10 August 2018

Why Can't We Be Friends?


by Thomas Pluck

Some say FaceBook is friendly, others say it is dangerous. Those of us old enough to remember "the Bear" commercial that played on TV for Reagan's election campaign will get what I'm saying.

The social media platform we all love has been accused of being complicit with allowing foreign interference in our elections, by selling ad space to Russian operatives. Their CEO says that Holocaust denial is "a viewpoint" and it was only today that they removed Alex Jones for "bullying," which I guess is what they call his conspiracy that the Sandy Hook massacre was a hoax, which caused his followers to repeatedly make death threats to the parents of murdered children, who have had to move several times to remain safe.

It is not a place I want to be. Yesterday I unfriended practically everyone who I haven't met in person or interacted with regularly, and I apologize if there was collateral damage. You can friend me again, my bad. I turned my personal profile into a page, and you can follow me there if you 'like.' If not, there's Twitter (which is really no better--they had methods in place to ban anyone who used "elon musk" in their name, after people were making fun of their fellow tech bro billionaire, but they allow hate speech in profiles and names until enough people report it). Twitter is easier to make earplugs for, with Block Lists, muted words, and other ostrich in the sand techniques.

I've met a few readers on Facebook, but I don't consider it a good platform for what I was using it for, which was event promotion. It is good for chatting and making friends, or "promoting your brand" by sharing the parts of your life that fit the writer image you want to project. I watched an excellent dark comedy called Ingrid Goes West about a woman who gets obsessed with Instagram stars and fakes her way into becoming one. It is available on Flintstones-style plastic disc for consumption, but you can't stream it directly into your consciousness just yet. It is worth the trouble. Aubrey Plaza is a rather fantastic comedic actress, best known as April on Parks & Recreation, and despite having a name like a street in a make-believe suburb, she truly inhabits this role, which goes pretty dark. It could be a crime story, a funny one. She's just as good in the delightfully weird The Little Hours, which spoofs the Decameron, and has Nick Offerman as a grumpy lord, and nuns gone bad.

Part of me has been cleaving to the icon of the reclusive writer who appears like a Greek bearing gifts whenever they have a new book out, and disappears in the interim. It's how it used to be, unless you had a column in a magazine, and blogging like this is no different. Social media has many benefits, but it is extremely draining to me, and I have mostly left Facebook except to give updates on sick cats (they are all doing well) or to create an event that reaches few of the people I'm trying to reach anyway.

Everyone has a Writer Dream. Mine, it seems, was partly inspired by one of my all-time favorite writer stories, Romancing the Stone starring Kathleen Turner, which I was reminded of while reading this incredible interview with Ms. Turner. It is highly quotable, and she offers great advice for all artists within. Anyway, she has great adventures in that movie, but she lives a quiet life. I live in a busy suburb, in a 5th floor 2 bedroom where I write with a view of Manhattan. It's as close to a cabin as I'm likely to get for now, but the noise is coming from inside the house. I've let it in, with my addiction to social media. And my health and writing have both suffered.

I recently finished the first draft of Riff Raff, Jay Desmarteaux's second yarn, and I have another novel in edits, a bar story that's light on crime and heavy on humor, and I need to write a dark short story by the end of the month, so I am retreating to my cabin. I'll see you when I get out, hopefully with a story and two more books for you.




09 August 2018

Early Early EARLY Mysteries


If I asked you what was the first mystery story, what would you say?

Edgar Allan Poe's "Murders in the Rue Morgue?"  Sorry.  Published in 1841, that's practically current events.

How about Shakespeare?  There was that whiny prince trying to figure out who killed his father.  Uh uh.  Hamlet only goes back to 1600.

Well, there was the story of Susannah, which appears in some editions of the Book of Daniel.  The prophet solves a crime by using a technique known to every modern police force.  But that only dates back to around 200 BC.

How about Sophocles' play about a king interrogating various witnesses to discover the murderer of his predecessor?  Nice guess, but no.  At 400 BC, he's still an Oedipus-come-lately.

Enough suspense.  Here is the true answer, courtesy of those brilliant British comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb.

08 August 2018

Munich 1938


Robert Harris has written a dozen compelling and thoughtful thrillers, beginning with Fatherland, in 1992. The first novel was alternative history. Then he went with the real thing in Enigma, about WWII code-breaking at Bletchley Park, and Archangel was a little of both, Stalin's ghost as metaphor, but with an all-too-physical legacy.
Further along, we've had the Cicero trilogy - ancient Rome - and An Officer and a Spy, the Dreyfus affair. Not to mention an acid take-down of Tony Blair. Mostly the books take place at a safe remove from the present, not that they lose any of their ominous immediacy.  



What lies now in the past once lay in the future. This is the epigraph, slightly paraphrased, from his most recent book, Munich. In late September of 1938, the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain flew to Germany to meet with Adolf Hitler, and try one last time to prevent the outbreak of a general European war. The price agreed to would be the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia, and the repatriation of the ethnic Germans in the Sudeten. Chamberlain has been much ridiculed since (thanks in no small part to the writings of his longtime political rival, Churchill, and the benefits of hindsight), but it's worth remembering that he was much honored at the time.



We might remember too that in 1938, the Armistice had only been signed twenty years before. Everybody in political office had direct experience of the Great War, and so did the voters. Chamberlain's dread of another generation going to slaughter wasn't stage piety, and his peace policy ("appeasement") had significant support - and not just in Great Britain. He was widely admired on the Continent, as well. A second point, not so well-recognized, is that Chamberlain was playing for time. Britain had its Navy, but the air forces and ground defense were completely underequipped. If they'd gone to war with Germany in 1938, they'd almost surely have gone down in defeat.



This is where the Robert Harris method pays off bigtime, with the What-Ifs. We know the world went to war. We know Hitler wasn't to be trusted. But we didn't know it then. Chamberlain isn't a fool, some doddering fuddy-duddy. He's got a misplaced hope that Hitler might feel the slightest sense of shame, but he's pretty clear-headed, and certainly cold-blooded. You could ask the Czechs.

The device Harris uses is to represent the larger canvas in small. The major actors all take the stage in turn, but the attributes of national character are on display in the brick-and-mortar of the fictional cast. Two (invented) lower-ranking foreign service guys, Legat on the British side, Hartmann on the German, were classmates at Oxford in the 1930's, and meet again at Munich. More to the point, Hartmann arranges for them to meet, so he can pass Legat a stolen document. In the event, the former friends can only talk past each other, which mirrors the larger context. Hartmann, a conspirator in the still-scattered Hitler resistance, is frustrated by Legat's obstinate insistence on matters of form. Legat thinks Hartmann is being too operatic and emotional. The doomed Romantic can't dent the stiff upper lip.



The point of all this is something I've spoken about in previous pieces, namely, what's now in the past was once in the future. This is an active dynamic in Robert Harris' books, as it is with Alan Furst or Joseph Kanon, or anybody else who writes about a shared recent history, just barely past the horizon of personal memory. WWII vets are dying off, and people who were simply alive at the time are falling by the wayside. In other words, we're losing a window into their experience. A novelist can reimagine it, or allow us to reimagine it, and a large part of that is inhabiting the time those people lived in. To us, it's old news. To them, it was the present.

Chamberlain at Munich was trying to stave off - or at best, delay - a huge, devouring calamity. Nobody actually realized how huge it would be, how calamitous, but Chamberlain was haunted by the diplomatic collapses of August 1914. He felt an enormous responsibility. In the end, the collapse came, a year later. 'Munich' is now shorthand, for weakness, for retreat, for collaboration, even. This does Chamberlain a cruel disservice. He made the mistake any reasonable man might. He thought the other guy was reasonable. 

07 August 2018

All Hail The New Queen


by Barb Goffman

When I first got involved with the mystery world nearly twenty years ago, I noticed something I thought a bit odd. Mystery writers seemed to love the name Kate. Between published books and unpublished manuscripts I read in writing workshops, I saw fictional Kates everywhere. Then I became program chair of Malice Domestic, and it seemed that practically every third book of a registered author had a protagonist named Kate. I remember thinking one day that you couldn't swing a dead cat (or a nice live cozy one, by the fire, on the cover of a mystery) without hitting an amateur sleuth named Kate who was out to save the day. Even today, we have lots of Kates out there: Dana Stabenow's Kate Shugak, Laurie King's Kate Martinelli, Linda Castillo's Kate Burkholder, and Frances Brody's Kate Shackleton, just to name a few mystery sleuths.

But Kate, my dear girl, I believe your reign is over. Because I've seen a new protagonist on the rise. She's smart, she's sassy, and she is solving crimes EVERYWHERE. Her name is Sarah. (And sometimes Sara.)

I went online to find some Sarahs to tell you all about, and I came up with a dozen in no time at all, living all over the place, and this is just the tip of the iceberg:

  • Sarah Winston solves crimes in Ellington, Massachusetts, when she's not throwing garage sales (and sometimes while she is). This Agatha-nominated amateur-sleuth series is written by Sherry Harris.
  • Sarah Booth Delaney solves crimes in Zinnia, Mississippi, when she's not dealing with a bossy ghost. This series about a southern belle turned private eye is written by Carolyn Haines.

  • Sarah Brandt solves crimes in old New York when she's not delivering babies. This Edgar- and Agatha-nominated series about a midwife turned amateur sleuth in early twentieth-century Manhattan is written by Victoria Thompson.

  • Sarah Grayson solves crimes in North Harbor, Maine, when she's not running her refurbished-goods shop. This series about an amateur sleuth who solves crimes with her cat is written by Sofie Ryan.

  • Dr. Sara Linton gets involved in darker crimes (or at least darker on paper) than the previously mentioned protagonists. This series about a pediatrician and coroner is set in Grant County, Georgia, (before the character moves to Atlanta as part of a second series). This Barry- and Macavity-nominated series is written by Karin Slaughter.

  • Sarah Kelling solves crimes with her art-fraud investigator husband, Max, in Boston. This Anthony-nominated series was written by the late Charlotte MacLeod.

  • Sarah Blair solves crimes in Wheaton, Alabama, when she's not working as a law firm receptionist. This series about an amateur sleuth is scheduled to debut this December. It's written by Debra H. Goldstein. 

The following sleuthy Sarahs I don't know much about (at least not yet):

  • Sarah Woods series written by Jennifer L. Jennings
  •  Sarah Miller series written by Carol Dean Jones
  •  Sarah Hart series written by a series of authors
  •  Sara Mason series written by Mary Deal
  •  Sarah Quilliam series written by Claudia Bishop
I know there are tons more Sarahs (and Saras) out there who are searching for clues as we speak. Dear reader, why do you think Sarah has become so popular for the name of a sleuth? What's your favorite name for a sleuth? (And why?) And please weigh in with names of Sarah mysteries I've missed.

Queen Kate is dead (or at least less popular than before). Long live the new queen, Sarah!


06 August 2018

Show Time!


About a month ago, I joined eighteen other writers from Sisters in Crime (two others were men, too--we've learned not to call ourselves "male members") at the University of Connecticut branch of Barnes & Noble.

I've been trying to crack Barnes & Noble's resistance to self-published authors for several years, so I would have joined this event in any case, but there were a few planning glitches, probably because this particular store is quite new and the staff probably hasn't done anything of this scale before.

Obviously, getting 19 writers from three states together demands a weekend slot, but with a perfect beach day and thousands of people protesting the current administration's immigration policy only blocks away, I'm not sure we saw a dozen patrons in the three hours we were there. The store wanted us to introduce ourselves and read from our works, taking fifteen minutes each. That's 45 minutes longer than the event was scheduled to run. We convinced the store that five minutes each was better, and I cut my own slot to three minutes by explaining where I got the idea for my newest book, reading the cover blurb, and sitting down. I sold two books that day, and I'm not sure anyone sold more than that.

Everyone either learned or confirmed something from the experience.

I participate in three types of author events.

The mass author bash like the one above is my least favorite. If you put a lot of genre writers together, they nullify each other and nobody sells much. The readers have trouble keeping the writers straight, too, so they don't really connect with anyone, and that's the whole reason I do any event: to make friends with my potential readers.

When the day turns into a carnival, it's hard to remember that you're selling yourself more than you're selling your books. If people like you, they're more apt to buy your books, so I chat with as many  as I can. I bring lots of flyers, bookmarks, and business cards to plug my editing and workshops and make sure my roller ball has a fresh blue cartridge for signing copies. Swag is advertising, the sales pitch I don't have to make out loud.

In two weeks, I'll join four other Connecticut writers on a panel, but we represent cozy, historical, PI, and suspense stories so we don't get in each others' way. The library is beautiful and the staff is worth their weight in uncut cocaine. Unless we get a cloudburst (which happened two years ago), we'll have an enthusiastic audience full of thoughtful questions. We may even sell a few books on the spot. We'll certainly sell some in the aftermath.

Next month, I'll do a local author fair as a fund-raiser for another local library, and they do it up big. They charge a solid admission fee so the people are already prepared to spend money. The evening event features catering from an excellent local restaurant so patrons (and authors) get fed. They also have a cash bar, which seems to stimulate sales (heh-heh-heh). Two years ago, I shared a table with a former student who had a self-help book for sale, and we traded war stories between chats with friends of the library. Best writer's fair I've attended.

The second type of event, which I like marginally more, is the single-author appearance. Sinclair Lewis said that audiences attend events like this to see if the author is funnier in person than he is to read. After 35 years of teaching and community theater, I can do stand-up, but no matter how clearly (or not) the venue promotes you, half the people are upset to discover that you don't write poetry, history, memoir, romance, or cook books, or whatever their favorite happens to be.

I don't like reading from my books either, brilliant as they are and scintillating as I am in person. I prepare passages of about five minutes each, cutting as much description and exposition as I can so they're heavy on action and dialogue, but reading puts the pages between you and your audience. I'd rather take lots of questions and turn the event into a big conversation. Naturally, I bring all the Fabulous Parting Gifts to these events, too.

Workshops rock. They satisfy my teaching jones, they give me money whether I sell books or not, and people tend to talk them up to their aspiring writer friends...and come back for more.

I used to conduct workshops in several libraries around central Connecticut, but library budgets have been slashed over the last few years, so now I do smaller venues that support writing groups. Instead of a flat fee, the venue charges an admission price to each participant and we split. The groups are smaller, but that means everyone gets a chance to ask questions.

Sure, there's some prep involved. I load my workshops with hand-outs and make sure the venue has an easel or dry marker board (I can bring one if necessary). I make a point of including an unsigned evaluation form in the handouts so the participants can turn it in to the venue. That way, I get recommendations and ideas for improvements...or even new programs.

I never sell books directly. I sell myself. If people like me, they're more apt to buy a book, and they're even more likely to buy if they receive something in return (writing instruction). Generally, I sell more books at workshops than at a panel or reading (the fund-raiser I mentioned above is an exception). It used to be that I'd sell a book for every six people at a reading or panel and one
for every three people at a workshop. Both those numbers have dropped in the last couple of years, but I seem to sell more eBooks in the few weeks after an event than before.

How do you feel about events? Are your results different from mine?

05 August 2018

Innocent Abroad


zzPaul recently mentioned stumbling into a den of Nazis. His encounter reminded me that I might have done the same, in Germany, no less.

My German colleague and I were driving to Stuttgart in the nastiest weather. Evening set in like a black curtain falling as winds and torrential rains rocked and hammered our Audi. Thunder boomed like cannon. Lightning blinded us.

Waters in the roads rose, overloading storm sewers. Wrestling the steering wheel, Dedrick slowed to a crawl to avoid hydroplaning. When we turned into one village, waters gushed down the cobblestones like a river. We yielded in the furious face of Mother Nature and pulled up to a pub.

The dash inside the alehouse soaked us to the skin. The pub’s humidity approximated that of an overfilled aquarium without the nice filtration. Weather reports suggested we’d be holed up for several hours.

This kneipe had last been plastered and painted about the time the Kaiser’s coach last passed through. Its toiletten plumbing surely predated the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The bar ran nearly the length of the room stopping short of the left wall so barmaids could pass back and forth. There sat pinball machines flanking a door. Besides serving the taproom, waitresses also passed through the door, carefully closing it behind themselves.

Two waitress wore prim, high-collar blouses, but our hyper-blonde server wore a bodice cut like a bushel basket, barely containing the fruits of her Nordic genes. All went for naught. Noses in glasses, no one paid attention. A kind of miasma seemed to have settled upon the bar.

The place didn’t decorate its walls with kitsch, memorabilia, or antiques, faux or otherwise. Apparently some visitors left behind traces of chewing gum, perhaps from a New Jersey teen who’d run off to London to become part of the Beatles scene. Visiting German nightclubs and bars, she’d retraced their up-and-coming route through villages like this. She’d disappeared here one evening in 1966, said the barmaid, probably gypsies.

A speaker piped in some sort of deutscher Musik. Whenever someone would switch it on, a man stormed out of the kitchen to shut it off.

A few patrons morosely chatted, exhibiting none of the camaraderie of American taverns or English pubs. A few sat alone, sullen, possibly glum from the relentless rains and floods gushing down the straße. When barmaids opened the door off the bar, traces leaked out of stentorian words, wisps of a laugh, strains of singing.

A man wearing a slouch hat dropped into a booth across from me. The ID tag on the briefcase chained to his wrist might have read Antonio Prohías. His valise covered letters carved into the table. I could make out the letters ‘…child…’.

My colleague was becoming inebriated. After a glass of Mosel, I switched to Coca-Cola, that American abomination that everyone loves. It meant I’d do the driving once the downpour let up.

When slouch-hat man unlocked his briefcase, My imagination made out the rest of the lettering carved in the table, maybe Erskine Childers.

Kaffee,” mumbled Dedrick in half English. “Die bardame, tell her kaffee. Gott, I need kaffee.”

The barmaids had wandered off, but I stayed attentive, waiting for one to appear. Within moments, one whooshed out of the kitchen. She balanced a tray on a pinball machine, levered open the side door, and disappeared inside. This time she didn’t close it.

German Flags
German flag, variously 1848-1934
1848~1933
German flag 1935-1945
1935~1945
German flag 1949-present
1949~20xx
From my angle, the room loomed large, apparently an auditorium. A man stood speaking at a microphone. Surrounding him, the platform was decorated in colorful bunting, red, white, and black. Not, I noticed, the Weimar and post-war red, gold, and black, but the terrifying 1935-1945 decade of red, white, black.

“Dedrick,” I hissed. “Damn it, Dedrick, snap to. Take a look.”

My companion blearily opened his eyes and turned. He stiffened.

The barmaid glided back through the door and headed for the kitchen. The speaker suddenly noticed. He pointed sternly toward the door, nearly pointing at me.

A man in a pressed, light brown uniform strode into view. Was that… Was he wearing a Sam Browne shoulder strap? This sergeant-at-arms glanced around and firmly shut the door.

Dedrick instantly sobered.

“Did you see what I saw?” I asked.

“Shh. Shut up in here.” He glared out the window at the rain. “Can you drive?”

To avoid the appearance of panicked departure, we abided another twenty minutes, then dashed toward the Audi, awash in rushing water.

Once out of town, I steered toward Stuttgart.

“What was that?” I asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Was it…?”

“I know what you’re thinking. No. The Nazi Party is illegal in Germany, banned with good reason.”

“But…”

“Don’t speak of it, not here, not now.”

So in a rain-soaked village overlooking a riverbed disguised as a cobblestone street, a curious gathering took place in a private room adjacent to a scruffy bar. Maybe Garbage Collectors Union Local 101 were merely meeting that evening. Perhaps they shared a penchant for neatly pressed brown uniforms and red bunting with dramatic dashes of black and white.

Or maybe it was something else entirely.



Next time: Ladybug Nazi versus the Valkyrie

04 August 2018

The President Is Missing


No, this isn't a newsflash--Trump's still there. This is just a quick review, of sorts, of the recent novel by James Patterson and Bill Clinton, called The President Is Missing. By the way, never doubt the power of name recognition: I probably would never have bought and read this book otherwise.

Surprisingly, though, I enjoyed it. If you're willing to overlook the (expected) moralizing, I think you might find it to be an interesting--and sometimes thrilling--thriller. It has all the suspense of a typical Patterson novel, plus some insider facts about the White House, congressional dealings, and the Secret Service that I suspect came from the former President.


A confession, here: I like Bill Clinton, despite his faults, and I truly like James Patterson (he once said kind things about one of my stories, so he'll always be a saint, in my view)--and I'm sure my fascination with the co-authors helped me like this book. But I honestly do feel that there's plenty to enjoy about it, for almost anyone who likes a fast-moving, hi-tech, plot-twisty novel.

Some quick facts. The protagonist in TPIM is the current president, Jonathan Lincoln Duncan (he seems loosely based on Clinton--surprise, surprise), who discovers a cyberattack plot to cripple the United States, to the degree that all records and files on all computers everywhere, even personal phones and tablets, would be infected with a virus and permanently deleted. This would be an unprecedented disaster, shutting down the health-care system, finance, transportation, Social Security, welfare, every level of infrastructure, and so forth. Anyhow, the President leaps into action to save the nation. He doesn't actually "go missing," or at least not for long--much of the story, after all, is told in his POV--but he does go off the public grid to the extent that he sneaks away from most of his Secret Service guards and is dodging explosions and terrorist bullets by the time the reader can get properly settled into his easy chair. (Unlike Bill Clinton, President Duncan did serve in the military; in this aspect he reminded me more of John McCain--a war hero and former POW.)

I won't give anything away here, but there's plenty of conflict, both external and internal. The plot includes gunfights, professional assassins, political posturing and turf battles, right vs. wrong soulsearching, and cyberterrorism galore. POTUS even has a rare blood disorder that threatens to kill him before the bad guys do. And--since you might be wondering--yes, there's a mystery featured in the plot: one of the Prez's inner circle at the White House is a traitor whose identity is revealed only at the very end.

Part of my reason for reading this was curiosity, and for Patterson fans, there are plenty of hints that he's steering the ship. Most of the chapters are short, many of them no more than two pages, and there's nonstop action with a lot of plot reversals throughout. The only real drawback I found to this novel was the fact that the entire final chapter was a preachy speech about what makes America great. Overall, though, I liked the book and would recommend it. Even at 500 pages, it's a fast and entertaining read.

How about you guys? Anybody else read this novel yet? If so, what are your thoughts? Are you Patterson fans, or not? Did you think this was up to his usual standards?

The President Is Missing is available everywhere, I suppose, and can be found on Amazon here.

Now I'm waiting for the novel by Trump and Putin . . .








03 August 2018

Support Your Local Fiction Writer


by Janice Law

I’ve been thinking lately about the human passion for stories, about need to convert the messy realities of the world into tidy narratives. Lately, it has gotten us into difficulties, what with tall stories seeded by reckless bloviators, Russian agents, and conspiracy theorists, not to mention loose charges of fakery whenever news displeases the powerful.

But the passion for stories doesn’t stop with lies for fun and profit. Consider sports broadcasts. Younger readers may be surprised to learn that before TV and the tell-all Jumbotron, broadcasters delivered a call of the game – interspersed admittedly with ads for beer and cigarettes – without relying on the Story Line. Many broadcasters also managed to do a complete baseball or football game or call a tennis or boxing match without the help of the now obligatory “color” commentators.

Well, times have changed. With video omnipresent, commentators with hours to fill now rely heavily on The Storyline. Often this is a story of Redemption, a word they are almost as fond of as preachers, or Triumphant Comeback, preferably from some dire illness – although legal troubles will do in a pinch.

Within these favorite narratives, we have personal rivalries – often carefully cultivated and promoted by the media – and heroic top players who are idolized until they start losing, whereupon they can be repurposed into a tale of Redemption. Unless, of course, the idol is a top coach. These gents are never in need of Redemption because they simply more on to another over the top salary or graduate to the commentary booth.

Is it any wonder that the younger generation seems more inclined to play video games?

What to do about these threats to national games and national politics? Return to truth in labeling and the people who tell stories for an honest ( and usually modest) living: your fiction writers. I can speak only for that subset, the mystery writer, but these are folks who tell stories that are clearly labeled Fiction. They don’t try to add a veneer to events without doing the hard work to turn the stuff of this world into a short story, a script, or a novel.

They are also up front about what they are doing – and they are pros. How often does the latest conspiracy theory fall flat over some preposterous premise? You needn’t worry about that with a member of the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime or the Authors Guild.

Fed up with the familiar story lines and hackneyed phrases? Ditch the amateurs and start patronizing your local novelists, short story writers, and dramatists. These are folks who know their foreshadowing from their denoument and are well acquainted with the rising curve of suspense. They can handle multiple points of view, reliable and unreliable narrators, flashbacks and stream of consciousness. They can satisfy all your fiction needs.

So buy their books and subscribe to the magazines that still print real Fiction, not all the ersatz stuff that is around on the web and the tube. The legion of writers will thank you – and just maybe the body politic, too.

02 August 2018

Mata Hari in South Dakota


For those of you who follow my tales of South Dakota politics, I talked about Mariia Butina in my blog post Just Another January in South Dakota. She and Paul Erickson, local South Dakotan, formed a couple of LLCs here in Sioux Falls, and Ms. Butina did the South Dakota speaking tour, all about God, Guns and Let's Be Friends With Russia!, including SDSU, USD, and the Teenage Republicans Camp in the Black Hills, where a number of past and current South Dakota legislatures were counselors, attendees, or just there for the party.

Back in February, almost no one had heard of Mariia Butina, or certainly weren't admitting that they did. But then a couple of weeks ago, she was indicted and arrested for being a Russian agent, and ever since we are in the fire hose of information about her.  Here's a beginning cast list:

(1) Mariia Butina, who introduced herself to America as a pro-Russian Christian gun-rights activist, and managed to get into every NRA convention in her years among us (2012-2017), as well as the National Prayer Breakfast (a private, closed event in case you didn't know) in Washington D.C. in 2017.  Apparently she had a very compelling story... and offered sex for political access and "in exchange for a job at an unidentified “special interest organization.” New York

(2) US Person Number 1 (from the original indictment), a/k/a Paul Erickson - more about him in a minute, but here they are strategizing away:
Maria Butina and Paul Erickson, posted to FB 2013.11.01
(3) US Person Number 2 (from the original indictment) - still unnamed, but described in the court documents as the target of Butina’s efforts to establish a backchannel between U.S. policymakers and representatives of the Russian government...

(4) Butina's handler, Alexander Torshin, Russian politician and Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Russia. He's also been identified by U.S. intelligence sources as having "established ties" to Russian security forces and a fierce Putin supporter, and by Spanish intelligence (they want to arrest him) as the money launderer for the Russian criminal Tambovskaya Gang. He and Butina founded the Russian-based Right to Bear Arms, and there was a regular correspondence between them that has to be read to be believed. Social media never had it so good.

(5) Her funder, Konstantin Nikolaev, a Russian oligarch worth $1.5 billion by Forbes’s latest estimate. Read USA Today on that: Russian Billionaire Paid Mariia Butina. There's a South Dakota connection to Nikolaev, which I'll get to in a minute.

(6) Her NRA friends: All photos courtesy of Cory Heidelberger at his blog post: (HERE)

Former NRA president David Keene introduces Maria Butina and Alexsandr Torshin to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, April 2015.
Former NRA president David Keene introduces Maria Butina and Alexsandr Torshin to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, April 2015. [Source: Walker’s “Our American Revival” PAC photo album]

David Keene, former NRA President, and Maria Butina [source: Maria Butina, Facebook, 2013.11.03]
Right before or during Mr. Keene's visit to Moscow at her and Torshin's invitation.
(7) Her South Dakota friends. She spoke at South Dakota State University and at University of South Dakota in Vermillion, offering her compelling story, and, as you can see, was front and center at the South Dakota Teenage Republican Camp:
Butina at SD TARS camp, 2015.07.22.
Butina at Rapid City, SD TAR camp, 2015.07.22
The current candidate for South Dakota's lone US Representative seat, Dusty Johnson, ran that TAR Camp, on her visit, and afterwards tweeted:

Dusty Johnson thought Maria Butina was "incredible" at TARS Camp in 2015. Incredible, indeed.


To be fair, Mr. Johnson's current statement is that he was duped. This is also the current statement from USD, SDSU, and innumerable others...  Crickets from the NRA, despite the fact that she was part of their "million dollar donors" group, and was photographed with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Rick Santorum, NRA Presidents Sandy Froman, Jim Porter, and Wayne LaPierre.  (See Alleged Spy Mariia Butina/NRA Photographic History)

And, as the cherry on the top, here's Butina asking then-candidate Trump questions at FreedomFest, July 11, 2015, Las Vegas:





She also attended one of the inaugural balls in 2017.

But for a complete timeline, you can't do much better than Mother Jones. Read that article, and then we'll continue with South Dakota's Season of Spies.

First of all, Paul Erickson. I was talking to a friend about him the other day, and she said she kind of felt sorry for him because he was the butt of so many jokes this day. My response:  "Look, if you can't make fun of the man who masterminded the John Wayne Bobbitt "Love Hurts" tour, who can you make fun of?"

Image result for paul erickson south dakota

Paul Erickson, of Vermillion, SD, is a long time Republican and Republican campaign operative. In the 1980s, he served as the national treasurer for the College Republicans in Washington, D.C., where he met Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed, and Jack Abramoff.  (If you don't know who these guys are, well, look them up. 

Erickson also served as the national political director / campaign manager for the 1992 presidential campaign of Pat Buchanan, and later as an advisor to both of Mitt Romney's presidential campaigns. He is a former board member of the American Conservative Union, the group that organizes the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC).[5] He worked in SD for the Trump campaign, and in 2016 Erickson claimed he was on the Trump presidential transition team. During the 2016 NRA convention he sent an e-mail to then-presidential candidate Donald Trump via Trump's campaign advisor Rick Dearborn and (for some reason) then-Senator Jeff Sessions with the subtle subject line: "Kremlin Connection":
"Putin is deadly serious about building a good relationship with Mr. Trump. He wants to extend an invitation to Mr. Trump to visit him in the Kremlin before the election. Let's talk through what has transpired and Senator Sessions' advice on how to proceed."
No one knows if that meeting took place: Sessions told the House Intelligence Committee he didn't remember the request (even though the e-mail plainly says "Senator Sessions' advice on how to proceed"). I don't know if anyone asked Rick Dearborn.  

Anyway, back in 2013 (or earlier?), Erickson met Mariia Butina, and she recruited him hugely. While a lot of people didn't like Erickson (and even more detest him right about now - you'd be amazed how quickly the SD Republican Party has repudiated him), he was a man with connections. Apparently he knew everybody, and he literally made Butina a list and told her, these are the people you need to contact.  And she did.

She also did what any good Russian agent in a spy novel would do: She befriended him, had sex with him, called him her boyfriend, and shared a Sioux Falls address with him, but...  [sob]
"But this relationship does not represent a strong tie to the United States because Butina appears to treat it as simply a necessary aspect of her activities. For example, on at least one occasion, Butina offered an individual other than U.S. Person 1 sex in exchange for a position within a special interest organization. Further, in papers seized by the FBI, Butina complained about living with U.S. Person 1 and expressed disdain for continuing to cohabitate with U.S. Person 1."   Dakota Free Press
"Clowns to the left of me, jokers to my right, Here I am, stuck in the middle with you..."  would appear to be Mariia's theme song...  (Stealers Wheel)


Erickson and Butina also, as I said, founded two LLCs. The LLCs - "Bridges" in South Dakota in 2016, and another one - Medora Consulting LLC - in 2018 - are both "located" in an apartment complex in Sioux Falls, and neither have any stated purpose or partners. (Argus Leader)  Personally, I think they're shell companies for, perhaps, a connection to Cyprus...

Why Cyprus?  Well, let's go back to Maria's financier, Konstantin Nikolaev, who has been known to enjoy a seat at Putin’s annual oligarch’s dinner in 2014. Nikolaev owns, among other things, a 34% stake in Globaltrans, “Russia’s Leading Freight Rail Group.” Globaltrans had a subsidiary based in Cyprus called Ultracare Holdings. Between December 2007 and April 2008, Ultracare Holdings received three payments totaling $1.5 million from Northern Beef Packers, based in Aberdeen, South Dakota. At that time, Northern Beef Packers was four years and two more rounds of EB-5 visa investment dollars away from slaughtering any cattle. NBP was five years away from its bankruptcy, the suicide of Richard Benda, and the eruption of South Dakota’s EB-5 scandal. (Thanks Cory Heidelberger!)  Granted, to Globaltrans, or Ultracare Holdings, $1.5 million is not a lot of of jack...  But no one outside of NBP and he EB-5 scandal knows what that cash was for.  (Rail cars? the nearest track is a third of a mile away from the plant).  And the plain truth is that the EB-5 scandal was and is huge, and there are still millions of dollars missing, and no one believes it was suicide, and I have written somewhat often about it:

October 2015 - A Little Light Corruption
January 14, 2016 - The Chinese are Coming
April, 2016 - If Only We Had Laws Against This Stuff

But now we have a Russian connection - so I ask, what in God's sweet green earth was NBP doing sending $1.5 million dollars to Ultracare Holdings in Cyprus? Still waiting for answers, Joop Bollen, Senator Mike Rounds, and soon to be ex-Attorney General Marty Jackley!

But wait, there's more!

Because running one scandal at a time is NEVER enough, while Erickson was playing "find the marks" with Butina, he was also passing bogus checks and running a couple of phony investment schemes:
(1) a company called Compass Care he founded in 1997, which he sold to investors as a Christian-based nursing home company that would eventually build 24 facilities, but never built any. Instead, it just lined up investors and never paid anything out.
(2) A 2009 company called Dignity Medical Inc., which he promised would give a rate of return of between 25 and 75 percent. (Argus Leader - this article also has a really great time line about Mr. Erickson's career)
NOTE TO FUTURE INVESTORS:  Any time any one promises you 25%-75% return on your investment, THEY ARE LYING.  
Meanwhile, in case you're wondering, no one knows where Paul Erickson is. Casey Phillips, a political consultant who once worked with Erickson, said the last time he saw Erickson was on a flight from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C. in June. (Argus Leader) Nobody's seen him since. But I'll bet the feds are looking for him...

Meanwhile, Mariia Butina is "cooperating" with authorities.
Meanwhile, the NRA is being as silent as an isolation tank about Mariia Butina.
Meanwhile, the GOP is copy-catting the NRA.
Meanwhile, did I mention that Mariia also was a grad student at American University (on Russian money, of course) in Washington, D.C.?  There she was "in-your-face" with her pro-Russia and pro-Putin views.  "Those who came across Butina said the back of her cellphone prominently displayed a picture of Putin. And while on campus, Butina freely alluded to her activity on behalf of the Russian government, but she made it seem like she was a secretary or held some "low-level" position with a department in the Russian government."  (ABC News)

Hiding in plain sight.  With lots of friends around her...

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

 
   
Meanwhile, some Blatant Self-Promotion:

  Image may contain: text

Yep, that's me, along with John Floyd and Michael Bracken of SleuthSayers in the 3rd issue of Black Cat Magazine!  Huzzah!


01 August 2018

When 18,000 Librarians Attack


Two weeks ago I wrote about visiting New Orleans.  This time I am going to explain why I was there.  The American Library Association holds its annual conference in late June and this year it was in the Big Easy.

Truth to tell, the main reason I went was that the Government Documents Round Table of ALA was giving me the Lane/Saunders Memorial Research Award for When Women Didn't Count.  But I went to a bunch of professional meetings too.

I am not going to tell you what I learned about the current research on reference work and the shocking changes in Canadian government information trends (email me if you are dying to know), but will stick to things more relevant to SleuthSayers.

Believe it or not, there was a panel of mystery writers, and none of them were librarians.  Here's what I remember about them:

Robert Olen Butler is a Pulitzer Prize winning writer and a collector of old postcards.  The latter is relevant because he wrote a book called Had A Good Time, in which each story was inspired by a postcard, and told in the voice of the person who wrote the message.


The great editor Otto Penzler read the book and promptly offered him a contract for two mysteries about one of those characters, an early twentieth century reporter named Christopher Marlowe Cobb.    

"Being of a literary turn of mind, I believe my exact words were 'Oh boy, you betcha!'"  There are four books in the series so far.

Ellen Byron writes "Cajun country mysteries," complete with recipes.  She
says she is so afraid of writing sex scenes that she won't even read the book on how to write sex scenes.

"I have a scar on my forehead where I walked into a tree because I was reading.  I was 25 at the time."

 
Jude Deveraux  has written dozens of popular romances but her new agent wanted her to try something different.  He proposed vampires or zombies; she countered with mysteries. He asked for outlines for three books; she replied with nine outlines, one of them 20,000 words long.  (That's not an outline; that's a novella.)

"I'm always writing about 23-year-old semi-virgins."

Debra LeBlanc writes horror - see her many books with Witch in the title -  but her Nonie Broussard novels are about an amateur sleuth who gets (annoying) help from the occasional ghost.

"I am to literature what Walmart is to department stores."

Amy Stewart has written several quirky nonfiction books.  While researching The Drunken Botanist, about the blessed plants that give us booze, she stumbled on the true story of the Kopp sisters who, in 1915, got into a feud with a drunken mill owner in Paterson, New Jersey.  The eldest, Constance Kopp, became the first female deputy in the state.  All four novels are based on her actual adventures.  The title of the first, Girl Waits With Gun, was an actual newspaper headline.  I can testify the book is a lot of fun.

"My characters are all six feet underground.  I'm like, 'Could y'all wake up for five minutes?  I've got some questions.'"


But there are more reasons to attend ALA than the panels, wonderful as they are.  Above you see a picture of the exhibitor's room.  There is no way I could capture more than a sliver of this joint, which had roughly 700 vendors in it.  That included everything from an author with a card table hawking a single title, to most of the major American publishers with displays the size of a grocery store aisle, to companies trying to sell computer systems, furniture, etc.

It is stunning and bewildering.

One company brought in an espresso cart and had a professional barista mixing up free lattes for the crowd.  "I like Baker and Taylor a lot more than I did an hour ago," said one happy imbiber.

Oh, one big exhibitor was the Library of Congress.  Besides giving away coffee cups they had had an hour when you could have your picture taken with Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress.  Dr. Hayden is triply unique being 1) the first female, 2) the first African-American, and 3) the first librarian to hold the office.  There was a very long line so I passed up the opportunity for the pic.

Now, I have a crazy suggestion.  If the ALA conference is ever held near you, you might want to attend.  (Midwinter will be held in Seattle this January.  The bigger summer conference will be in Washington, D.C. in June.)


No, I'm not suggesting you shell out hundreds of bucks to attend panels on cataloging and the learning commons.  But for a lot less ($75 in New Orleans) you can get access to the exhibitor's hall.  And the seven book covers you see here?  They are advance reader copies I picked up for free.  They are just the mysteries; we took home at least as many other titles of different types.  The only limits were our interests and what we wanted to ship them home.

Speaking of which, the photo below shows the post office branch in the exhibitor's hall where librarians were packing up swag to mail home.  We shipped home two boxes.  How many  advance copies would you consider worth the entrance fee?

Enough talk.  I have books to read.


31 July 2018

The Things We Do for Our Art


We all do various forms of research for our art, our writing. And we all make sacrifices for it. Some are big, some are little. There’s the standard research in books and on the net. Then there’s first-hand research, going to a particular location, talking to people who might have been involved in a certain event, or maybe taking on certain experiences ourselves, etc.
I’ve hung out in dive bars and other dives (including SCUBA dives). And spent years doing things that would make your hair curl and mine, too…if I had any, all so I could have a life and some life experience to eventually write about. Well, maybe I didn’t think of it as research at the time, but in retrospect it came in handy for things I wrote later on. And I’ve turned down invitations to go places, anything from a movie to parties, with friends so I could write—and have lost friends over it. Ah, the sacrifice.

But here I want to focus on a handful of things that I think are kind of funny in retrospect. At least these are a few of the ones that are light enough and that I’m willing and comfortable enough to talk about at this time, but they’re really only the tip of that sacrificial iceberg.

The Den of Nazis: Okay, maybe Nazis aren’t fun, but here goes: In ye olden days, before the
internet, I was doing research for a project set in the near past. I needed info about the daily life and costs of items and such from the 1930s, 40s, etc. Time-Life had a book series called This Fabulous Century. Each volume covered a decade and had that types of info in them. I had a few of the volumes  but not the whole set—how I managed that I’m not sure. Anyway, I wanted to get the rest of the set so I saw an ad from someone selling it. I responded and they gave me their address in a middling L.A. neighborhood, not great, not horrible. I drove down one afternoon. Nice old brick or other classic-type apartment buildings, like something Philip Marlowe would be comfortable in. I go to the people’s apartment. A young woman answers the door and lets me in. I walk into this beautiful old living room with fancy crown molding and gorgeous original wooden floors and the biggest motherfucking Nazi swastika flag hanging on the wall that you can imagine. It took up the whole wall. Now, maybe they were just into humungous historical flags…or maybe something else. The rest of the place was filled with all kinds of other Nazi stuff too. Now I’m wondering if the books were just a scam. Will I get out alive? Her boyfriend comes to me “You want the Time-Life books?”—Yeah, and I want to get out of here in one piece. I also didn’t want the whole set of books as I had some, and, long story short, I bought the ones I needed, the people were actually nice and we didn’t talk politics. I left but it left an impression on me.

Mobbed Up: I had a spec script I was trying to push that dealt with a delicate issue, which I won’t go into here. And there was a nightclub in L.A. at the time that catered to a certain type of clientele that were in my story. So I made an appointment to go talk to the owners as I thought maybe they’d like to finance a movie. In those days I’d talk to anyone or try anything to hawk my stuff—see my Cary Grant and Gene Kelly stories on my website: https://pauldmarks.com/cary-grant-gene-kelly/ , and those are just a couple of my more fun stories. Anyway, I went to the club for my appointment and was led into the back offices where I met Murray: The Gangster. Straight out of Central Casting, gray pin-striped suit, carnation, Brooklyn accent. Well, Murray was interested but he needed to talk to his partners (hmm, who could they be, Mickey Cohen and Bugsy Siegel—well, no, ’cause they were goners by then—though I did grow up across the street from Bugsy’s brother and his family, but that’s another story…) Long story short, nothing came of it in terms of getting financing for a movie, but my then-writing partner took to calling me Murray and on occasion I used that and  another last name as a pseudonym.

Stolen Identity – before it was even a term: I was working for a small newspaper. The editor called me and asked if I had called NASA to request press credentials to attend a Space Shuttle landing. He continued, saying NASA had called him to verify if someone from our paper had faxed them to request press credentials for the landing…using my name. Talk about your “Oh shit!” moments.
What? No. I covered local stories, movie reviews and entertainment, not space shuttle landings. I was alarmed. Was someone impersonating me? Had they stolen my identity? Were they terrorists? What the hell was going on? I called the FBI and talked to an agent with the lowest, deepest voice I’d ever heard, lower than I ever imagined possible. He didn’t seem concerned. But I couldn’t let it go. So, I did some of the best detective work of my career…I called Ma Bell and had them trace the fax number where the credential request came from to a local Kinko’s. Then my Mata Hari (Amy) called Kinko’s pretending to be the secretary to a Colonel Severin. They gave her the name and phone number of the imposter who’d sent the credential request. Then I called NASA and told them about the ruse and gave them the information we had tracked down. Hey, they should have given us medals for this, but they also seemed kind of blasé about the whole thing. But if this had been post-911, I’m sure they would have had a different attitude and a different ending…or maybe not. Who knows? At least I didn’t end up at Guantanamera, I mean Guantanamo.


The Mossad: I was working on a script for a producer (who was also an actor, more on this later). The woman who hooked us up warned me about him ahead of time—I should have heeded the warning. He was a pain in the ass to put it ever so mildly. One time in our previous house where the houses were closer together than where we are now, I was screaming at said producer on the phone. Amy was home and since I didn’t want her to think I was the lone psycho on that call I put it on speaker so she could also hear him screaming at me. I was also concerned that our neighbors would think I was yelling at her as the houses were close, but luckily no cops were called. To say my relationship with this guy was contentious would be the understatement of the century. But we worked together for a while…until things got so bad that one day he threatened to send his friends in the Mossad after me. Quaking in my boots, I couldn’t sleep for years, waiting for the stealthy Mossad operatives, who I’m sure had nothing better to do than to come after me. And, as for the actor part, well, since he is an actor I see him in things now and then and it makes it hard to watch them. On occasion I’ve turned them off. And I’m still looking over my shoulder every day…

The Bondage House: Aside from working for other people on their properties or rewrites I was always trying to find money to do a film of my own. To that end, someone I knew said, Hey, I know a producer and maybe he’d want to invest in your project. This is someone whose work I knew and you might know his movies too. So we went to this guy’s house in the hills and it was a really cool house, kind of like a huge Spanish-Mediterranean castle. But on the inside it was more like a Spanish-Mediterranean dungeon. You walked in the front door and there were very sexily and scantily clad mannequins chained to the wrought iron staircase and anything else you could attach a chain to. There were dressed in leather bustiers and wearing high heels. For some reason I can’t remember anymore, my friend and I got the tour of the house and the chained mannequins were everywhere. This was another one where I wondered if we’d get out unscathed, but we did. And, of course, he didn’t want to invest in my film—he wanted me to invest in his. Ah, Hollywood.

The Joan Crawford House: Or should I say museum? Someone wanted me to meet this guy—I can’t remember his name anymore—who had been Joan Crawford’s publicist before she died. She/my friend thought maybe he could help me raise some money—like I said, always looking for money. I wish we had Go Fund Me back then… Anyway, we go to this guy’s house, a nice, Spanish style house in Bev Hills (my favorite architecture by the way), though not nearly as big as the bondage house, and you walk in the door—no, no bondage gear this time—but the house was totally decked out in everything Crawford. He had several of her dresses displayed, every little thing she’d ever touched it seemed like, cigarette lighters and shoes. It was a total museum and homage to Joan Crawford. If her ghost wasn’t haunting that place I don’t know where it would be. And no, he didn’t end up investing either.

There were also other pleasant experiences like a trip to New Orleans and other places for research and other things. And then the Top Secret things that I’m not ready to talk about. But good, bad and indifferent, we all make sacrifices for our writing. What are some of yours?

***
Broken Windows – Sequel to my #Shamus-winning White Heat drops 9/10/18. A labyrinth of murder, intrigue and corruption of church and state that hovers around the immigration debate. #writers #mystery #amreading #thriller #novels  



Available for pre-order now on Amazon.



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

30 July 2018

A Tiny Little Foot


We have a special treat today. Jim Thomsen, a newspaper reporter and editor for more than twenty years, has been an independent editor of book manuscripts since 2010. His short crime fiction has been published in West Coast Crime Wave, Shotgun Honey, Pulp Modern and Switchblade. He is based in his hometown of Bainbridge Island, Washington. Learn more about him at jimthomsencreative.com  

I should point out that this piece is about true crime and includes language and deeds you would not find in, say, a cozy novel. - Robert Lopresti

A TINY LITTLE FOOT

by Jim Thomsen

On June 28, 2018, a disgruntled reader walked into the newsroom of the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland and shot several people, killing five. That evening, the survivors pushed aside their shock and grief because, as one reporter put it, there was no other choice. As he put it: “We are putting out a damn newspaper.”

That quote brought back to mind an incident that happened almost twenty years before, one with strong echoes of that tragedy. One to which I bore painfully intimate witness. This essay is adapted from a Facebook post.

August 20, 1998, just before nine a.m. on a sunny Thursday morning. I'm a reporter at the Bainbridge Island Review. Our offices are on the ground floor of a two-story building on Winslow Way West, at the edge of the excruciatingly touristy downtown, the sort of place where you can walk off the ferry from Seattle and buy a chunk of lacquered driftwood for $225 in any of a half-dozen shops. It’s my hometown. I love it and despise it in almost equal measure, which is a useful tension for a newspaper reporter to work from.

Most mornings, as I pulled into the parking lot in my battered pickup, I greeted Marge Williams, a retired city councilwoman and the building’s owner. I almost always saw her outside her second-floor apartment, tending to her plants and flowerbeds, or toting a tray of baked treats to the reception desk. But not this morning.

I walk inside to find our publisher, Chris Allen, staring at a damp red stain on the ceiling above the newsroom. Below Marge's bedroom. We think at first it might be spilled paint — after all, the building was a dark red in color and for the last week, Steve Phillips, a longtime islander and local handyman, had been pressure-washing and repainting the exterior. But it doesn’t look like that, quite.

"I don't think that's paint," Chris says.

"Maybe we should check with Marge," I say.

Chris frowns. "Maybe we should check ON Marge."

So we go upstairs. We knock. No answer. The door's unlocked. We go in. Nobody in the living room or kitchen. That left the rooms in back, including the bedroom. Chris tells me to wait as she goes down the hall. A few minutes later she returns, looking hollowed out and sick. She'd found Marge. Not in her bed. But wrapped in her bedding. Everything mummified from view except for —

"A foot," she says to me. "A tiny little foot."

*****

Things happen fast. Cops, everywhere. I didn’t know Bainbridge Island had so many cops. Flashing lights. Bursts of radio chatter and static. Miles of yellow crime-scene tape. I stand on the sidewalk with my colleagues, notebook in hand, all but forgotten. We're in little clusters, murmuring, eyes fixed on some invisible middle distance. Doug Crist pulls up as close as he can get, motions me over. He's in charge that week, as Editor Jack Swanson's on vacation. "What's going on?" he asks.

"Somebody murdered Marge," I say.

"Oh," he says.

And I understand, in that moment, why, when Paul McCartney was told about John Lennon's murder, he said, "It's a drag."

At moments like these, 99.99999 percent of you is somewhere else.

*****

Things happen fast. A couple of hours later, we're in nearby offices belonging to local PR guy/movie theater owner Jeff Brein, who's graciously given us space to work. We've managed a few notebooks, pens, computers, stuff from our own office, before Police Chief John Sutton politely, even apologetically, kicks us out. Jack, who's been vacationing at home, comes in, takes over. We watch from the parking lot as Seattle TV cameras set up at the edge of the perimeter.

We huddle up: Jack, Doug, Chris, education reporter Pat Andrews, photographer Ryan Schierling, I forget who else. Me.

We agree right off on a few things:

One, we’ve got a job to do. No losing our shit till later. Much later.

Two, it’s OUR story. It’s a Bainbridge Island story. It doesn’t belong to The Seattle Times or the Seattle P-I or the Kitsap Sun, the daily in Bremerton, an hour away. It doesn’t belong to KOMO-TV, or KING, or KIRO, or Q-13. Or anybody else. It belongs to the Bainbridge Island Review, a twice-weekly with a circulation of about 10,000. We don’t talk to the interlopers, we don’t make their jobs easier, we don’t act like eager freshman frat pledges for their fucking journalism farm team. Fuck them.

We plot out avenues of attack, and get to it. But first we meet individually with the cops and give our statements. Mine takes more than an hour.

*****
John Sutton is a smart cop, and beyond that, he’s a community cop. He gets it. That night, late, he lets us back into our offices once, I soon learn, he clears me as a suspect. He sits down with us and says, “OK, you guys, and you alone. What do you want to know?”

Why was I a suspect? I ask. Because, he says, I was at the newsroom late the night before, working, and then puttering around so I could listen to the Mariners beat the Blue Jays in extra innings. I later went to a friend’s house, and she verifies when I arrived and when I left.

We move on to questions about the autopsy, and it’s then that I learn that I missed the murder by two hours, three at most. It’s then that I wonder for the first of roughly 48,023 times what I would have done, or not done, had I been there when the killer started up the stairs. Always.

John patiently answers all our questions as best as he can, way past midnight.

Once we learn that Steve Phillips was arrested with a bloody golf club in his trunk, our Bainbridge-ness kicks into fifth gear. Steve’s estranged wife is a childhood classmate of mine. She agrees to talk to me, tells me about Steve, whose half-brother JayDee Phillips, a childhood classmate and occasional pal, was one of the island’s last murder victims, nine years before. She tells me about years of anger and abuse that go back at least that long. Jack gets some great stuff on Marge’s background; Doug, Pat, everyone does heroic work. And, as we learn the next day, paying loose attention to the TV stations and the other papers, mostly exclusive work. Chris gives us everything we need to function, and above her, Sound Publishing President Elio Agostini pledges every possible resource.

Friday afternoon, after stretching press deadline as far as possible, we put the Saturday edition of the Review to bed. Then we keep reporting. There are press conferences. Prosecutorial maneuvers. People who hug me in Town & Country and have something to share, sometimes something worth chasing. We keep chasing. We’re too tired to stop.

*****

Somewhere around 7 p.m., someone in the newsroom says to knock it off. It’s time to give ourselves a break. We did it. We kicked the living shit out of the story sixteen ways from Sunday. We did it. Now it’s time to stop looking at the stain on the ceiling and grieve our friend Marge. And drink. Drink heavily. We take over an outdoor table at the Harbour Public House, or maybe it was Doc’s Marina Grill. There’s fifteen or so of us. We’re grubby, weary, not especially articulate.

But we toast to Marge, and we toast to ourselves. We had a damn newspaper to put out, and by God, we put out a damn newspaper.

A few months later, Steve Phillips was convicted of aggravated, premeditated first-degree murder and sentenced to life with no possibility of parole. I testified at his trial. It turned out that he finished the painting job, drank and gambled it away at the tribal casino just across the bridge from the north end of Bainbridge Island, and decided in that state that he hadn’t been paid enough. He drove back to Marge’s apartment, angrily confronted her in the middle of the night, and when she refused to give him more money, he beat her to death with a golf club.

I stayed on at the Review for another year, then moved on to other papers and other places. I finished my newspaper career with a long run as the night news editor at the Kitsap Sun, the paper I helped misdirect during the pursuit of the Marge Williams story. I have no regrets about that. That’s what a good newspaper person does, and I hope I was a good newspaper person. Or at least one who got out the damn newspaper every night. No matter what.