23 August 2018

Expectations


by Brian Thornton

As I have mentioned a time or two, I am working on the collection and editing of an anthology (Second fiction anthology, third overall). I've been hard at it all summer.

It's funny, with this being my third bite at this apple, you'd think I'd know what to expect: after all, I'm an old hand at this by now. Right?

Yeah, about that...

Expectations:

I expected I'd have to chase down multiple authors to get them to turn their stuff in.

I did. But not nearly so many as I'd expected. And what's more, even the authors I did have to chase down didn't take much chasing. It's weird not needing to ride herd.

Don't get me wrong: it's a good weird, but weird, nonetheless. (More on the whole subject of "weird" below.)

Another thing I expected: I invited some fresh-faced writers and some outright rookies to submit. So I expected their stuff would need a fair amount of work.

I was pleasantly surprised at the product I received on all counts. Every story can be improved (said every editor ever.), but man, these kids have chops.

The anthology is intended as a literary homage to the music of 70s jazz-rock stalwarts Steely Dan, who, although relatively well-known, are hardly household words, especially in light of the way the two men at the center of their music, keyboardist/vocalist Donald Fagen and guitarist/bassist Walter Becker, put on a master's class at how to shun the limelight.

In part because of this, I expected to be turned down by a goodly number of the authors I approached for inclusion in this project.

I was delighted to be wrong on this front. Of the authors I approached, only two turned me down.

TWO!

And both of those who did pass on the project had excellent reasons for so doing. No excuses, they just didn't know anything about the band, weren't familiar with the music, and didn't want to waste either their own time or mine trying to work something up for the project.

Hard to argue with that.

Now, since the source material is Steely Dan, and these guys frequently name-checked William S. Burroughs of Naked Lunch fame as one of their heroes, I figured on a certain amount of "creative" in the submissions I got.

In this my expectations were more than exceeded.

Just a few riffs:

Death by clown car.

A talking cat whose favorite language is Yiddish.

A couple of crooks juggling a severed head in a hospital morgue.

A close (too close?) first person narrative from the point of view of an alpha predator who has "evolved" into something resembling homo superior.

And that's just skimming the surface.

It's been a delightful potpourri of weird, and all of it superb crime fiction.

Honestly I expected no less. The folks I approached I approached with good reason. I'm familiar with their work, and have found something unique in every voice recruited.

And I am beyond thrilled that this pack of geniuses has taken this expectation and far exceeded it. That, folks, is talent.

And on my end, I am working my tail off to be worthy of their hard work and of their faith.

See you in two weeks!

22 August 2018

Losing It


David Edgerley Gates


Trump's recent revocation of former DCI John Brennan's security clearance has generated a lot of heat and not much light. Let's see if we can read the entrails.

To begin with, access to confidential information is authorized on a Need-to-Know basis. You need to know this stuff to do your job. Moving into the upper atmosphere, information gets classified at higher levels, Sensitive and Compartmentalized. In my own case, as an analyst working with intercepted military communications, my clearance level was Top Secret/Crypto [CODEWORD Material] Handle Via COMINT Channels Only. The primary purpose, here, was to protect sources and methods. As the intelligence was passed on to consumers, those specific sources and methods were edited out, and only referenced to indicate provenance and reliability - even then, in sanitized euphemisms.

At policy level, the upper reaches of the chain of command, the National Security Council, say, the inner circle, CIA and NSA, State, the Pentagon, these people are breathing thinner air. Compartmentalization isn't an issue, access is across the board. Still, the habit of secrecy, the gnostic power, that Special Knowledge, held in trust by the initiate, is a drug. It's the crystal meth of statecraft. Losing the privilege, going cold turkey, is being cast into the outer darkness, with weeping and gnashing of teeth.

I remember being processed out of Berlin. They terminated my clearance, and red-badged me. I was redundant. It was both exhilarating and depressing. Release is second cousin to exile. But at the same time, it was clearly explained that I was to take their secrets to the grave with me, and the alternative was Leavenworth. There was also a two-year travel restriction. I was prohibited from going to Eastern Europe, for example - which made perfect sense, since our resources targeted Group Soviet Forces and the Warsaw Pact. They might have liked to pick my brain.

More to the point, if you spend a significant period in your life locked into a mission, you can't shift gears as easily as you change your socks. We were on the edge of the Cold War. It's not an exaggeration to suggest we played some small part in preventing it from turning hot. And almost everybody I know from back then kept their hand in. How not? You read between the lines, you hear an echo where other people hear empty air. You miss the high.

It's long-standing convention, going back to Eisenhower, that senior figures keep their secure access through successive administrations. The tradition of the Wise Men, somehow above the fray. Think of Dean Acheson, or Clark Clifford, or James Baker. You can call on these guys in a crisis. And they, of course, are all too ready. What, you think Henry Kissinger's shy?

In the case of Brennan, specifically, I'm hearing that a fair number of people in the intelligence community, both former and currently serving, don't care for the guy. They regard him as self-serving, and his version of his own bio leaves out the unwary he's thrown under the bus. Be that as it may. It's all the more interesting, then, that seven former DCI's and six former Deputy Directors, along with two former Directors of National Intelligence, have put their names to a letter supporting Brennan and challenging Trump. Not challenging Trump's authority to refuse Brennan access to secure materials, but the grounds for it.

Brennan is clearly being punished for shooting his mouth off. He's made no secret of his disdain for Trump, and Trump has seemingly conflated Brennan's animosity with the Mueller investigation. (This is just one of those odd distortions that appear at random in the Trump alternate ecosystem.) What the signatories to the protest letter take issue with is the chilling effect. It's probably safe to say they don't all agree with Brennan, and if they do, they think it's better to keep it to themselves. Gen. Michael Hayden has not, he's been extremely critical of Trump, but Hayden has an honorable track record, in my opinion - a lot better than Brennan's. Bob Gates, Porter Goss, and Leon Panetta. They've kept their own counsel, and I think they must feel duty-bound to speak up. Tenet and Petraeus, on the other hand? Tenet went in the bag for WMD's. Petraeus, damn it, put Little Elvis at the wheel. 

It's naive, or willful ignorance, to think intelligence isn't politicized. We have only to go back as far as the late 1960's, when it was pretty widely known in certain closed circles that the field reporting out of Viet Nam was being massaged as it went up the food chain, to present an acceptable wisdom. But by and large, intelligence professionals try to present a realistic approximation of a shifting and ambiguous world. The run-up to Iraq is in fact a pretty good example. Feith and Wolfowitz tried to use their weasel shop at the Pentagon to discredit the CIA reporting, and Nigerian yellowcake made it into the State of the Union, but the Agency kept pushing the least dishonest assessments they could, even though Tenet was afraid he'd lose both the argument and the confidence of the only client who mattered. This is of course the actual bottom line. You want the president's ear, and his trust. If he stops listening, you've lost the fight. You still do your best to give good weight.

What we're seeing here isn't disloyalty, or a mutiny by the palace eunuchs. It's not the Deep State, either, although you might call it the deep bench. I don't imagine these guys have any hope of changing Trump. Maybe this is no more than a symbolic gesture, a decent respect. I have to wonder if they're not looking past public opinion, which seems pretty rigid, either way, and the bluster and cowardice of Congress, and speaking to their still-serving peers. It's not about the man, whether Brennan or Trump. That's small potatoes. It's about the mission. It's about something larger than parochial self-interest.

Trump already has an adversarial relationship with his national security staff. He's got the attention span of a fruit-fly, for one, which means his briefers have learned to use block lettering and bright colors. Secondly, he refuses to admit Russian disinformation efforts in the election, and the possible benefit to him. And of course third, he uses every opportunity to malign the integrity of his own agencies, particularly CIA and the Feebs.

You have to wonder how this plays as a team-building effort and management message. Obviously, the personnel still in place aren't sharing. But in the 48 hours after the big guns went public, another sixty former CIA senior staff added their names, and now an additional seventy-five have signed on. That's a fair amount of disgruntlement, and we're not talking about a bunch of starry-eyed innocents, either. These are career intelligence officers. They know where the bodies are buried. They've buried a few.

I can only hazard a guess, but this appears to be an engaged support group. Professional courtesy. Commitment. I think it's a show of hands.  


21 August 2018

Casting Call


When I write a story or novel, I picture it as a movie in my head, as I’m sure many of you do. In fact, I don’t outline per se but I often write the first draft as a screenplay—more on this in a future blog. But today I want to talk about casting my stories. And since Broken Windows, the sequel to my Shamus-winning White Heat is coming out on 9/10, I’ll start with that.

Jack Nicholson
I’m an “old movie” guy, so I often think of classic movie stars for parts. But since Humphrey Bogart is at that great café in the sky I don’t think he’s the ideal actor for the lead right now. But there was a time when I would often either picture Bogart or Jack Nicholson for many of my leading male characters. When I’d write the characters I’d hear their voices in my head. Once, while working on a script with a producer he suggested Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer for the leads and who was I to argue with that, especially since he’d worked with them and it was a real possibility. Ultimately, that didn’t get made. But it was nice while it lasted.

So in my mind I might visualize Jack Nicholson or Humphrey Bogart delivering a line of dialog but I can't write that in my novel. I have to convey that feeling, the essence of that character without writing "now imagine Jack Nicholson saying this line." But it does help to have that visual image in my mind as I write dialogue  and description and describe the actions.

Now to my perfect casting:

Broken Windows is set mostly in Los Angeles in 1994, during the fight over California’s notorious anti-illegal alien Proposition 187—a precursor to the immigration fights going on in the country today. While the storm rages over Prop 187, a young woman climbs to the top of the famous Hollywood sign—and jumps to her death. An undocumented day laborer is murdered. And a disbarred and desperate lawyer in Venice Beach places an ad in a local paper that says: “Will Do Anything For Money.”—Private Investigator Duke Rogers, and his very unPC partner, Jack, must figure out what ties together these seemingly unrelated incidents.

Ryan Gosling
So, who would I cast in the main parts? Of course this changes as time slips by. My ideal casting for Jack would have been Nick Nolte in his prime. But these days, I’m thinking John Cena or maybe Michael Fassbinder or Christian Bale. And for Duke, Mark Wahlberg or Ryan Gosling. Maybe Jeremy Renner, as Duke’s not a big dude. For Eric, the disbarred lawyer, Amy suggested Robert Downey, Jr., and he would be perfect. Maybe a little older than the character, but those things often change from book to movie. Eric’s girlfriend, Lindsay, AnnaSophia Robb.

AnnaSophia Robb
For the mysterious Miguel, who responds to the lawyer’s ad to do anything for money, maybe Antonio Banderas. Possibly Edward James Olmos or Andy Garcia. And for Marisol, who sets the plot in motion when she asks Duke to investigate the murder of her brother, Catalina Sandino Moreno. For Myra Chandler (guess who that’s an homage to), an LAPD detective that Duke and Jack run into in both Broken Windows and White Heat, and who’s a bit more sympathetic to them than her partner, Haskell, I’m thinking Jennifer Aniston. Why not? It’s my fantasy. And for Susan Karubian, the woman who jumps from the Hollywood sign, I picture Mila Kunis, although I would hate to kill her off so early in the film….

Catalina Sandino Moreno

Jennifer Aniston

Jesse L. Martin
Ghosts of Bunker Hill series: A series of short stories that have appeared in Ellery Queen. Howard Hamm is the lead detective in this series of stories that take place in the Bunker Hill and Angelino Heights areas (as well as other neighborhoods) of L.A. Howard “inherits” a lovingly restored Bunker Hill Victorian that’s been moved to Angelino Heights when its owner and his best friend is murdered. He’s a modern, high tech guy who, initially lives in a high rise condo on Bunker Hill. In fact, maybe where his current house formerly lived before being moved. There’s only one person I ever thought of when writing this part: Jesse L. Martin of Law & Order fame. When I’m writing Howard, I’m thinking Jesse. There’s a female cop that Howard comes across on cases—and off—Detective Erin Bowen. I think Natalie Portman, with darker hair, would be perfect for her.




***

Casting is a strange thing and truly an art. If you’ve ever seen different actors in the same part you know what I mean. One person brings something that the other doesn’t. Sometimes it’s better and sometimes not. And sometimes it’s just that we’re used to someone in a part, so if someone else takes it over it’s not that they’re better or worse, just different. At the same time, a good or bad—or just the right—actor in a part can make all the difference for a character.

Who would you cast for your tales, and why?

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

Broken Windows releases on September 10th and is available for pre-order now at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Down & Out Books.


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

20 August 2018

Blues and Clues


In 1963, folklorists took a closer look at the lyrics to an obscure 1928 Okeh recording called "Avalon Blues" and used them to track down long-forgotten guitarist Mississippi John Hurt, still alive and well in the town he described in the song. Hurt came out of retirement to become a headliner at folk festivals and coffee houses. His lyrical finger-picking became an inspiration for such upcoming musicians as John Sebastian, Happy Traum, Stefan Grossman and Chris Smither.  All because of an old record.

We talk about clues in mysteries all the time, but other genres use them, too. They may call them "plot points" or "turning points" or something else, but a clue is simply something that moves the character closer to his goal: solving the mystery, finding true love, uncovering the cure for that lethal virus. OR it may send the character or the entire story off in a new direction.

Thanks to TV, we're attuned to discussing fingerprints, ballistics and blood spatter. We know about documentary evidence, too (Like the Hurt lyrics), and those are in our sights even more now because of the Mueller investigation. Both Conan Doyle ("The Adventure of the Dancing Men") and Edgar Allan Poe ("The Gold Bug") have stories that resolve because a character could decipher a coded message, and even the Hardy Boys carried on the tradition in The Mystery of Cabin Island.
Sometimes, though, a clue is less concrete, which gives us a chance to play a little and maybe sneak one past our readers. My favorite NON-clue is in the Sherlock Holmes story "Silver Blaze," which Holmes solved by paying attention to the dog that did NOT bark. A similar idea shows up in my current WIP.

Stephen King turns forensic evidence on its head in The Outsider, his recent novel which Rob discussed a few days ago. We have a man accused of murdering a child, and the DNA samples are undoubtedly his. That's fairly standard. But witness and photographs place him hundreds of miles away when the crime was committed. When the forensics and documentary evidence collide, the cops find themselves in Plan B and the book shifts from a typical police procedural into King's more familiar domain, the Twilight Zone. He does the what's-wrong-with-this-picture stuff as well as anyone else in the business.

Anyone here old enough to remember the TV show Hong Kong? It only ran for one season, starting in September 1960. Rod Taylor played a journalist, and in one episode, he narrowly escaped being run down by a taxi. Soon after that, a man he was talking to was shot. Everyone believed Taylor was the real target and the shooter had bad aim, but later in the show, Taylor tracked down the taxi driver, who told him that he had been paid to MISS Taylor with his cab. That showed that the dead man was the intended victim after all and the fake attempt on Taylor was to conceal the real motive.

My own Blood on the Tracks has Woody Guthrie trying to find a stolen tape of a forgotten rock band, and nobody can understand why anyone cares about the tape. Eventually, Guthrie learns that something may have been recorded OVER some of the tape and that the bad guys are after something besides the musical performance. Which means a different set of people might want it...

In Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, Lizzie spends most of the book thinking Mr. Darcy is an insufferable snot and dislikes him for how he has treated her older sister Jane. Eventually, she discovers that he is trying to help her younger sister Lydia, who has run off with a wastrel and is in danger of ruining her own reputation (not to mention her life) and that of her entire family. When Lizzie finds that Darcy is buying the blackguard off, it makes her see him more clearly...and paves the way to their own happy ending.

Some of my favorite plot reversals (call them clues, too) appear in science fiction. Damon Knight's "To Serve Man" offers a manuscript from another planet that those beings give to earthlings as a sign of good faith. It's also a clue. When someone translates the entire text, they discover it's a cookbook and the double meaning of the word "serve" becomes important. The story became an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1962, and many people cite it as one of their favorites.

Pierre Boulle's novel became the basis for the first Planet of the Apes film, and who can forget that closing shot of Charleton Heston looking at the mostly buried Statue of Liberty and understanding for the first time that he's not on a distant planet? The primates have become the dominant species on earth after a nuclear war destroyed civilization. Oops.

How about you? How do you give your readers the clue that moves the story off the tracks?


19 August 2018

Nazi Ladybug meets die Valkyrie


ladybird nazi
Not sure what’s in the air, but friends and I have had to deal with a variety of insurance adjusters. Must be those uninsured caribou, but that’s not today’s topic. One estimator stood out from the rest, this one in Holyshiteitshot, Arizona.

Like some big men, he walked with a back-leaning Sidney Greenstreet tilt. He firmly planted one foot in front of the other, rather how I imagine Nero Wolfe walked. Round, he was very round, rotund. He’d dressed head to toe in blinding red– crimson cap, carmine knit shirt, vermillion belt, scarlet shorts, sanguine socks, cerise shoes. As for underwear, I would have bet on blood-red briefs, exactly the same shade as the rest of his costume.

The Arizona sun went into eclipse as he bore down upon me. He looked like an oversized ladybug.

No, not quite. Because he sported curly dark hair and beard, it’s fairer to say he looked like a slightly-crazed Santa’s workshop helper dressed as a ladybug.

Melayna plays the horns
“Melayna Walküre seizes the helm in Wagner’s
Das Rheingold.”
— Jean Poole, Opera Revue
“But Leigh!” you say. “That’s not like you to comment on other people’s looks. That’s… that’s… unkind. And besides, his costume didn’t feature ladybug polka-dots.”

Hold on, this is justified, I promise.

Enter Melayna. See, the adjuster hadn’t come to visit me; I simply happened to spot him plodding through heat thermals rising from the parking lot. Melayna was his client.

And she outshone the sun. He was… thunderstruck. Melayna’s pretty, very pretty. She’s also… how the Germans say… kräftig, robuste, widerstandsfähig. Loaded with tattoos, she gobsmacked him like an operatic Valkyrie.

Hormones sizzled in the heat. Birds began twittering highlights from The Sound of Music.

Trying to introduce himself, his voice squeaked like a hyper-ventilating soprano. Kind Melayna helped him reel in his tongue. I strolled off to let young love blossom like Boraginaceae along the Rhine. That’s when ladybug-dude made a fatal mistake.

Lady Bug Superheroes
Botanical and zoological gardens buy cartons of ladybugs by the thousands. Why? Ladybugs, aka ladybirds, devour aphids. Destructive little aphids devour plants, literally sucking the life out of flora.
    We’ve upset the balance of nature, which can no longer naturally produce sufficient ladybugs to munch down on aphid evildoers. Thus botanists and farmers depend on ladybug growers.
Desperate to impress his dazzling darling, he boasted about the only thing in his life he thought worth bragging about, his penchant for white supremacy, his passion for the Aryan nation, his regard for the red, white, and black. Ladybug-boy, he wanted her to know, was a secret Nazi.

Alarmed in the middle of cheeping ‘Edelweiss’, songbirds choked. They scratched to a halt like a needle dragged across a record. Boraginaceae withered on the vine. Ladybug-boy’s overtures sank into the molten tar of an Arizona parking lot.

It gradually dawned on our horrified heroine that the ladybug costume exactly matched the red in Nazi bunting. Melayna, see, one of approximately four Democrats left in Arizona, happened to be the least likely fan of neo-Nazis. This girl hadn’t forgotten America and its Allies fought a war to rid the world of Nazis.

Walkürenritt
“Fräulein Layna shows
Der Ring des Nibelungen
fans how the Valkyries ride.”
— Percy Flage, The Village Vocal
Besotted ladybug-dude not only failed to grasp he’d lost the attention of his süßen Liebling, but he botched the simple insurance estimate. Melayna wondered how die Schwarzen and Hispanics fared at the whims of this Aryan Red Avenger.

Departing into the red-rimmed sunset, she left the smitten Storm Front wannabe pining. Not that day or the next, but sometime she vowed she’d share a quiet word with his insurance overlords.

Don’t ƒ with the fräulein, don’t mess around the Melayna.

Shortly, a cleansing shower refreshed her. As rushing water sluiced away the slime, she even hummed a little Wagner tune. Nothing’s like Ride of the Valkyries to lift a girl’s spirits.

♪♬ Dum de-de-de dee dah… ♩♫

18 August 2018

Wire Paladin, San Francisco


Yes, I know this is primarily a blog about writing and about mysteries--and about writing mysteries--but today I want to mention an old TV series I've been re-watching lately, one that was a cut above most of those in its genre. (Its genre was western, but let's call it historical crime fiction. That'll make me feel less guilty about wandering off topic.)

The show was Have Gun--Will Travel, a half-hour series that ran on CBS from 1957 to 1963. It's something I rarely saw when I was a kid, because it aired on Saturday nights from eight-thirty to nine o'clock (CST), opposite The Lawrence Welk Show, which was on from eight to nine. My mother liked Lawrence Welk and his band, and although my dad and I always lobbied hard for switching channels at eight-thirty to see HGWT, that never happened. The three of us, and my little sister, always sat there and watched Welk and his Champagne Music-Makers for the whole hour before changing channels (thank God) to see Gunsmoke from nine to ten. Funny the things we remember, about childhood . . .


Anyhow, since I missed out on this entire series, I picked up a boxed set of DVDs from Amazon a few months ago that includes all 225 episodes. I'm well into season two by now (seasons back then were far different from the way they are now; each season then contained thirty or forty episodes), and I've found that I love the show. It's a little corny at times, yeah--TV fifty or sixty years ago usually was. But again, it was head-and-shoulders above most of the prime-time network fare of that period.

Very quickly, here's the premise. A gentleman gunfighter named Paladin, played by the not-traditionally-handsome Richard Boone, traveled the Old West helping people solve their problems, which usually involved bad guys. He always tried to avoid violence but of course wound up in the middle of it, and he charged a fee (usually a thousand dollars) for his mercenary services--a free that he sometimes declined or gave to the needy. His business card, which showed up in every episode, displayed the image of a white chess knight and the words HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL and WIRE PALADIN, SAN FRANCISCO.

Why was this show so good, when most TV series back then were barely watchable? I think one reason was the quality of the stories themselves, and that means the quality of the writing. Writers for Have Gun included Gene Roddenberry, Harry Julian Fink, Sam Peckinpah, Richard Matheson, Charles Beaumont, Irving Wallace, and other fairly familiar names.

Another factor: production values seemed to be higher, for this series. Many of the episodes were shot outdoors and on location instead of at cheap-looking studio sets, more arrention was paid to authenticity, and the "look and feel" of the show was almost always better than what viewers were offered in most TV westerns (or cop shows or comedies, for that matter).

The basic idea was also a good one: Paladin was a gunfighter with a code of honor, but still a hired gun, ready and willing to travel to wherever he was needed (or paid to go). This offered unlimited plot possibilities. Unlike Matt Dillon or Lucas McCain, whose antagonists had to wander into Dodge City or North Fork every week, Paladin could go anywhere, and did--sometimes as far away as Alaska. And the plots were never the same, even though it would've been easy to make them that way. Sometimes the storyline even intersected with the real world: in one episode Paladin was just over the hill from the Custer massacre at the Little Bighorn, and in another he rescued Oscar Wilde from a group of bandits.

Add to all this a few interesting quirks not seen before in a western hero. For one thing, Paladin had a love and knowledge of art and chess and fine wines and opera (he lived at the Hotel Carlton in San Francisco), and the ability to quote Shakespeare. Also, he chose to wear a villainous-looking mustache and a black outfit when he was on an assignment, something heroes didn't often do in TV westerns. The icing on the cake: this show had an opening sequence with music by Bernard Herrmann of Psycho and Vertigo fame.

Even the title has become a catchphrase, altered to suit different purposes, like the cartoon Have Time Will Travel, and everybody seems to have heard of HGWT whether they saw the show or not. Someone told me that in one episode of Maverick, another western of that time period, a Kansas sheriff was talking about a gunfighter who had been in town handing out business cards--and viewers immediately knew this was a sly tip-of-the-hat to Paladin.


Do any of you remember Have Gun--Will Travel? Have you ever seen an episode? If so, do you agree that it was fairly unique among the incredible number of prime-time westerns on TV back then?

If, like me, you didn't watch it when it was first aired (or, unlike me, this was before your time), and if you find yourself feeling the urge to watch one (maybe not 225) of those episodes now, many of them are available via YouTube. Check 'em out!

Or, Heaven help us, you could watch Lawrence Welk instead.

17 August 2018

Cheating on a Novel


by O'Neil De Noux

I was 27,000+ words into a novel (about 1/3 of the way through) when two writer friends put up submission guidelines for anthologies. I stopped the novel and wrote two stories. Two drafts each, which came out well. I’m letting them ferment before I go back to a final draft. It’s a process.

I returned to the novel and got this from it –

“So, where have you been? Wait. Wait. Don’t tell me. I saw it on the same screen where you write me. You cheated on me again, didn’t you? Not once, but twice. That police story with the woman with the long, sleek legs and the historical mystery with the big-eyed redhead. I watched you. I sat here steaming in anticipation of your fingers gliding over the keys to soothe me, quench my thirst for more. More what? More of me.

“And now you’re back. I'm hard to write now, aren’t I? Getting back in the groove, touching the keys to restart me. You come back smelling of cheap perfume with lipstick around your cheatin’ lips and expect me to just fall back in line. Well, mister. It isn’t that easy.

“I had a long talk with Hold Me, Babe and Saint Lolita and Dame Money and Lucifer’s Falcon – you remember them, your latest novels and they told me you did the same thing with them. The ONLY novel you didn’t cheat on, as far as I can tell because some of the others won’t talk to me because they think they’re better than me because I’m NOT a mystery, is that big historical epic about the Battle of New Orleans. She crooned how you were so faithful to her.

“So, I spoke with your wife who tells me you haven’t been the same since you wrote BATTLE KISS and lived in 1814-1815 for TWO YEARS writing a book so big the battlefield people won’t carry in their bookshop because it’s too large. Doesn’t fit on their shelf.

“What did the National Park Lady who did not read the book say? “The book’s too long. Nobody reads big books.” Did she ever hear of GONE WITH THE WIND or the Harry Potter books?

“Wait. What was I talking about? Yes, your wife. She calls herself a writer’s widow because you are always daydreaming and rarely listen to what she says. Didn’t she buy you that T-shirt which reads – SELECTIVE LISTENER? You live in a dream world.

“Well, mister. You better focus your dreaming on me because I’m gonna be a good one.”

 Jeffty lives in a dream world as well.

That's all for now.
www.oneildenoux.com

16 August 2018

The Best Anthologies Wake You Up


The death of Harlan Ellison stirred up some old memories.  My first encounter with his work was from Outer Limits:  Demon With a Glass Hand.  I didn't know who the author was, and I didn't care - I was 10 years old, gobbling sci-fi by the yard, and a bit worried that I was some kind of demon seed myself, so the episode really hit home for me.

DangerousVisions(1stEd).jpgSkip forward 3 years and I read Dangerous Visions, Harlan Ellison's ground-breaking sci-fi anthology.  Now, I'll tell you straight up, Harlan Ellison's story in that anthology was perhaps my least favorite - but I loved his introductions and epilogues for each story.

My favorite story was Philip K. Dick's "Faith of Our Fathers", in which the hero discovers that there really are drugs in the water - but everyone in the world is having the same hallucination.  It's the anti-hallucinogens that create different realities for everyone.  That alone made me sit up and look around.  But what really stuck with me was this quote from Mr. Dick in the epilogue:
"The last word, however, on the subject of God may have already been said: in A.D. 840 by John Scotus Erigena at the court of the Frankish king Charles the Bald. "We do not know what God is. God Himself does not know what He is because He is not anything. Literally God is not, because He transcends being." Such a penetrating—and Zen—mystical view, arrived at so long ago, will be hard to top; in my own experiences with psychedelic drugs I have had precious tiny illumination compared with Erigena."
THAT still rings through my mind regularly, like a deep hum, like the cry of a peacock, like a distant bell.

It also caused me to start reading history.  Who were those Frankish kings?  What else did Erigena say or write?  Who influenced him?  Why was a Celt at the Frankish court?  All damn good questions that launched me - after a wildly improbable twenty years or so - into becoming an historian.

A good anthology will rattle your cage for years, which is why I don't let go of them when I find them.  (My copy of Dangerous Visions is tattered and brown-paged by now, but still readable.  It will see me out.)

There's 1962's "The Best From Fantasy and Science Fiction, 11th Series" edited by Robert P. Mills.  Among the great stories:
    Kurt Vonnegut 1972.jpg
  • The fabulously written Alpha Ralpha Boulevard, which introduced me to Cordwainer Smith's Instrumentality of Mankind stories, and the idea of the Underpeople, derived from animals, who are given human form, speech, and intellect but have absolutely no civil rights.  If they make any mistake, they can/will be destroyed.  Something else that make me look at what was going on around me.
  • Kurt Vonnegut's Harrison Bergeron, about a world of enforced equality - to the lowest common denominator of everything.  
  • And the mystical, fabulously beautiful, The One Who Returns by John Berry, which gave me a new view of what a Yeti might really be.   
A more recent mystery anthology in my library is 1993s "More Murder Most Cozy", edited by Cynthia Manson, which has P. D. James' Adam Dalgleish uncovering a truly cold case - a Victorian May-December mesalliance that led to murder - in The Boxdale Inheritance.  Wonderful.  I also reread Melba Marlett's The Second Mrs. Porter every once in a while to try to figure out how she pulled off the most unique gaslighting I've ever heard of.

And then there are the weird collections you find in the antique stores.  A Treasury of the Familiar, chock full of poetry from the 19th century, Bible quotations, Washington's and Lincoln's political speeches, Edgar Allan Poe, Victorian songs, Spartan defiances, a little bit of everything.

The Holiday Reader, 1947, edited by Bernard Smith and Philip Van Doren (which instantly makes me think of Dorothy Parker saying, "I put myself to sleep counting Van Dorens"...)  This tome is divided into sections:  Stories (Hemingway to Hecht), Humor (Beerbohm, Lardner, Benchley, Parker, etc.), Travel (including Thomas Wolfe, Rachel Carson, and both D. H. and T. E. Lawrence),  Poetry (everything from sonnets to E. E. Cummings), and Eating and Sleeping (worth it for M. F. K. Fisher's Madame is Pleased) and Mystery Fantasy & Murder.

Whistle and I'll come to you illustration.jpgEspecial shout-outs to E. M. Forster's The Machine Stops (which only gets more timely every year), M. R. James Oh, Whistle, and I'll Come to You, My Lad, (scared the bejeezus out of me) and Raymond Chandler's I'll be Waiting.   Imho, one of the best in this collection is Irwin Shaw's Search Through the Streets of the City, which is about as noir as you can get without a murder.

BTW, long ago I made a grave mistake and gave away a paperback collection of 50 Great Short Stories which included a story about a man whose male friends successively date this woman who is beautiful, intelligent, just amazing...  And she cares so tenderly, lovingly, for each of them as they contract this or that fatal illness.  And then he gets sick and she comes to take care of him...  Does this ring a bell with anyone?

Another great find was the 1957 "A Treasury of Great Mysteries".  I don't know how they got the rights to all of these, which include Christie's Murder in the Calais Coach, Du Maurier's Rebecca, Ambler's Journey Into Fear, and Chandler's The Big Sleep.  That right there made it worth the $2.00 charge.

Also a number of truly great short stories by most of the icons of 1950s mystery writing, including Inspector Maigret, in Maigret's Christmas, Erle Stanley Gardner's Perry Mason in The Case of the Crimson Kiss (a pretty severe lesson in choosing roommates), and the original short story Rear Window (William Irish).

But my personal favorite is Rex Stout's Instead of Evidence.
"Archie Goodwin," she said.  "You think I'm terrible, don't you?  You think I'm an awful woman, bad clear through.  Don't you?"
"I'm not thinking, lady.  I'm just an errand boy."
The funny thing was that if at any moment up to then I had made a list of the ten most beautiful women she would not have been on.  
You can't get much more noir than that.

15 August 2018

Time Warp


Stephen King has a new novel out, which will no doubt make a lot of people happy, and probably terrify them as well.  But what inspired this column was a review of the book by Karin Slaughter in the Washington Post.

She liked the book a lot but she spoke of "the underlying fugue of displacement.  Readers should take warning: The characters in the mirror are younger than they appear."

What she means is that King's people, although by no means old, never text and don't seem to realize that their phones have cameras.  "A woman in her early 40s wonders whether John Lennon, who was murdered 38 years ago, was still alive when she started living with her husband."

It is an easy trap for writers to fall into: Making characters of different ages think/speak/act like people you are familiar with, rather than people they would be familiar with.

And it's more than just whatever age the writer happens to be.  It has to do with the time period the writer thinks is his.  John Knowles wrote in his novel A Separate Peace: "Everyone has a moment in history which belongs particularly to him.  It is the moment when his emotions achieve their most powerful sway over him, and afterward when you say to this person 'the world today' or 'life' or 'reality' he will assume that you mean this moment, even if it is fifty years past.  The world, through his unleashed emotions, imprinted itself upon him, and he carries the stamp of that passing moment forever."

Quick!  Answer this off the top of your head: Twenty-five years ago was what year?

If you had the right answer, good for you.  But many of us would guess further back, lost between the present and the moment "that belongs particularly to" us.

Back in the eighties a friend told me about a woman in her writing group whose contemporary novel-in-progress featured a young veteran just back from Vietnam.  In the 1980s.  I suspect that she had been thinking about the plot for a decade and hadn't remembered that the real world had drifted by while her soldier boy hadn't aged a day.

When I created my character Shanks I was 40 and he was 50.  I am some 20 years older but through the Miracle of Author's Convenience, Shanks remains in his early fifties.  The problem is that in some ways his attitudes are those of a man born in the forties instead of the sixties.  I have to fight that but how much can I change such things without changing the character?

It is a constant fight to stay out of the sweet land of anachronism... 

14 August 2018

Not Like Us


Hanging out with Kevin Tipple
at Wild Detectives shortly before
Noir at the Bar-Dallas,
August 2, 2018.
About a month ago, as I write this, I dined with an early career writer who shared his experience during a recent writing workshop’s critique session. One of the authors who workshopped this writer’s story criticized him for cultural appropriation because he—a middle-aged white male—wrote about an older black woman.

My immediate response was a flippant, “If you aren’t creative enough to write about people who aren’t like you, you aren’t creative enough to write.”

I’ve thought often about that discussion, have not changed my opinion, but realize I may not be the person best suited to make the argument. After all, a lifetime of both male privilege and white privilege likely colors my viewpoint.

WRITES LIKE A WOMAN?

Several years ago, Bev Vincent experienced a similar dilemma, which he describes in “Apparently I Write Like a Girl,” when an editor rejected one of his stories, stating, “It’s quite a challenge for a writer of one sex to explore writing from the perspective of the opposite sex. Bev Vincent has not done a convincing job.” Bev is male and the protagonist of his story is male. The editor saw his byline, falsely presumed his gender, and savaged Bev’s story based on that false presumption.

I had a similar experience many years ago when an editor rejected one of my stories because it had a male byline and a female protagonist, and the editor expressed her belief that no writer could successfully write from the opposite gender’s perspective.

WRITES LIKE A WOMAN!

I’ve never presented myself as other than what I am—a middle-aged, middle-class white male—yet I’ve sold more than 350 stories with female protagonists and at least 100 stories in which the protagonist differs from me in some other significant way (ethnicity or sexual orientation, for example). In most cases the acquiring editors matched my submissions’ protagonists more closely than I did.

AND NOT JUST LIKE A WOMAN.

For an interview published in The Digest Enthusiast #8, Richard Krauss asked, “In ‘Professionals,’ Out of the Gutter No. 2 (Summer 2007), the narrator is a gay prostitute. In ‘My Sister’s Husband,’ Pulp Adventures No. 27 (Fall 2017), the narrator is a middle-aged woman. How do you ensure your characters act and speak authentically, with respect to their gender, sexual orientation, race, etc.?”

Part of my response described how I develop characters: “The key [...] is to build characters from the inside out rather than from the outside in. Regardless of our gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, religious beliefs, and whatever else divides us, we share many commonalities. We want to love and be loved. We want to feel safe and free from fear. We want to be happy and healthy. We want to be appreciated by our families and respected by our peers. The list goes on and on.

“If we build characters from the inside out, the characters will ‘speak’ appropriately and more genuinely than if we build characters from the outside in and rely on stereotypes.”

BUT SHOULD WE?

Where is the line in the sand that we dare not cross when writing from the perspective of a character unlike ourselves? I don’t believe such a line exists, and if it does, I hope a rising tide washes it away.

Rather than limiting ourselves for fear of offending others, we should instead strive to create characters out of whole cloth, making them as authentic as our skills allow, and we should strive to improve those skills with each story we write. We should not be accused of cultural appropriation simply for writing about those who are not like us, but should rightly be called to task if fail to do the job well.

And those who critique our work should not make presumptions about our work because of who wrote it, but should instead judge the work on its own merits. A piece of writing succeeds or fails within the context of itself, not because the fingers on the keyboard were male or female; old or young; gay, straight, or bi; black, white, or any other shade of the rainbow.

We all benefit by reading and writing about characters that are not like us.

John Floyd and I have stories in the third issue of Black Cat Mystery Magazine, the only writers to have fiction in all three issues. I’m uncertain how many stories John has upcoming in BCMM, but I have three in the pipeline, so we’ll likely share space between the covers several more times. Fellow SleuthSayer Eve Fisher also has a story in the third issue, so order your copy now and get a SleuthSayer three-fer.

13 August 2018

Good in the Hood


by Steve Hockensmith

Back in July, I wrote a post about Fred Rogers, and you know what? I'm still thinking about the guy. I spend a lot of time in Mr. Rogers' neighborhood, you see. So much so, that a part of me wishes I could become a permanent resident. Since you're visiting this blog, there's a good chance you feel the same way.

I'm not saying I'm dying to move to Pittsburgh. (Mr. Rogers' real neighborhood, you know.) And I certainly wouldn't assume that you want to move there. I wouldn't assume anyone wants to move to Pittsburgh. (Sorry, Pittsburgh! I lived in your suburbs for a couple summers! It was...umm...nicer than at least one other place I've lived!)

I'm also not talking about that electric train set-looking 'hood with the Matchbox cars from the opening credits of Mr. Rogers' show. Though I must say, I wouldn't mind living there, too. It looks so peaceful. You can't imagine a carjacking there. Partially because it looks like it was hit by a cute little Matchbox neutron bomb. There are buildings and cars and even a moving trolley, but there aren't any people. Which is a big plus in my book. Just look at the headlines. Who's causing all the trouble? People, man. And the occasional wombat. But mostly people.

No, the place I've been checking out with my realtor is the realm of good King Friday: the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. You know -- the joint with the hand puppets that Mr. Rogers used to go to when he'd catch his trolley through the wall. (Boy, that sounds like faux hippie talk from a late '60s episode of Dragnet, doesn't it? "Buzz off, pig! I'm gonna drop a lid and catch a trolley through the wall, dig?")

It's not the hand puppets I'm into. (Though I am pretty fond of Daniel Striped Tiger.) It's the Make-Believe. Because the Neighborhood of Non-Make-Believe lately? "Reality"? It sucks. So I've been thinking about relocating.

There are writers who wrestle with grim truths in their works. They win awards. (Or, more commonly, go unpublished.) And there are readers who seek out works that force them to stare deep into the abyss of an indifferent universe and contemplate the fatally flawed humanity floundering in it. They join book clubs. (Or write reviews for The New York Times.)

I'm not that kind of writer and not that kind of reader. I never have been. Tell me "Life is nasty, brutish and short," and I'd say, "Well, duh." Tell me "Life is meaningless," and I'd say, "Yeah...and?" Tell me a good joke, and I'd say, "Thanks."

So, yeah, escapism. I'm into it. It got me through high school. (Thanks, Star Trek! Thanks, Doctor Who! Thanks, DC Comics!) And maybe, just maybe, it'll get me through the collapse of Western civilization. (Thanks, Marvel movies! Thanks, FilmStruck! Thanks, bourbon!)

In the meantime, I want to keep writing. Because, you know, I'm a writer. But I have zero interest in writing about the world of today. See above, re: "Reality." I can barely keep up with "the world of today" anyway. By the time anything I've written comes out, "today" is "yesterday" -- or more like "last year," which may as well be "the Mesozoic Era" given the speed of change nowadays. That's probably why I've been so drawn to historical mysteries and Westerns. Where do you go when the present is an ever-shifting morass of suck and you don't believe in a future? Narnia, maybe. Middle Earth. Or the past.

Which reminds me of another subdivision in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Gene Roddenberry's. Specifically, the Star Trek episode "All Our Yesterdays." I recently had a revelation about it akin to realizing for the first time, when I was in college, that Scooby-Doo's pals in Mystery Inc. were watered down hippies exposing how The Man (as personified by "Mr. Jenkins" or whoever) manipulates fear to get rich. Zoinks, indeed.

In "All Our Yesterdays," Capt. Kirk and crew boldly go to a doomed planet where the population has seemingly disappeared except for one person: Mr. Atoz, a librarian. It turns out Mr. Atoz's "library" is actually a time portal, and everyone has escaped their world's imminent destruction by fleeing into the past.

Jesus! What a metaphor! And I never saw it. Until I was living it.

I'm sure some of you are going to tell me "You've got to live in the present, dude. You've got to fight for the future." Yeah, yeah. I know, I know. And I do, I do. But that's all stuff you've got to do. Reading and writing are things I choose to do. And I choose to ride the trolley through the wall. Dig?

12 August 2018

He Had Plans for Her


“He laughed a lot, but not loudly. Other people naturally deferred to him. He was a skilled communicator,” she said, in that famous voice, like smooth whisky with a touch of honey. “We married very quickly. I was very young.”

After they were married, he began to reveal his plans for her. By humiliating and belittling her daily, he made her feel small, unimportant and made it easier for her to be controlled. It taught her that she was no match for him. If she disagreed with him, embarrassed him in any way, there would be consequences. There would be beatings. She learned to never disagree. Never to say anything he would disapprove of. She learned to avoid other people. To become isolated, because that too, made her easier to control.

She learned his rules. In the midst of fear and humiliation - she knew if she followed his rules, the beating would be less. And the beating would stop when she was pregnant. And he didn't beat the children.

She didn’t go to the hospital to give birth to her first three children, because he didn't want her to say anything when he couldn't control her.

When she was nine months pregnant with her fourth child, she said something that upset him. He threw her down the stairs, broke her coccyx and sent her into labour. He took her to the hospital.

To keep her in line, to make it clear how unimportant she was, he parked and made her walk, bleeding and in pain, the long distance to the hospital doors. 

When the x-rays showed her broken coccyx, she told the nurses and doctors that she had fallen down the stairs. No one, no nurse, no doctor, asked her if she had been beaten, if she felt safe. When she went into full labour, she refused all pain meds, fearful that she would say something she shouldn't if she was drugged.

After she delivered her baby, she began to realize that there were no rules that could keep her safe. Before, her pregnancies had protected her from severe physical violence. Now she knew that he was eventually going to kill her. And then who would take care of her children?

That provided the impetus to get help from a women’s shelter. Here she voraciously read their literature on abuse, found solace in those who cared for her and her children. 

But he still had plans for her. 


Before she could escape and build a life for herself, he kidnapped her children. To get them back, she had to go with him. She went with him.



For three days, he tied her down and he tortured her. Beat her. Humiliated her. Raped her. She still remembers that moment during those horrific days that she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. She was filled with loathing for the woman she saw in the mirror. She hated what she saw. What he had made her. 

“I now know I was just doing my best,” she said, whisky voice turning soft. “I was being extraordinarily brave to take the only path forward I could see for my children. For myself.”

That path was to get her children back, escape him and make a life for herself. 



You probably know her as Eve, or by her twitter handle @BrowofJustice. She is a nurse who is fierce about the care of her patients and the raising of her children. She is fierce in defending others. You can’t scare her, because she has been to hell and she walked out. On her own two feet. And she has other things that terrify her.

Eve is not alone, not only because she now has friends and colleagues. She shares the same story as the one out of every three women worldwide have been the victims of physical and/or sexual violence by an intimate partner or sexual violence by a non-partner at some point in their lives. Less than 40 per cent of the women who experienced violence sought help of any sort. Less than 10% sought help from the police.

Healthcare providers - doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, PSWs - all need to be trained to see the signs of domestic abuse. We need to ask - do you feel safe? We are trained to recognize heart attacks and strokes. We need to be trained to help curb the epidemic of domestic abuse. 

Eve is the voice of these women and her story is their story.

One of the reasons women don't speak, don't escape, is that they are frightened that their ex-partner will eventually find them and make them pay for breaking their silence. They are scared that they will never be free. Never feel safe. 

When I write the rest of Eve’s story next month, it will become clear why Eve, like many women, is justified to have these fears.

11 August 2018

Hit The Road


Libby Cudmore
There are a couple obvious influences on my writing – Raymond Chandler, of course, and Warren Zevon, Steely Dan and The Shield. But my first brush with the detective genre was a video game – Sam & Max Hit The Road to be precise.

Purchased in a set of four LucasArts game at the height of my Star Wars fandom in eighth grade, Hit the Road follows Sam, a private eye who happens to be a dog in a rumpled suit, and his partner, Max, a “hyperkinetic rabbity-thing” as they track down a stolen bigfoot across the USA. The game is played as a point-and-click adventure, with text prompts and plenty of insane puzzles to solve.

With a comically neo-pulp aesthetic, Hit the Road also taught me the very early mechanics of how a detective story works – that one clue leads to another and nothing is coincidence. Sam has to say the exact right thing or else the puzzle doesn’t get solved. You have to think beyond the obvious, steal the rasp, attach the hand and the magnet to the golf ball retriever to get the mood ring. Makes total sense, right? But that’s how good detective story is put together – if anyone could solve it, then they wouldn’t need a PI. Sam and Max have the right kind of smarts to hunt down a missing bigfoot.

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.