07 March 2019

Some All-Time Great Crime Fiction Twists

by Brian Thornton

I recently read an article at Crime Reads with the provocative title: "The Art of the Twist Ending: 15 of the Greatest 'Twist' Endings Ever Written", by British poet and crime fiction writer Sophie Hannah.

I commented on this article in a recent call to friends to come up with a better, more comprehensive list:

"Her list is incredibly disappointing. Had she entitled it '15 of the Greatest Twists Ever Written in Domestic Thrillers and Literary Novels With Unreliable Narrators,' I feel like her list would have been more complete."

I wouldn't have even minded so much if she had made it, "15 of my FAVORITE novels with twist endings," because, as I said, this list is HIGHLY subjective.

I found her list doubly disappointing once I put it together that Ms. Hannah is the author selected by the estate of Agatha Christie to continue the Hercule Poirot series of novels (and not ONE of Christie's novels made her list. Not. ONE.), but it DOES mention The Woman in the Wind by the now-seeming colossal fraud A.J. Finn (Google it if you don't know what I'm talking about).

So I decided to make up my own list and use it as my next rotation post here at the Sleuthsayers blog.  But these wouldn't be my choices (well, not solely). I crowdsourced the question to my friends on Facebook.

The resulting list of titles is below. And while it's more comprehensive than Ms. Hannah's, it is by no means definitive. Also, I can't vouch for all of these titles, as I haven't (YET) read several of them.

That said, I trust the tastes of the friends who suggested this list. and so I offer them as fodder for those of you who love a good literary twist, and might be in the market for something to read.

Only one of Ms. Hannah's choices (Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca) would come close to cracking my personal list, with another two (Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl and Dennis Lehane's Shutter Island) qualifying based on being mentioned by the aforementioned friends whose collective taste I so trust.

So here they are, in no particular order: 

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

The Cartel by Don Winslow

Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow

Cutter and Bone by Newton Thornburg

The Yellow Room by Mary Rhinehart

The Chill by Ross MacDonald

The Pick-Up by Charles Willeford

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Defending Jacob by William Landay

The Beast in View by Margaret Millar

The Ax by Donald Westlake

The Dramatist by Ken Bruen

And You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott

Miss Pym Disposes by Josephine Tey

In the Best Families by Rex Stout

The Servant's Tale by Margaret Frazer

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie

The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

Killing Time by Donald E. Westlake

The Poet by Michael Connelly

A Family Affair by Rex Stout

A Thief of Time by Tony Hillerman

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett

Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham

The Collector by John Fowles

Sunburn by Laura Lippman

Jack's Return Home (Better known as Get Carter) by Ted Lewis

Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie

And of course no such list would be complete without this suggestion by our own Rob Lopresti. The hilariously titled Bimbos of the Death Sun, by Sharyn McCrumb!









A Heartfelt Thanks (Also in No Particular Order) To Our Contributors: 

James W. Ziskin

Paula Munier

Leslie Budewitz

David Corbett

J. D. Rhoades

Richie Narvaez

Jim Thomsen

Sam Wiebe

Scotti Andrews

Travis Richardson

Catriona MacPherson

Robert Lopresti

Eve Fisher

Kat Richardson

Simon Wood

Donna Moore

Nickolas Furr

Lita Weissman

Fleur Bradley

Steve Hockensmith

Karin Montin

***************

So many books, so little time! Hope you found some new titles to interest you! Thanks for reading, and see you in two weeks!

06 March 2019

A Textbook Case: Advice For Fiction Writers

Courtesy Western Libraries
by Robert Lopresti

You can call this my good deed for the day, or an act of flagrant narcissism.  Possibly it is both.

A while back a friend asked if I had ever written any tips on writing short stories and I had to answer yes and no.  Or rather, no and yes.  I had never written any formal advice on that subject but in ten years of blogging I had covered a lot of related topics.

So here is my informal textbook, selected from several different blogs.  It leans heavily toward mystery fiction, naturally, and some of it is about novels rather than short stories.  But hey, you can't beat the price.  I will probably add links when I write something new on the subject.

I hope some of you find it useful.  Enjoy.



CHAPTER 1: THE WRITER'S MIND

How It Works.  Creativity requires two parts of your brain.

How to Make It Work.  Getting the parts of your brain to cooperate.

From The Shiny New Desk.  Applying the thoughts above to some advice from Ken Rand.

The Four Seasons.  An author's mental year.


CHAPTER  2: THE WRITING HABIT

Dominating the Submission.  Five tips for people about to submit stories for the first time.

A Page A Day. Finding time to write.

Working Vacation.  Time off gives you a chance to think about your work habits.

Have Suitcase, Will Plot.  More about writing on the road.


CHAPTER 3: INSPIRATION

Time to Accessorize. Five sources for story ideas.

Missed Connections. Getting (or not) story ideas.

Seventeen Minutes.  Do something with that idea!

Light Bulbs, A Dime A Dozen.  A great idea is not enough.

Gutter Dwellers and Chair Thieves.  When is plagiarism legitimate?


CHAPTER 4: PLOTTING

The Hole Truth. Creating conflict.

Telling Fiction From Fact. Stories based on true events.

Two Plots, No Waiting. A complicated entwined plot.

The Rising Island Method.  Writing a long story out of order.

Unlikely Story.  The power of foreshadowing.



CHAPTER 5: PLOT PROBLEMS

New Choice! Avoiding plot cliches.

Get Off The Premises.  An unbelievable premise can kill your story.

Time Warp.  What year do you think you are writing about?

http://criminalbrief.com/?p=1061Refrigerator Questions.  Which plot problems don't need fixing?

Enter the Villain.  One way to ruin a mystery novel.


CHAPTER 6: STYLE

Suddenly I Got A Buzz.  Words to avoid.

There's Only One Rule. How experimental or mainstream should you be?

See If I Care.  How do you make the reader care what happens?

Good Cop Story, Bad Cop Story.  The old rule: show, don't tell.

Would You Rather Be Framed or Flashed?  Structural devices.

Salute To The Unknown Narrator.  A method of creating suspense.

Filling In The Landscape.  Use a real place, make one up, or compromise?

The Pain of Others.  Great stories tend to have at least one of these three characteristics.  (I have since added a fourth.)


CHAPTER  7: CHARACTERS

The Motive Motif.  About characters and their motivation.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Want Something.  Every character needs a motive.

The First Two Pages: The Chair Thief.  Using dialog to establish personality.

Naming the Detectives.  Selecting names for your characters.

Backtalk.  Taking advice from your characters.

Necessary Evils.  Turn a plot necessity into a great character.

Who Do You Trust?  Unreliable narrators.


CHAPTER 8: TITLES

Insert Clever Title Here.  How to choose one.

Title Fight.  Examples of great titles and what makes them so.

Beat Cop.  A long title should scan.


CHAPTER 9: BEGINNINGS, ENDINGS

Opening Bottles and Books. The purpose of opening lines.

The First Two Pages: Greenfellas.  Introducing many characters early. (PDF)

With A Twist.  The power of twist endings.

Right Way To Do The Wrong Thing.  Good and bad endings.


CHAPTER 10: SERIES

The Story I Said I Would Never Write.  About writing a sequel to a (supposed) standalone.

But I've Told You This Before.  How to deal with backstory in a series.

Meeting Some Old Friends.  Keeping track of series characters.

A Plea For Unity.  In what ways do a series of stories need unity?


CHAPTER 11: EDITING

Get Me Rewrite! The joys and pains of editing.

Flunking the Oral Exam.  Why you should read your work out loud.

Send Me In, Coach!  Working with a first reader.

The Joy of Rewriting.  No, Revision.  No...  How to polish your work without killing it.

Last Rites.  The final edit.



CHAPTER 12: IF YOU CAN MEET WITH TRIUMPH AND DISASTER...

An Hour In Purgatory.  It can't be said too often.  It can't be said too often.

 Lost Weekend. The inevitable.

Beautiful Day.  The preferable.

Smile!  Your Story Has Been Rejected.  Ten doses of lemonade.

05 March 2019

Who needs oysters? Pumpkin pie will get your libido pumping!

by Barb Goffman

I have a secret. ... I spend too much time on the Internet.

Okay, fine. Anyone who's my Facebook friend already knows that about me. But since admitting the problem is the first step to conquering the problem ...

Wait a minute. Who says spending a lot of time on the Internet is a problem? If I hadn't done that, I might not have read some articles that helped me write "Bug Appetit," which is my short story that became my first sale to Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and is a current finalist for the Agatha Award. It's not like you just inherently know that pumpkin pie is an aphrodisiac. No, sir. I had to read an article in the New York Daily News about it and then remember that great tidbit when the right time came.

What, you say? Pumpkin pie? An aphrodisiac? Tell me more.

Okay.

According to the Daily News, researchers say the sweet, spicy scent of pumpkin pie increases men's sexual desire. And cooking the pie with pumpkin seeds can be even more useful for getting your man in the mood. The seeds are full of zinc, which increases testosterone and thus also increases desire.

Another helpful article on the Internet says that the smell of pumpkin pie can increase blood flow to the penis by forty percent. Thank you, https://science.howstuffworks.com. Pumpkin pie can influence women's arousal too, though blood-flow numbers weren't offered.

This all may explain why you know a lot of folks born at the end of August. Yep, they're likely Thanksgiving babies, thanks (pun intended) to the pumpkin pie served as holiday dessert. 

So if you want to entice your spouse or boyfriend/girlfriend or even someone you met the prior night at a speed-dating event (this idea is from my story--not my real life--honest), bake some pumpkin pie with the seeds in it. You could end up having a story-worthy tale, if you're the kind to kiss and tell.

How does this play out in "Bug Appetit"? You can read it yourself to find out. The story's right here online for your reading pleasure. The folks at Ellery Queen called it "twisty, humorous, and creepy." What more could you want?

And don't worry if you're spending too much time on the Internet. My experience is that it can really pay off. Happy reading!

04 March 2019

Support Your Starving Writer

by Steve Liskow

Friday morning, I came to my PC intending to put the final touches on a blog post, but I checked my email first.

A reader who lives in my home town apologized for not attending an event featuring me at a local bookstore and said he'd ordered the first three Zach Barnes books on Kindle. He especially liked figuring out where Barnes had his office (he was right, by the way) and plans to read more of my books. He hopes he can attend a writing workshop I'm conducting in April, too.

As it happens, I ended up not attending the author event for reasons I discussed a few weeks ago. One of the other writers cancelled for the same reasons. But a stranger liked my books enough to buy more of them and tell me about it.

Over the last two weeks, I've had three rejections for various stories, been fighting a cold that seems to last forever and made me stay away from several open mic gigs, and replaced a computer that went down for the Big One.

Someone saying they really liked me made my entire day, and I replied within minutes.

If you're selling hundreds of copies a week, maybe this doesn't mean much to you. But my royalties in a given month won't feed Ernie, our Maine coon, so this was a great boost. Of course I replied to the man. I told him he'd correctly identified Zach Barnes's office site and that I'll make a point of bringing copies of the more recent books to the April workshop.

People talk about supporting their favorite writers, but...I have dozens of former theater friends, many of whom who read, and I know exactly one who has reviewed one of my books. Another gave me technical advice for a novel and a short story, but I'm pretty sure he hasn't read the free copies of either one that I gave him when they appeared. A woman I know bought two of my books at an event last May and hasn't opened either one yet.

Really, people. I know a lot of the reviews on Amazon are bogus. I also know Amazon is trying to crack down on the problem, often throwing out the baby with the bathwater. But give a try, OK?

What else can you do? Well, if you read a book and like it, maybe tell your local library and ask if they will order other books by that author (I offer a discount to libraries in my area, and maybe other authors do, too). Tell your friends about the book. Show it to them. Show them anything else you have, which, in my case, means bookmarks.

Go to the author's website and leave a message saying you liked the book. Like his or her Facebook page. Look for events in your area. Comment on them.

Does it help sales? It certainly doesn't hurt them. And it means a lot.

It's almost as good as the former student who came back to visit me after her freshman year of college and said, "I always thought you were a pain in the butt, but I had a four-point-oh in English this year. Thank you."

Little things keep us going.

03 March 2019

The President is What?

by Leigh Lundin

Patterson, Clinton: The President is Missing
Political Stew

A Patterson–Clinton recipe, serves 300-million or so:
  • Mix equal portions of John McCain and Bill Clinton.
  • Fold in dabs of George Bush senior and Barak Obama.
  • Season with Eugene McCarthy and Adlai Stevenson.
  • Add generous dollop of Ike Eisenhower.
  • Minority-whip thoroughly.
  • Press Club roast at 451°.
  • Serve dry, very dry.
Such is the pivotal mash-up in the James Patterson / Bill Clinton concoction titled The President is Missing. Some authors, myself definitely included, craft composite characters, a mix of real people we’ve encountered. President Jonathan Lincoln Duncan seems like someone we almost know. He’s reasonably fleshed out with both personal and poly-political problems.

Those problems translate into dimensions, giving a real feel to the president. Interestingly though, he isn’t the most compelling character in this thriller. That rôle belongs to an assassin.

Sharon Freeman Rugg
My friend Sharon, teacher, editor, writer, selected the hardback edition for my Christmas gift, one I failed to collect until a couple of weeks ago. It wasn’t my fault: at well over 500 pages, the thriller seriously weighed down the sleigh.
Kill Me Softly

I have zero patience with those romance novels where the heroine falls in love with a hired killer, a gentle guy at heart, a sensitive mind misunderstood by the world. Hello, lady! He freaking kills people.

That said, Patterson and Clinton did a credible job sketching a dimensional hired gun. In sticking with standard entertainment memes, said psychopath loves classical music, a coded message to normal folks that only bad people listen to great music. However, this writing duo crafted that tired trope in a different, fresh way, using classical music as a balm to soothe the troubled soul.

Suspension Bridge

Early on, the book bids the reader to suspend disbelief in major ways. While a president may not be an action hero, he is human, and the book successfully conveys that.

At first it was difficult to imagine even an ordinary person obtaining private access to a president. Hell, let a dopey candidate win a seat on the town council and suddenly they’re elevated far beyond the reach of the average voter. The authors eventually piece together a more-or-less coherent scenario where a hirsute dude with a gun, no less, can sit with the president. I bought in with reservations.

Traditionally, Patterson employs utilitarian prose, concise, unaffected writing smoothly machined not to distract the reader from the action. Yet one little paragraph caught my attention, a magical musing about a witch in the woods. True, it stopped my reading in its tracks, but it was worth the diversion.

Bridging the Aisle

As for politics, I remain an independent. I freely lambaste parties and politicians according to a view not beholden to any particular sect. (Hey, if one party gives me more to criticize, it’s not my fault!) It’s not possible to read the book without a consciousness of the presidential half of the writing team.

Fears about martial law and seizure of power have troubled Washington waters since at least Nixon. The story turns a bit chilling when these issues arise, albeit in the context of combatting terrorism. You begin to realize it could happen with little effort at all.

Killer App

As for the cyber-terror themes, a background in computer fraud means I can’t help but weigh in with multiple grades or a report card:
  1. A+   Our dependency upon the internet and connectivity the book got spot on. Good job.
  2. C+   As for plausible technical aspects and solution, I generously award a barely-there C+. The piles of hundreds of laptops destroyed by a virus is goofy to the knowledgeable: Simply reformat, reload, and go, little buddy. A program that activates when an attempt is made to delete it suggests some other piece of software is monitoring and has to be killed. It might be kinda, sorta possible to craft a program to disguise active files, but indeed tricky.
  3. C-   The authors don’t treat American computer gurus favorably, although worldwide, American super-programmers are still regarded the best. While the rest of the world is catching up, thanks to US training programs, but I can’t name any one nation superior to our own. Part of the reason is raw talent. Just like music, chess, or any skilled endeavor, designing complex software takes a peculiar brain. Throwing bodies at a problem won’t solve it.
  4. D+   In the discussion of state hackers, the novel places Russia at the top of the list. In the minds of computing professionals, there’s never been doubt Russia manipulated our recent elections. It’s also true that former Soviet satellite states have turned their attention to controlling social sites and pumping out fake news. My concern focuses on North Korea with Chinese support, already raking in millions from ramsomware. We buy a lot of product from China and have no clue what’s embedded in it.

Raucous Caucus

Technical quibbles shouldn’t detract from enjoyment of a story. Frankly, Patterson and Clinton got more right than the average writer.

Overall, the novel successfully entertains, the goal its authors set for it. The President is Missing might even contend for one of Patterson’s best books.

If you’ve read it, what’s your vote? And if you haven’t, give it a try.

02 March 2019

Good Directions


By John M. Floyd



I love movies. All kinds, all genres, short or long, old or new, serious or funny, at home or in a theater. Since I don't much like reality shows or anything else on network television these days, most of what I watch are movies and bingeable TV series via Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. And I own a boatload of DVDs, so if I can't find something else I'll watch one of those again. And again.

I have also decided that there's a definite way to verify your status as a film fanatic. You know you're a hopeless movie addict if and when you choose to watch (or avoid) a movie depending on who directed it. When you start picking movies based on directors' names the same way you would pick novels or short stories based on authors' names . . . well, you're probably ready to check into the Harrison Ford Clinic.

One thing that impresses me about directors (I feel the same way about composers of music)--is that it's a job I admire and respect but would never have the talent to do, myself. I understand how authors do their work, and I can at least make a good try at that--but succesfully directing a film? My hat's off to those who can do it and do it well. I'm even one of those nerds who pay as much attention, during the Oscar telecast, to the Best Director category as I do to the others. Heaven help me.

The following is a list that seems to change from time to time, and it'd be hard to rank them because their movies are so different, but here are my 25 (probably) favorite film directors, living and deceased:


Robert Zemeckis --
Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Flight, Contact, Cast Away, Beowulf, Romancing the Stone

Steven Spielberg --
E.T., Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Duel, Lincoln, Schindler's List, Munich, Amistad, Jurassic Park

The Coen Brothers --
Fargo, Miller's Crossing, The Big Lebowski, Raising Arizona, Blood Simple, No Country for Old Men

Sergio Leone --
Once Upon a Time in the West; For a Few Dollars More; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Alfred Hitchcock --
Vertigo, Rear Window, North by Northwest, Marnie, Notorious, Rope, The Birds, Rebecca, Psycho

M. Night Shyalaman --
Signs, Unbreakable, The Sixth Sense, Glass, The Visit, Lady in the Water, Split, The Village

John McTiernan --
Die Hard, Medicine Man, Predator, Rollerball, Nomads, Basic, The Hunt for Red October

Quentin Tarantino --
Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill, Reservoir Dogs, The Hateful Eight, Death Proof, Planet Terror, Jackie Brown

John Carpenter --
The Fog, Halloween, The Thing, Sin City, Vampires, Starman, Christine, Escape From New York

Martin Scorcese --
Taxi Driver, Goodfellas, The Departed, Gangs of New York, Mean Streets, Casino, Raging Bull

James Cameron --
Alien, The Terminator, Titanic, Avatar, The Abyss, Aliens, True Lies, Xenogenesis, Terminator 2

Ridley Scott --
Gladiator, Thelma and Louise, Hannibal, Black Rain, The Martian, Black Hawk Down, Blade Runner

Frank Darabont --
The Shawshank Redemption, The Mist, The Majestic, The Woman in the Room, The Green Mile

Ron Howard --
Ransom, Backdraft, A Beautiful Mind, Splash, Far and Away, Cinderella Man, Cocoon, Apollo 13

Sydney Pollack --
The Firm, Tootsie, Three Days of the Condor, Absence of Malice, Jeremiah Johnson, Out of Africa

Sam Peckinpah --
The Wild Bunch, Straw Dogs, The Getaway, Junior Bonner, Ride the High Country, Major Dundee

John Ford --
The Searchers, The Quiet Man, Rio Grande, Stagecoach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Howard Hawks --
Hatari, Red River, Rio Bravo, To Have and Have Not, The Outlaw, Sergeant York, The Big Sleep

Mel Brooks --
Young Frankenstein, The Producers, High Anxiety, Spaceballs, Silent Movie, Blazing Saddles

Richard Donner --
Superman, The Goonies, The Omen, Ladyhawke, Maverick, Assassins, Scrooged, Lethal Weapon

Don Siegel --
Dirty Harry, The Killers, Charley Varrick, The Shootist, Madigan, Coogan's Bluff, Hell Is for Heroes

Lawrence Kasdan --
Body Heat, Silverado, Wyatt Earp, Grand Canyon, French Kiss, Dreamcatcher, The Big Chill

John Huston --
The African Queen, The Maltese Falcon, The Misfits, Key Largo, Treasure of the Sierra Madre

Sidney Lumet --
Twelve Angry Men, Network, Serpico, The Pawnbroker, Fail-Safe, The Verdict, Dog Day Afternoon

Clint Eastwood --
Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, American Sniper, The Beguiled, Pale Rider, Sully, Mystic River


The list isn't foolproof. Even geniuses (genii?) like Spielberg and Shyamalan occasionally turn out a 1941 or a Last Airbender--but not often. I'm usually pretty confident that movies made by these directors will be worthwhile, and sometimes great. (Runners-up: George Lucas, Nora Ephron, Billy Wilder, Peter Jackson, David Cronenberg, Joel Schumacher, Francis Ford Coppola)

NOTE: If you don't care much about this kind of thing, I completely understand. Not many folks do. If you do notice, and follow, certain directors, let me know who you like, and who you don't. As I said, my list changes regularly.

Meanwhile, keep watching those good movies and reading those good novels and stories. Next time I'll tackle favorite authors, and we'll be on more common ground.

As Colonel Bogey once said, have a great March.




01 March 2019

I Collect Names

by
O'Neil De Noux

I collect names. Fiction writers need names. A lot of names. I have been collecting names since I started writing in the 1970s. Good characters need a good name. Raylan Givens. Hannibal Lecter. Scarlett O'Hara. King Kong. Tarzan. Kazar. Sherlock Holmes. Spade and Marlowe.

The names I chose for my recurring main characters were carefully chosen.

Dino LaStanza. My father was called 'Dino' by friends in the army. 'Dino' short for De Noux. LaStanza was a shopping district in Verona, Italy, I remember from my childhood.

John Raven Beau. I had a brother named John. Raven from Poe. Beau from Beau Geste.

Lucien Caye. Picked that name off the banquette (what we call sidewalks in New Orleans) near the corner of Royal and Toulouse Streets in New Orleans. Embedded in tile. I thought it read Lucien Caye when the last name was 'Gaye'. As you can see, the 'G' is messed up. Lucien Gaye French Restaurant sat at 603 Royal Street until @1941.

At 603 Royal Street 


Long time ago.

Jacques Dugas. We have cousins named Dugas.

Lucifer LeRoux. The fallen angel and Gaston LeRoux.

We all work hard on the names of our main characters and primary supporting characters, but I get a kick out of naming minor characters.

Needed a bad guy for the short story "Erotophobia" and came up with Pipi de Loup (wolf pee). When my son was a toddler, he mispronounced words. Belk for belt. Mianteen debil for Tasmanian devil. My   toddler daughter game me Finkle as in 'Finkle, Finkle, Little star ...' I have a Mianteen Bar, a Ms. Belk and a Finkle's Bicycle Shop.

For years I collected names as a university cop and always get good named during the Olympics. Who knows when you need a name of someone from the Principality of Liechtenstein or Mongolia or even Montana?

Sometimes, no matter how creative we can be, real life gives us great names. In THE BLOODING by Joseph Wambaugh, his non-fiction account of the first use of DNA testing in a murder investigation, the police discovered the killer's name was Colin Pitchfork. Hard to top that name.

Although Stanley Kubrik and Terry Southern came up with some beauties in DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB – Buck Turgidson, Jack D. Ripper, Merkin Muffley, Lionel Mandrake, T. J. 'King' Kong, Bat Guano, Lothar Zogg and Dr. Strangelove.

The names are out there. It's fun to find them.

http://www.oneildenoux.com

28 February 2019

Why There Always Has to be a Virgin

by Eve Fisher

A quick rundown by yours truly of the oldest characters in storydom comes up with the following:

  • The Hero
  • The Villain/Villainess
  • The Virgin

You've got those three, you've got a story.  Oh, sure there are variations out the wazoo, and there are always extra characters:  The Hero can always use a Sidekick (from Dr. Watson to Mary Lou) or a Wise Counselor (Gandalf to Jimminy Crickets), and Villains generally have to helpers (from Orcs to gang members).  Virgins - well, somebody has to give birth to them, but that's all.  In fairy tales the mothers usually die off pretty quick.  Snow White, Cinderella, almost every Gothic Romance heroine - they're all orphans.  And even if Daddy survived, he gets hitched up to the Evil Witch, and there you go, Cindy might as well be an orphan.

So you really, really, really need a virgin.  And a virgin is always female.


“[N]o language has ever had a word for a virgin man.” 
― Will Durant, Our Oriental Heritage


(1) How else are you going to get a unicorn?  They're only attracted to virgins.

DomenichinounicornPalFarnese.jpg
Wikipedia fresco
by Domenichino, c. 1604–05 (Palazzo Farnese, Rome)
(2a) The marriageable hero has to have someone to rescue, and in olden days this was always someone young, beautiful, pure and (when in serious trouble) often naked (it's okay because she's a virgin).  (See Perseus and Andromeda)

(2b) The older hero has to have someone to rescue, with whom it's no struggle to stay paternal and platonic.  Think Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross; Ripley and Newt (Aliens); also almost every Shirley Temple movie ever made.

(3a) The villain has to have someone to threaten, someone pure and (when in serious trouble) damn near naked (again, it's okay because she's pure).  (King Kong and Fay Wray, and every single horror movie made until today, and beyond, which leads to:

(3b) The Horror Movie - only the virgin survives.  Read the excellent Death by Sex article on how the best way for a girl to get killed in a horror movie is to have sex.)  So when you hear weird things in the night, make sure you're a virgin, and everything (might) be okay.

Kong33promo.jpg
Wikipedia;  (WP:NFCC#4)
(4) The hero has to have someone to marry, and he certainly can't marry any of the stepsisters, etc.  Indeed, sometimes the hero gets two virgins to choose from, like in Ivanhoe, where Rebecca and Rowena waited, breathlessly, for him to make his choice, but you know from the get-go it's going to be Rowena, because, well Rebecca was dark-haired and Jewish, while Rowena was blonde Anglo-Saxon, and that's the way things rolled in Sir Walter Scott's shire.
NOTE:  I remember the only fairy tale where the hero didn't choose little Miss Goldilocks was The Twelve Dancing Princesses:  instead, when they asked him which princess he wanted to marry he said, "I am no longer young; give me the eldest."  
(5) The hero has to have someone to moon over - and with that, we get to noir.


“I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.” 
― Mae West


(6) NOIR.  One thing that runs through all noir is the theme that "Love Hurts".  I mean, that's pretty much what makes noir.

There's the noir hero, who's always getting punched, kicked, shot, tortured, and generally mutilated in the course the novel/film.  But he gets back up, and after some cold water and whiskey (the noir all-purpose medication and disinfectant), he's back for the next brutality in his search for truth, justice, and his client.

All that's missing is the virgin...
Women often fare worse.  From the memorable scene in the beginning of one of Mickey Spillane's novels (I just can't remember which one it is) where Mike Hammer punches the girl and then has sex with her to the "Rip it!" scene in The Postman Always Rings Twice, it's tough being a woman in a noir novel.  Even if the guy's nuts about you, willing to kill for you, chances are you're going to get slapped, punched, raped, shot and you've got a damn good chance of getting killed or going to jail.  But at least you do get to have sex.  Often with the hero.


"Every Harlot was a Virgin once."
-- WILLIAM BLAKE, For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise


The virgins don't.  In noir, virgins are the muse of our (more or less) alcoholic detective - the victim's daughter (Lola Dietrichson, in Double Indemnity), the hero's secretary (Effie Perrine in The Maltese Falcon), the kid next door, all of whom the hero wants to keep pure, even from himself.  (I think the longest running obsession with unsullied virginity was Mike Hammer's with his secretary Velda, who had to wait a few decades for them to get together.)  They're the contrast to the slutty Gloria Grahames who give a guy what he wants when he wants it.  Just like in horror movies, one of the best ways for a noir woman to get jailed or killed is to have sex, especially with the hero.

Virgins are for marriage - or used to be.  Perseus and Andromeda had seven sons and two daughters, thereby founding the royal house of Mycenae, and (eventually) Persia.  Nick and Nora Charles.  Inspector and Mrs. Maigret.  Tommy and Tuppence Beresford.  Roderick Alleyn and Agatha Troy.  Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane (who might as well have been a virgin - by all accounts her one lover was lousy at it.)  Fruitful, happy marriages that didn't interfere in any way with the investigation of crime.

But, things are different on TV.  From soap operas to westerns, to detectives to cops, the basic theory is that marriage is boring, and while you can have a wedding it's got to end so that the hero can get on with rescuing more virgins.  Or mooning over more noir women.  (I can't help but wonder if this theory is part of the reason why Elizabeth George killed off Inspector Lynley's wife.)

This goes back a long way:   how many times did one of the Cartwrights on Bonanza get married, and she died almost immediately?  Pa Cartwright alone went through at least 3 wives, because there's the boys, and not a mother among them.   Getting engaged on that show - and many others - was the absolute kiss of death. 


“Good girls go to heaven and bad girls go everywhere” 
― Helen Gurley Brown


(7)  Climate change.  You've got to have a virgin because, as the climate changes, and there are more disasters, you're going to have to have someone to sacrifice, and the last I heard volcanoes didn't accept old politicians or middle-aged billionaires.  (Otherwise, do I have a list for them...)  Virgins it has been, virgins it shall be.





27 February 2019

Ian Rankin's IN A HOUSE OF LIES

David Edgerley Gates

I came to Rebus late, The Falls or Resurrection Men (with its evocative Burke and Hare title), and then went both backwards and forwards. Not my usual, I might add, which is when I find somebody I like, start at the beginning and read the books in chronological order. Nor did I gobble 'em all up in a binge, either, I was wise enough to realize I needed to pace myself.

Then, in 2009, Rankin gave us a change-up pitch, The Complaints, not a Rebus, but a book about Internal Affairs. If you think about it, there's a certain inevitability to it, and if we surmise that Rankin is playing the long game, a further inevitability that our old pal John Rebus would attract the attention of the minders. Malcolm Fox and Rebus collide in Standing in Another Man's Grave, and both of them show up in the next four books - along with Siobhan Clarke and (you knew it was coming) Big Ger Cafferty.

In a House of Lies is really more Rebus and Clarke's book, Fox in secondary. Big Ger has a dog in the fight, as he all too often does, but this time around he doesn't actually put his thumb on the scale. We know early on who the real slimebags are, and we get enormous satisfaction watching the noose tighten. In fact, the book's real tension comes from wondering if these rotters are going to escape the snare. Very often, Rankin's stories are about people wondering if they're doing the right thing, or wondering what the right thing is. In this case, there isn't a lot of second-guessing or hand-wringing. Necks are the only things getting wrung.

Writing about The Complaints and The Impossible Dead, a couple of years ago, I said their main concern was a collision of competing integrities. "Loyalties and betrayals, absent virtues, malign intentions, misspent human capital, leaky alibis, blood feuds and blood debts." In a House of Lies is unambiguous. Moral relativism doesn't get a lot of airplay. When it comes time to settle the score, play for keeps.


26 February 2019

Fracture

by Paul D. Marks


A while back I did a post here about neo-noir films that I liked. One of them was Fracture, with Ryan Gosling and Anthony Hopkins.


Today I’m going to go into more depth about that film, which also stars David Strathairn, Rosamund Pike and Billy Burke:


No, not that Billie Burke, this Billy Burke:


And, you know I did that just to show pix of both and (hopefully get a laugh)…
Written by Daniel Pyne and Glenn Gers and, and directed by Gregory Hoblit, it’s one of those movies that I find myself watching over and over – I’ve seen it a few times now. And want to watch even more, but talk myself out of doing so so I can see something new or that I haven’t seen in a long time.
The movie’s opening credits roll over a sort of super hi-tech Rube Goldberg contraption which sets the tone for the twists and turns that will be delivered later. And the story revolves around Ted Crawford (Hopkins), a hotshot millionaire aerospace guy, and Willy Beachum (Gosling), a hotshot Deputy District Attorney in L.A., who wants to move into the big bucks world of corporate law. Crawford knows – we’re not sure how but he knows from before the movie starts – that his wife is having an affair with a man, who’s also an LAPD detective. He wants revenge. He wants to get away with it. And he has very ingenious plan to try to do so.


It’s hard to talk about a movie like this and not give away plot twists or spoilers, so I feel like I’m being a little vague. But the movie is a clever cat and mouse game between the very shrewd and brilliant Crawford and the equally good DDA. Two matched equals gunning for each other and isn’t that one of the things we’re told do in writing – the villain and the hero must be equal to each other. And, boy, are these two. It’s like Sleuth or Death Trap on a bigger canvas.
One of the underlying themes (and where I believe the title comes from) is finding the flaws or cracks in a person. Crawford tells Beachum the story of how he grew up working on his grandfather’s farm. His job was to candle eggs – check the eggs and look for hairline fractures and flaws and remove any bad eggs. Well Crawford did the job so well that none of the eggs made the cut. It’s a brilliant piece of writing – a clever way to have the audience see what a sharp and ruthless man Crawford is and how he can’t tolerate weakness in his unfaithful wife or the hapless police department or anywhere else. And how Crawford, like the predator he is, is able to find the flaws in the cops, the system and the DA – to find Beachum’s hairline fracture – and take advantage of his/their weaknesses:

Ted Crawford (Hopkins): You know, my grandfather was an egg farmer.

Willy Beachum (Gosling): This isn't going to be about your, uh, "rough childhood," is it?

Ted Crawford : No, I used to candle eggs at his farm. Do you know what that is? You hold an egg up to the light of a candle and you look for imperfections. The first time I did it he told me to put all the eggs that were cracked or flawed into a bucket for the bakery. And he came back an hour later, and there were 300 eggs in the bakery bucket. He asked me what the hell I was doing. I found a flaw in every single one of them - you know, thin places in the shell; fine, hairline cracks. You look closely enough, you'll find that everything has a weak spot where it can break, sooner or later.

Willy Beachum : You looking for mine?

Ted Crawford : I've already found yours.

Willy Beachum : What is it?

Ted Crawford : You're a winner, Willy.

Willy Beachum : Yeah. I guess the joke's on me then, isn't it?

Ted Crawford : [grinning]  You bet your ass, old sport.


Hopkins is of course magnificent in this role. And Gosling is likeable and earnest and believable. The casting of these two is a great move.
As with all movies, there’re some things in the movie that defy belief. But what movie doesn’t if you really look at it. If I was an attorney I could probably tear apart the courtroom scenes, but again, you have to suspend disbelief and go for the ride. So, as with all movies, you have to suspend your disbelief and enjoy the ride. And Fracture, for my money, gives a hell of a fun ride as these two antagonists jockey back and forth with one having the advantage and then the other.
I never get tired of watching them play the game and I always see something new each time I watch it that I didn’t notice before, even though I know the outcome. I rate it five out of five .50 cal BMG rounds straight up.


If you’ve seen the movie, I’d be curious to hear what you think – just don’t give away any spoilers. And if you haven’t and decide to check it out, I hope you’ll enjoy it even half as much as I do.

~.~.~
And now for the usual BSP:

The third story in my Ghosts of Bunker Hill series, Fade Out on Bunker Hill, appears in the March/April 2019 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. If you like the movie Sunset Boulevard, I think you'll enjoy this story. In bookstores and on newstands now:



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

25 February 2019

The Uses of Mystery

by Janice Law

Some time ago, Thomas Pluck devoted his last SleuthSayers blog to the proposition that the novel of social realism is alive and well in certain gritty segments of the mystery genre. By coincidence, I had just finished reading Jim Gauer’s wildly ambitious, overly long but brilliantly written Novel Explosives.  

Gauer uses mystery and thriller conventions to depict the unholy nexus of crime, finance, corporate exploitation and weaponry that have devastated Mexico, especially Ciudad Juarez and the unfortunate young women who labor in its maquiladoras.

He presents familiar elements – though often with a surreal twist. Thus we have the cold and cynical Shakespeare quoting crime boss. Plus his two minions, Ray and Eugene, who are on a mission to kill the man we know first as The Poet and later as Douchebag, the erstwhile unsuspecting financial manipulator for the drug ring.

We have a possibly helpful, possibly complicit beauty in Guanajuato, Mexico, and her opposite number, who may or may not be on the side of the angels, up in El Paso. We have enough heavy weaponry to outfit any number of military thrillers and a vet with very serious PTS – but only on odd numbered days. We have police overkill and atrocities on every side and more than this reader could understand about financial chicanery.

The Poet's map was less helpful 
All this is immensely plausible, since Gauer, who is a poet, also worked for the military before making his fortune as a hedge fund executive and a venture capitalist. He is also clearly a man with a big interest in modern philosophy, human physiology, Aztec poetry and many other more abstruse topics. Your enjoyment of the novel probably depends on your own similar tastes.

But from the point of view of mystery/ thriller writers, Novel Explosives – and I should mention the ‘novel’ of the title refers to innovative weapons – is a striking example of the uses of our favorite conventions and an illustration of the fact that every generation only has so many stories.

The 18th century loved tales of female virtue imperiled but defended. The 19th enjoyed the pursuit of love and marriage then switched to the dangers of want and misery. Our side of the Atlantic loved Horatio Alger stories and then the still-popular immigrant experience. In mysteries, we, like Mr. Gauer, are fond of flawed heroes struggling to do right in a corrupt world.  Ray, his hitman, is the most morally alert of his characters, and it will not spoil anyone’s enjoyment of the book to reveal that he has nearly superhuman endurance as well as  exceptional military skills.

The creepy Mr. Big, a staple of popular fiction in print and on screen, also makes an appearance in the predatory drug lord Mr. Gomez, who represents the criminal component of  what the author sees as a corrupting and disastrous web. Drug use (and the War it) on feed profits to the violent Mexican cartels, which in turn corrupt the Mexican police and military. Criminal financiers launder drug profits and outright criminals funnel south the military grade weapons both cops and crooks need.

Exploited on every side are the unfortunate workers of the maquiladoras, often peasants forced off their land by the changes wrought by NAFTA. The workers are heavily female, very young, low paid, exploited, and at risk of rape, torture and murder. Their male counterparts, less desirable to the corporate types running the factories, opt for risky but lucrative work in the drug trade. Altogether crime, corruption and violence make Ciudad Juarez one of the anterooms of Hell.

Over all looms Saint Death 
Where Gauer departs from the mystery/thriller format is in his treatment. The pages’ long paragraphs, the dissertations on everything from Native American medical techniques to 20th century Portuguese poetry, and enough digressions to rival Tristram Shandy take Novel Explosives into more literary territory. Add a strong strain of surreal fantasy and you are in Thomas Pynchon’s neighborhood not Michael Connolly’s.

But despite the literary fireworks, the bones of the thing will be familiar to Sleuthsayers fans: a amnesiac hero pursued by professional hitmen, both of whom have a conscience. A brutal crime lord who never dirties his hands, corrupt financial men behaving like Masters of the Universe, police and military overkill, and the deaths of innocents.

The treatment in Novel Explosives is surreal, fanciful and philosophical, but the structure owes much to popular, even pulp, fiction, illustrating once again the almost endless flexibility of the genre.

For an interesting interview with Jim Gauer – and details of doing research in Juarez –listen in to Eye 94 out of Chicago at Jim Gauer on Eye 94 .