14 June 2018

Dark Side of the Sound: Seattle Through 21 Crime Novels

(My buddy Jim Thomsen is something of a connoisseur of Pacific Northwest literature, and that includes crime fiction. As such his insights are not to be missed. See you in two weeks! –Brian)

by Jim Thomsen

Elmore Leonard advised crime-fiction authors to “never open a book with weather.” But Dutch never wrote about Seattle, and the problem with his half-serious advice when it comes to depicting the dark side of the Emerald City — a sunny marketing term usually used here with a smirk and the sour pump of a thumb-covered fist — is that, well, there’s still the rest of the book. And even for those of us who have lived in the Puget Sound region for large stretches of our lives, the impulse to slather large page spreads with thick knife-sides of rain-jellied atmosphere is all but irresistible.

(In my work-in-progress, I caught myself writing, with a smirk, if not the other: “Pacific Northwest rain is the passive-aggressive drizzle of a middle-aged man with prostate problems.” I didn’t feel great about it but I kept it, which is an eminently Seattle attitude toward anything and everything from shopping on Amazon to buying $22 hipster cocktails in Belltown to installing Microsoft software updates.)

“Passive-aggressive” might also describe Seattle’s presence in the global eye as a crime-fiction capital. The Pacific Northwest is often called the serial-killer capital of the world, and while that’s true in a true-crime sense, given Green River Killer Gary Ridgway’s prolific slayings of prostitutes — he was convicted of 48 murders, mostly just south and east of Seattle, but claims he was responsible for at least 80 — fictional killings here have only fitfully captured the national imagination.

It seemed like Noir Seattle might have more than a moment in the mid-1980s, when Microsoft was on the ascendant, Starbucks had a frothy head of syndicated soy-milk steam and Boeing had roared back to rocket-fueled health after its “Will The Last Person Leaving Seattle Turn Out The Lights?” low point in the 1970s. All of that stood in contrast to the fishermen and boat builders and other blue-collar types who built the city, and the conflict between those who aspired to be world-class and those aspired to maintain middle-class standing proved to be fertile ground for fictional murder.

J.A. Jance had made a big splash with 1985’s Until Proven Guilty, starring J.P. Beaumont, a tough-but-tender alcoholic Seattle police detective who could have stepped from the pages of a Spillane novel; that same year, Earl Emerson came out with The Rainy City, featuring bicycling private eye Thomas Black (Emerson would win the Shamus Award for his second Black book, 1986’s Poverty Bay.) Soon after came attorney Fredrick D. Huebner with a series featuring lawyer Matt Riordan; suspense and cozy novels from K.K. Beck and Mary Daheim; police, P.I. and newsman procedurals from G.M. Ford and Ridley Pearson; all well-received, all findable on the drugstore paperback racks of flyover America.

But, just as grunge music came and went in the national consciousness in the space of a few years, so did the sense of Seattle as a fictional crime hub.

With the release of Jennifer Hillier’s Jar of Hearts, a big-buzzy Seattle-set thriller, Jet City may see another moment in the national consciousness as a symbol of disruption and reinvention. Jar Of Hearts is getting strong reviews (“There’s no denying her page-turner’s grab-you-by-the-throat power,” says Publishers Weekly) and a pricey, high-profile push from her publisher. In onetime Big Pharma exec Georgina “Geo” Shaw’s attempt to reinvent herself after a prison stretch for a moment of teenage horror, Seattle-watchers may see parallels in the city’s rapid, rapaciously rich transformation from isolated backwater to techbro paradise.

Seattle’s economy may be booming, but it’s become diminished in many ways that matter to readers. The city is down from two daily newspapers to one. More than a dozen bookstores have closed in the last dozen years, including the beloved Seattle Mystery Bookshop. And a lot of Seattle’s crime authors have been washed out with the tide — Earl Emerson, for one, hasn’t had a publishing contract in nearly a decade, and today the retired Seattle firefighter, now 70, quietly self-publishes a new Thomas Black novel every few years from his home at the extreme eastern edge of the Seattle sprawl, in the burg of North Bend (a.k.a., the setting of Twin Peaks).

And we can argue forever about whether Amazon, which has been taking over large organs of the body of downtown Seattle like a metastasizing tumor, has been good or bad for readers. (The short answer: Both.)

Also, many of the greater region’s most successful genre authors, such as Aaron Elkins, A.J. Banner, Urban Waite and Daheim, seem to prefer to set their works comfortably outside Seattle, in the Cascade foothills and amid the Salish Sea’s shoreline hamlets and secretive islands, buffered from the cacophonous bluster of what might as well be called Construction City. And others (Alan Furst, Robert Ferrigno, Ingrid Thoft) have called Seattle home but set their stories outside Washington state altogether.

Jennifer Hillier
A lot of the young energy filling Seattle comes from elsewhere, and in 2007, so did Jennifer Hillier, a Toronto native who spent a decade of living on the outer edges of Pugetopolis before moving back home last year (on the strength of her Jar of Hearts advance!). Yet, she’s set all five of her thrillers in and around Seattle, including Jar of Hearts, the tale of a serial killer, his onetime teenage love, and a body count rising on a wave of manipulation and obsession in scenes and settings that straddle the greater Seattle economic continuum.

I asked Hillier about how Seattle showed itself to her through her outsider’s eyes.

“I moved to Seattle in 2007 not knowing very much about it at all, other than what I learned from binge-watching the first two seasons of Grey’s Anatomy (in hindsight, I could have done better research),” she said. “But I fell in love with the city almost instantly, and something stirred creatively during that first winter.

“While not remotely the coldest I’d ever experienced, my first winter in Seattle was by far the wettest and darkest. Yet the trees stayed green. People still went outdoors as usual, even when it was raining, not even bothering with an umbrella. Folks were friendly, but not welcoming, and it was difficult to make friends.

She added: “Everyone seemed to drink a ton of coffee, which I now realize is the best way pep up in the constant absence of sun. I didn’t realize I was severely deficient in vitamin D, and the months from October to April were more depressing than I could have imagined. But a few months after surviving it, my first serial killer novel (Creep) was born.

“Maybe metaphorically the clouds provided the perfect cover for my villain to commit heinous crimes. Maybe the cool-yet-distant personalities of Seattle folks made them easier to fictionally murder. All I knew was that hunkering inside my house to write on dark, drizzly days—when I didn’t feel like I was missing out on anything in the outside world—was not only perfectly acceptable, but comforting.”

Something in Jennifer’s words stirred an interest for me in seeing how crime-fiction authors have depicted Seattle over the last few decades. The list below is not meant to be Seattle crime-fiction canon, or even a survey of the novels I’d suggest to others. But it does touch on just about every subgenre, and each title shares a willingness to not just set a story in Seattle, but to interpret it to some degree for those who have never been here.

And, maybe, make you understand why we who grew up with metaphorical webbed feet like to marinate in its miseries.

The Butcher, Jennifer Hillier (2014)

Quote: “He had initially wanted an inground pool, but Jason had put the kibosh on the idea, reminding Matt that the weather in Seattle was only conducive to swimming between July Fourth and Labor Day. Eight weeks of summer was hardly worth the thousands it would cost to build a pool.”

Note: This was Hillier’s third thriller, with a powerhouse premise: an 80-year-old serial killer who’s still got the urge … and happens to be retired as Seattle’s chief of police. The novel didn’t sell well, and Hillier’s next title, Wonderland, was demoted to her publisher’s ebook-only imprint. Jar Of Hearts represents a rare comeback in a world where poor sales numbers often create a death stench that few careers can escape.

Who in Hell is Wanda Fuca? G.M. Ford (1995)

Quote: “Somebody once said that living in Seattle was like being married to a beautiful woman who was sick all the time.”

Note: Wanda Fuca is the first of ten (so far) private-eye novels featuring Leo Waterman. Ford, now 73, lived in Seattle for more than two decades but has since moved to San Diego. The series continues, through Thomas & Mercer, Amazon’s crime-and-thriller imprint. Wanda Fuca (a pun on the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the body of water that separates Western Washington from British Columbia and Puget Sound from the Pacific Ocean), was nominated for Anthony, Shamus and Dilys awards.

Until Proven Guilty, J.A. Jance (1985)

Quote: “Seattle is used to the kind of gentle drizzle that lets people walk in the rain for blocks without an umbrella and without getting wet.”

Note: Jance, now 74, splits her time between Seattle and Arizona. Part of standard Jance lore is that she used a gender-neutral pen name because a publisher told her that readers wouldn’t buy books written by a woman about a male detective. Quite the opposite of today, when male authors (A.J. Finn, Riley Sager, S.J. Watson, et al) routinely adopt androgynous pseudonyms to break into the suspense subgenres now dominated by women.

Nervous Laughter, Earl Emerson (1986)

Quote: “Two angry rain showers doused us on our short journey, but the street was dry when we parked on Third Avenue. Seattle was like that. If you don’t like the weather, stick around five minutes.”

Note: The Thomas Black mysteries were the ideal blend of Seattle aesthetics and snappy-shamus wordplay, and over 33 years, Black has aged little but grouses much. In the latest Black mystery, 2018’s Jackson Street, Black grumbles: “I hated what growth was doing to the city, but nobody was asking me.”

A Man's Game, Newton Thornburg (1996)

Quote: “The next morning was a little too perfect for an old Seattleite like Baird. There was a stiff breeze blowing out of the north, holding the temperature in the high sixties and scouring the air so vigorously that the city’s streets and buildings seemed to sparkle in the brilliant sun. Flags spanked and trees shimmered, and down the hill the Sound was a lake of blue fire rimmed by the green of the peninsula, above which the Olympics soared snowcapped and jagged, as if they had been placed there by the Chamber of Commerce.”

Note: Thornburg is revered by hardcore crime-fiction fans for his 1976 novel Cutter and Bone, which became an equally fetishized 1981 film, Cutter’s Way, starring John Heard and Jeff Bridges. But he lived in Seattle for the last 31 years of his life, dying in 2011 at age 82, and set a couple of novels there, including 1990’s The Lion at the Door. He published fewer than ten novels in a career cut short by a 1996 stroke.

Have You Seen My Son? Jack Olsen (1982)

Quote: “Far across the Sound, Seattle’s new buildings shimmered in the April sun like rock candy. A row of cormorants rode serenely past on a gravel barge; an auklet pecked at a slick. The lovely light-struck scene made her smile. She shut her eyes and sucked in the salty air with a sybaritic hiss. She asked herself if there was life after separation and decided that the answer was yes, provided the weather held up.”

Note: This was the last of six novels written by Olsen, the author of nearly forty books who was known for decades as “the dean of true crime” (though he despised the term). Olsen, a Philadelphia native, lived in Western Washington from the early 1970s until his 2002 death. Many of his books, including this one, were reissued by Crime Rant Press, run by Gregg Olsen, another Western Washington author of fiction and true crime — and yet, no relation.

Thick as Thieves, Neil Low (2008)

Quote: “Ballard is old town, Swede town, fishing town. It is a quiet, unflashy place of plain old houses on plain streets, where people still just do their jobs and raise their kids and hope for a decent break. It’s probably the last neighborhood in Seattle where you can light a cigarette in a bar without immediately being placed on the same social scale as, say, a child molester.”

Note: Low, who set this debut novel in the 1940s, is a Seattle Police captain. He also leads walking tours of some of downtown Seattle’s “most notorious crime scenes.” His love of old-school Seattle is evident in this bit of praise from the late Seattle true-crime author Ann Rule, who said: “Reading it is akin to stepping into a film noir, shadowy, smoky and shocking.”

Picture Postcard, Fredrick D. Huebner (1990)

Quote: “In his later years, influenced by Asian art and postwar abstract expressionism, his work had become officially abstract, but I thought I could still see in his later canvases the dark waters and green rocky forms of the Pacific Northwest landscape, the pellucid oyster light of the Northwest sky.”

Note: Huebner, a mediation attorney, appears to have given up on publishing novels; apart from a little-noticed thriller in 2015, his last mystery was published in 2001. In an interview that year, he said: “I’m finding it harder and harder to maintain the intensity of focus needed to write, sitting on the terrace with my wife, looking over the flower garden.” Not sure there’s a more Seattle-area attitude than that.

Greywalker, Kat Richardson (2006)

Quote: “As we headed south to Pioneer Square, mid-April was doing its spring fake-out of good weather. Seattleites seem to forget that it usually starts raining again in May; they were out without jackets, enjoying the beginning of an unexpected clear evening that would probably turn cold by nine and produce more fog by morning. In spite of its capriciousness, this was usually my favorite time of year.”

Note: As far as I’m concerned, Seattle is its own dystopian setting, but Richardson took it up a notch with a nine-volume series about a Seattle P.I. who drifts between the gray and the Grey — a parallel world of ghosts, vampires, witches and magic. For many years, the California native lived “in the Seattle area with her husband and a pit bull named Bella aboard an old wooden boat haunted by the ghosts of ferrets,” according to her website.

Night Strike, Michael W. Sherer (2015)

Quote: “Seattle was a backwater, a city that would have been an afterthought had it not been for Boeing first, and Microsoft later, huge companies that had kept the economy alive and attracted other businesses. Yet she’d been called to these boondocks four times now because things happened here, world-changing events. Its proximity to the Pacific and all the countries along that ocean’s rim made it a gateway for commerce, technology and criminal enterprise in both directions. Maybe the other Washington was passé. Maybe this was where the action was.”

Note: As Ford’s career was revived by Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer, Sherer’s was hurt by it; the imprint dropped him a couple of books into his thriller series about Blake Sanders, a newspaper deliveryman who tends to get swept up in high-stakes geopolitical horrors. The Illinois native, who broke in as an author of Chicago-based mysteries, has shifted to young-adult thrillers with a female protagonist.

Murder One, Robert Dugoni (2011)

Quote: “Summer in Seattle, Sloane had concluded, was the reason people in the Northwest tolerated the nine miserable months of gray and rain. God must have chosen Seattle to spend His summers; there was no other way to describe the beauty that befell the place almost immediately after July Fourth. The snowcapped Olympic Mountains to the west looked close enough to touch, and the water brightened from a bland gray to a sparkling blue, with everything beneath a great dome Michelangelo could not have painted better.”

Note: Dugoni is an energetic and prolific presence on the Seattle-area literary scene and the crime-fiction conference circuit. He pivoted from legal thrillers with a well-received series of procedurals featuring Seattle Police Detective Tracy Crosswhite, published by Thomas & Mercer. This year, he crossed over into literary fiction with The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell.

The Silence of the Chihuahuas, Waverly Curtis (2015)

Quote: “An umbrella would have helped me defend myself against that parrot, but no one in Seattle ever uses an umbrella. We view it as a sign of weakness. But it helps us identify the out-of-towners.”

Note: Waverly Curtis is the pen name of author friends Waverly Fitzgerald, who writes historical fiction, and Curt Colbert. Colbert is the author of Rat City, a well-regarded noir novel about Seattle after World War II, among other hardboiled offerings. Their accent-heavy readings at Seattle’s quarterly Noir At The Bar series, at the Hotel Sorrento, are not to be missed.

The Edison Effect, Bernadette Pajer (2014)

Quote: “Seattle was a city in perpetual motion, with destruction and construction happening side-by-side, above and below, and all the while business continued uninterrupted at a feverish pace. Like ants detouring around a leaf dropped in their path, the people of Seattle found ways around the messes and just kept going.”

Note: Pajer’s Professor Bradshaw science mysteries — four in all — take place in the Seattle of the early 1900s. She’s a Seattle native who traces her interest in writing to a chance encounter on Orcas Island with Richard Bach of Jonathan Livingston Seagull fame.

Deadline Man, Jon Talton (2011)

Quote: “Soon Daylight Saving Time will be gone and Seattle will slip into the winter months when night comes early. It’s suicide season and the time of year when distracted drivers run down black-clad pedestrians and people complain about the dark and the rain. I like it.”

Note: Talton is the longtime economics columnist for The Seattle Times, and Deadline Man is about a columnist at a Times-like paper propelled into escalating geopolitical heinousness. Like Jance, most of his mysteries are set in his native Arizona.

Past Crimes, Glen Erik Hamilton (2015)

Quote: “They drill politeness into the Seattle cops with six-inch galvanized screws.”

Note: Hamilton, who was raised on a sailboat all over Puget Sound, now lives in Southern California. But, as he says on his website, he “frequently returns to his hometown to soak up the rain.” Past Crimes, the first of three (so far) in a series about Iraq War vet Van Shaw, won several awards.

Bound to Die, Laurie Rockenbeck (2017)

Quote: “Court checked to see if the mountain was out—a phrase locals used as an overall descriptor for the weather as well as their passion for Mount Rainier, the most prominent feature around. After a few seasons of living in Seattle, he’d learned how deceptive the clouds made the landscape. Months could go by by when the rain and low-lying clouds completely hid Rainier—a fourteen-thousand-foot glacier-covered volcano sticking up out of nowhere. When the weather cleared, and you could see the mountain, it was like a goddess appearing to the world, the foothills like arms spread out for an embrace.”

Note: This debut, self-published novel was a first: a police procedural featuring a transgendered Seattle police detective (who identifies as male) with a special instinct for solving crimes involving exotic sexual cultures and practices. (Full disclosure: I was Rockenbeck’s editor.)

Bound to the Truth, Lisa Brunette (2016)

Quote: “You don’t understand. This is Seattle. You don’t actually meet anyone in person here. You waste a lot of time and energy petting each other for days until it escalates into brief but vague text-messaging. We’re at that stage. I’m sure the excitement will fizzle out before we reach the coffee-date stage.”

Note: Brunette segued to mystery novels after writing mystery scripts for video games as a “narrative designer” for Seattle-area mainstays Nintendo, Cat Daddy, Big Fish and a number of other game companies. She now lives in her hometown of St. Louis and runs her own gaming firm. (Full disclosure: I was Brunette’s editor.)

Assault and Pepper, Leslie Budewitz (2015)

Quote: “Throwing decent flowers in the trash is universal bad karma. It’s seriously bad karma in Seattle, where recycling is religion. Even our sample cups have to be recyclable or compostable. Putting ‘green waste’ in the wrong container violates more rules than you could shake a cinnamon stick at.”

Note: Budewitz’s Seattle Spice Shop cozies are set in the must-visit Pike Place Market. She went to Seattle University and later worked in Seattle for several years as an attorney before making her current home in her native Montana.

The Other Romanian, Anne Argula (2012)

Quote: “The idea of going six hundred and fifty thousand in debt, if I could even find a bank to lubricate that, for the joy of living in a one-bedroom, one-bath apartment with a view of Pioneer Square and a slice of Puget Sound was hard for me to get my graying head around. My parents paid nine thousand for their house. Even now, for what I would have to pay for a small apartment in Seattle, I could get a horse ranch in Kentucky, including the nags.”

Note: Anne Argula is the pen name of Darryl Ponicsan, the novelist and screenwriter best known for The Last Detail (a 1970 novel that became a 1973 film starring Jack Nicholson), and Cinderella Liberty, a set-in-Seattle film from 1974 starring James Caan and Marsha Mason. Ponicsan, now, 80, has since relocated from Puget Sound to Palm Springs. The Other Romanian was the last of four novels starring female P.I. Quinn (no first name).

A Hopeless Case, K.K. Beck (1992)

Quote: “She’d remembered Seattle as a relentlessly dull town, far away from anything else; but, walking to Montcrieff’s office this morning, she’d found it quite charming, full of espresso carts and window boxes with flowers and interesting-looking people on the streets, and The New York Times on sale. Had she changed, or had Seattle changed? Both, she supposed.”

Note: Kathrine Beck writes lighthearted mysteries, most recently 2015’s Tipping the Valet, about a Seattle parking valet who’s “a master of bad timing.” A Hopeless Case is the first in a series about a lounge-singing female private eye in 1940s Seattle. Beck, now 68, was married to the late Seattle mystery author Michael Dibdin.

Black Hearts and Slow Dancing, Earl Emerson (1988)

Quote: “A rust-brown smudge ballooned over Seattle, end to end, a thousand feet thick. Mac knew the locals were telling themselves that if they were getting headaches and their eyes were bloodshot and their noses ran, it must be something else. Seattleites had a stunning town, but it grew dirtier by the minute. It was only Northwest vanity that kept people calling it fog.”

Note: There are so many good Emerson snark blasts about Seattle that I couldn’t resist one more. This one comes from the first of five novels about Mac Fontana, a small-town fire chief who’s often called to investigate cases with strong Seattle connections.


Jim Thomsen is a writer and book-manuscript editor who lives in his hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington, a 35-minute ferry ride west of downtown Seattle. He was a newspaper reporter and editor for 25 years, including stints at The Seattle Times and The Kitsap Sun. A longtime board member of the Mystery Writers of America-Northwest chapter, his crime fiction has been accepted for publication in Shotgun Honey, Pulp Modern, Switchblade and West Coast Crime Wave. He can be reached through his webpage: jimthomsencreative.com

13 June 2018

Guilty Secrets

I was invited by my Santa Fe pal Johnny D. Boggs, a terrific Western writer, to post a list of ten favorite movies on Facebook, one a day, in ascending order from #10 to #1, with the title and an original theatrical poster, if possible, but without explaining the choices. Every day, nominate somebody else to follow your lead. Sort of like a movie fan chain letter.
Now, this is a serious responsibility - no irony intended. For example, Johnny's choice for his Number 7 was The Grapes of Wrath, and he attached my name to it. (When we got to his Number 1, it was The Searchers.) My point being that you couldn't risk being frivolous. I had to really think about it. My first instinct was to follow Johnny's lead, and do Classics, my personal Ten Best list. The Wild Bunch, Seven Samurai, Letter From an Unknown Woman. But then I thought, No, wait. Why not Guilty Secrets? What if the criteria were, you're sitting down to dinner, you're gonna watch a movie, and saying you had the DVD on your shelf, or you could stream it live, which pictures would be your defaults? Any night, or every night?

So here's the list, which is utterly arbitrary. The only unifying conceit is that I've watched these movies over and over, and would again, tonight or any other night.

[NOTE: I put these upon Facebook without explanation, per the rules. I've added my own little cheats.]

Red Dawn (1984)
Ridiculous, knuckle-dragging claptrap, of the highest order. Then again, if you stop for a minute and consider that Milius meant it as a metaphor for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Wolverines as mujahideen, it actually makes sense. Ravishingly shot, in New Mexico locations, by Ric Waite. Powers Boothe steals the movie.

Juggernaut (1974)
It's been suggested that we're fascinated by the nuts and bolts of how to do things. Heist pictures, Rififi, or here, an ocean liner in the mid-Atlantic wired with high explosive, the bomb disposal team parachuting in, the clock winding down. Dick Lester directed. Enough star power to sink the Poseidon. Clifton James and Roy Kinnear blow them all out of the water.

The Lady Vanishes (1938)
The opening shot, as the credits fade. The camera dollies down, past the snowbound railway platform, and then a car drifts by, at ground level. You can almost see the string pulling it along. The fact that the entire scene is a model only ingratiates it to me. It's an innocent artifice, an invitation. When you catch sight of Charters and Caldicott in the waiting room, you can't help but smile in anticipation. You fall into the familiar rhythms.

In Harm's Way (1965)
Enormous, clunky, overwrought. All of the above. It gets a terrific, muscular punch from Wayne, who delivers a thoughtful, considered character that the other people in the movie seem to think is easy to read. The dramatic mechanics of the picture are pure Preminger, the formal checks and balances, but Wayne demonstrates a gravity of purpose that subverts it. You're all too aware of the labor involved, the engines and devices, the undertaking itself. Wayne doesn't struggle to be convincing. he gives his guy weight, without ever being ponderous.

The Train (1964)
Frankenheimer. What else do I need to say? The disorienting montage of Manchurian Candidate, the pulled focus of Seven Days in May. An integrated technique in this picture. The inertial, iron force of the locomotives. The fact that there's no CGI (oh, and Burt Lancaster does his own stunts). The truly amazing dolly shots, Labiche crossing the freight yards to the boat moored by the canal towpath; the colonel at Wehrmacht headquarters in Paris, the camera finding him in the chaos; the scene with Labiche casting the damaged engine part. I bow to genius.

Charade (1963)
Please. I can't imagine I have to say anything at all.

Two Rode Together (1961)
You knew there was going to be a Ford, right? This is here. of course, because of the scene by the river. "I thought she had something stuck in her teeth." For all its comedy - and 'comedy' isn't really the right word, it's burlesque - Two Rode Together is terrifically dark, much more so than The Searchers, which for all its darkness ends on a note of hope. Two Rode Together is despairing.

The War Lord (1965)
Meditative, although on paper it must have been pitched as a swashbuckler. A guy whose devotion to duty is inflexible throws it all away for love, both carnal and idealized. A very old-fashioned conceit. Terrific art direction. I love the fact that the keep is nothing like the castles in Ivanhoe, say, but a brute stone tower, damp, smoky, the horses stabled below. Guy Stockwell gets all the good lines. Richard Boone's forlorn devotion to Heston commands genuine heartbreak. Haunting score.

The Night of the Generals (1967)
Not much of a mystery, not when the biggest headliner in the cast is twitching like he's got St. Vitus' Dance. but the way they tell the story, the fractured narrative and the unreliable narrators. And the main device, a murder in wartime, where killing is every man's trade. In a movie top-heavy with brand names, the lively presence of Charles Gray in support is like a whiff of ammonia, piercing and astringent, a master class in the pursed lip and the cocked eyebrow. You want supercilious? This is ur-supercilious.

The Duellists (1977)
Ridley Scott's first feature. You're joking, right? Nope. He'd done commercials and TV, but The Duellists is his first movie. People talk about Ridley's eye. The cinematographer on The Duellists is Frank Tidy (and it was his first feature film), but Ridley is his own camera operator - he's the guy looking through the lens. Think about it. The next picture is Alien. Where did this astonishing, feverish, specific gaze come from? It seems to have simply sprung into being, already fully found. The Duellists is hallucinatory, but transparent as glass.


Ten runners up.
  The Professionals
  On the Beach
  Night Train to Munich
  Extreme Prejudice
  The Dogs of War
  Rio Bravo
  Midnight Cop
  Hour of the Gun

12 June 2018


Paneling at ArmadilloCon 2012
I have participated in panels at several science fiction/fantasy conventions and a few mystery conventions, and I’ve noticed a distinct difference in approach. I have only once participated in a panel at an sf/f convention in which the moderator contacted me in advance, yet I’ve had pre-convention contact with the moderators of every mystery convention panel in which I’ve participated.

On several occasions, the moderators of the sf/f panels didn’t realize they were the moderator, and on more than one occasion the moderator didn’t bother to show up, leaving panelists to draw straws for the task. While a panel in which none of the participants is prepared can be, and sometimes is, wildly entertaining, more often it consists of five writers saying variations of, “I don’t know why I was selected for this panel. I don’t know anything about Transsexual Taiwanese Tyrannosauruses” and one blowhard spouting variations of “Look at me! Buy my book! Look at me again! Buy my other book!”

Gathering the masses before starting the “Make it Snappy
panel at Malice Domestic 2018. L-R: Me, Gretchen Archer,
Barb Goffman, Debra H. Goldstein, Gigi Pandian,
and Art Taylor.
(Photo by Eleanor Cawood Jones)
When offered the opportunity to moderate “Make it Snappy: Our Agatha Best Short Story Nominees” at Malice Domestic 2018, I followed the best-practices example set by all the mystery convention moderators and one sf/f convention moderator with whom I have paneled: I contacted all the panelists in advance, introduced myself, and sought information that would help me formulate questions. Once I had the information I needed, I developed questions specific to each panelist (though I did not have time to ask them all), shared with them my plan for the panel and, once at the convention, had the opportunity to meet all of the panelists prior to gathering onstage.

I think the panel went well, but I’m not here to tout my skills as a moderator. I’m here to share some tips for successful paneling from the perspective of someone who has attended many panels, participated in several, and moderated a few.


1.  While you may be there to promote yourself and your work, the audience is there to be entertained and informed. So, entertain and inform.

2. If you have never been told by a parent, teacher, or significant other to use your “inside voice,” practice projecting. Use any provided microphones, especially if the panel is being recorded.

3. If you’re a moderator, know your panelists. At the very least, read their bios in the program.

4. If you’re a panelist, know your moderator. At the very least, read her bio in the program.

5. Asking generic questions and having each panelist answer in turn is a lazy moderator’s approach. So, prepare questions specific to each panelist and try to foster a dialog among the panelists.

6. Share the limelight. For moderators, this means ensuring every panelist has the opportunity to speak. As a panelist, this means speaking up if you’re shy, and it means curtailing your tendency to bloviate if you’re not shy.

7. Allow time for questions. If the audience is engaged, they will ask great questions. For the benefit of the rest of the audience, repeat or paraphrase questions before answering.

8. Start on time, end on time, and clear the stage for the next panel. If you are lucky enough to have fans swarming the stage afterward to ask questions and seek autographs, encourage them to follow you into the hall.

I have also participated in panels at writing conferences. The audience—primarily writers and would-be writers rather than genre fans—expect more information and less entertainment, but otherwise all the tips apply.


One writer whose paneling skills deserve emulation is Bill Crider. Every time we paneled together, he was the most knowledgeable, most experienced, and best-known writer on stage, and many of us would have sat at his feet in rapt attention while he talked for the entire 50 minutes. Yet, he never took advantage of his stature. He shared the limelight and regularly used his time to tell the audience something they might not know about one of the other panelists, or to direct a comment toward or ask a question of one of us.

That’s in direct contrast to several authors so enamored of their own voices that other panelists might as well not exist, and when moderators—either unable to unwilling to interrupt—let the blowhards take over, everyone suffers.

I’m not much good with small talk, but put me on a stage and ask me about writing, and I can bend an ear with the best of them. So, if you’re ever paneling with me and I start to bloviate, please kick me under the table and remind me to channel Bill Crider.

We’ll all be better off.

My romance “Too Close to School” appears in the anthology A Wink and a Smile (Smoking Pen Press), released in May.

11 June 2018

Motivation or Get Outta That Rut?

Jan Grape and daughter Karla J. Lee
I think all writers sometimes feel in a rut. 

I think all creative people sometimes feel in a rut.

Maybe even a lot of people sometimes feel they're in a rut.

My daughter and I were having this conversation the other night.

She works eight or nine hours a day in an office, spending a lot of time staring at a computer screen. Then there's the 20-30-40 minute drive home depending on  the traffic. By the time she walks into her house and put on her comfortable shorts and T-shirt, pours a glass of wine and walks outside to her deck overlooking a river, all she wants to do is chillax. She makes a quick dinner and vegges out in front of the TV until bedtime.

She's a songwriter but has trouble getting motivated to pick up her  ukulele and creating a song. "I think I'm in a rut," she says.

Do y'all know that ukuleles are very popular again? When I was a young girl I would go visit my dad and bonus mom in the summer. I would beg my dad to play his uke and sing. And he would often agree. He played songs like "Five Foot Two Eyes of Blue" or "I Wanna Go Back To My Little Grass Shack" or "Lazy Bones." I love it. Now there are little pockets of uke players all over the country. Think I even saw a singer/player on THE VOICE tv show. (but I digress.) 

I understand being in a rut. I'm retired and have time to write, but I've often listened to my lazy self and after doing a few chores or trying to get my allergies or arthritis pain under control, I wind up vegging in front of the TV and never manage to get a word written on my next story. It seems that I'm in a rut.

It's all about motivation.

 How do you get motivated? What works for me may not work for you but I have to sit myself down and realize that I am in a rut with my life and decide to do something about it. 

Calling a good friend I haven't seen in months and inviting she and her daughter to meet me at a new Tex-Mex restaurant I've been wanting to try. 

Signing up for Yoga class. Signing up to volunteer someplace: meals on wheels, local library, visiting a children's hospital or nursing home each week, helping out at a soup kitchen. Just something to make it out of that rut.  Take a daily walk, learn to quilt or paint or to play piano. You can fill your days with something different.

If you're retired like I am, when you get up in the morning, fix your hair and make up if you're female, shave if male and dress if going to an office. Check your day planner then go to your writing work space.

Several years ago I was at a Bouchercon and Sue Grafton was giving a talk to four or five hundred people and she said if you have sat down at your computer and your writing time is three hours, stay there for three hours. Even if you stare at the computer screen and only write the word THE. Sit there for the full three hours.  Write something, anything and once you do this, hopefully, only one time of three hours with a blank screen, your creative muse will kick in. Because who wants to sit writing nothing for more than one day?  

If you are still working, it's a little different. And you are the only one who can decide what works best for you. Get up an hour earlier to write each day or three days a week. Or set your goal to write four hours a day on Saturday and four hours a day on Sunday. Whatever works for you. 

Just do something during the week that gets you out of your rut. Pack a sack lunch and go outside to eat in the park. Buy a ticket to a concert on a Friday night. Spend Sunday afternoon in a museum. 

You can decide to make your own happiness and to get out of your rut, JUST DO IT. 

10 June 2018

Uninsured Caribou

Here in Sunstroke, eastern Arizona, temperatures plummeted to a Pleistocene low of 104°F (40°C). Residents claim it’s not real hot yet, but Tripod, the town dog, got stuck peeing on a Jeep tire. Folks now call him Bipod.

Part of Sunstroke’s Main Street started bubbling. Hot asphalt seeped like syrup into the canyon floor, revealing a full-grown Triceratops or perhaps only a 1927 Ford pickup. No one’s sure because the local fire & ladder truck sent to rescue it sank into the tarpit, providing some sort of metaphor.

Last Drop in the Bucket List

Lest you think Arizona is one huge, silicon-to-glass furnace, it does offer varied terrain. With that in mind, I opted to visit the Grand Canyon. It was then I became a killer.

After pumping a tankful of petro-chemicals, I crossed the San Carlos Apache reservation and threaded the switchbacks to connect with Arizona 188. About 3am with my Hawkeye Pathfinder GPS locked on Flagstaff, I headed north into the Tonto National Forest, where the deer and the antelope play.

Deer and elk were plentiful. I slowed for a doe and fawn here, a couple of yearlings there, and numerous adults. Think of elk as a cross between deer and moose. Bull elks average 700 pounds and top 850 (320/340kg). Cow elk weigh in about 500 pounds and max out at 600 (230/275kg). I mention this because…

There in my side of the road stood a doe. I shifted to the left lane and slowed to 40… 30… 20… As I was about to pass, she leaped dead center into my path, taking out the grill and shattering the windshield.

In the headlights of the car, I got out, knelt, and inspected her. She gave a confused little bark and lay quietly. She had to be in great pain. From time to time, she tried to struggle to her feet, not understanding when her hindquarters didn’t cooperate. She was beautiful and brave. My heart broke for her.

photograph courtesy Layna Fields

My rough ’n’ tough, not-so-little brother Glen would have murmured soothing words to her, stroked her, and held her head in his lap, telling her it was okay to let go.

While I'm good with animals, I'm no match for him. Me, I squatted and talked quietly, keeping a healthy distance from elk teeth in case she misinterpreted my words. I needn’t have worried as she poured out her story.

As young bucks are wont to do, her boyfriend had left her. Despondent, she’d thrown herself in front of the train, or rather lacking a railroad, in front of the nearest car.

A couple of hours later, a Coconino County deputy arrived. He combined a good mix of empathy, sympathy, professionalism and practicality. He put down the girl with a solid-slug shotgun. He dragged the elk from the road and down an embankment. “Good meat,” he said regretfully.

The Deerslayer

Following him, I limped toward Flagstaff as daybreak dawned over the forest. A couple of dozen more elk emerged from the woods to glare accusingly at me.

“Damn,” said a friend. “You hit Rambo Bambi’s sister Bambo. My brother asked about the meat.”

As if a rooftop could carry a quarter-ton elk.

Providing no night or weekend service, Bo’s Insurance Agency was smaller than average. When finally connected, much parlance ensued about the top priorities, glass replacement and meat.”

“Why exactly do you need a new windshield?”

“An elk went through it.”

“There’s no elk in it now?”


“So it’s not a real emergency since you don’t no longer got an elk in your front seat.”

“The deputy said not to drive until the window’s replaced.”

“Oh. Our job would be a lot easier if police didn’t offer advice like that. I reckon you got to take it to a glass shop and get an estimate.”

“What about a come-to-your-door windshield replacement company?”

“They have those?”

“Sure enough, Bo.”

“You don’t got deer insurance. That’s a $500 deductible.”

“Thanks for reminding me.”

“Listen, you find a game butcher to cut up the meat?”

Without mentioning minor details about the previous car, I rented a another. At Williams, Arizona, I took the train to the Grand Canyon.

Elk of all ages wandered through the Canyon village. They gathered around me and unnervingly stared. Spooked tourists cautiously backed away.

“What’s with you and the deer, buddy?”

“Elk,” I said. “I killed one.”

“He killed Bambi!” screamed a child.

“What calibre you use, buddy? Them’s good eatin’. Where do ya dress the meat around here?”

To my surprise, my phone picked up Virgin and AT&T cellular signals, all the more satisfying when those smug Verizon customers scratched their heads in frustration.

My friend Thrush had suggested I visit Sedona. After four days of waiting for a windscreen, I was free to leave Flagstaff. Knowing its lonely AT&T cell tower would fade at the city limits, I phoned to let him know I was on my way south to Yavapai County. I told him about hitting the elk.

“Don’t ask me about meat,” I said.

“I was just gonna suggest a butch…”

Sedona blew me away. Is it sacrilegious to say its craggy red cliffs and chimneys of Sedona impressed me more than the Grand Canyon? Ignoring all the touristy stuff, God put on a great show. For the first time, I was able to get elk out of my mind.

The Verde Valley disappeared in the rearview mirror. I turned southeast into open desert toward Sunstroke in Holyshiteitshot County in the southeast corner of Arizona. Evening set in. While fueling up, an RV owner eyed the car, still with tufts of fur.

“Bear?” he asked.

“Nope. Elk.”

“They make good jerky. What did you do with the meat?”

09 June 2018

On Making a Notebook

Libby Cudmore
Many writers, myself included, suffer from a terrible affliction known as "Pretty Journal Panic." Well-meaning friends and family buy us beautiful journals as gifts, and, once unwrapped, they languish in a drawer, their pages too pretty to be scrawled with half-finished poems and false novel starts. It easier to make mistakes on yellow tablets or battered composition books, and some of us have even abandoned the notebook completely in favor of sleek keyboards and digital drafts.

But a notebook is a safe space. Opening up a new .DocX final betrays a certain finality, a final draft feel that can crush the early blossoms of creativity. There's an intimacy of pen to paper that cannot be matched by the tap tap of fingers on a keyboard. It's easier to make mistakes, to take risks on stories or poems that might never be finished, when the page doesn't look so formal. You can't doodle in the margins of an Open Office document.

 It wasn't until I started making my own notebooks that I discovered how intimate a process it could be. Creating something from raw materials has a certain magic to it -- taking a pile of paper and thread and building a sacred space.

08 June 2018

Today El Guapo is... 33 Years Old!

by Thomas Pluck

Thomas Pluck

Tomorrow I will turn 47. Yeah, I know. Not really old, these days. I remember when forty was the onset of the "mid-life crisis" brought on by the dread of mortality, which launched a thousand literary novels about boring men rubbing suede-patched elbows (and more) with women half their age, or women going on pilgrimages to Mediterranean countries to colonize young male flesh.

Me, I started writing again. Admittedly, it helped that a few months before my fortieth birthday, I married Sarah, ten years my younger, the Louisiana firecracker who I met in Manhattan and bonded over German beer and raunchy movies. She kicked me in the ass to write the novel I kept talking about. I wasn't ready, so I started small. Flash fiction came easily, and I wrote a dozen or two short stories that year, as November approached.

November, National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, the elder god who strikes fear in agents and editors everywhere, who know the beast will unleash a horde of unedited young into their slush piles come the first of December. If you don't know it, the challenge is to write 50,000 words in 30 days, about 1670 words a day. A terrifying prospect to a new writer, but an afternoon's walk in the park to some pros. I jumped in and completed a novel of 115,000 unwieldy words in January called Beat the Jinx, the title a nod to Josh Bazell's Beat the Reaper, a delightful over the top crime novel that I'd finished reading recently.

That novel went through several drafts and rewrites over the years. I wrote another novel, Blade of Dishonor, in a blazing (for me) six months from first to final draft, while avoiding edits. I edited three charity anthologies to benefit Protect, one larger than the other, to avoid editing the novel. Until my buddy Josh Stallings told me to stop talking about the damn novel and get it into shape. 80 queries later, I received some good notes from agent Elizabeth Kracht, and having submitted it to just about every agent I could think of who might be interested in it, I approached Eric Campbell, the publisher of Down & Out Books, and Bad Boy Boogie was born on March 29th, 2017.

And in May, it was nominated for an Anthony Award for best paperback original.

Seven years. I can't believe it took me that long. I know others who took longer with their first novel, never giving up and moving on. Jenny Milchman took ten years, I think. I know I'm getting old because it feels like yesterday, building the character of Jay Desmarteaux with short stories like "Gumbo Weather" which is now out of print, because it would require retroactive continuity. But who knows? Maybe it will find a home when I edit Riff Raff, the second Jay novel, which I'm finishing up this month.

The projects I used to lollygag weren't all wasted. The editing and copy-editing skills I learned for the Protectors anthologies are invaluable, and Blade of Dishonor showed me that I can blast through a novel if I have an outline and a vision. But I find it a lot more enjoyable to bushwhack through the forest to find the story, because I don't always know what it's really about. Riff Raff is set in Louisiana, and I wanted to confront the criminal justice system there. It's different than any other in the nation. "Angola," Louisiana State Penitentiary, houses 5800 lifers who will likely never walk free. It costs the state $700 million a year to keep them in there to die. Until recently, lifers were stewards at the Governor's mansion, proving that the state doesn't consider them dangerous. When that irony was made public, they canceled the program. Angola also hosts a rodeo, "the Wildest Show in the South," where inmates get tossed around by broncos and bulls with zero training, for the entertainment of the audience. The inmate who snatches a poker chip taped between the horns of a mad bull can win $500 in commissary money.

Not to slam Angola. They are ahead of many other prisons in craft programs and training, partly to keep the population occupied. The Angolite, the prison newspaper, written and edited by inmates, I've mentioned many times. It is an eye-opening read. Its former editor Wilbert Rideau recently won himself a retrial and was released after serving 44 years, nearly more than I've been alive.

It puts things in perspective. He wrote his first book after his release. I wanted to have Riff Raff completed before Saturday, my birthday, and it may happen and it may not. No matter what happens, I'll keep writing, and that's the important thing.

I'm reading the excellent essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, by Alexander Chee, and as a teacher and student of Annie Dillard, he says the the writing is what matters. Some have talent, some sharpen a skill, but they have seen both sputter and sink. The perseverance is what matters.

Next month, Sarah and I are going to Alaska. Partly as research for another novel I've avoided writing, based on my story "The Uncleared," about a volunteer firemen who finds a dark secret when his childhood home burns down, and goes into the Alaskan wilderness to get answers from his father. Right now that's called The Fire Inside, because I like having names for unfinished books, and soon it will be finished. And cleared.

07 June 2018

The Horse-Off

"Baseball is something like a war."  - Ty Cobb (1886-1961)
And so is politics.  That or the most dysfunctional family reunion ever.  Certainly that's the way the Republican Primary has been here in South Dakota.  In case you didn't know, South Dakota is red, red, red, red, and more red.  We have Democratic candidates, but there are never any Democratic primaries, because rounding up just one per position is pretty much all we can do.  Anyway, the primary had two huge sections:


Attorney General Marty Jackley v. US House Representative Kristi Noem

US District Attorney Marty Jackley.pngImage result for kristi noem on horseback
(Notice the horse.  This is going to be


Dusty Johnson v.              Shantel Krebs v.                          Neil Tapio

Johnson and Krebs     Neal Tapio in Watertown, South Dakota.jpg 

a/k/a the nerdy Chief of Staff to the governor, the beauty queen SD Secretary of State, and the State Senator/South Dakota Trump Presidential Campaign Director.
(Others, not so kind, have referred to them as Howdy Doody, Clarabelle, and Phineas T. Bluster.)

Now before I get started, you need to remember that all of these people know each other, have worked together, have gone to the Governor's Annual Pheasant Hunt ("if you're not there, you're nowhere", and it's invitation only, my dears, invitation only) together, attended Republican conventions and fundraisers, annual ALEC meetings, etc., etc., etc.  South Dakota is one big small town, and there aren't six degrees of separation between anyone - more like two.  Three at the most.

So the campaign started off slow and respectful.  Dignified, even.  The first political ads were exclusively for Jackley, Noem, and Krebs, and I swear each and every single one of them all showed the same words: "Experienced.  Conservative.  Tested."   And then someone would ride a horse.  And load / carry a gun.  Also lot of shots of cattle, hay, farms, and rolling hills.

Now Kristi Noem has always made her horse riding central to her campaigns and she does look damn good on one.  Marty Jackley stuck with just having almost every sheriff in the state sing his praises, after which he'd go pheasant hunting, and then lead his daughter around on a horse.

And then, the local newspaper came out with a poll that said Jackley and Noem were neck and neck, and things got nasty.

Kristi Noem launched ads about the EB-5 scandal (which yours truly has spoken of at length in these blogs).  No mention of my favorite question, "Who killed Richard Benda?" but she did raise the missing $5 million.  (The reason why the United States Customs and Immigration Service letter of September 28, 2015, found South Dakota too unreliable and incompetent, if not downright corrupt, to handle EB-5 visa investments any more. Thanks Dakota Free Press!)

Marty Jackley, who talks about EB-5, the missing millions, Richard Benda, or the missing Gear Up! millions about as often as I request a colonoscopy for fun, ignored all questions of corruption and fired back with ads about how Ms. Noem hadn't kept any of the promises she made on going to Washington.  Even more shocking he appeared in the ad below, talking about balancing the budget.  Locked and loaded indeed!

(My first reaction was, "First they had to drug the horse, right?")

And then Kristi hammered away with ads about Jackley holding up a $1.5 million settlement payment for a DCI employee (sexual harassment; and I can assure you that it was serious, and seriously well-documented, for her to actually win in this state) after Jackley saw said ex-employee sitting with Noem at a Republican fundraiser.  (Argus Leader)
So Jackley retaliated with photos of Noem shaking hands with (gasp!) then-President Obama back in 2015...

Back to our candidates running for our sole House seat.  Dusty Johnson was the odd one out, with quiet ads illustrating fiscal responsibility at dinner out with the kids.  Shantel Krebs ran pheasant hunting ads (it's a theme up here) and urged South Dakota to send her to Washington to help Donald Trump make America great again.  Neal Tapio's ads were a combination of lies about his opponents (Shantel Krebs, for all her faults, certainly did not make South Dakota the 3rd most Obamacare-compliant state in the nation - for one thing, our Governor never expanded Medicaid) and his passionate loyalty to Donald Trump.

Then the aforementioned poll also said that Dusty Johnson was leading (which surprised almost everyone, including, perhaps, Dusty), and things got nasty:  Shantel approved ads that claimed Dusty flew on private planes on government expense to the tune of almost $10,000.  A private Ohio group accused Shantel of raising taxes - and her salary - whenever possible.  Johnson swore he wasn't behind the ads, and I believed him.

Remember, all these people worked together for years.  I see them cousins at a 4th of July reunion, who smile at each other and then hiss gossip about the others to everyone as they load up on baked beans and potato salad.  And Mr. Tapio, who is the crazy Alex Jones fan at the picnic.  You think I'm kidding?  Back in January Tapio gave a speech and said that "one more terrorist attack between now and then [the election] and I will be the … just by the ‘Trump effect,’ I will be the candidate. That’s the way I look at it.”  (Listen here.)  But then Tapio is an anti-Muslim zealot.  He accused South Dakota Lutheran Bishop Zellmer of aiding and abetting terrorism, and "taking away the Christian fabric of our nation" by holding an Interfaith Day at the Capitol in Pierre (Argus Leader).  Above all, Mr. Tapio ran on Trump.  110% pro-Trump.  Send him to Washington, so he can help Trump.  Period.  And then he decided to up the ante by calling for an end to tribal sovereignty, and to rewrite all the treaties between the United States and Native American populations.  (Argus)
And another SD Representative, Michael Clark, applauded the recent SCOTUS decision about cake-baking by saying that business owners should be able to discriminate based on race.  (Argus)

So it was a Republican Primary, and all the dogs were howling.  Literally.

So what were the results?

Kristi Noem is our new Republican candidate for Governor, 57%-43% over Marty Jackley.  (Proof that negative ads work, especially if they're 100% true.  And the question has already been raised of who's going to run against Jackley for AG in November – the sharks smell blood.)
Dusty Johnson is our new Republican candidate for United States House of Representatives, with 47% of the vote (Krebs got 29%, Tapio 24%).

Who'll win in November?  Danged if I know.  But I can guarantee you we'll see a lot of horses.

Anyway, that's all from South Dakota, where we talk like Mayberry, act like Goodfellas, and the crazy just keeps on coming.


PS:  Oh, there was also one non-partisan item on the ballot, an Amendment to modify Marsy's Law.  I went and voted, and even the polling people agreed that this was ridiculous:  any amendment should be on the November ballot, not a Republican-only primary, where as few Democrats and Independents would vote as possible.  As a friend of mine said, "they did it as dirty as they could."  It passed.

06 June 2018

Holding tight or Letting Go

by Robert Lopresti 

Warning: I am going to quote/paraphrase a lot of authors from my own memory.  You are hereby warned that such lines may not be reliable.

Let's pretend that you are an author.  For some of you that will be easier than others.

Congratulations!  A big Hollywood studio just called you.  They are interested in one of your books.  They are excited, even.

And now you're excited too.  Large checks with many zeroes are magically floating over your head.  You tell them you are eagerly awaiting their contract. 

Wonderful, they say.  And then they happily tell you about their plans for your masterpiece.

Remember your main character, the brilliant Native American nuclear physicist?  Well, in the movie she will be a Swedish man who makes balloon animals for a living.  And the cancer cure everyone is hunting for?  In the flick it will be a box of honey-glazed donuts.  It's a creative thing.

Are you still eagerly waiting for that contract?  Will you sign it when it arrives?

Different authors take different views on this, naturally.

Sue Grafton (herself a reformed screenwriter) refused to let Hollywood take a shot on her Kinsey Milhone books and claimed that, for that reason, she was highly respected in that town.

J.K. Rowling allowed movies of her books but, as I understand it, kept a pretty tight leash on Warner Brothers.  The studio wanted to combine her first two books into one movie. and she refused.  Considering how much money they made off those flicks they should send a million dollars a year to her favorite charity.

At the other extreme you have James M. Cain.  Supposedly someone tried to sympathize with him about what Hollywood did to one of his novels.  He replied: "They haven't done anything to my book.  It's right there on the shelf."

On a similar note Elmore Leonard once complained about the film version of one of his novels and his friend Donald Westlake asked: "Dutch, did the check clear?"

The problem with Westlake's philosophy, alas, is visible on his IMDb page.  A lot of the movies  based on his books are terrible.*

One more author example.  When William Gillette was preparing to write a play about Sherlock Holmes he asked Arthur Conan Doyle what he was allowed to do with the character.  The author repled: "You may marry him, murder him, or do anything you like to him."

And the mention of murder brings up our next topic.  How would you feel about someone writing new adventures for your character after you have passed on to your reward? 

When asked that question by his biographer, Rex Stout famously said, "Let them roll their own," meaning other writers should come up with their own characters. 

Lawrence Block said: "I’d prefer not having anybody mucking about with my characters after I’m gone, but when I’m gone it’ll no longer be any of my business. And, in the unlikely event that there’s an afterlife, I can’t imagine it’ll involve my caring much one way or the other."

On the other hand, we have the science fiction great Connie Willis, who said: "Other people have 'Do Not Resuscitate' orders.  I have 'No One Edits My Manuscript.'"

And that brings us to Charles M. Schulz who, arguably, is the teller of the longest single tale in known history.  He never let anyone so much as ink or letter the Peanuts strip, which was intensely personal to him.

When he was a wealthy old man his children gave him one gift money could not buy: the promise that once he chose to put down the pen no one else would ever write or draw the Peanuts comic strip.  And they stuck by their word.  The cartoons that have been running since his death are repeats, all straight from the master's hand.

And that's enough to make Snoopy do his happy dance.

*Yes, two movies Westlake wrote, The Grifters and The Stepfather, were very good.  But they weren't based on his books.

05 June 2018

Getting the Details Right in a Police Procedural

by Barb Goffman

Police officers' guns are always loaded because they never know when they're going to need them.

This was one of the great tidbits I picked up this past Saturday at my local Sisters in Crime meeting. Our speaker was Mark Bergin, who served on the Alexandria, Virginia, police force for twenty-eight years, retiring in 2014. While on the force, he was twice named his department's officer of the year for drug and robbery investigations. Bergin shared stories and answered questions for over an hour to help us authors get our police details right. Here's some of what he told us. (Any mistakes are mine.) Some of this information I already knew, and maybe you do too, but it's always good to get a refresher:
  • Police work involves a ton of paperwork that you often don't see in novels and short stories.
  • Patrol officers wear twenty-three pounds of gear, such as a radio, gun, extra bullets, a bullet-proof vest.
  • Every cop has extra bullets, handcuffs, radios, pens, and more on them while on duty. 
  • While fictional officers seem to work on one case at a time, real cops are always juggling cases. In the Alexandria police force, the average was six to eight cases at a time, and the officers work each of them as much as they can.
  • Officers always like to sit with their back to the wall, especially when on duty. They want to see the whole room. Bergin called this "hyper-vigilance," and said it especially comes into play when you are in uniform.
  • Cops have a presence that's different from that of other people. Cops look at other people's faces. They give off the impression of being knowledgeable, which is why people often ask them for information such as directions.
  • Ninety percent of an officer's job is maintaining control of a situation. That's done mostly by walking in and being "a presence." Officers also gain control of situations through using a commanding voice, which they're taught, as well as through control holds.
  • Police officers have short hair, look bulky, and are strong. They're not always physically fit because so much of the job is sitting and driving. While on the force, Bergin worked out a lot to have big arms so he'd look like he could win a fight, which was designed to make people not try to fight him.
    Mark Bergin
  • Officers receive extensive training so that they get "muscle memory." In times of crisis, this memory kicks in so they will automatically do things the right way without having to think about it.
  • Cops typically stay in the same police department throughout their career because--unless you are a chief or deputy chief--if you switch departments, you always have to start at the bottom. This is true even of homicide detectives. If an officer moves to a new city and thus a new place of employment, the officer starts out on patrol and has to work his/her way up the ladder again. 
  • Ninety-five percent of the time, prosecutors don't get involved in police cases before an arrest. The exceptions can be for homicides, bank robberies, and when there is a series of crimes that seem to be by the same perpetrator. 
  • Preliminary investigations of most crimes are done by patrol officers. The exceptions are rape and homicide cases, which go to detectives right away.
  • Police investigate missing-person cases immediately; the twenty-four-hour waiting period often portrayed in TV and movies is a myth. However extensive resources may not be immediately available for a search.
  • Patrol officers are strictly controlled in what they are allowed to do. For instance, they must ask for permission to do follow-up work on cases they're interested in that have already been handed off to detectives. 
  • Most cops don't worry about fear interfering with their ability to do their jobs because the hiring process/training program weeds out potential officers with this problem. Potential officers with fear issues either are trained to overcome them or they leave the program.
  • While fear isn't a problem for most officers, stress is. They think they could be attacked at any moment, and thus are always on guard.
  • Ninety to ninety-five percent of police officers never fire their gun at another person.
  • In Alexandria, Virginia, the police department has three shifts of officers working each day. Officers work ten-hour shifts. Eighty-five to ninety percent of each shift is spent on the street. (I didn't get the chance to ask if this information is representative for most departments.) 
I hope I got all these details right. I asked Bergin to drop by today, so if I made any errors, he hopefully will weigh in in the comments. And if you have any questions, please pose them in the comments. I hope he will be able to answer them.

Now that he's retired from police work, Bergin has turned to writing fiction. His first novel, a police procedural titled Apprehension, is scheduled to be published this fall by Inkshares/Quill. More information about the book is available here.

Thanks very much, Mark Bergin!

04 June 2018

Songs of Love and Death

Not long ago, Leigh Lundin discussed the Hollies' "Long Cool woman in a Black Dress," so today I'm carrying the idea of crime songs off onto an abandoned siding.
I saw a wannabe rock 'n roller PI as a series character from the count-off, so I started a list of song titles that might work for mysteries, too. It wasn't a new idea. Ed Gorman used several rock and roll gems, including "Wake Up, Little Susie" and "Save the Last Dance For Me." Sandra Scoppettone punned on big band classics: "Let's Face the Music and Die," and "Gonna Take a Homicidal Journey," among others.

That first novel collected over 125 rejections. During those several years, I changed the PI's name three or four times before he became Chris "Woody" Guthrie and major plot points even more often. The title went from Death Sound Blues (Country Joe & the Fish) to Killing Me Softly With His Song (Roberta Flack) and at least one other title before it became Blood on the Tracks, a Bob Dylan album. The biggest surprise came when I hit on an idea for a major clue: an unreleased song by the now defunct band.

That song had to tie several plot threads together and connect female lead Megan Traine, the killer, the victim, and the recording session itself. Amazing though it may seem, no such song existed. My music theory is spotty and I read music slightly better than the average squirrel, but I wrote lyrics that connected Megan to the dead singer. Writing words was fairly easy, especially when I remembered that the song didn't have to be very good. But why would a trained session rat like Meg mess up playing it?

I pulled out a guitar and experimented with chords until I found one that sounded so awful that anyone would spot it as a mistake. Then I figured out how that mistake could appear in a session with excellent musicians. That song became a turning point in Blood On the Tracks. I never wrote the music down (too difficult for my limited skills), but I still know what it sounds like.

A few weeks ago, Brian Thornton talked about the fine art of Making Shit Up. As crime writers, we only have to know enough to sound convincing. Then we make shit up. That's what I did with the song. And I'm a repeat offender.

"Hot Sugar Blues" gave its name to a short story in the MWA anthology Vengeance, written around the theme of revenge. I had recently written a guest blog about plagiarism in rock, artists "borrowing" or worse from earlier sources, and the idea was still fresh in my mind when I wrote the story. I modeled the song on a combination of Skip James, Charley Patton, and Robert Johnson, all of whom often used alternate guitar tunings. The story involved a white rock star who stole his breakout hit from a forgotten blues player in the deep South and got away with it...until years later when Karma came calling. That story was a finalist for the Edgar and one of only two stories that sold the first time I sent it out.

In the early 70s, the New Seekers covered Melanie Safka's "Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma," which suggested another plagiarism story. I never worried much about the melody, but I had far too much fun inventing lyrics with every line ending in the same rhyme or half-rhyme. I finally backed off on that idea and added other rhymes, but an early demo version of the song in progress leads Woody Guthrie to the truth again...and harmony is restored.

I have another story making the rounds now that tells a dysfunctional family story the heroine thinks is simply an old folk song until she discovers a tape cassette. She figures out that her relatives wrote the song about a local murder. More or less a parody of an Appalachian ballad, the five-verse song still sleeps in a pile of random scribbling on the corner of my desk.

I never wrote out the music, but, again, I know what it sounds like. If the story ever sells, I may ask one of my more accomplished musician friends to help me finish the darn thing. They'd end up doing most of the work, though. I'd compare them to George Martin working with John and Paul, but humility tells me that wouldn't float either.

Christopher Moore's great take on research is something like "How vague can I get before people know I'm making it up?" Every writer has a few topics he or she knows just enough about to fake his way into deep woods. Maybe it's music, painting, or photography. Maybe it's cooking, theater, or computers. Maybe it's lacrosse or bridge.

Who cares? When we're talking about mysteries, we all become the sorcerer's apprentice. We know just enough to get ourselves into trouble.

The real fun comes when we're trying to get back out.

03 June 2018

Hot Spot

I’ve fallen off the grid. Unintentionally. No T-Mobile, No AT&T, no Virgin Wireless, no voice mail, no cell phone. Also no email, no web, no internet access. Neither of my phones nor my computer work. Both fruitlessly scan for radio signals, not picking up even a blip, not even alien static from distant Roswell.
phone, no bars

I didn’t plan it this way. I’m spending five weeks in Arizona. Tomorrow I visit the Grand Canyon, but here in the town of Gunsmoke in Holyshiteitshot County in eastern Arizona, the telegraph bypassed the town, never mind Pony Express and the telephone. When I enquired about a hotspot, bemused residents said, “It’s 109°F in May. How damn hot do you want it?”

109°F… Here F, usually preceded by a plosive ‘holy’, stands for a word other than Fahrenheit, usually heard when sliding into a rental car seat. I never knew leather could melt. Steering wheels appear inspired by paintings of Salvador Dalí. Truthfully, the steel door handle of a downtown restaurant is wrapped with pipe insulation and electrical tape, presumably after a few people involuntarily left skin samples.

Century Link is establishing a presence in the county seat. When I enquired, they said, “Congratulations, you qualify for high-speed internet.” They went on to define ‘high speed’ as 3Mbps, the approximate walking speed of a one-legged dog. Computers think data rates that slow mean the internet is broken. Compare 3Mbps to my suddenly much less despised Spectrum/Brighthouse ISP at 100Mbps or even optional 1000Mbps if that’s too slow.

100-1g Mbps

At 3Mbps, news can take a long time to crawl through copper wires. Folks asked about rumors a black man had been hired in the White House. They seemed politely dubious when I said more like a weird orange.

As for my computer, I plugged it into a socket. The wiring exploded with a shower of sparks, barbecuing my power supply. This is what we call a ‘challenge’.

Knowing I had a SleuthSayers article due, kind people came together to help out. One lent an old laptop. When connected to the internet for the first time in eons, it launched into mass Windows 7 updates taking most of a 24-hour day and burning through the data allocation of that person’s telephone hotspot. At that point, another person stunned me by buying a new cell phone to provide a fresh hotspot. Folks are asking around for an old cell to lend me. Life is good.

But wait, there’s more.

FedEx delivered a new computer power supply. As before, neither of my phones can pick up a signal, this coming from a guy who for years refused to own any phone. The nearest AT&T tower is thirty miles in one direction, fifty in another. An internet solution remains questionable, but I’m not yet out of options. SleuthSayers’ Dixon Hill has invited me to stop in, and Scottsdale definitely has internet and phone service.

Life is good.