27 March 2018

High Contrast, Low Key: Film Noir


Images of Film Noir

I didn't know I was doing film noir, I thought
they were detective stories with low lighting!

                                                                      --Marie Windsor, noir icon

Murder, My Sweet


I thought I’d do something a little different for my post this week. Instead of writing about this or that I thought I’d make it visual. Images from film noir. Images that inspire much, though not all of my work. And I don’t think I’m alone. I think a lot of us have been inspired one way or another by film noir and much of noir is its visual look.

The film noir aesthetic is full of iconic images – some might call them tropes. Either way, they’re striking, they affect us, and they hit us on a subconscious level. Iconic images of shadows, rain, fog, neon, darkness and night, dark streets and alleys, Venetian blinds, oblique angles and reflections, low key lighting, guys with gats, femme fatales and plenty of cigarettes, smoke and smoking. They’re mostly urban, though one of the best, Out of the Past, is largely rural. And, of course, pretty much all are in striking black and white.

I’ve broken the images up into various categories. Of course, one pic might fit into several categories and pretty much all have low key lighting, so there’s no category for that.

It’s hard to narrow down all the great images to a reasonable number for a blog, and I’m sure I’ve left out some good ones. But here goes. And feel free to add your own choices in the comments. I don’t think you can put pictures in but you can tell us about them and the movies they’re from.


Oblique Angles and Striking Images


D.O.A.
Fear in the Night
Born to Kill
The Big Heat
Sunset Boulevard
Strangers on a Train
Sunset Boulevard
D.O.A.
Fear in the Night
Phantom Lady
Fear in the Night
The Lady from Shanghai
He Walked by Night
The Lady from Shanghai
The Maltese Falcon
Nightmare Alley
Black Angel
Dark Passage
The Postman Always Rings Twice
The Third Man
The Third Man

Touch of Evil

Shadows, Reflections and Venetian Blinds


The Killers
Crack-Up
Double Indemnity
Fear in the Night
He Walked by Night
The Maltese Falcon
The Narrow Margin
The Narrow Margin
Pitfall
Somewhere in the Night
The Crooked Way
The Woman in the Window

Fog and Rain


The Big Combo
Follow Me Quietly
The Narrow Margin
Scarlet Street
The Blue Dahlia

Smoking


The Postman Always Rings Twice
The Maltese Falcon
Out of the Past
Out of the Past
Pitfall

Streets, Alleys and Neon


Act of Violence
Act of Violence
Act of Violence
The Blue Dahlia
Born to Kill
Criss Cross
The Crooked Way
Cry Danger
Cry Danger
Dark Passage
Dark Passage
D.O.A.
Kiss Me, Deadly
The Lady from Shanghai

People, Femme Fatales and Guys with Gats


Gun Crazy
Crack-Up
Scarlet Street
The Big Sleep
Born to Kill
D.O.A.
Dead Reckoning
Detour
D.O.A.
Double Indemnity
Double Indemnity
The Postman Always Rings Twice
I Walk Alone
The Blue Dahlia
Laura
The Big Sleep
Out of the Past
Out of the Past
Out of the Past
The Strange Love of Martha Ivers
The Crooked Way
Too Late for Tears
In a Lonely Place and Detour

Lobby Cards, Title Cards, Posters


***

The author as a boy with gat, lucky rabbit's foot and the
shadow of noir over him.

###

And now for the usual BSP:

Please join me on Facebook: www.facebook.com/paul.d.marks and check out my website www.PaulDMarks.com


26 March 2018

An Emotional List


by Stephen Ross

I read recently in a newspaper about a study into the range of emotions human beings can experience. The study turned up 27 of them. And this was a study undertaken by the University of California Berkeley, and not some random list drawn up by two men in a pub over a pint.

Generally, it's been held that there are only about a half dozen core emotions, e.g., anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, surprise.

This study expanded on that.

In short, the researchers at Berkeley sat 800 volunteers down in front of video monitors and asked them to report and rank the emotions they felt when watching 30 short (silent) video clips. The clips included all manner of things, including births, deaths, marriages, sex, spiders, scenic wonders, natural disasters, and awkward handshakes (and probably, Donald Trump's hair).

In short again, they found that the responses they got to the clips were multidimensional. No one clip produced one single emotion. In fact, a clip could elicit a variety of "feelings" in the viewer. And each of these feelings constituted an individual and unique emotion.

For example, a clip of a man on tightrope walking between two mountain cliffs brought in the following response from the subjects: Fear 55%, Anxiety 45%, Admiration 9%, Aesthetic appreciation 9%, Amusement 9%, Entrancement 9%.

I don't want to get into an analysis of how they made their findings or drew their conclusions, but I think I can sum it up: Humans are complex creatures; our responses to stimuli are never one dimensional.


My real interest here, and reason for writing, is the LIST they drew up. And here it is:

27 Human Emotions
  • Admiration
  • Adoration
  • Aesthetic Appreciation
  • Amusement
  • Anxiety
  • Awe
  • Awkwardness
  • Boredom
  • Calmness
  • Confusion
  • Craving
  • Disgust
  • Empathetic pain
  • Entrancement
  • Envy
  • Excitement
  • Fear
  • Horror
  • Interest
  • Joy
  • Nostalgia
  • Romance
  • Sadness
  • Satisfaction
  • Sexual desire
  • Sympathy
  • Triumph
I like this. It's another handy list for the writer's toolbox.

And I like the concept of multidimensional emotional responses to stimuli. It's a good reminder to write characters that have depth and are of more than one emotion. If a character has only one emotion, he's not real, he's a transparent plot device.

The Illustration: This is a photo (close detail) that I took of a painting that hangs in the Auckland Art Gallery. "For of such is the Kingdom of Heaven" by Frank Bramley, 1891. It's quite big and quite haunting, when you stand in front of it. I can report Aesthetic Appreciation, Sadness, Empathetic pain, and Calmness.

www.StephenRoss.net

25 March 2018

Down in Montego


When the cold, snowy winds of winter come blasting across the Front Range, thoughts of Jamaica bring soothing visions of warm, sandy beaches, cool tropical breezes, a refreshing plunge into clear Caribbean waters, and perchance a local rum drink in a tall glass to smooth out a lazy afternoon. And that's the way it's been on the tourist end of the island for many years. But, with the increasing droves of tourists arriving on the island, along came problems, lots of problems.
left side of Montego Bay
As more and more tourists flew into Montego Bay's airport and more cruise ships tied up to their wharf, Montego Bay in the 1980's emerged as the tourism capital of Jamaica. To provide service to this influx of people with money to spend, native islanders moved to the city, seeking jobs and housing. This sudden growth left the city without enough places for these new workers to live. With nowhere else to go, the new labor force gradually moved inland, where in the local lingo, they "captured" land and built on it. Roughly nineteen unplanned communities, without the infrastructure of proper roads, street lights, addresses or other amenities, cropped up above Montego Bay. Existing roads were dirt, buildings were hidden behind zinc fences, and with all the congestion, the local police didn't have the manpower to effectively patrol these unplanned communities. Theft of utilities, such as water and electricity became common practice. Criminals soon found this uncontrolled environment conducive to their illegal activities. Gangs took over and the crime rates soared.

Harbor at Montego Bay
In St. James Parish, where these informal communities sprouted up, the chief criminal organizations went by names such as One Order, in the Flanders area; Killer Bees, in Granville; Piranha, in Bottom Pens; and Tight Pants, in North Gully. (For a fearsome gang to be named Tight Pants, I don't know if that was a fashion statement or if someone had a sick sense of humor.) At that time, the most infamous gang, known as Stone Crusher, ruled in the Norwood community. From 2002 to 2010, the Stone Crusher gang was believed to be responsible for most of the over one hundred murders per year in St. James Parish, of which Montego Bay is the parish capital.

With money and power being the main motivating factors for organized criminals, the major schemes began. The guns for drug trade is alleged to have been thought up by a Jamaican and a Haitian while both were serving time in a Miami jail during 2001. The Jamaican sent drugs to Haiti and in return, the Haitian sent guns to Jamaica. In 2002, part of the first shipment of guns was alleged to be used in an eight-hour gun battle against the police in the Cantebury section of Montego Bay. Three of the alleged gunmen were killed and three policemen were wounded. The police subsequently seized several high-powered rifles and over a thousand rounds of ammunition. Joint operations by the U.S. and Jamaican authorities later resulted in the arrest of several prominent Montego Bay residents involved in the crime and corruption.

With local and international attention being focused on the drug trade, criminals started moving over to the emerging lotto scam. Con artists in Jamaica would dupe Americans into believing they had won the local lottery. All the "winner" had to do was send money to pay the "processing fees." This scheme brought in an estimated thirty million dollars during a six year period. Rival scammers soon got crosswise with each other and turned to corrupt policemen and the local gangs for protection. At this point, the Stone Crushers entered the lucrative protection and extortion rackets. Lotto scammers who didn't pay up were murdered.

Police corruption ran rampant. Two local policemen were alleged to work for the Stone Crusher gang as hitmen. Those people living in the unplanned communities became afraid to complain of crimes against them. They no longer trusted the police. Political leadership was ineffectual. Pastors of local churches began to preach for a return to moral values. A local newspaper, the Gleaner, started its own investigation into the problems. A monthly award of $100,00 was offered by the Police Commissioner to the police unit making the most arrests and gun and drug seizures. The bodies of gang leaders, hitmen and other gang members began to stack up during gun battles with the police. With heat on the lotto scammers coming from both sides of the law, many moved on to armed robberies, which put them in direct conflict with the police.

With this evolving of crime in Jamaica, the current tourist should not be surprised to find armed guards in front of jewelry stores, even in the tourist areas.

So, where does that leave the tourist who wishes a relaxing vacation in Jamaica? Fortunately, the majority of violence has been contained to the unplanned communities in St. James Parish, places where the tourists wouldn't want to go anyway. As for you, you've gotten a safe peek at the underbelly of a Caribbean paradise without personally ending up in the line of fire.

Life's a beach in Ocho Rios
For myself, I prefer the area of Ocho Rios or Negril as places to vacation on this island. They are smaller and more laid back, more friendly.  Sure, there's a Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville in both Ocho Rios and in Montego Bay, but you can walk to the one from the wharf in Och Rios, whereas the one in Montego Bay will cost you a hefty taxi ride. And even then, you had best settle on the amount of the fee in advance, else you may feel like you got robbed without a gun being pulled on you.

Will I go back to Jamaica? You bet. I'll just be careful which parts I choose to visit. I still remember going to Montego Bay with the federal Jamaican narcs in the mid-1980's to run down one of our fugitives. Those guys told stories about crime and violence even back then.

Gotta go. Going through all this has made me thirsty for one of them rum drinks in a tall glass.

Have a good one.

24 March 2018

Murder is SO Italian! The Best shows on MHZ


It's true.  Murder is so Italian.  POWER! REVENGE! BETRAYAL!  It goes right back to those steps of the Senate, when Brutus asks his good friend Caesar for a light, and then fills him full of bronze.

So it's not surprising that the Italian tradition of writing about murder is first rate.  I'll bet you've already heard of Donna Leon.  She writes very good stuff set in Venice for the English market.  But do you know who is a superstar in his own country?

My favourite writer:  Andrea Camilleri

Set in Sicily, the Montalbano series is about the best thing out there, on paper or on television.  Inspector Montalbano is a fictional hero in Italy, and a wonderful character on the screen.  His supporting cast is delightful.  This is not grim and gritty fare like Scandi-noir.  (Okay, I crossed out the word 'dismal'.  You caught me.)  Nope - Montalbano is truly fun, clever, witty and brilliant.  And oh, the Sicilian scenery.  And the food!  The television adaptation is now playing on MHz, the European Mystery channel, now available in the US and Canada for the same price as Netflix.  If you are a mystery fan, you're crazy not to subscribe to this.

Other Italian series on MHZ (in Italian with English subtitles)

Nero Wolfe:  Yes, you heard that right.  The story is: Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin leave New York to go live in Italy for their own safety in the 1950s.  So...an Italian production where Wolfe and Archie are known as Americans, and believe it or not, it rocks.  You'll be believing Goodwin is the real thing from the books - he's perfect.  Yes, it's different from the North American version.  But gorgeous.  The production values and attention to detail are amazing.

Inspector Manara:  Regarded as a 'poor man's Montalbano' (not my words) Inspector Manara is very attractive, but not quite as charming.  They made him a player, which lessens his appeal in my books.  Still, it fills the gap when you've gone through all seasons of Montalbano.

Don Matteo:  This delightful series is very different from most crime shows.  Imagine Father Brown with a wonderful smile, heart full of gold, and ride-um cowboy physique.  Yes, the star of this show is a handsome former Spaghetti Western cowboy you may recognize from earlier films.  He makes a terrific priest and the cast of quirky characters around him are, to a word, lovable.  The Carabinieri Capitano and Marshall are my personal favourites.  Heaps of fun, and the series is in it's 10th season, so lots to watch.  The perfect show before bed, when you want to go to sleep with a smile.

Inspector Nardone:  Hold your hat for a unique series that takes one back to the late 1940s.  WW11 is still haunting the inhabitants of this northern Italian city.  Nardone is a man with integrity and grit, in a world where the bad guys often win and run things.  This is a more serious show, done with an interesting voice-over by a journalist following the actions of Nardone.  Great period piece.

Murder at BarLume:  Truly an original show with Massimo as the attractive bar owner trying to keep control of four geriatric pensioners who would try anyone's sanity (honestly, you have to see it to believe it.)  Murder, of course, is on the bar menu, and Massimo solves each crime ahead of the Germanic female detective.  Great fun.

Obviously, if you watch this list, you will get a good peek into my personality.  But take it from me: NO one does humour like the Italians.

Says she, flying back to Palermo as soon as possible.

Like humorous Italian stories?  The Derringer and Arthur Ellis award-winning Goddaughter series is about a mob goddaughter who doesn't want to be one.  Too bad she keeps getting dragged back to bail the family out.  Here's the latest loopy caper, which is a finalist for the Ontario Library Association Golden Oak award...
On AMAZON

23 March 2018

Seriously, You Don't Think It's a Masterpiece Too?


I'm not sure how many times I've read Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, but I'm now teaching it for what's probably the fourth or fifth time—this round for my "True Crime" course at George Mason University. I almost didn't add it to this semester's syllabus, assuming that many students may have already read and studied it in other classes, but a quick poll of folks who registered early for the course showed that this wasn't the case; in fact, turns out only four of the 20 students have read it before. Even if more had, I might have included it anyway; In Cold Blood seems such a central, foundational text for this genre. How could you not?

Earlier this week, in our first class session discussing the book, I asked for initial reactions from students encountering it for the first time. One woman raised her hand. "It has a lot of details," she said—which immediately opened up in my mind so many directions for conversation: How did Capote amass all this information? What techniques from novel writing did he bring to this nonfiction work to weave that wonderful tapestry of details? How do all these details form a compelling portrait of the Clutters, of their community, of the killers?

Then the student added, "And a lot of commas too."

It was suddenly clear that her observation about details wasn't meant in a positive way.

When I pressed her about it, she added, "It dragged a little"—her tone saying that, really, for her, it dragged a lot.

There are many directions I could go with from this anecdote—including a discussion of those details and that pacing and why In Cold Blood remains such a masterpiece to my mind reread after reread. But instead I'm going to focus on that "in my mind" and the divide that sometimes opens up between my own enthusiasm for a story or book or film and my students' just as extreme lack of enthusiasm.

Early on in my teaching career, a fellow professor mentioned to me that she would never again teach Austen in her classes. Because she didn't care for Austen herself? That was my assumption and my question. But it was the opposite, in fact: This professor loved Austen so much that she couldn't bear to hear her students react negatively to the novels one more time. It was too heartbreaking. Better just to teach something else.

Despite that advice, I've assigned texts to my syllabi that are among my own favorites—and, as predicted by that other professor, I've struggled more than once with students' derision of them or dismissal of them. Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest comes to mind, and Stanley Ellin's "The Moment of Decision," and John McPhee's "Search for Marvin Gardens," and Nicholas Roeg's film version of Don't Look Now, and... There are many others—masterpieces all, I firmly believe this—but no matter how much I try to extol the virtues of each of them, endeavor to count out those virtues one by one, many students—too many—prove unmoved.

I don't take offense (well, not too much), but the disjunction here does pose some questions. When you're teaching students to analyze a text, does it matter whether you get them to appreciate it too? Certainly not everyone is going to like the same works of art as everyone else, but shouldn't you try to encourage a broadening of perspectives? ...which may circle back again from analysis to understanding to that question of appreciation. And then, what if there's simply a generational gap in some cases? A week ago today, I turned 50, and these kids... well, their tastes are different, the culture they grew up in is different, their aesthetics are a world away from mine, and....

Each to his own then? Surely that may be part of it, but even there....

As part of various small celebrations of my milestone birthday, my wife Tara and I were supposed to go see Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo in the theater Wednesday night—part of a 60th anniversary celebration of the film. It's one of my favorites—one of a handful of films that I remember watching absolutely mesmerized start to finish. (Others would include Raging Bull, Manhattan, Breaking the Waves, and Birdman—a list that might seem more eclectic at first glance than it really is.) Tara and I never made it to Vertigo. A combination of spring snow and sick child put an end to those plans. But I was reminded of one of the last times I've seen it on the big screen (four total, I'll admit) with a woman I was dating at the time. Partway through those beautiful sequences where Scottie follows Madeleine around San Francisco, that girlfriend leaned over and whispered, "This is so boring."

I guess I should've known then the relationship wouldn't last.

And speaking of Tara, I remember when we first started dating and she asked me if I'd read the Harry Potter books. When I told her I hadn't, she said, "Oh, you need to read them." So I told her that I would—as you do in situations when someone recommends books like that. But then she got very serious: "No. I mean it. You need to read them." Unspoken: Now.

I did, of course, and loved them, which seems fortunate for all of us. I still wonder where our relationship would be if I hadn't read them, hadn't liked them, had failed what was clearly a test of some kind.

The stakes aren't always so high, of course. I loved Birdman—loved, loved, loved it—but when I mentioned that to my writing group, a couple of them looked at me like I was insane. And I couldn't judge them too harshly for that, could I?

....

Several more questions here—this time for the folks reading this post: When have friendships been formed or cemented because of a mutual love for some book or movie? On the flipside, have relationships ever been strained because of serious disagreements on something like this? And how do you handle it when your enthusiasm for a story or a book or a film is met by a shrug of the shoulders or a wave of the hand from someone whose judgement or opinion you really value?

And if you really hate any of the favorites I mentioned above, I promise I'll try really not to think less of you. 😉


22 March 2018

Live From LCC: Three Simple Rules for Getting the Most Out of Your Crime Fiction Conference Experience


by Brian Thornton

This one will be on the short side, as I'm in Reno, getting ready for the kick-off of Left Coast Crime 2018 tomorrow. (This is also why it's being posted a little bit late. Sorry Leigh and Rob!).

For those of our readers who have never attended either Left Coast in particular or a mystery fiction conference in general (Bouchercon, Love is Murder, Sleuthfest, Crime Bake, etc.), I have to say, you are missing out.

My first mystery fiction conference was fifteen years ago at the Bouchercon on the other end of this state, in Las Vegas. I had only just gotten serious about my writing (my first book deal was still a couple of years away over the horizon), and I was nervous, not knowing what to expect.

As it turned out, the overwhelming feeling I experienced that first time was the sensation of coming home to a place that I didn't even know was home, in a community more welcoming than most on this planet.

Mystery writers are an eclectic bunch: with their share of habitual introverts, carefree spirits, hard-working professionals, gadflies, humorless grinds, and many hardy souls who embody all of these archetypes to varying degrees at different times.

And they made me feel like part of the party.

I have never not felt that way in any gathering of writers anywhere, since.

So you can imagine how much I'm looking forward to diving into LCC beginning with tomorrow's panels!

While each of these conferences is unique in its own way (And that's particularly true of Left Coast!), they do tend to share any number of similarities. So I thought it might be worthwhile to give the discerning reader (and potential future attendee) a list of tips intended to help you get the most out of your Crime Fiction Conference Experience(tm).

Here they are:

1. Risk.
2. Pace.
3. Wander.

1. Take one risk per day.

With this one I'm not talking about crossing a busy street without looking both ways first. Nope. Always look both ways before crossing the street!

The type of risk I'm talking about is the sort of thing that terrifies so many people: reach out and make some connections. Attend a panel that interests you. If any of the authors on that panel impressed you (as is so often the case!), approach them and talk to them when they're at the signing tables afterward (time at the signing table can crawl by, take my word for it. Or better yet, if we're ever at a conference together, ask me about it in person. Especially if you see me languishing at the signings tables after my panel!).

After all making connections is the whole point of these things. This is literally the main reason everyone who comes to a crime fiction conference does so: to connect with fans, other authors, industry professionals, etc.

2. Pace yourself.

Conferences start early and run all day (and that's not even counting what so often goes on in the event bar at all hours). Don't be obsessed with "getting your money's worth" by making sure you attend something every hour of the scheduled day.

How you "get your money's worth" in this instance is value quality over quantity. So who cares if you pass on that panel about what kind of shoes Sherlock Holmes may have worn, as long as you get the opportunity to indulge your interest in Nero Wolfe's obsession with yellow shirts? Build in breaks, and pace yourself.

And don't be surprised if some of the best memories you'll have of this experience took place in or around the event bar.

3. Let the current carry you.

Maybe you're a planner, someone who finds comfort in relentlessly scheduling your day. Or maybe you're a go-with-the-flow type of person. These events favor people who take the latter view. As an avowed go-with-the-flow type, I have to say that some of the best things that have happened to me at these kinds of conferences came about as a result of allowing myself to be drawn into situations I had not anticipated happening.

Whether it's debating about which Beatles' song is the best, or talking about Scandinavian noir, discussing the nature of evil, or questioning the notion that all irrational actions are borne of a fear of death. Maybe it's listening to an author friend recount how her printer ran out of paper as she was printing off the final draft of her latest book, only to have her car break down on the way to the conference, or it could even be meeting a writer whose work has greatly impacted your life.

The point is that all these things (and infinitely more) are possible at a crime fiction conference.

You can take my word for it, or you can walk up to me at the next conference we're attending together, and ask me how I know.

One's more fun!

See you all in two weeks!

21 March 2018

Get Off the Premises


Fairy Glen, Isle of Skye, Scotland
There is a comedy adage  attributed to Johnny Carson: If you buy the premise, you buy the bit.

I translate that as follows: If the audience accepts the underlying concept of the joke, they will laugh at the punchline.

In fiction we call that the willing suspension of disbelief, which comes from the well-known stand-up comedian Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

This is on my mind because I recently watched (or tried to) a TV movie called Bright, on Netflix.  I gave up halfway through because I couldn't buy the premise.  It takes place in a world in which elves, fairies, and orcs live side by side with humans.  Will Smith plays an L.A. cop partnered with the first orc police officer.

And none of that is the part I have a problem with.  In fact, I was excited about it because it reminded me of a TV series I  loved, Alien Nation, which also featured an L.A. cop, this time in a world adjusting to the arrival of half a million extraterrestrials.

But therein lies the problem I had with the premise of Bright.  It suggested that humans and faerie folk have knowingly  lived side by side for thousands of years, and yet we ended up with a society essentially the same as our own.  And that's what made my disbelief go splat on the floor.

See, Alien Nation took place just a couple of years after the Newcomers landed.  It made sense that our society would be changing as we got  used to them.

Now, compare this to a TV series from New Zealand I have recently been watching.  The Almighty Johnsons is a dramedy with another far-out concept.  Axl is the youngest of four brothers living in the modern N.Z. city of Norsewood.  On his 21st birthday his siblings inform him of the family secret: they are all Norse gods and are about to find out which one Axl is.

Far-fetched?  Of course.  But so far (I'm nine  episodes in) the premise works.  These incarnated gods are weak shadows of their former selves so the society they live in looks just like the reality we know.  Of course, there is a quest and if Axl completes it successfully they will gain their full powers.  If he fails they will all die.  "So, no pressure," he says dryly.

Have you ever given up on a book or a show because the premise went to far?  Tell me about it in the comments.  And watch out for Thor's hammer, because that dude is crazy.

20 March 2018

Dubious Writing Advice


My story “Montezuma’s Revenge” appears in Passport to Murder (Down & Out Books), the Bouchercon 2017 anthology edited by John McFetridge, and I participated in the convention’s group signing. As author of the second story in the anthology, I sat at a long table sandwiched between Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine editor Janet Hutchings (author of the first story) and Hilary Davidson (author of the third). Hilary was quite the draw, and adoring fans wanting to spend extra time with her caused the line to back up in front of Janet and me. At some point one of the autograph seekers, whether truly interested or just trying to kill time before talking to Hilary, asked about writing short stories. I said I always start with apostrophes.

Knowing whether you want to use many apostrophes or only a few has a significant impact on your writing. If you choose to use many apostrophes, your work will be filled with contractions, an informal style best suited to first-person narration. If you desire few apostrophes, you will write in a formal style best suited to third person.

That’s one of the many tips, tricks, and techniques I’ve stumbled across during my long literary adventure. Much of my formal education came erratically—a class here, a semester there—and I did not graduate college until I was 48. Though my B.A. is in professional writing, I was writing professionally long before graduation, and most of what I know are things I taught myself along the way.

GOT IT?

I agreed to join SleuthSayers shortly before the Toronto Bouchercon, and during the convention, Robert Lopresti suggested I use this forum to discuss my loathing for a particular overused word, a tirade he’s witnessed and written about in Criminal Brief (January 9, 2008):
“Michael hates got with a passion and while I don’t feel that strongly about it, I agree it needs to be considered carefully.”
Got is a lazy word used by lazy writers, and it can almost always be replaced by a better, more descriptive word or phrase. Without context, it has so many possible meanings that it has no meaning at all.

For example: “Bob got to his feet” could mean “Bob stood” or it could mean “Bob rolled out of bed and dragged himself across the floor to where he’d left his prosthetic limbs the night before.”

How about “Bob got his new T-shirt dirty,” which could mean “Bob received his new T-shirt dirty” or “he dirtied his new T-shirt while dragging himself across the floor.”

Or, “Bob got his revolver,” which could mean “Bob comprehended the philosophical and moral implications of his reliance on weaponry to mask his underlying fear of diminished masculinity following prostate surgery” or “Bob retrieved his revolver from the nightstand.”

IT WAS, WAS IT?

It was may be the worst two words with which to begin a sentence, and is an even less desirable way to begin a story. Sure, Charles Dickens did it, but few of us are Charles Dickens. It was adds nothing to a sentence, delays getting to the meat of the matter, and is the literary equivalent of a math problem, where “It was a dark and stormy night” translated into a simple math problem becomes:

It = a dark and stormy night.
Solve for It.

Almost every sentence that begins with It was can be revised into a more active, more powerful sentence. Thus, “It was a dark and stormy night when Bob shot the neighbor” could easily become “On a dark and stormy night, Bob shot the neighbor” or “Bob shot the neighbor on a dark and stormy night.”

“It was blood” could become “Blood oozed from the gunshot wound” or “Blood stained his neighbor’s shirt.”

THAT THEN?

Two t words continue to vex me: that and then.

That is sentence filler, often unnecessary for comprehension.

Remove that and “Bob knew that his neighbor was dead” becomes “Bob knew his neighbor was dead,” an ever-so-slightly better sentence.

Then is more a personal bugaboo than something I see other writers use and abuse. My characters tend to do something and then do something else. Thus: “Bob dropped the gun and then hobbled from the house on his prosthetic feet,” which is better written as “Bob dropped the gun and hobbled from the house on his prosthetic feet.”

HAD ENOUGH?

I picked up my newest trick from Marvin Kaye, fiction editor of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine, who writes about had in the magazine’s submission guidelines:
“I have a special problem with the word ‘had,’” he writes. “Boiled down, here is what’s wrong with some (not all) compound past tenses—except for fiction written in present tense, our convention is to put things in the simple past. The reader, of course, translates the action into it ‘just happening.’ But as soon as a compound verb is introduced, such as ‘she had already bought the book,’ the action is shoved a little into the past [...]. Thus, in this magazine, unnecessary ‘hads’ are deleted, so that the above would be rendered as ‘she already bought the book,’ which now seems to be ‘just happening.’”
Remove had and “Bob had shot his neighbor and had fled the scene” becomes “Bob shot his neighbor and fled the scene.”

THEN IT WAS THAT WHAT HE HAD GOT

Don’t be Bob. Don’t shoot the neighbor on a dark and storm night, especially if your prosthetics will slow your escape.

Eliminate six simple words from your literary vocabulary (or significantly reduce their use)—got, it was, had, that, and then—and you’ll see a significant improvement in your writing. Your stories will be cleaner and your pacing faster.

Oh, and count your apostrophes to determine if your writing is formal or informal.

For more dubious writing advice, join me and several hundred other writers and fans at Malice Domestic, April 27-29. I’ll be moderating “Make It Snappy: Our Agatha Best Short Story Nominees,” where I’ll be trying to ferret out how and why Gretchen Archer, Barb Goffman, Debra H. Goldstein, Gigi Pandian, and Art Taylor wrote their Agatha-nominated short stories. I will also be a panelist for “Precise Prose: Short Crime Fiction” and will be signing copies of the Malice anthology, Mystery Most Geographical, which contains my story “Arroyo.”

19 March 2018

Genre-ly Speaking


by Steve Liskow

When I retired from teaching and returned to writing after a hiatus of over twenty years, I found myself turning to crime fiction without a second's thought. My mother loved Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Ellery Queen, Ngaio Marsh, and most of the other golden age writers, and I grew up on The Hardy Boys, so it made sense to me.

On the other hand, my theater cronies knew me only as an English teacher with three graduate degrees, and they kept asking "why mysteries?" They obviously thought I should be producing something "more serious," which I guess meant "literary."

Many people still look down at mysteries and romance as something you scrape off your shoe, but I don't know why. Keep in mind that the idea of genre or non-genre writing is a fairly new distinction. I'm too lazy to research, but I'd guess that it began either between the two world wars or after World War II. Book stores began sorting the books to guide customers to their preferences. I'm sorry about that because you never know what you'll find if you dig through everything instead of just what you'd ordinarily read. I still remember my ninth-grade teacher chiding a classmate for reading only books about basketball. With a straight face, she urged him to try football or baseball, too. Most of us got her point.

As for the larger issue, I think it was Samuel Johnson who first said that only a blockhead writes for something other than money, which means that you want to produce something that will sell enough to make your effort worthwhile. If it happens to survive beyond the first press run, that's even better. A good story will last, and those are the books that used to show up in school. We teach or taught very few books that didn't sell because if they didn't sell, they didn't survive. The Great Gatsby is a notable exception. Several years after Fitzgerald's death, his publisher found over half the original first press run sitting in a warehouse, some twenty years after the original lukewarm reviews.

Between 1970 and 2003, I taught all levels of tenth, eleventh, or twelfth grade English at two high schools and a community college. We updated the curriculum at least three times during that stint, and all these books appeared in classes at one time or another. We generally called them classics then even though some were contemporary. Look how many are really mysteries, sci-fi, romance, or westerns.



A good story is always a good story. So there.

Sherman Alexie:  Reservation Blues                       Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice
John Ball:  In the Heat of the Night                         Charlotte Bronte: Jane Eyre
Ray Bradbury: The Martian Chronicles, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dandelion Wine
Emily Bronte: Wuthering Heights                            Albert Camus: The Stranger
Truman Capote:  In Cold Blood                              Geoffrey Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales
Anton Chekhov: The Sea Gull                                Alice Childress: Wedding Band
Kate Chopin:  The Awakening                               Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express
Sandra Cisneros: The House on Mango Street
Walter Van Tilburg Clark: The Ox-Bow Incident
Robert Cormier: After the First Death, The Chocolate War
Joseph Conrad: Lord Jim, Heart of Darkness
Stephen Crane: The Red Badge of Courage, "The Bride Comes to Yellow Sky," "The Open Boat"
Charles Dickens: David Copperfield, A Tale of Two Cities, Great Expectations
Fyodor Dostoyevsky: Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov
Theodore Dreiser: An American Tragedy, Sister Carrie
Ralph Ellison: Invisible Man
Euripides: The Bacchae                                           F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby
William Faulkner: The Reivers, Intruder in the Dust, "A Rose for Emily"
Charles Fuller: A soldier's Play, Zooman and the Sign
Edith Hamilton: Mythology                                   Joseph Heller: Catch-22
Thomas Hardy: The Return of the Native, The Mayor of Castorbridge
Nathaniel Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter, The House of the 7 Gables, "Young Goodman Brown"
Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Aldous Huxley: Brave New World
Shirley Jackson: We Have Always Lived in the Castle, The Haunting of Hill House
Henry James: The Turn of the Screw, Daisy Miller          Franz Kafka: The Trial, "Metamorphosis"
Ken Kesey: One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Stephen King: Carrie, The Shining
Jerzy Kosinski: Steps, The Painted Bird, Being There
Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird                       Sir Thomas Malory: Le Morte D'Arthur
Jerome Laurence & Robert E. Lee: Inherit The Wind, The Night Thoreau Spent in Jail
Sinclair Lewis: Arrowsmith, Babbitt
Carson McCullers; The Member of the Wedding, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
Arthur Miller: Death of a Salesman, The Crucible
Toni Morrison: Beloved, The Bluest Eye            George Orwell: 1984, "Politics & English Language"
Alan Paton: Cry the Beloved Country               Mario Puzo: The Godfather
Eric Maria Von Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front
Jack Schaeffer: Shane                                      Sophocles: Oedipus Rex, Antigone
William Shakespeare: Othello, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, Julius Caesar, A Midsummer Night's             Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, As You Like It, The Tempest, Twelfth Night, The Merchant of       Venice  (During my theater career, I acted in productions of Hamlet, Midsummer, Much Ado,             Twelfth Night, As You Like It, The Tempest, and Directed versions of Dream, Much Ado,         Merchant, 12 Night, and ran lights for a production of Macbeth)
John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice & Men, Tortilla Flat, The Pearl
Jonathan Swift: Gulliver's Travels              Dalton Trumbo: Johnny Got His Gun
Mark Twain: Huckleberry Finn, Pudd'nhead Wilson
Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.: Slaughterhouse-5, Cat's Cradle, Welcome to the Monkey House
Robert Penn Warren: All the King's Men             Evelyn Waugh: The Loved One
H. G. Wells: The Time Machine
Edith Wharton: Ethan Frome, The Age of Innocence
August Wilson: Fences                                    Owen Wister: The Virginian
Richard Wright: Black Boy, Native Son

For good measure, we had the Bible in a history of religions course, too, and that covers pretty much every genre all by itself. People who look down their noses at genre miss the point. I wonder how much enjoyment they really get from reading...if they actually do any of it.

18 March 2018

The Digital Detective, Banking part 3


bank vault
This continues a series of articles about computer fraud. Originally I practiced a career of systems software design and computer consulting, but I sometimes came upon a more shadowy world, that of computer crime. I seldom sought out fraud but I sometimes stumbled upon it, picking up undetected clues others missed.

This episode doesn’t deal with crime, per se, but it includes a con, minor as it is. The scheme required a little ‘social engineering’ and, though the word might be Yiddish, no one can schmooze like Southerners.

The story came to my attention while consulting for banks, this one deep in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. My landlord for part of the stay was an eccentric but colorful codger. He talked about a neighbor who leased farm land from him but failed to pay his rent. Outsiders might expect he pulled on a jug of rye whiskey as he talked, but all he did was lean back in his recliner, sip beer, and twirl a never-lit cigarette while a cheerful woman less than half his age clattered in the kitchen. I jotted down his story long before I became a writer, so kindly forgive error and stylistic issues as I strove to capture his dialogue.
corn picker
1950s era corn picker
Damn Ernie. I hounded that man all summer long for the rent. Finally last fall, I hooked up my corn picker and started up the corn rows. Now a corn picker ain’t a quiet machine, and lo and behold, neighbor Ernie come dashin’ out of his farmhouse yellin’ and cursin’ that I’m stealing his corn.

I said to him I couldn’t possibly be stealing corn off my own land, unrented land at that. He steamed and stormed and said the seed and planting labor had been his, and anyway he was just a little late with the rent, three or four months, maybe four or five, weren’t nuthin.

I told him that I was just going to keep picking corn for myself until someone showed up with rent money. He dashed off like banshees themselves chased him. Pretty soon he comes back waving his checkbook.

I said, “Ernie, are you sure there’s money in that account?” Oh yes. He told me twice there was, so I said there’d better be, and he said he wanted the corn I’d picked. I told him to consider the already picked corn interest and collection fees. Fact is, I finished the rest of that row, which he just hated.

So the skinflint S.O.B. hustled off to hitch up his combine and wagon, and I find myself a few bushels better off than I was before. I cleaned up and headed in town to the bank, right past Ernie who’s racing his machinery through the fields.

At the bank, I always get in Molly’s line. She’s a sweet, buxom lass, and I’d been thinking about asking her out.

Anyway, I get up to her teller window and she said the account’s a bit short to cover the check. I asked her exactly how short, and she said she wasn’t allowed to tell me that.

So darlin’, I cajoled, is this check completely worthless, or did Ernie at least come close? Looking at her computer, she said he was purty close.

Well, I says to her kind of reflectively, I want to tell my neighbor Ernie how much he needs to cover my check. Like would he have to deposit only $10? No, she said, ten dollars wouldn’t cover it.

Well, says I, would $20 or $30 do? No, she smiled at me, it’s not quite enough.

Hmm, says I, I wonder if $40 or $50 would suffice? Um, she said to me, that first amount ought to cover it.

Thank you, I says, I’ll tell that rascal he needs to put $40 in the bank. By the way, sweet thing, can I have a deposit slip? And you think maybe I can call you up? For, uh, you know, maybe dinner Saturday?

So I walked out of there with a bounce in my step, a deposit slip and her phone number. I was feelin’ purty good. What I did was get in my car and circle around through the bank’s drive-thru. I already had Ernie’s account number on the check, so I just filled out the slip and shot it through the air tube with two $20 bills. Sure enough, the receipt came back showing $1002.39. Good on Molly.

But wait, I say, I almost forgot to cash a check. I send over Ernie’s $1000 check and this time I got back a thousand dollars.

Fair enough. I probably had $40 in shelled corn and a lesson I ain’t gonna rent to Ernie no more.

Ernie got stupid, though, and instead of being grateful I didn’t bounce his worthless ass along with his worthless check and turn both over to the sheriff for collection, he raised holy hell at the bank yelling someone manipulated his account.

I took Molly to the horse show that Saturday. Now I tell you personal like, you want to get a lady in a receptive mood, bein’ around horses will do it. Something about women and horseflesh– just a word to the wise.

Anyway, Molly, she confided the bank said it was apparent someone had taken liberties, but they couldn’t blame the girl who took the deposit and they couldn’t blame the teller that cashed the check. They just gave everybody a stern reminder warning.

Ernie wanted to call the authorities, but the branch manager explained Ernie’d be the one in trouble for writing bad checks. He didn’t mention Molly could have gotten in trouble if they’d figured out her role.

Molly said she knew I’d manipulated her and wanted to know if I’d asked her out from obligation or guilt. I said I didn’t want to sully a relationship thinking I used her. She needed a lot of reassurance about that, and so Friday nights and Saturday nights we just get romantic and I give her plenty of reassuring. Been about a year now. Figure we can go on with this for a long, long time.
And he winked at the cheerful lass in the kitchen doorway.



Commonly in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, ‘out’ sounds are pronounced like a Scottish ‘oot’. Thus he really said, “I’d been thinking aboot asking her oot.”