I remember his enthusiasm, and the movie was Withnail and I.

"What's it about?"

A couple of days later, I sat alone in that aforementioned empty movie theater: The Embassy; a cold, uninspiring Art Deco building of creams and off whites. It used to stand on the corner of Lorne and Wellesley Streets in Auckland City, and it was a proper movie palace: wide, a couple of levels, big fat chocolate leather seats (and not a darkened shoe box like most cinemas today).

"What the hell was that about?" Francine asked, two weeks later, when I suggested we go see it (me for the second time), and we did, and we sat in a café afterwards.

The movie is set in England in 1969 and it's about a lot of different things, and to describe any one of them would do disservice to the others. To my mind, it's about as close to a book as any movie has ever gotten. When I close a good book, I'm left first with a mood, a feeling; it's taken me somewhere emotionally. Remembering scenes and moments (and the plot) comes later.

Essentially, Withnail is the story of two actors. They've graduated from drama school and are looking for work. They're unemployed and the world owes them no favors. In fact, the world seems to offer no hope whatsoever. The world is crumbling.
This can be read as a metaphor, and it's the key to the movie's popularity (it flopped when it was first released, but it's since become a perennial favorite; a cult classic). We've all been there. The waiting. The what next? The what do I do now?

It doesn't matter the career or chosen path, be it actor, writer, musician, or ________ (fill in the blank). Most of us have found ourselves, at some point, standing at the crossroads wondering what the hell do we do next?

Do I wait for the phone to ring? Do I go out and hustle? How does this thing work?

And there is no right answer. And Withnail doesn't provide one.

That's the trouble with most movies today. There's always a right answer: it's provided for you, usually in triplicate, and underlined. You can watch and "understand" most movies today without almost any assistance from your brain.

I'm not arguing that Withnail & I is the greatest movie ever made, but it takes you somewhere, if you want it to. And I will argue that it's one of the more sharply written and better acted.

Withnail ends in Regent's Park, London. It's raining. It's a miserable day. One of the actors has left to catch a train; he has secured a job. The other is left drunk at the bars of the wolf enclosure, his future uncertain. He recites the what a piece of work is man? monologue from Hamlet. The wolves are uninterested.


Again, a metaphor.

Withnail & I is about whatever you want to find in it.

Withnail & I (at the IMDB)

Stephen Ross (on Facebook)