15 February 2018

Older Than You Think


by Eve Fisher
"You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!" - (Explanation later)
The New York Times ran a great article the other day called, "Many Animals Can Count, Some Better Than You".  I am sure that every one of us who has /had a pet can assure them of that.  (Try to gyp a dog out of the correct number of treats.)  Not only can they count - as a female frog literally counts the number of mating clucks of the male - but they can compare numbers.  (Read about the guppies and the sticklebacks.)

But where the article really got interesting was where they talked about that, despite math phobia, etc., humans have an innate "number sense." There is archaeological evidence suggesting that humans have been counting for at least 50,000 years.  Before writing ever came around, people were using other ways of tallying numbers, from carving notches (bones, wood, stones) to clay tokens that lie all over Sumerian sites and which often looked, for decades, to archaeologists like bits of clay trash.

But the ability to count and the desire to count and to keep track comes before tokens or notches, otherwise they'd never have bothered.  And language - blessed language - comes before all of that.  So get this:  they say that the number words for small quantities — less than five — are not only strikingly similar across virtually every language in the world, but also are older (and more similar) than the words for mother, father, and body parts.  Except certain words like... no, not that!  (Get your mind out of the gutter)  Except the words for the eye and the tongue. Make of that what you will...

Dr Mark Pagel, biologist at Reading University, said, “It’s not out of the question that you could have been wandering around 15,000 years ago and encountered a few of the last remaining Neanderthals, pointed to yourself and said, ‘one,’ and pointed to them and said, ‘three,’ and those words, in an odd, coarse way, would have been understood.”  That just gave me goosebumps when I read it.  


Evolution of the cuneiform sign SAG "head", 3000–1000 BC
Development of Sumerian cunieform writing,
Td k at Wikipedia

I admit, I'm fascinated by the past. (That's why I became a historian...)  To me, history is time travel for pedestrians, a way to connect with our ancient ancestors.  So let's zip around a bit, starting with jokes (Reuters):

Sumerian man,
looking slightly upset...
(Wikipedia)
“Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.” - Sumeria, ca 1900 BC

“How do you entertain a bored pharaoh? You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish.” - Egypt, ca 1600 BC, supposedly about the randy Pharaoh Snofru

The earliest [written] "yo' mamma" joke, from an incomplete Babylonian fragment, ca 1500 BC:
"…your mother is by the one who has intercourse with her. What/who is it?"
(Okay, so it doesn't translate that well, but we all know where it's heading.)

And this riddle from 10th century Britain (for more see here):
"I am a wondrous creature for women in expectation, a service for neighbors. I harm none of the citizens except my slayer alone. My stem is erect, I stand up in bed, hairy somewhere down below. A very comely peasant’s daughter, dares sometimes, proud maiden, that she grips at me, attacks me in my redness, plunders my head, confines me in a stronghold, feels my encounter directly, woman with braided hair. Wet be that eye."
(Answer at the end and no peeking!)

Plot lines go very, very far back as well.  

Ancient Egyptian leather 
sandals (Wikipedia)
The fairy tale with the oldest provenance is "The Smith and the Devil" which goes back at least 7,000 years, and has been mapped out over 35 Indo-European languages, and geographically from India to Scandinavia.  (Curiosity)  The bones of the story are that the Smith makes a deal with the Devil (or death) and cheats him.  Now there's been all sorts of variations on it. In a very old one, the smith gains the power to weld any materials, then uses this power to stick the devil to an immovable object, allowing the smith to renege on the bargain. Over time, the smith's been transformed to clever peasants, wise simpletons, and, of course, fiddlers ("The Devil Went Down to Georgia" is, whether Charlie Daniels knew it or not, a variation on this very, very old fairy tale), and the devil occasionally got transformed to death or even a rich mean relative.  Check out Grimm's "The Peasant and the Devil" and "Why the Sea is Salt".

Enkidu, Gilgamesh's
best friend - his death
sends Gilgamesh in
search of eternal life.
(Urban at French
Wikipedia)
But Cinderella's pretty old, too, and just as universal.  Many people believe that the Eros/Psyche myth is the true original.  The Chinese version, Ye Xian, was written in 850 AD, and has everything including the slipper.  There's a Vietnamese version of ancient lineage, The Story of Tam and Cam.  And there are at least 3 variations of it in 1001 Nights.  (BTW, if you're gonna read 1001 Nights - and I recommend it highly - read the Mardrus and Mathers translation in 4 volumes.  Available in paperback or Kindle at Amazon.)

And, of course, many stock plots go at least as far back as Sumeria, including rival brothers (Cain and Abel), blood brothers (Gilgamesh and Enkidu), old men killing their rivals (Lamech, Genesis 4), the Garden of Eden, the Great Flood (complete with ark, dove, and rainbow), and the quest for eternal life (Gilgamesh).

BTW, most of the stories in Genesis come from the Epic of Gilgamesh, which makes perfect sense when you remember that Abraham is said to have come from Ur of the Chaldees, which was a Sumerian city.  

But back to words, which are, after all, our stock in trade as writers.  Remember above, where I quoted the NYT how you could communicate with Neanderthals by pointing and using number words?  And remember that sentence at the very beginning?  
"You, hear me! Give this fire to that old man. Pull the black worm off the bark and give it to the mother. And no spitting in the ashes!" 
According to researchers, if you went back 15,000 years and said that sentence, slowly, perhaps trying various accents, in almost any language, to almost any hunter-gatherer tribe, anywhere, they'd understand most of it.  You see, the words in that sentence are basic, almost integral to life, constantly used, constantly needed, for over 15,000 years, since the last Ice Age.  (It's only recently that we've lost our interest in black worms except in tequila and mescal.)

Due to the fact that we live on a planet with 7.6 billion humans and counting, it's hard to realize that, back around 15,000, there were at most 15,000,000 humans on the entire planet (and perhaps as few as 1,000,000).  They probably shared a language.  If nothing else, they would have shared a basic trading language so that when they ran into each other, they could communicate. Linguistics says that most words are replaced every few thousand years, with a maximum survival of roughly 9,000 years. But 4 British researchers say they've found 23 words - what they call "ultra-conserved" words - that date all the way back to 13,000 BC.

Speaking of 13,000 BC, here's a Lascaux Cave Painting.  Wikipedia

Now there's a list of 200 words - the Swadesh list(s) - which are the core vocabulary of all languages.  (Check them out here at Wikipedia.)  These 200 words are cognates, words that have the same meaning and a similar sound in different languages:
Father (English), padre (Italian), pere (French), pater (Latin) and pitar (Sanskrit).  
Now this makes sense, because English and Sanskrit are both part of the Indo-European language family.  But our 23 ultra-conserved words are "proto-words" that exist in 4 or more language families, including Inuit-Yupik.  (Thank you, Washington Post.  And, if you want to wade through linguistic science, here's the original paper over at the National Academy of Sciences.)

So, what are they?  What are these ultra-conserved words, 15,000 years old, and a window to a time of hunter-gatherers painting in Lascaux and trying to survive the end of the Younger Dryas (the next-to-the last mini-Ice Age; the last was in 1300-1850 AD)?  Here you go:

thou, I, not, that, we, to give, 
who, this, what, man/male, 
ye, old, mother, to hear, 
hand, fire, to pull, black, 
to flow, bark, ashes, to spit, worm

There's got to be a story there.  How about this?

"I give this fire to flow down the bark!  Who pulls the man from the mother?  Who pulls his hand from the fire?  Who / what / we?"

I was trying a couple of variations on these words, and then I realized that the ultimate has already been done:


"Who are you?" [said] the Worm.  


PS - the answer to the riddle is "onion".  

14 February 2018

The Iron River


David Edgerley Gates

Mexico has long fascinated us gringos, I think as a place of the imagination as much as a physical destination. The idea of Mexico is at least as strong with the Mexicans themselves, but more as a promise never kept. These days, Mexico in the grip of the narcotraficantes is far darker. "So far from God, so close to the United States," Porfirio Diaz once said. Easy to forget that it's a mirror image.

The simplest and most troubling schematic is the pipeline, The Iron River, drugs and human traffic moving north, money and guns moving south. What we're talking about is market share, access, gangster capitalism. Mexico has all the characteristics of a failed state. No rescue, no refuge. A phenomenon like the Juarez feminicidio, the unsolved murders of hundreds of women (a low estimate), doesn't take place in a vacuum. It has a context. I don't pretend to know all the reasons for it, but the drug traffic, and gang terrorism, is a fair guess as a contributor. 


But for all its reptilian chill, we have to admit it makes marvelous theater. That's the contradiction. I look at the narcos, and I see predators, carrion-eaters, and maggots, the food chain as career path. Mara Salvatrucha? Looney Tunes. And the Zetas? Let's not even. On the other hand, you can't make these guys up. They're gonna crowd your peripheral. You want to take on the drug wars? This is the furniture. It's the threat environment. The picture's already been cast.


You set out to tell a cautionary tale, probably. Or almost certainly. It's the nature of things. T. Jefferson Parker, in the Charlie Hood novels. Iron River, The Border Lords, The Famous and the Dead, to name his most recent three. Two by Don Winslow. The Power of the Dog and The Cartel. And the stories I've written myself about the border war. Doc Hundsacker, the Texas Ranger working out of El Paso, and Doc's pal Fidelio Arenal, the Federale major across the river in Juarez. Pete Montoya, the state cop based in Santa Fe, and Albuquerque FBI agent Sandy Bevilacquia. They're real to me, their strengths and weaknesses, and the consequences of what they choose to do. Not my sense of duty, or my moral choices, but theirs.


I'm not beating a drum, or selling a cure for cancer, or telling you how to vote. I'm saying that if you decide you're telling a certain kind of story, you may very well have to choose up sides. In fact, the story will probably pick a side for you.  They do that, damn it. You wind up on the side of the angels, when you were ready to sell your soul to the Devil. Cheap at twice the price. 

13 February 2018

Rage, Rage Against the Dying of the Light


by Paul D. Marks

This is going to be a rather morbid post, but it’s something that’s been on my mind for some time. It also might be a little bit unfocused as there’s so many things going round my head on this subject, but I think the main points will come across.

Lately, I’ve been noticing on Facebook a lot of people being sick to one degree or another and even some who’ve passed on. This has been happening since I joined FB but it seems like there’s more lately and that it’s happening more frequently. As I was thinking about this, I’ve also seen posts from other people who’ve noticed the same thing. Maybe it’s because we have more FB friends, maybe it’s because that’s just life or people are getting older? Either way, every time I see these messages—and even the ones about people’s pets—I get a pang of sadness. On the one hand, it’s part of life, still, on the other it hurts to see so many people going gently—or otherwise—into that good night.

It gives me pause. Maybe because my world is so much bigger, in some ways, thanks to FB. Therefore, I see more of this than I would in pre-FB days. I’ve had friends and relatives die since I was a little kid, of course. Some well before their time, either because of “natural” causes or war or in the case of my birth father, from being hit by a drunk driver. Somehow he made it through World War II, but not the mean streets of L.A.

So I wanted to talk a little about writers and recognition, both in our lifetimes and beyond: mortality and immortality. It’s an uncomfortable subject, maybe one of those that we don’t like to talk about in “polite” company, but maybe one that we think about on occasion.

We write for various reasons. To get our point of view out there, to entertain, to get fame and recognition, maybe even a little money...very little money 😉. And it might seem vain, but I think we also write because many of us would like that little chunk of immortality that leaving behind our words gives us. We want to think that in a hundred years or a thousand someone searching some “dusty” silicon chips (or whatever the current medium is) for a bit of nostalgia or a glimpse of how the world used to be might stumble upon our words. And just for that little moment in time we might live again. Of course, we also want to be recognized while we’re here—wouldn’t that be nice?

Some people say that writing in itself is its own reward—maybe, or to an extent. But, speaking for myself, while I enjoy the writing, creating stories, characters, settings, plots and putting it all together like a jigsaw puzzle, if no one else read it it would be like the sound of that famous tree falling in the forest—with no one there to hear it. So, aren’t we really writing for others—whether today or for posterity? Otherwise why share our work with anyone else? Writing for yourself is like eating a pizza by yourself (or watching a movie, playing cards or a game), it’s definitely enjoyable, but it’s often more fun to do with someone else. And if we’re writing for others our work can live on even if we can’t.

In Sonnet 18, Shakespeare, whoever he was in reality, said…

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this and this gives life to thee.

…referring to his poem living on, making him immortal.



Does everyone think or hope they’ll be the next Jane Austen or Charles Dickens—or even Dan Brown? Did any of these people think they’d be remembered a hundred or more years later—maybe, or maybe not. They, probably like a lot of writers, just felt compelled to write—but maybe with one eye toward some type of immortality. For some of us, writing is like breathing. But are we really writing for a tiny audience of our wives, husbands and mothers? I don’t think so.

Jane Austen

Most people want to leave a mark—hopefully for something good or at worst neutral, though some prefer being known for their evil deeds (which gives us fodder to write about). Nobody wants to be ignored or forgotten. To some that means leaving children to carry on the family legacy and name, to others curing cancer, and yet to others leaving a piece of writing that will endure. But after a generation or two even our great grandchildren don’t really know us either, but our readers do.

If we don’t care about these things, both being known in our lifetimes and beyond, why do we get upset when our work is rejected, when we can’t get agents, etc.? Sure, part of it is ego, no one likes being rejected. But maybe part of it is also losing another shot at a little piece of immortality. 

At some points in our lives, particularly when we’re younger, I think we don’t see the possibility of not being here anymore. We know it happens intellectually, but we don’t like to think about it. Which brings to mind these lines from Flowers Never Bend in the Rainfall, by Paul Simon:

So I'll continue to continue to pretend
My life will never end,
And flowers never bend with the rainfall.

And that also brings me to one of my favorite songs about mortality:

There's no place in this world where I'll belong when I'm gone
And I won't know the right from the wrong when I'm gone
And you won't find me singin' on this song when I'm gone
So I guess I'll have to do it while I'm here



So, do it while you’re here, do it now and don’t put it off ’cause you never know what will happen. And hopefully it will last. And, like Dylan Thomas said, Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.

***

And now for a little BSP that will hopefully help me on the road to immortality: Mind Blowing News: My story “Windward” from Coast to Coast: Privates Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea (edited by Andrew McAleer and Me, published by Down & Out Books) has been selected for the 2018 Best American Mystery Stories edited by Louise Penny & Otto Penzler. It will be out in the fall. To say I’m blown away is an understatement. Also selected for Best American Mysteries from this collection is John Floyd’s “Gun Work,” and Art Taylor’s “A Necessary Ingredient” has been nominated for an Agatha. Not a bad batting average for one book 😁.

And a shoutout to SleuthSayers Michael Bracken and David Edgerly Gates, who also have stories in the Best American Mysteries, and Barb Goffman on her Agatha Nom. SleuthSayers is cleaning up!

https://www.mysteriousbookshop.com/blogs/news/best-american-mystery-stories-2018 


Also, my Shamus-winning novel, White Heat, is being reissued in May by Down and Out Books. It’s available for pre-order on Amazon. Here is the new cover reveal:

 

Also, there’s a fun and interesting article on Alfred Hitchcock in the Washington Post (and other places) from Associated Press writer Hillel Italie: Alfred Hitchcock Remains an Influence on Crime Writers. It includes quotes from Linda Landrigan of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, Mike Mallory, SJ Rozan, A.J. Finn, Otto Penzler.......and even me! Enjoy!

###

12 February 2018

Is That All There Is?


by Steve Liskow

Why did over 100 million people watch the Super Bowl last week? Certainly, many of them were rooting for the Eagles or the Patriots, but many of them just wanted to watch the last football game of the season, featuring two good teams, to see who won.

That's it, isn't it? The final score. As writers and readers, that's what we care about, too. How the story ends.

How often have you heard someone say, "Well, the story was pretty good, but I hated the ending." Mickey Spillane said the first chapter sells the book and the last chapter sells the next book. It's hard to argue with that. If you don't like a book by an author, how likely are you to pick up another one?

The punchline of a joke should make us laugh. If we don't laugh, it's not a good punchline or ending. Simple, huh?

Obviously, if you go to a production of King Lear or Romeo and Juliet expecting lots of pretty girls doing a kick line at the end, you're going to be disappointed, but most people have a clear idea of what to expect. You set up the expectations, so you should meet them.

There are only a few kinds of bad endings.

The first is the Letdown, which I see more often in short stories than novels. The story, usually quasi-literary, doesn't really go anywhere, and it finally stops completely as though the writer has reached the word count he was aiming for. Sometimes, the ending is ambiguous, bit it's usually more indecisive than anything else. "The Lady or The Tiger"

fails because you can support (or NOT support) either choice equally badly. When my students tried this nonsense and I called them out on it, they always told me, "I left it this way because I wanted to make the reader think." I always asked, "What do you want him to think ABOUT, and what do you want him to think ABOUT IT?"

Several excellent writers end their books with something left unsaid, but they give enough information so we can figure out what happens offstage or after the curtain falls. My recent novel Before You Accuse Me ends with Woody Guthrie and Megan Traine discussing the consequences of the crime they've solved. We don't know exactly where the fallout will land, but we can make several solid guesses, none of which involve those pretty girls and kick lines.

Another bad ending involves a deus ex machina, the information that comes out of nowhere at the very end to tie things together (Thomas Hardy and Nathaniel Hawthorne got away with this constantly--or maybe not: we don't know about the after-life yet). In mysteries, this may be the missing piece of information we didn't even know was missing. One Ellery Queen novel has a solution built on our not knowing that the murder victim wasn't really a twin: he was a triplet. That's cheating. If you can't even give the reader a hint, look more carefully at your plotting.

Does anyone remember the TV show Burke's Law? One episode ran long, so they cut another minute to fit in the last commercial...and accidentally deleted the clue Gene Barry cited in the final solution. I understand the TV network's switchboard lit up like a nuclear blast that night.

Another ending is the one built on inductive reasoning instead of deductive reasoning. The detective (Rex Stout used to do this with Nero Wolfe all the time) starts by positing that a particular person is guilty, then looks for information to confirm that theory. It's too much like the police deciding person A did it and overlooking exculpating evidence. At Crime Conn several years ago, a detective who worked cold cases told us, "A cold case always happens because someone made a mistake." More often than not, some piece of evidence was overlooked or misinterpreted. Call it art imitating life if you want, but I disagree.

The opposite, which I see less often is the Perfect ending. The writer gives us intricate subplots and tons of detail, and none of it is extraneous. Every single miniscule thing fits together to create the main denouement. It's impressive and very difficult, and at some point I see the author's hand turning the characters into puzzle pieces instead of people and the thread suspending my disbelief starts to unravel. If it fits together more tightly than a Wagnerian crescendo, it's too much.

OK, so what does an ending need? That's pretty simple.

Your opening should make the reader ask questions about the plot and characters. Your ending answers those questions. It resolves the issues, just like a song should end on the beat and on the tonic chord. It will feel complete.

Remember "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" from the Beatles LP Abbey Road? It repeats the last melodic figure over and over and over, but instead of fading out, it ends suddenly...NOT on the beat or the tonic note or chord. It's a jarring musical joke. You're not the Beatles, though, so you can't get away with it.


If you're writing a mystery, you need a logical solution. If you're writing a romance, the two protagoni should be together at the end, or you need a clear reason why they aren't.
Death works, or jail. Time travel might work, too, but that gets into sci-fi, and that's a different union.

If you write comedy, the reader should laugh. Especially at the end.

Even if you write a series and you're planning the next book, this one should have a definite end to the current issue. Some issues can continue, but win this battle and carry on the war next time. Don't make me buy the next book to figure out how this one ended. I'll be ticked enough not to buy it.

Or maybe by the time that next book comes out, I won't even remember that I cared. That's one of the perks of getting old.

11 February 2018

A Voice for the Dead


by Mary Fernando

“I don't believe it, and none of us believe it.”[1]

That was the response to the police assessment of murder-suicide from one friend of billionaires Honey and Barry Sherman. This was followed by a chorus of agreement from many prominent Canadians, and subsequently by an expensive independent investigation which resulted in a revised new assessment of double murder.

Leigh Lundin asked me to look at this now high-profile Canadian crime being played out, blow by blow, in the news. So here I am looking at it. But with Canadian eyes.

Honey and Barry Sherman
Honey and Barry Sherman
My question isn't about what happened in this particular crime. I feel confident that it will play out in the investigation, and that the truth will emerge. My question is this: What would happen if a family disagreed, but did not have powerful friends or the money to conduct their own investigation? What if the family were poor, but still vehemently in disagreement? What if a murderer was on the cusp of getting away with it? Who would stop them? 


I brought this up with Dr. Coroner – not his real name but it would be a good one, because he is indeed a coroner. He is called in if a death occurs outside a hospital, and occasionally in it. His job is essentially to assess the manner and cause of death. Is this death natural, an accident, a suicide or a homicide?

The body can be photographed but cannot be touched until he is finished his assessment and releases the body. He looks at the story, told by the body, of the manner and timing of death. There is also the story told by the place of death, and the question for him is whether it is consistent with the story the body tells.

My question: If the family disagreed with a murder-suicide verdict, but were neither educated or moneyed – what would he do? What if the family was unable to articulate a story as well as the friends and family of the Shermans? What if they were angry and threatening, or in general made themselves unsympathetic?

He said often his job is to help reconcile the disbelief with the reality. Some counselling is often part of what he does with families.

Also, he argues that marriage – by the nature of the long term relationship – can lead people to kill each other, even if they look to others like they are happy. Marriage itself can be the reason for murder.

Those caveats aside, Dr. C. said there was enough from the story of the “murder-suicide” of the Shermans to make him suspicious, largely because the story is wrong. Domestic murder is often more violent, angry. Hanging is not what he would expect as a means of murder or suicide in this case. Hanging is more often seen in cases of mental illness or extreme distress. Further, why would a man who has copious drugs available to him choose this manner of death for himself and his wife?

If the stories of the body, manner of death and family assessment make Dr. C. suspicious in any way, he has many options to augment the evidence he gathers.
  • The authority of the coroner overrides privacy of information, so he can seize records from sources such as the family doctor, psychiatrists, and psychologists. This could provide a more fulsome picture.
  • He can seize all radiological and dental records, to see if there is evidence of previous abuse.
  • He can order a post mortem, or a forensic autopsy and refuse to complete the death certificate or even provide the funeral home with a warrant to bury, until he is fully satisfied.
Ultimately, the story must hang together. Regardless of the ability of the family to articulate their concerns, or their resources to investigate on their own, Dr. C. relies on having a coherent story told by the manner of death, the body, the family and the records seized. If there are inconsistencies – then a further investigation is warranted.

If a family were unable to mount the same vigorous objection and investigation as the Shermans have, it could be the coroner who stands between the constructed truth of the murderer and the actual truth of the victim.

Ultimately, all crime writing is social justice writing. And the poor have a voice – the coroner. The story of the body, uncovering the life lived, the manner of death, might be the key to catching a murderer. The background knowledge and tenacity of the coroner is what most of us rely on when our bank accounts are meagre.

Dr. C. said that the job of the coroner is to provide a voice for the dead, to listen carefully to the story they tell. This is the first step towards social justice for those without money and connections. They do this by asking the simple question:
Does the story of this death make sense?

10 February 2018

Nasty Boys


by Libby Cudmore

Nasty, nasty boys, let me see your body groove. — Janet Jackson, “Nasty”

Lester Nygaard
Lester Nygaard
There has to be a word for that moment when you’re watching a TV series, and you’re more than a few episodes in, and you suddenly realize that you are terribly, violently attracted to the absolute worst character on the show. It’s never a slow build; one minute, you’re just toodling along, watching Fargo on the couch with your husband and the next, like a hammer to the skull, you find yourself thinking, “I am ride-or-die for Lester Nygaard.”

There has to be a word for it. And if there isn’t, we should scour world’s languages over to invent one. Because it’s legit. I remember how I felt in the moment I fell for Shane Vendrell, sometime around season two of The Shield, and my heart just started pounding, and I thought, “He is so fine that I am going to literally die from how fine he is.” Then I discovered he was the cast member with the last name Goggins and thought “Well, Mrs. Elizabeth Goggins doesn’t sound that weird….” But through all of it—through the casual racism and the grenade throwing, the violence and the threats, Shane was my One True Love, right to the end. I was there for all of it.

And I thought maybe it was a one-off thing. Nope. A whole series of trash boys followed. Jimmy McGill on Better Call Saul. Lester Nygaard on Fargo. Boyd Crowder on Justified, and on and on and on. There’s one in every series.

I am not really like this. My husband is a well-regarded figure in our community. He is honest and handsome, a sweet man who buys me Donald Fagen records for Christmas. I have never once wanted to date a “bad boy;” in high school and college I happily dated a series of nerds, guys who listened to Billy Joel or watched anime or went to ren faires. I have always been attracted to nice boys. I am a feminist. I demand respect, Ms. Cudmore if you’re nasty.

Shane Vendrell
Shane Vendrell

But I confessed this terrible feeling to my other girlfriends and, as it turns out, they all had their own trash boys. Caleb on Bates Motel. Gus Halper as Erik Menendez. Jax on Sons of Anarchy. They’re the first entry on a game of F•ck/Marry/Kill, but they are down for a good time. And so what if they impregnated their sister or murdered their parents or take sleezy career shortcuts? We love them just the same.

To men, these characters often play as a sort of justification for all their weak impulses. Who hasn’t felt like they’re misunderstood in their work or by their spouse, believed they deserved more, that they had earned what they’d stolen? It’s an outlet, a fantasy that they could get away with being something other than the common human we are all guilty of being.

But to women, they are someone in need of love, of fixing, of understanding, then maybe they wouldn’t do such terrible things. There’s a certain power, at least to me, in loving these sorts of characters. We could keep their secrets. We could help bury the bodies. We are bold and trustworthy broads, and no man would ever think of double-crossing us. We can hold our own in a gunfight or a car chase.

It’s dangerous thinking, in real life, to imagine that you are responsible for fixing someone. But in film and fiction, it’s an addictive thrill. And a good writer knows this. A good writer knows how to make a man desirable and repulsive all at the same time, give him something the audience recognizes as a nearly-palpable need and then twist that into something selfish, the push and pull with the audience. It is almost erotic when done right.

Crime fiction thrives on nasty boys. But a good writer can make even the worst of them somehow charming, to keep the reader turning the page, breathless and, just maybe, slightly in love.

And while you’re working on that, I’ll be trying to create a new word for that stupid-twisted-love feeling. I’ve got another season of Fargo to get through.

09 February 2018

The Blank Page: Anxiety or Opportunity?


By Art Taylor

Three weeks ago, I helped lead a Fiction Intensive workshop with high school students at Broad Run High School in Ashburn, VA—young writers released from their regular schedules for the day to concentrate on creative writing. We worked through a number of exercises on building character, plot, and setting, stopping at several points for the students to share their exercises aloud. The work they were doing was imaginative and exciting, even in those quick timed exercises (which I'm never good at myself). Last Friday, I returned to Broad Run for a reading in front of a large assembly—me reading some of my work and several students volunteering to read too. In advance of that reading, I offered a critique of those students' drafts—and continued to be impressed by their work and then also by their readings in front of their peers too. Braver than I might have been at their age, I have to tell you!

But several things stood out to me along the way—things that... well, troubled is too strong a word, and puzzled too, I guess, but maybe intrigued?

A couple of things struck me, let's say that, and my thinking about them has continued to gain momentum over the past week.

The first observation: Out of the 30 or so students who volunteered for the workshop, only five were male. They all took a table together, no women with them, and one of the guys sat there throughout the exercises literally staring at the blank page in front of him, writing nothing that I could see, and looking a little pained about it.

The second: The freshmen in the group were overall far more likely to share their work—enthusiastically so—than the juniors and seniors, who kept more quiet. As the students worked on one of the exercises, I chatted with one of Broad Run's creative writing teachers , who pointed out several students who were particularly strong writers but who were very clearly guarding their work much more closely than others.

I'm interested in the first of these observations for personal reasons—as the father of a six-year-old boy who (at least now) very much loves reading and storytelling and the arts in general (more on that in a moment). I've heard too often stories from parents of other boys about how their sons used to love reading and then simply lost interest, usually around 10 years old from most accounts. Even a quick Google search on "boys and reading" calls up too many articles on the challenges they face, compared with girls, in terms of reading comprehension and even interest in reading at all. Check out this article from the New York Times in 2011 or this one from The Guardian in 2016  or this study from the Brookings Institution or....

But rather than focus on gender differences here, I want to talk more about age—and this interest is also personal, I'll admit, with more to say on my own six-year-old son, Dashiell.

I asked the teachers at Broad Run about the division between the enthusiasm and openness of those ninth graders and the relative reserve of the older students—because I'll admit, it surprised me. My own expectation might have been that older students would be a position of greater leadership, more comfortable in their place at the school, more confident and assured in their work. But the answer I got was that there was more at stake at that age—more self-consciousness about their work, even if the writing itself might have been more advanced in many ways than the work the younger students produced.

Echoing some of this: Yesterday, a writer friend, Liz Mugavero, posted at the group blog Wicked Cozy writers about creative struggles, specifically struggles, as Liz described it, "with process, with procrastination, with plots. With taking myself seriously enough to expect more for myself and my writing life." You can (and should) read the whole post, "Writing with Spirit," here. At one point, Liz quoted Julia Cameron of The Artist's Way talking about "creative injuries," which Liz herself paraphrased as, in part, "something you learned as a child about creativity being shameful or unrealistic to pursue as your life’s work."

What we learn about creativity as children—that emphasis stood out. What parent or what friend might have dismissed the importance of artistic endeavor? Or what part of the educational system devalues the arts at the expense of other lessons, other skills? These are questions to ponder and  obstacles to overcome—those external influences—but in my response to Liz, I wondered as well whether creative injuries might be self-inflicted at times too. In what ways do we ourselves form some judgements about what's "valuable" work and what's... extraneous? superfluous? negligible?

I'm struggling to find words again, but I know that even I find myself too often putting my "real" work ahead of my writing—which isn't real? or isn't work?— and maybe it's not just the size of the paycheck at the end of that process that determines what work "counts."

To bring this even more back home—literally: On Wednesday of this week, we had (another) winter weather day, school delayed, then cancelled, and our six-year-old son needing activities and attention around the house while we tried to get something accomplished ourselves on what became a sudden work-from-home day for us too. A seemingly easy answer: craft projects! And so we gathered up paper and colored pencils and crayons and scissors for Dash—and set him out on a project of his own choosing, a drawing he was going to do for a friend.

As you might expect, things didn't go as planned—do they ever?

But the reasons those plans fell apart—that's what I wasn't expecting.

Dash is a fine artist—amazing both us and his teachers with his attention to detail, the precision with which he approaches his work, his comprehensiveness, his enthusiasm. In Oregon last year, we took a lunchtime riverboat cruise one day, and at a restaurant that night, waiting for our dinner, Dash decided to draw the boat from memory. I'm not sure what others might see below, but this proud parent thought his artwork was great—and told him so.





At times, my wife and I have laughed as Dash repeated some of the praise we've given him—him declaring at one point, "I really am a great artist!" as he dove into a new project. It's a confidence that might come across as cocky from someone older, but it seems charming now, as if he's somehow surprised himself.

....which is why on Wednesday, I myself was surprised to hear nothing but frustration coming from him as he tried to draw an airplane.

This doesn't look right. I messed this up. I did this wrong. I made a mistake. 

I wish I could find and link to an article I read recently about how kids right around Dash's age suddenly see their creative work with different eyes. Where younger kids more often draw or paint free from any self-consciousness, somewhere around six they begin to feel more self-critical—for two reasons. One is comparison with others: so-and-so draws better than me. The other is comparison with the real world: what I drew doesn't look like the thing I was trying to draw.

...or to shift media: So-and-so writes better, and then, what I was trying to write, what I saw in my mind, isn't what came out on the page. We've all been there, I'm sure.

It was a frustrating moment for him—and frustrating too for me as a parent, for bigger reasons. What he was drawing—that plane—it looked fine, and the "mistake" he'd made—a small slip of the pencil along one line, a tiny curve—seemed negligible. But it left him fretful, unsatisfied—and left me wondering bigger questions about how he would handle this new self-consciousness, self-criticism, not just in that moment but in many similar moments still to come, across a lifetime maybe.

Would tearing up the page and throwing it away be a step toward drawing (or writing) better the next time? Surely that can be a good thing—steps toward improving your craft, right?

Or would tearing up that page be just the first step toward walking away from all of it?  leaving all the blank pages behind?

"Remember Ish," I told him, a kids book about a boy struggling with self-consciousness about his own drawings. "Remember The Book of Mistakes," I said, another one that talks about turning mistakes into triumphs. (Good books, I should add, for all of us.) "We'll read those again tonight, OK? It's all going to work out." 

I'm not sure where I'm going with this, I have to admit. I felt like some answer might come to me as I was writing this post, but instead I just find myself thinking about my own frustrations with procrastination and process, those frustrations Liz wrote about, and then about the students at Broad Run High School who were writing fine stories but hesitant to share them, and then about the guy who just stared at the empty notebook and didn't seem to be writing anything at all.

In order not to end this post on a worrisome note, I want to go back further into Dash's childhood and to a couple of lessons that he's taught me about creativity and about getting where you want to go—lessons that I've brought up on panels and presentations myself.

The first is about determination. When Dash was first learning to walk, he was nearly single-minded in his resolution. If he fell after one step, he got up and did it again, until he could take two. And once he had two down, he went for three. It took him a long time to get where he wanted to go, but step by step he got there, and I remind myself of this each time I feel like I'm not making enough progress on my writing—page by page, sentence by sentences, word by work, as long as I'm moving forward, I'll get there.

The other lesson is about revision—and about Lego, something I've already talked about here before. When I'm working on revision, it's often painful to take apart something I've written and try to rework it or worse to scrap paragraphs or pages that simply aren't working. But when Dash is working with Lego, he doesn't mind at all dismantling things—there's a glee in it, in fact!—to follow through on some new idea, some new vision.

There's a courage there and a freedom that I wish I had when tearing down and rebuilding my own work. And it's a courage and a freedom that I was hoping Dash himself would have earlier this week with his own "mistakes."

The good news? He didn't throw the page away. He fretted, but he finished, and the end product looks great.

Those lessons I learned from Dash—I just hope he can continue to hang on to them himself.

BSP & SHOUT-OUTS


I'm thrilled that my story "A Necessary Ingredient" has been named a finalist for this year's Agatha Award, alongside my good friend and fellow SleuthSayers Barb Goffman for her story "Whose Wine Is It Anyway?" Hooray! You can read both stories at the Malice Domestic website, along with stories by the other three finalists too—all for free.

"A Necessary Ingredient" was published in the anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea, co-edited by our fellow SleuthSayers Paul D. Marks and published by Down & Out Books, and in related news, two other stories from the collection have been selected by Louise Penny for this year's forthcoming Best American Mystery Stories anthology—both stories by fellow SleuthSayers as well: "Windward" by Paul D. Marks himself and "Gun Work" by John Floyd.

Two other SleuthSayers also got tapped for BAMS honors: Michael Bracken for his story "Smoked" in Noir at the Salad Bar and David Edgerley Gates for "Cabin Fever" from Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

Not hardly a bad showing for our little group, yeah? Congrats to all!



08 February 2018

Suicide Blonde: Or, Another Day, Another Announcement



by Brian Thornton


As I laid it out in this post at the beginning of last month, 2017 ended well for me, writing-wise, and 2018 has shown no signs of letting up in terms of good news to report.

So let me just get this out of the way.


As I alluded in my post linked above, when I came up with the idea for a fiction anthology inspired by the music of Steely Dan, I was already in discussions with Eric Campbell at Down & Out Books to publish a novella I'd expanded from a short story I wrote and sold to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine a decade ago.

Well, he bought it.

With a catch.

Eric liked the novella so much, that he asked me to either expand it into a full-length novel, or turn it into a series and add more pieces featuring my protagonist: a mob lawyer working for an unnamed criminal syndicate in 1962 Las Vegas.

So I'm expanding the content to three novellas, with Suicide Blonde, the one I initially pitched, serving as both the cover and lead-off story of the collection. The other two novellas will include Murphy (the lawyer), and other characters introduced in Suicide Blonde, but I am playing around with the notion of switching up the point-of-view. For example, Murphy narrates Suicide Blonde, but the bent cop Murphy occasionally works with will narrate the second one, and Murphy's new girlfriend, a been-around-the-world-and-back-again showgirl will serve as narrator for the final one.

It promises to be a challenge, and I am still working out the kinks, but either way, it's a new approach, and a risk I am excited to take.

But hey, who knows? I might chuck the idea, and just go with Murphy as narrator for all three novellas. After all, it took a lot of work to develop the character, and nail down his voice to get it exactly where I wanted it.

When I was working on the original draft of the story, I had yet to sell anything that was first person. I am a big fan of the writing of Ross MacDonald, and especially love the voice he was able to develop for his protagonist, Lew Archer, over the eighteen novels he wrote featuring the detective.

So in some ways, Murphy is an homage to MacDonald and his work. In one other important way, he's an homage to crime fiction author extraordinaire Sean Doolittle, who gave me much-needed feedback on my initial draft of the original story. I was very appreciative, and so I named my protagonist after him: "Sean Murphy."

So there it is. There's my second big announcement of 2018, and it's only February! At this rate, there'll be more to come before we flip the calendar to 2019. Stay tuned!

And speaking of 2019, look for Suicide Blonde to drop next September!


07 February 2018

No Fun Aloud


When my first novel was published I went to a regional booksellers conference to explain to those fine people why they needed to stock thousands of copies of my masterpiece.  Among the other naïfs in attendance was Steve Hockensmith, promoting his first comic-western-mystery.  We hit it off.  Steve has gone on to write fifteen more novels, receive two Edgar nominations, and has been spotted in Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazines, as well as the New York Times Bestseller List.  Recently I asked Steve to write something for SleuthSayers about the importance of riboflavin in the human diet.  He countered by offering to discuss the writing process.  Since neither of us was sure what riboflavin is (is it better than regular flavin?), that seemed the better approach.  You can read more of his wisdom at stevehockensmith.com.
— Robert Lopresti



No Fun Aloud
by Steve Hockensmith

I think I might be a good writer partly because I'm bad at it. Not "bad" in the sense that my writing's turgid or confusing or cliched or wrong-headed. I'm not [AUTHOR NAME REDACTED IN THE INTEREST OF KEEPING THE PEACE...HEY, SOME PEOPLE LIKE TURGID, CONFUSING, CLICHED AND WRONG-HEADED]. It's just that writing's so damn hard.

Words don't come pouring out of me. They drip. Slowly. Like...like...aw, hell. I don't feel like spending 20 minutes trying to work out the right simile, so just take my word for it. They drip. Even the smallest project -- writing a tweet, say, or adding a message to a birthday card -- requires brainstorming, outlining, two pots of coffee and long, long stretches of absolute silence. And even then I'm going to lose my confidence half-way through and come close to quitting. ("'Enjoy your special day'? I can't believe I actually wrote that. I'd tear this card up and get another if it didn't cost me four bucks. Stupid Hallmark…")

The only thing that's more painful than writing is rewriting. Fortunately, I usually don't have to do much of it: Most of the needed rewriting already took place in my head while the writing was going on. Spend 10 minutes on one sentence, and there's a good chance it'll come out right. (Warning: There's also a good chance you'll lose your mind.) Rewriting can feel like taking a perfectly good cake and trying to turn it into a plate of cookies. Sometimes, of course, the cake actually sucks, and sometimes you have a contract calling for a plate of cookies. So you do what you gotta do. But I agonize in the hope that I don't gotta.

I think I know where a lot of that agony comes from, too. Fellow writers: Do you write out loud? Do you actually speak every sentence you're trying to construct? Do you test words by listening to them together?

Those are rhetorical questions, by the way. If every writer answered "Yes, yes, yes," none of us would ever be allowed in Starbucks again. Too many customers would be complaining about the weirdos muttering into their laptops.

And lots of writers do write in coffee shops. Which I've never understood. You know where I want to write? A closet. An isolation tank. The Batcave (when Batman and Robin are off POW-ing and ZOK-ing the Riddler's henchmen in a jigsaw puzzle factory and Alfred's upstairs baking bat-pizza).

I need to be somewhere I can hear the words and not get glared at by latte-slurpers for doing it.
Because writing isn't just stringing words together on a screen. It's speaking to readers. It's standing up and telling them a story the way we used to do it around the fire at night. Out loud. When we talk about a writer's "voice," it shouldn't just be a fancy way to say "style." For truly good writing, IMHO, it should be literal.

Not MHO at all, because it's a damn fact: That can make writing a lot harder. I think it's worth the extra effort and aggravation, though. In the end, it's the voice of your story people will hear, not all the mumbling, grumbling and cursing it took to find it.

Unless you’re one of those nuts who writes in Starbucks…

06 February 2018

Stiffed


by Michael Bracken

When I began writing crime fiction in the early 1980s, many magazines published mysteries, but there were only three mystery magazines—the digest-sized Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. (Two more digests were soon to join them, the short-lived Espionage Magazine, which published fourteen issues beginning in December 1984 and ending in September 1987, and the even shorter-lived The Saint Magazine, which published three monthly issues—June, July, and August—in 1984.) I was deep into my career before I cracked EQMM and even deeper before I cracked AHMM, but four of my first seven published mysteries appeared in Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine.

My first two mysteries appeared in Gentleman’s Companion (“City Desk,” January 1983; “Adam’s Rib,” March 1983) and my third appeared in Mike Shayne that same year. “Vengeance to Show in the Third” (October 1983)—the story of an ex-jockey, a girlfriend who isn’t who she appears to be, and race fixing—was clearly influenced by reading Dick Francis. Just like my initial sale to Espionage, I targeted the men’s magazines first and, after rejections from Hustler, Gallery, Stag, and Cavalier, I stripped out 500 words of graphic sex and submitted the story to Mike Shayne on March 8, 1983. A postcard from editor Charles E. Fritch dated July 10 notified me of my first Mike Shayne acceptance.

I described the genesis of “With Extreme Prejudice” (August 1984), my second appearance in the magazine, in “You Only Live Twice,” when I explored by brief foray into writing spy fiction.

The story of an insurance investigator who steals from the company’s clients, “A Matter of Policy,” my third appearance in Mike Shayne (February 1985), was also first submitted to several men’s magazine. After rejections from Hustler, Playboy, Gem, Buf, Cavalier, Gallery, and Swank, I stripped out 600 words of graphic sex and saw the new version rejected by The Saint Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine before acceptance by Mike Shayne on November 11, 1984. Unlike the postcards I received for the first two acceptances, this one came typed at the bottom of a rejection for another story. (The rejected story, “All My Yesterdays,” finally saw publication in Suddenly V [Stone River Press, 2003] and, in 2004, earned a Derringer Award for Best Flash.)

My final appearance in Mike Shayne—“The Great Little Train Robbery” (June 1985), the story of a gang preparing for a train robbery—is the first story the magazine published that did not start life intended for a men’s magazine. AHMM, Spiderweb, and EQMM all passed on the story before Mike Shayne accepted it February 13, 1985, and “The Great Little Train Robbery” has become one of my most-often reprinted short stories: Detective Mystery Stories, September 2002; Sniplits, April 2008; and Kings River Life (as “The Great Train Robbery”), August 19, 2017.

Just like when Espionage bit the dust with an accepted story in its files, Mike Shayne also had an accepted story in its files when it ceased publication in August 1985, and that story—“Fresh Kill”—finally appeared in the April/May 2001 Blue Murder.

(Though The Saint Magazine never published my work, it also accepted one of my stories prior to its demise, and “Sharing” did not see publication until the July 2001 Judas_ezine. That means each of the three mystery magazines that died in the mid-1980s died clinging to one of my stories. Maybe it’s a good thing for us all that neither AHMM nor EQMM began accepting my work until well into the twenty-first century.)

“Unfortunately,” notes James Reasoner, frequent contributor and ghostwriter of many of the magazine’s Mike Shayne stories, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazinehad a habit of not paying their writers unless they were badgered and threatened into it.

Apparently, I never mastered the art of badgering and threatening because Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine stiffed me. I was never paid for the four stories they published.

Unfortunately, they aren’t the last publication to go belly up owing me money.
Of more recent vintage: “Texas Hot Flash” appears in Tough and “Skirts” appears in Black Cat Mystery Magazine #2“Smoked, which first appeared in Noir at the Salad Bar, has been selected for inclusion in this year’s The Best American Mystery Stories.

05 February 2018

Shades of Gray


John Lutz
John Lutz
featuring John Lutz
When I read the Baltimore Bouchercon guest list, one attendee caught my eye, the primary person I’d like to tip my hat to. Big-name authors find themselves inundated with clutching fans, leaving one to wonder– When does adulation grow old? I relegated myself to someone pointing out John Lutz across the room.

Then James Lincoln Warren arranged a dinner party (the same JLW who notes I write excessive introductions). I knew all the attendees except one couple. I introduced myself.

I almost spilled my drink. I wasn’t sure I heard right. The John Lutz and wife Barbara? Ever play the fantasy dinner guest list game? He’s the Victorian era’s equivalent of inviting Arthur Conan Doyle, La Belle Epoque’s homologue of Agatha Christie. John Lutz is my favorite author of my era.

After I gabbled or blabbled, I settled down at dinner, thoroughly charmed. James’ dinner became my Bouchercon highlight. So, when Jan Grape suggested recruiting John Lutz for an article, I nearly fell off my perch.

Credit for today’s article goes to Jan who is experiencing computer woes, else she would be writing this introduction mentioning Edgar and Shamus and movie awards. Unfortunately, she left me the onerous task of introducing John’s article.

So without further yammer and blather, Jan and I take pleasure introducing Mr John Lutz as he talks about his new spy novel.

— Jan Grape, Leigh Lundin



The Honorable Traitors
by John Lutz

How did I come up with the idea for my new series hero, secret agent Thomas Laker? You might assume that since I’ve written books in every other genre of mystery and suspense fiction, it was logical and predictable that I’d turn to espionage. But there’s nothing logical or predictable about coming up with ideas.

Here’s how it happened: I was reading a World War II history book, which set me musing that spies are our modern Cassandras, doomed to prophecy truly and not be believed. German agents found out where the Allied invasion of France was going to happen, and the generals dismissed their report. Soviet agents found out when the German invasion of Russia was going to happen, and Stalin blew them off. 

Not being believed must be a standard frustration of the spy business. I thought: What if there was a small, super-secret agency that operated in a more freewheeling fashion? Its agents, though of course unknown to the public, would be people with high reputations in the espionage fraternity. When employees of the CIA and FBI were being frustrated by bureaucrats and politicians, they’d turn to the people in my agency.

Honourable Traitors
Knowing that when agents of The Gray Outfit receive ‘actionable’ intelligence, they act.

That was the name that came to me for my agency. I decided to call its top agent Thomas Laker.

As my readers know, I like a hero who’s his own man, and does things his own way. My earlier series characters were private eyes in one-man agencies and retired cops who were so good the NYPD had to call them back to work on their own terms.

Laker’s like that, too– though he does have to report to his tough-as-nails boss Sam Mason, head of The Gray Outfit. Luckily Mason has as much disdain for routine methods as Laker.

My readers will also know that my series characters don’t work entirely alone.  Soon enough they meet up with a woman who gets under their skin.

In Laker’s case, it’s a beautiful and brainy NSA codebreaker named Ava North. The secret she brings him that is too hot for anyone else to handle concerns not her work but her family. The Norths have been Washington insiders for generations. The beginnings of the story of The Honorable Traitors go all the way back to World War II, but its unimaginably violent final act will take place in the future… the very near future.

04 February 2018

Hi Infidelity– The Rules have Changed


by Leigh Lundin

Man Faces 15 Years after Catching Wife Cheating

Cast of Characters
• Donis, Sean
37, NJ, husband, father of little tyke, cheat catcher
• Donis, Nancy
38, NJ, wife, unrepentant cheater, new divorcée
• Lopez, Albert
58, NY, unprofessional orthopedist, banger of wives, oblivious Nancy Donis could sue his ass for workplace sexual harassment
• Mcleod, Nabeela
38, NY, prosecutor of really-important-cases, enabler on the side of something or other
Just the Facts, mildly distorted

After an exhausting tax day, Nancy Donis announces she’s dashing out to sup with friends in nearby Elizabeth. “Gotta run, toodles, ta-ta.” Mr Donis is not invited.

Sean Donis remains home to babysit their 4-year-old child. Facing a dinner choice of hotdog tacos, hotdog pizza, or hotdog with cornflakes, Sean looks for the iPad where he kept his unfinished novel.

It is gone, missing. His child doesn’t know about it, the family pooch swears it hasn’t eaten it, and the pet turtle claims it hasn’t seen it since last Tisha B'Av. Where, O where?

Mr Donis turns on his iPhone and activates the app, Where’s my iPad. Instead of hearing beeps from under the sofa, GPS shows the iPad crossing the border into New York.

Possibly he felt fear for her life– car-jackers, mall robbers, hostile Russian political operatives. Perhaps to save her, our protagonist stashes young child with grandmother, puts on cape, and swoops off to the rescue.

At this point, Mr Donis crosses the line, literally, from New Jersey into New York, or from a legal standpoint, from the frying pan into the fire. The iPad leads him into a morally sordid suburb in Pomona in Rockland County. There he finds the family Ford Edge, its hood warm, passionately warm to the touch.

The iPad’s signal leads to a front door… unlocked. Who in their right mind in New York leaves a door unlocked?

In Flagrante Delicto

Armed with only his iPhone, Sean Donis dashes inside. Upstairs he finds wife Nancy with her boss playing swallow-the-leader, hide-the-zucchini and other parlor tricks. In shock, Sean drops the phone.

Lopez, a real-life orthopedic Batman fan, leaps from his insemination experiments to grab Sean. He threatens Donis’ life, demanding to know “if (Donis) wanted to die.”

A devastated Sean says, “Kill me. I don’t care.”

Here we come to the crux of the matter. Professional foot fetisher fondler Lopez is so traumatized threatening the life of the man he’d just cuckolded, he presses charges against his victim.

Rockland County prosecutor Nabeela Mcleod, watching Jersey Shore reruns and bored from polishing her nails hour after hour, jumps on the case. She develops a legal theory her constituent has been victimized when discovered bangin another man’s wife. The prosecutor files burglary and unlawful surveillance charges against the wronged husband, the victimized father. She seeks a 15-year sentence.

Seriously? As Sean’s lawyer says, at worst Mr Donis committed a trespass violation, not multiple felonies.

Poor PTSD afflicted banger Lopez, now aggrieved, says the wife lied and kept her marital status hidden from him, her employer. He claims he didn’t know she was married and living with her husband and child. This contradicts his own testimony when asked, “Did you even think what effect the defendant finding out about you two would have … on their child?” He answers, “Yes.”

Suing the victim sounds like an upside-down alienation of affection tort. Whereas the state once sided with the wronged party, this perpetrator has engaged the state for his own spiteful ends. Lopez has prosecutor Nabeela Mcleod gleefully pursue the poor husband through the courts, adding insult to injury.

Set aside the moral issue, the right or wrong of Mrs Donis and Mr Lopez to ‘bang’ whomever they  wish. The question I pose is whether Lopez and Mrs Donis… and the prosecutor… should punish Mr Donis for catching them in the act?



I might have chosen another word, perhaps politer, perhaps not, but ‘bang’ is the verb used repeatedly in Mr Donis’ court hearing.
Note:
In this sarcastic opinion piece as in all SleuthSayers articles, actions and accusations are ‘alleged’. Don’t sue us– we’re broke.

03 February 2018

"I said, 'He said,'" she said.



by John M. Floyd



We all know there's plenty of room for disagreement in the writing/publishing world: literary vs. genre, characters vs. plot, outlining vs. pantsing, showing vs. telling, first-person vs. third-, simultaneous submissions vs. one-at-a-time, past tense vs. present, self-publishing vs. traditional, and so on. (Thomas Pluck's SleuthSayers column yesterday, mostly about POV issues, is a good example.) One of my favorite discussions, though, is the one about using/avoiding the word "said."

There is apparently a movement now to declare "said" an obsolete word. Its proponents insist that the word is unemotional, boring, and unsophisticated, and that there are many better words we can substitute. The movement's loudest cheerleader, I've heard, is a California middle-school teacher who published a successful book on the subject, and a lot of other educators and writers have climbed onto that bandwagon. One article suggested replacing "said" with "more colorful words like barked, howled, demanded, cackled, snarled, professed, argued, cautioned, remarked, or cried."

Elmore Leonard is probably spinning in his grave. One of the commandments in his 10 Rules of Writing was "Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue." "Never" seems a little extreme, but I think his point was that "said" is a transparent word--the reader's eye skips right over it. Flowery synonyms for "said" can do the opposite of what I as a fiction writer want to do: they can distract the reader from the story itself, and make him or her think about the writing and the writer rather than what's written. I read somewhere that "said"--and probably "asked" as well--is more like a punctuation mark than a verb. It's unobtrusive.

Also, some substitutes for "said" seem to try to explain or clarify things too much. In the sentence "Get out," she demanded, the attribution verb is redundant--we can see that it's a demand. Same thing with "I beg you," he pleaded or "I feel terrible," she moaned. And believe me, I've seen this in a lot of students' stories. It's amateurish overwriting at best and ("I saw you," he observed) hilarious at worst.

Besides Dutch Leonard (I really miss him, by the way), there are other prominent writers who seem/seemed to prefer the word "said" over its synonyms: Larry McMurtry, Ed McBain, Robert B. Parker, Ernest Hemingway, Lee Child, Joe R. Lansdale, Janet Evanovich, Dennis Lehane, Raymond Chandler, Martin Cruz Smith, Stephen King, William Goldman, and John Sanford, to name a few.

I've rounded up several quotes on this issue of "said" avoidance:



". . . Don't tell me your character 'excaimed,' 'stated,' or 'replied.' When in doubt, just use 'said.' That's all. Maybe they 'answered.' They certainly did not 'retort.' You can use 'said' more often than you think . . . it's one of those words that takes a while before it starts sounding repetitive."
-- Ariel Gore, How to Become a Famous Writer Before You're Dead

"The best form of dialogue attribution is 'said,' as in 'he said, she said, Bill said, Monica said."
-- Stephen King, On Writing

"Mr. [Robert] Ludlum . . . hates the 'he said' locution and avoids it as much as possible. Characters in The Bourne Ultimatum seldom 'say' anything. Instead, they cry, interject, interrupt, muse, state, counter, conclude, mumble, whisper (Mr. Ludlum is great on whispers), intone, roar, exclaim, fume, explode, mutter. There is one especially unforgettable tautology: '"I repeat," repeated Alex.' The book may sell in the billions, but it's still junk."
-- Newgate Callender, in The New York Times Book Review

"Editors and critics often refer to melodramatic dialogue tags as 'said bookisms.' They know that these phrases give our story an amateurish look. Your readers might not know what the darn things are called, but chances are that they'll notice them, too . . . In most cases, the word 'said' would work just fine, and using said bookisms detracts from the dialogue."
-- Ann M. Marble, "'Stop Using Those Said Bookisms,' the Editor Shrieked."

"[Say is] just too simple and clear and straightforward for many people. Why say something when you can declare, assert, expostulate, whine, exclaim, groan, peal, breathe, cry, explain, or asseverate it? I'm all for variety and freshness of expression, but let's not go overboard."
-- Patricia T. O'Conner, Woe Is I

". . . Some teachers, teachers who were themselves not writers, used to warn against the monotony of the word 'said.' This was wrong-headed advice."
-- Rick Demarinis, The Art & Craft of the Short Story

"In journalism circles, said is a virtue--simple, precise, and unadorned--and alternatives to it are considered frilly and silly. You don't have to agree, but be aware that lots of editors hold this view. Choose your alternatives to said with great care."
--June Casagrande, It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences

"We're all in favor of choosing exactly the right verb for the action, but when you're writing speaker attributions the right verb is nearly always 'said.' The reason those well-intentioned attempts at variety don't work is that verbs other than 'said' tend to draw attention away from the dialogue."
--Renni Browne and Dave King, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers



You can tell which side of the argument I'm on, here--I prefer "said," and, if asked, "asked"--but I'm not a sign-waving activist. I tend to throw in some whispers, shouts, and murmurs when I feel like it. And, in all fairness, there are a lot of excellent and successful authors, among them J.K. Rowling, Nicholas Sparks, Salman Rushdie, Nevada Barr, John Irving, Patricia Cornwell, and Jan Karon, who regularly frolic in the synonymial daisies of dialogue attribution and come out smelling just fine. Bottom line is, there'll always be writers who love "said," writers who avoid it like Kryptonite, and writers who lobby for verb diversity. It's just another of those debatable issues of style where some things work for some and not for others.

"The choice is yours," he intoned.