07 August 2017

Two Different Worlds


We’ve had a lot of Sleuthsayers columns on different types of mystery writers: noir vs psychological, cozy vs hard boiled. And also considering different approaches: stories planned with outlines vs developed on the fly, even that big question to revise or not to revise.

I’d like to suggest a different division that encompasses a lot of these varieties, namely closed vs open plotting. By closed, I mean something like the traditional mystery which, despite its relative modernity, has classical antecedents. Back in the day, Aristotle talked up the unities of time, place, and action, basing his analysis on the Greek tragedies that favored a tightly focused action with a few protagonists in one locale. Contemporary short mystery stories, anyone?

The Greeks also liked to begin in media res, in the heart of the action, another favorite device of most modern mysteries, not to mention thrillers.

Beyond this, we see an interesting split. If the closed mystery may no longer be set in the country house or the isolated motel, it has a small universe of suspects and usually a fairly compact geographic area. This is particularly clear in the various UK mysteries that adorn PBS each season. Vera may be set out on the windswept moors and empty sands, but there are rarely more than five real suspects and, in this show at least, they are as apt to be related as in any Greek tragedy.

Midsomer Murders is also fond of a half dozen suspects, mostly unpleasant people who will never be missed. Ditto for Doctor Blake who, with all of Australia, sticks close to Ballarat and, yes, the handy five or so possibilities. Clearly, the attractions of this sort of story for the TV producers are the same attributes that pleased the Athenian town fathers: compact locations, smallish casts, one clear action. The emphasis is on the puzzle factors of mysteries, and at their best such works are admirably neat and logical.

The open mystery takes another tack, flirts with thriller territory, and likes to break out of confined spaces both geographic and psychological. If it has ancestors, they’re not the classically structured tragedies, but tall stories, quest narratives and, if we need a big name, Shakespeare, who loved shipwrecks and runaways and nights in the woods, as well as mixing comedy and tragedy and all things in between.

I’ve thinking about this divide for two reasons. First, I just finished what will be the last novel in the second Francis Bacon trilogy, Mornings in London. I really wanted a little bow to the great British tradition of the country house mystery, and I managed a country mansion – just the sort of place Francis hates – and a nice half dozen suspects. I had a victim nobody much liked and rather a nice crime scene, and I must confess that neither Francis nor I was really happy until I could get us both back to London and off to other places less claustrophobic.

Turns out what I had long suspected was true: I’m not cut out for tidy and classical and ingenious puzzles. And I don’t write that way, either. I like to meander from one idea to the next, a method of composition much more conducive to glorified chases and quests than to Murder at the Manor. Too bad.

The other reason I got thinking about closed vs open plots was a quick dip into a Carl Hiaasen novel, one of his orgies of invention that spins off in every possible direction without somehow losing a coherent plot. If Agatha Christie is still the godmother of every good puzzle mystery, Hiassen’s satiric crime romps have certainly taken chases, quests, bizarre personalities, and imaginative disasters about as far as they can go.

I wonder now if writing style is inevitably connected with a certain type of mystery. Perhaps those who compose traditional, classically inspired mysteries are the same clever folk who can plan the whole business from the start. And maybe those of us with less foresight are inevitably drawn to a chase structure with a looser time frame, wider real estate, and more characters.

06 August 2017

How I Spent My Summer Vacation


Any other time, the waterfall would have appeared beautiful, thundering down the Venezuelan mountainside where its waters swirled off into the jungle. Holstering my automatics, I raised handfuls of water to my mouth, keeping a watch out for Colonel DeSperado and his henchmen.

Only last week, I battled him in a Zimbabwean borogrove, then tracked his criminal crew to Athabasca where I rappelled down the glacier’s ice face. That night we tangled in an Edmonton warehouse where bullets tore through my parka, fortunately missing essential flesh. Escaping with little more than bruised knuckles and pride, I caught up with the mercenary outside Caracas.
Tyrannosaurus Rex

He’d ridden the teleférico up the mountain. Only by luck did I discover he’d abandoned the cable car at the way station. While a helicopter chuttered over our heads, he slid down a rope before setting fire to it as I followed, the Colonel’s idea of a joke.

A sound crackled in the forest. I wiped sweat from my eyes and peered… something big moved among the trees. A snort… no, a sniffing… Of course my scent wafted in the dense, humid air.

It… No, two of them, three… crashed through the vines. Damn velociraptors and their keen sense of smell.

I tumbled down the cliff face surprising a tyrannosaurus as I crashed past him, barely avoiding his snapping jaws. Rolling, I lost my rifle at the worst possible moment. DeSperado and three of his goons fired their hijacked CIA AR-15s, volleys of slugs glancing off boulders. They gave chase as I dashed for shelter.

Tyrannosaurus Rex
Unburdened by a rifle, I outdistanced them, but there in the middle of the trail stood a cart used to haul guns into the jungle and cocaine out. The telling ker-chuck of a grenade launcher sounded. With accelerated momentum, I leapt over the cart and…

Wham! I didn’t see it coming. Unexpectedly a table rose and smashed into my face, knocking me to the ground, rendering me dizzy.

It had torn my eyelid. Blood obscured my vision, but I gathered myself. Unable to see, I felt around… floor… coffee table… sofa… What the hell?


  Little known Leigh factoid  
I act out dreams in my sleep.


Leigh Lundin
Impactful Dreams

It started a few years earlier with action dramas during REM activity: I punch, elbow, kick, leap tall buildings in a single bound… all while I’m sleeping. It’s severe enough I started fearing I might hurt my girlfriend.

Acting out dreams is my own term for a type of hypnagogia unrelated to sleepwalking. Normally the brain paralyzes the body during REM sleep, a muscle inhibition called REM atonia. You may dream you’re running or swimming, but your body remains dormant. My suppression mechanism has developed a software problem.

After a wild phantasmagoria where I was running and jumping and landed beside the bed, I found it bemusing and perhaps amusing enough to look up the phenomenon. I discovered nothing funny about it at all. This type of hypnagogia can be a precursor to Parkinson’s disease or a common type of dementia… or nothing at all… but the thought is scary.

Now comes an interesting wrinkle.

The most popular antidepressants (SSRIs, SNRIs, TCAs) don’t work on me. Depression can be caused by a hundred different factors that require the right key to unlock. Your arm might hurt, but is it battered, bruised, bloodied, barbed, bitten, bullet-riddled, broken, or burnt? Treatment is specific to the cause.

Following research several years ago, I suspected a modified monoamine oxidase inhibitors might work. At the time, reverse MAOIs were available in Europe and the rest of the world, but not the US. The German manufacturer concluded US product testing was not cost-effective to carve out a market niche.

MAOIs were the original antidepressant, developed long before Prozac and the ‘modern’ drugs that followed. They were considered dangerous, even lethal, because they badly interact with many common foods, especially anything aged like cheeses, an enormous range of Japanese foods that I dearly love made with soy and soy sauces, a number of other sauces and marinades, sausages, sauerkraut and kimchi, yeast, spinach, raspberries, bananas, avocados– foods you seldom think about as dangerous– and of course a wide range of pharmaceuticals. SSRIs and those that followed were considered much safer… if they happened to work.

Trials and Tribulation

About ten years ago, I became involved with a clinical trial of a drug called selegiline, brand name Emsam. The chemical was originally developed for Parkinson’s disease, but once researchers realized it was a potent MAOI, they began testing it on depression. The great thing is that it’s not a pill but a patch applied daily. Because it enters the blood stream directly through the skin, it bypasses the liver and the problems associated with all those forbidden foods.

Emsam/selegiline worked well for me, the only side-effect being skin irritation. I ate normally, even drank wine. For a year and a half, it was wonderful and then the clinical trial ended. In the intervening time, I haven’t been able to find a physician willing to prescribe it– they’d see ‘MAOI’ and stop cold, not understanding how the new drug works.

Recently my insurance company helped me track down a local doctor minutes away who knew the drug and was using it on other patients. Although frightfully expensive, it works well at the maximum dosage. During that time, the acting out tapered off and then rarely happened at all. As a precaution, I barely touch red wine and Roquefort, but I eat most of the otherwise forbidden foods without worry.

Little Nemo in Slumberland (1908) walking bed cartoon
How my furniture behaves  ðŸ–±
Out of Mind, Out of Sight

In March, the dosage was reduced. The depression returned and so did the action dream sequences. Hollywood offered nothing compared to my inner world.

Then came the dastardly dream sketched above. I was chasing and being chased. In my path was a small cart and I sailed over it… and crashed into the corner of a low table, eye first. The thunk was so intense, it reverberated in the computer lab in the other end of the house.

Fortunately the table’s corner is beveled, so although the impact tore a gash in my eyelid and scratched my eyeball, the blunted corner saved my eye from further damage. My eyesight was badly blurred and the eye swelled nearly closed, but, as the ophthalmologist predicted, my vision has mostly returned.

Rapid Eye Research

One of the conditions of REM sleep is that monoamine neurotransmitter tanks of serotonin, norepinephrine, and histamine must read Empty. Anti-depressants, including MAOIs, short-circuit the REM mechanism by firing up those pumps.

The key take-away is that a MAOI drug does not fix muscle activity blocking in REM sleep, instead it disables REM itself. Normally that’s not a good thing, but apparently the physiological jury hasn’t ruled yet. Combine that with the factor that the selegiline drug was developed to treat Parkinson’s disease and REM atonia can be a precursor to Parkinson’s, we have a medical mystery with several suggestive clues.

MAOI withdrawal (or too great a reduction) causes an REM rebound effect. It’s true. A coffee table rebounded off my eye socket. Damn, that hurt.

The good news is that life is returning to what passes for normal in Florida. Within days, I’ll look as beautiful as ever.

The Eyes Have It


This article comes as a challenge from my friend Thrush. He’s not been the first to tell me that I rarely reveal truly personal things about myself. A corporate manager once remarked about my being closed-mouth about personal matters. “On rare occasions, Leigh lifts the lid and we get a peek inside.”

Although I’m private, I don’t think of myself being cryptic until it’s pointed out. At least I managed to lift the lid a little.



Little Nemo visits the Moon cartoon
Little Nemo visits the Moon (1905)
Little Nemo in Slumberland

The walking bed cartoon panel above is from famed cartoonist, Winsor McCay, who began writing Little Nemo in Slumberland in 1905. He dabbled in dreamscape fears such as architectural distortions, flying, falling, clowns, and the inability to control an outcome. He also wove in fantasy, such as Nemo’s friendship with a princess.

Little Nemo, who’s not very brave, often lands in trouble either in Slumberland or the real world with resulting consequences. Always in the last panel he wakes, sometimes fallen to the floor, other times with his parents either soothing or gently scolding him.

McCay was particularly known for the beauty and innovation of artwork. In the example below (unfortunately in Dutch, but see translation beneath), note the progression of the elephant.

Little Nemo elephant cartoon

Translation
panel Dutch English
1. Ik moet opschieten!
He! Heb je Jumbo al gevoerd?
Hier! Pak aan! Ik heb haast.
Oh! Hy is klaar!
Jongens! Kom! Opschieten!
Ga jy by Jumbo helpen?
We kommen te laat.
Kalm, kalm.
Hooghed, we doen wat we kunnen!
Word wakker.
Wat een bende.
I must hurry!
Hey! Have you been to Jumbo already?
Here! Take this! I'm in a hurry.
Oh! He's done!
Boys! Come on! Hurry up!
Are you going to help Jumbo?
We'll be late.
Calm, calm.
Highness, we do what we can!
Wake up.
What a gang.
2. Tjee, wat waren die opgewonden!
Ja, we zyn wat laat. Maar we zyn er nu vlug.
Cheers, they're excited!
Yes, we're late. But be quick now.
3. Oh! En Oooh!
Op zyn rug gaan we naar pappa.
Oh! And Oooh!
On elephant-back, we're going to Daddy.
4. Kom, hy is zo’n bkaaf beest. Niet bang zyn.
Ik wil niet gaan.
Come on, he's such a noisy beast. Don't be afraid.
I don't want to go.
5. Jawel! Kom nou mee, anders komen te laat Yes! Come on, otherwise we arrive too late.
6. Ik vind dit helemaal niet leuk!
Straks, boven, vind je 't heel leuk!
I do not like this at all!
Immediately, get up. You'll find it fun!
7. Kalm, maar, liefje. Er is niets aan de hand. Calm, my sweetheart. There is nothing going on.

05 August 2017

Who Put the B in the BSP?



by John M. Floyd



Here's the question of the day, for all you writers out there: How Blatant should Self-Promotion be?

Consider this definition, found at the Oxford Learner's Dictionaries site:
Blatant self-promotion is the activity of making people notice you and your abilities, especially in a way that annoys other people.

Everyone knows what the key word is, in that sentence. And nobody wants to be annoying. The sad thing is, I think many of us are annoying without realizing it--and somehow that's even worse. Most of us grow weary of having people show us their grandchildren's (or their cats' and dogs' ) photos on their cell phones, but we can't imagine how anyone could grow weary of seeing ours. This isn't quite the same as the blinders we wear regarding self-promotion, but it comes close.

These days, it's an unpleasant fact of life that we authors, whether self-published or not, are expected to do a certain amount of marketing, of both ourselves and our product. Otherwise, unless we're famous to begin with, no one except friends and family are going to know who we are or what we've done. I understand that. We're told constantly that we need a "platform," and a plan for spreading the word, whether it's via Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs, websites, interviews, signings, speaking engagements, or all of the above. But the question is, how much of that can you do before you go overboard, and become an embarrassment to yourself and to friends and family?


How much is too much?

One thing that makes self-promotion appealing, at least to the self-promoter, is that talking or writing about yourself isn't all that hard. You know yourself and your accomplishments, better than anybody else does. Whether you can be objective about it is another matter, but the truth is, something like a blog post about your latest project is pretty darn easy to do--it doesn't require any research or any real work. So, do I do that, now and then? Sure I do. But nobody, including my mother, wants to hear too much about me, or to hear about me all the time. (Well, maybe Mom does, but she's the only one.)

I think the answer--and it seems to be the answer to a lot of life's problems--is moderation. Of course we should try to get our names out there, and put our best foot forward in things like bios, cover letters, press releases, etc. But I think that process has to be grounded in some measure  of common sense. Nobody wants to get emails every day from the same person, asking for five-star reviews and "likes" and visits to author websites and votes for best-novel-cover contests. I mean, Sweet Jumpin' Jiminy.

By the way, I am not innocent of BSP crimes. After all, my post here at SleuthSayers a week ago was a discussion of several of my own stories that appeared in recent publications. I guess all of us do that kind of thing occasionally--some more than others. As Brother Dave Gardner once said, of a traveling preacher who made a whistle stop in Irondale, Alabama, and was addressing the crowd: "He said, 'Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,' and BLAP that rock hit him."

Bios and egos

BSP can take many forms. A writer's bio that goes on and on and on can make a reader's stomach cramp and his eyes glaze over, and there's even a school of thought that says the longer the printed bio, the less the writer has actually accomplished--the wannabe author just writes more words about less important things. Even the automatic signature you place at the end of your emails can be too much. Twenty lines of text following your name and listing all your publications and awards and nominations and third-place wins in contests might be overdoing it just a bit. In fact, it might be eighteen or nineteen lines too long.
Same thing goes for booksignings. I'm not saying it's a good idea to sit there at the signing table and stare at prospective buyers like a frog on a log, but it's also not good to call out to passersby like a snake-oil salesman at the county fair or chase them down and pester them with questions. As a customer, I have often strolled over to chat with an author, especially one who smiles and makes eye contact, and I have often (maybe too often) bought his or her book as a result--but I will probably never buy anything from an author who eagerly blurts "Hey, do you like reading mysteries? You'll like this one. Come over here and take a look." Maybe I'm old-fashioned, but I like to feel that the buy/no-buy decision is my own to make, without a lot of arm-twisting. Whether it's a book or a pair of shoes or a bag of peanuts.

I do try to post my upcoming booksignings on Facebook, mainly because my publisher (who's much smarter than I am, on these matters) has encouraged me to, and also because I know that it has occasionally steered folks to the bookstore on the day I'm there. I don't think that kind of thing is being too pushy; I think it makes sense. But some of the all-out blitzes people do on social media, especially regarding book launches, can get out of hand. All of you know what I mean. There's a fine line there, between aggressive and excessive, and I'm thinking (and hoping) that most of us know where to draw that line and not to leap over it.

What do you think?

Author and editor Ramona DeFelice Long said, at her blog, that writers should keep Goldilocks in mind and do what feels right.

But what does feel right? Do too little, you're shy or lazy. Do too much, you're obnoxious. You're either a wallflower that nobody knows or an insurance salesman that nobody wants to know.

What's your response to this? How do you, as a writer, try to do what's required without being overwhelming? What are your personal "rules"? Also, what makes you, as a potential buyer of a piece of fiction, uncomfortable or annoyed? When does SP become BSP?

By the way, do you like reading mysteries? Have I got a deal for you . . .

Just kidding.







04 August 2017

Where do you get your inspiration?


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


Image result for alternatives to violence projectI spent last weekend at the pen, doing another Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshop.  This time we were training inside facilitators, which we do every two years or so.  These are inmates who have done basic and advanced workshops, and have shown themselves to be really good at walking the walk as well as talking the talk.  These are guys who have gone a long time without being written up or put in the SHU, who know how to and do defuse situations on the ground, and want to be a part of spreading the word to others.  Without them, we couldn't do AVP.  (NOTE:  Check us out on Facebook!)  We outside facilitators need their help in all sorts of ways, and I can't say enough good stuff about them or give enough thanks for their help.

Meanwhile, I'm so glad I'm not in prison.  It's one of the things for which I am truly thankful.  And I don't take it for granted.  There's a long, long, long list of things which will send you to prison and I know very few people who have done none of them.  And it can happen so fast...  I've seen guys in the pen who are absolutely shell-shocked because suddenly they are there, and they almost don't know what's happened.  (Some, who are mentally disabled, really don't know what's happened.)


Image result for prison v. nursing homeMeanwhile, this meme - the one on the right - has been going around the internet for a long, long time, comparing prison (favorably) to nursing homes.  And I've refuted it every time I see it, and will continue to do so.  One version of it starts "Let's put Grandma in prison", to which I always respond, you must really hate your Grandma.  And then I explain why this meme is absolutely, one hundred percent false.  Not to mention pretty damn hateful...

So, let's compare apples to oranges, prisons to nursing homes:

Yes, prisoners get a shower every day - it's to prevent lice, mites, and scabies.  It's a health measure, not for their pleasure.  Believe me, a lot of prisoners would just as soon not take showers, because they don't want to be in a large group of naked men, some of whom are hostile, and - what with steam, slippery tile, soap, etc. - it's a place where rape and other assaults can happen.  Is this really the way you want Grandma to live?
(NOTE:  In a nursing home, they do get a bath or shower every day, but in private.)

Image result for prison cell usa toilet in front
Prison cell
Yes, there is 24/7 video surveillance.  That's for security.  Yes, the lights don't go off at 7 PM in the pen - they don't go off at all.  That's for security.  The average prison cell is 6 x 8 feet, and (except for lifers) it's shared by two inmates, and the toilet is open, right in the front, by the door, so that literally everyone can see them doing their business.  That's for security, too.  Is this really the way you want Grandma to live?
(NOTE:  The average nursing home room is at least six times that size, and the toilet is in a private bathroom with a door.  And no, the lights are NOT turned off in a nursing home at 7:00 PM.)

Yes, there are three meals a day.  They're awful.  I know, I've eaten a lot of them.  (We don't go out for meals during a weekend workshop.)  They get no fresh fruit, vegetables, fish, or red meat.  (The exceptions:  once a day they get canned corn or canned green beans or lettuce or raw carrots.)  There are a lot of carbs, which is why, even if you don't have diabetes before you go into the pen, there's a good chance you'll develop it before you go.  (Nationally, 21% of inmates have diabetes.)  Is this really the way you want Grandma to live?
(NOTE:  I've eaten many a meal in assisted living centers, while visiting my parents, God rest their souls, and they weren't cold, except the salads, and they were pretty good.)

Yes, prisoners are allowed to have a TV - if they can afford it.  (No, they're not free.)  This is also a security measure, believe it or not.  Unless they have a job (and as many as half the prisoners don't), they're locked down, in their 6x8 cell 23/24.  Lately, they're also being given tablets (provided for free by private corporations, and not on the taxpayers' dime), which allow them to make telephone calls from their cells (using earbuds), listen to music, and access the digital law library.
(NOTE:  The digital law library has caused some prisons to quit having a paralegal on staff to explain the law to the inmates, which is sort of like providing a medical library and firing the doctors.)  Working or not, inmates are only allowed 1 hour for recreation (rec).  Depending on staffing levels, or climate, even rec is cancelled.  Inside rec is in the gym, which does come equipped with basketball hoops and weight equipment.  (Personally, I want them to burn off their energy somewhere....)

Prison tiers, SDSP
When the weather is nice and staffing levels are good, rec is outside, where inmates can play baseball and walk / jog around the track.  But, as soon as the temperature goes below 50, all rec is indoors, because the inmates - for security reasons - aren't given coats unless they have a specific job outside.  So, here in South Dakota, that generally means that for six months out of the year, inmates don't get to go outside, at all.  And because of the configuration of cell blocks, most cells don't have windows; and where there are windows, they're covered with iron mesh, which means that inmates don't even get to see the sun for six months out of the year.  Is this really the way you want Grandma to live?

Now let's talk about medication.  Most prisoners are now given Vitamin B and D supplements, because of the lack of sunlight, the food, and the constant fluorescent lighting.  Yes, there's generally a paramedic and a nurse on duty 24/7 at a prison.  Yes, there is free prescription medication, and if you really want people with bi-polar, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses to go without medication in an over-crowded environment of people who are stuck there for years for criminal behavior, well...  that one's beyond me...

But notice I said prescribed medication.  You have to get that prescription, and getting it can take a while.  First you have to get an appointment to see the doctor, which takes a while.  Diagnosis takes a while.  And the medications are given out on the prison time schedule, not the prisoners.  Diabetics don't get to check their blood sugar and medicate accordingly.  They get their insulin at the scheduled time.  Period.  Inmates on chemo get to ride out the side effects in their 6x8 cell, without any special diet or help.  Is this really the way you want Grandma to live?

Image result for elderly in prisonA lot of prisoners are elderly.  You get 20, 30, 40, 50 years or life, you're going to grow old in prison.  Eventually, elderly and disabled prisoners are allowed knee braces, walkers, and eventually even wheelchairs.  Those who are in wheelchairs are often assigned a pusher, which in this case is an inmate who will push them to where they want to go.  But they're not given any special help in and out of bed, on and off the toilet, up and down the stairs, to and from the chow hall, the medication line, etc., until they're actually at the hospice stage.  Is this really the way you want Grandma to live?

All I can say, is that if your elderly loved ones are in a nursing home that does what the meme says, you have put them in the wrong nursing home.  (That or you really do hate them.)  Get them out.  Immediately.  Here are the official Nursing Home Care Standards:  find some place that follows them!

Meanwhile, I hope that reading this has made us all truly thankful for the things we have:  a home, with a private bathroom, a soft bed with comforters and pillows, weather-appropriate clothing, the ability to go outside whenever we want, do what we want, eat whatever we want.  The simple fact that I can actually turn the lights on and off is wonderful.  The fact that I can have a Thanksgiving Dinner with friends, loaded with good food...  it's fantastic.  I am truly, truly, truly, thankful.






02 August 2017

The Uncanny Valley of the Kings


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


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


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


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


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.