05 June 2019

Five Red Herrings, Volume 11

by Robert Lopresti 

1. Pictures from a Prosecution. Back in 2017 the Library of Congress held an exhibit of unusual art: drawings by courtroom illustrators. Fascinating stuff including such sinister types as Charles Manson, Bernie Madoff, and (?) J.K. Rowling.

2. Man, that's succubustic. I have mentioned Lowering the Bar before. A wonderful website about all that is ridiculous in the world of law. This entry concerns a California attorney who used (invented, really) the word "succubustic' to describe the behavior of a female judge who refused to grant him the attorney's fees he wanted. (Apparently the lawyer worked very hard on the case, clocking 25 hours in a single day, for instance.) He also referred to the "defendant's pseudohermaphroditic misconduct." Stylish.

3. Write like a girl. Useful for all of us boy author types: Women Share the Biggest Mistakes Male Authors Make with Female Characters. Here's one from jennytrout: "We have never, ever looked in a mirror and silently described our nude bodies to ourselves, especially the size/shape/weight/resemblance to fruit, etc. of our breasts."

4. Write like a cop. From Robin Burcell, Top Ten Stupid Cop Mistakes (in Fiction). "Only some of the bosses are evil or stupid..."

 5. "Dieoramas." Article from Topic Magazine about Abigail Goldman, who  is an investigator for the Public Defender's office in my county. Her hobby is making tiny 3-D "reproductions" of entirely fictional murder scenes. Creepy...

04 June 2019

With Malice Aforethought

By Michael Bracken

Audience arriving for "Make It Snappy:
Our Agatha Short Story Nominees"
While attending Malice Domestic last month, I had dinner with several writers and found myself sitting with Susanna Calkins, who I met earlier that day when I moderated “Make It Snappy: Our Agatha Short Story Nominees.” Susanna—along with Leslie Budewitz, Barb Goffman, Tara Laskowski, and Art Taylor—provided the audience with an entertaining and informative fifty-minute conversation about their Agatha-nominated short stories, themselves, and writing. One question not asked during our panel discussion, but which often comes up in one form or another, sparked a significant portion of our dinner conversation:

What motivates you to write?

Susanna noted that many of us have pat answers—chocolate every five hundred words, perhaps—that are easy to toss off during a panel discussion, but which do not actually answer the question. As an academic, Susanna is interested in one day researching the answer to that question and in exploring both what motives writers to write but also what prevents would-be writers from writing. What she discovers through this research might then be applicable to other creative fields.

This intrigued me because my son Ian teaches (and practices) Trust-Based Relational Intervention (TBRI), a therapeutic model that trains caregivers to provide effective support and treatment for at-risk children, but which can be applied to all relationships. We have had several discussions about motivation and about how the desire for a dopamine rush can be a motivating factor in our decisions. Many of us drink, smoke, take drugs, and engage in risky behavior to trigger that dopamine rush. Some of us write short stories.

Friday evening Malice Domestic dinner companions.
Every time I have a story accepted, every time I receive a payment, every time I have a story published, every time I see a story mentioned in a review, every time I see the expression on someone’s face when they learn how many stories I’ve written, I feel that rush. It feeds me. It motivates me.

What motivates me may also serve as a barrier to growth. I have identified myself as a short story writer, and I have used that self-identification to expand into closely related activities that feed the same dopamine rush: editing anthologies (and, now, a magazine), moderating and serving on panels about writing short stories, writing essays and blog posts about writing short stories, and so on. When asked about writing novels, I have a pat answer that emphasizes the success I’ve had with short fiction: Why shoot the horse I rode in on?

But the real reason I no longer write novels may be fear. Not fear of failure—every novel I’ve written has been published—but fear that long-term projects such as novels don’t provide steady hits of dopamine. Without that repeated rush, there’s no motivation to continue the work.

I recently had an opportunity to pitch a partial and an outline. I presented two, was given encouragement to press forward with one, and promptly stepped on my own willie: I loaded myself up with short-story and short-story-related projects.

And I felt good.

My son and I will continue our discussions about TBRI, dopamine, and related topics, and through our discussions I may learn more about what motivates me and how and why it motivates me. And because I would like to know what motivates other writers—I know it really isn’t just chocolate—I hope that someday Susanna actually does her research.

03 June 2019

Loss and Gratitude

by Travis Richardson

On May 23 crime fiction lost an angel when author and short story advocate Sandra Seamans passed away. For short story writers with a criminal slant, her website, humbly titled "My Little Corner", was one the best resources anywhere. At least once a week I would check out her site to see if there were any writing opportunities. Several of my publications came from her listings as were many other writers. She selflessly searched and vetted opportunities for genre writers. Many of us are eternally grateful to her.


Sandra's contributions were enormous. I touted her site on panels and to everybody I'd meet who was interested in writing short stories. But I don't know if she knew how much she meant to me. I believe I said thank you on her blog once or twice but that was it. I hope she realized how much she was appreciated even if she didn’t hear it from us often enough.

This got me thinking about other contributors who take time out of their daily schedules to either help writers or tout crime fiction. Last year at Left Coast Crime in Reno I put together a list of sites that promoted crime fiction. You can find it here: http://www.tsrichardson.com/mystery-and-crime-fiction-blogs-and-reviews/. There are several more that are not on the list and it woefully needs to be updated. (If you have any suggestions let me know and I’ll update the list.)

In the spirit of saying thank you to those who do, I’d like to give a few shout-outs of those not on my list, including Jesse Rawlins, Mick Rose, Jason Beech, Gabriel Valjean, Kevin Tipple, Angel Luis Colon, and Frank Zaffiro. They have promoted me and many others this year. Thank you for the time and energy you’ve given in this crazy, distractible world. I hope to return the favor soon.

There are many people who are promoting others and it is awesome. I often feel inadequate in promoting others (and myself at times.) Between work and a 4-year-old, I seem to have only a few scant hours to write and read each week. At one point, pre-child, I had a minimum daily writing goal of 700 words that I often exceeded…until I didn’t. After a couple of years of not achieving this goal, I dropped the word count to 250 a day and have mostly managed to hit it. (You can use and modify my writing spreadsheet here if interested: http://www.tsrichardson.com/2019/01/01/2019-writing-and-tracking-spreadsheet/) But as often as I intend to comment on blogs or interesting things that I run across, I never seem to have the bandwidth (or courage?) to say or promote like I’d like to. I hope to break out of this frozen carbonite of silence.

And what are my plans to help fellow writers and promote writing in general? A couple of years ago I bought the domain names storyjockey.com and storyjockeys.com with the idea of creating a portal of short story recommendations. Each week, dozens of reviewers/jockeys would provide a reading list of 5-10 stories. Kind of like a DJ playing a list of songs. Perhaps a little background or quick anecdote about how that story made the jockey feel with a link to the story. The majority of the recommendations would be contemporary and a few might be classics, or whatever they want. Readers could follow the jockeys who fit their taste the best. There would also be the best stories of the month, the season and the year by each jockey. I hope something like this would be a good way to direct readers to amazing short stories as well as create a new audience for those who didn’t know that they like short fiction. But, I haven’t found the bandwidth to do much more than buying the domain and dream about it occasionally. Perhaps “going public” on SleuthSayers might make this happen sooner than later. Who knows.

A final thought about Sandra's passing. When the great and kind short story writer BK Stevens suddenly passed away, Art Taylor stepped up took over her First Two Pages blog, letting writers show their first two pages of a short story or novel and the reasons why they wrote. I'm not sure if anybody wants to take Sandra's mantel, but the spot is open.

On a personal note, I had two stories come out last week. "I'll Be You" came out in THE DESPERATE AND THE DAMNED and "The Fatal Flaw of Those Who Listened" in Maintenant 13: A Journal of Contemporary Dada Writing and Art.

02 June 2019

Setting the Hook… or the Barb

by Leigh Lundin

100 Best Novels
An article by Barb Goffman prompted today’s column. Barb comes up with wonderfully catchy opening lines and, as she explains, imaginative openers determine whether your audience will read beyond the first sentence or two.

Once upon a time, The American Book Review came up with a list of American classics. From this list, they pulled the opening sentence from each. In the days of Criminal Brief, I made a game of it, trying to identify the novel… or author… solely from the first line. Rather than skip back and forth with the answer sheet, simply pop the menu to grade yourself or refresh your memory.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I scored (ahem) in low double digits. I blame that on the paucity of mystery titles. Where’s Dashiell Hammett? Raymond Chandler? Mickey Spillane? John MacDonald? Michael Bracken? O'Neil De Noux? John Floyd? Steve Liskow? LarryMaddox? Barb Goffman herself? Yeah, so there.

It’s 13 o’clock. Let’s begin…

100 Best First Lines of Novels
Selected by American Book Review
Call me Ishmael.
It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
A screaming comes across the sky.
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins.
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
I am an invisible man.
The Miss Lonelyhearts of the New York Post-Dispatch (Are you in trouble?—Do-you-need-advice?—Write-to-Miss-Lonelyhearts-and-she-will-help-you) sat at his desk and stared at a piece of white cardboard.
You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.
Someone must have slandered Josef K., for one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he was arrested.
You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel, If on a winter’s night a traveler.
The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.
If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.
This is the saddest story I have ever heard.
I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them, as they were in duty both equally bound to it, had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly considered how much depended upon what they were then doing;—that not only the production of a rational Being was concerned in it, but that possibly the happy formation and temperature of his body, perhaps his genius and the very cast of his mind;—and, for aught they knew to the contrary, even the fortunes of his whole house might take their turn from the humours and dispositions which were then uppermost:—Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly,—I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me.
Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary.
It was a wrong number that started it, the telephone ringing three times in the dead of night, and the voice on the other end asking for someone he was not.
Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.
124 was spiteful.
Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, a gentleman lived not long ago, one of those who has a lance and ancient shield on a shelf and keeps a skinny nag and a greyhound for racing.
Mother died today.
Every summer Lin Kong returned to Goose Village to divorce his wife, Shuyu.
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man.
Where now? Who now? When now?
Once an angry man dragged his father along the ground through his own orchard. “Stop!” cried the groaning old man at last, “Stop! I did not drag my father beyond this tree.”
In a sense, I am Jacob Horner.
It was like so, but wasn’t.
—Money . . . in a voice that rustled.
Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.
All this happened, more or less.
They shoot the white girl first.
For a long time, I went to bed early.
The moment one learns English, complications set in.
Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature.
I was the shadow of the waxwing slain / By the false azure in the windowpane;
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.
I had the story, bit by bit, from various people, and, as generally happens in such cases, each time it was a different story.
Ages ago, Alex, Allen and Alva arrived at Antibes, and Alva allowing all, allowing anyone, against Alex’s admonition, against Allen’s angry assertion: another African amusement . . . anyhow, as all argued, an awesome African army assembled and arduously advanced against an African anthill, assiduously annihilating ant after ant, and afterward, Alex astonishingly accuses Albert as also accepting Africa’s antipodal ant annexation.
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.
It was the day my grandmother exploded.
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.
Elmer Gantry was drunk.
We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.
It was a pleasure to burn.
A story has no beginning or end; arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.
Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression.
I was born in the Year 1632, in the City of York, of a good Family, tho’ not of that Country, my Father being a Foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull; He got a good Estate by Merchandise, and leaving off his Trade, lived afterward at York, from whence he had married my Mother, whose Relations were named Robinson, a very good Family in that Country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but by the usual Corruption of Words in England, we are now called, nay we call our selves, and write our Name Crusoe, and so my Companions always call’d me.
In the beginning, sometimes I left messages in the street.
Miss Brooke had that kind of beauty which seems to be thrown into relief by poor dress.
It was love at first sight.
What if this young woman, who writes such bad poems, in competition with her husband, whose poems are equally bad, should stretch her remarkably long and well-made legs out before you, so that her skirt slips up to the tops of her stockings?
I have never begun a novel with more misgiving.
Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person.
The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up.
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
You better not never tell nobody but God.
“To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.”
It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.
Most really pretty girls have pretty ugly feet, and so does Mindy Metalman, Lenore notices, all of a sudden.
If I am out of my mind, it’s all right with me, thought Moses Herzog.
Francis Marion Tarwater’s uncle had been dead for only half a day when the boy got too drunk to finish digging his grave and a Negro named Buford Munson, who had come to get a jug filled, had to finish it and drag the body from the breakfast table where it was still sitting and bury it in a decent and Christian way, with the sign of its Saviour at the head of the grave and enough dirt on top to keep the dogs from digging it up.
Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there’s a peephole in the door, and my keeper’s eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me.
When Dick Gibson was a little boy he was not Dick Gibson.
Hiram Clegg, together with his wife Emma and four friends of the faith from Randolph Junction, were summoned by the Spirit and Mrs. Clara Collins, widow of the beloved Nazarene preacher Ely Collins, to West Condon on the weekend of the eighteenth and nineteenth of April, there to await the End of the World.
She waited, Kate Croy, for her father to come in, but he kept her unconscionably, and there were moments at which she showed herself, in the glass over the mantel, a face positively pale with the irritation that had brought her to the point of going away without sight of him.
In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.
“Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.
He was an inch, perhaps two, under six feet, powerfully built, and he advanced straight at you with a slight stoop of the shoulders, head forward, and a fixed from-under stare which made you think of a charging bull.
The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.
On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.
Justice?—You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.
Vaughan died yesterday in his last car-crash.
I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.
“When your mama was the geek, my dreamlets,” Papa would say, “she made the nipping off of noggins such a crystal mystery that the hens themselves yearned toward her, waltzing around her, hypnotized with longing.”
In the last years of the Seventeenth Century there was to be found among the fops and fools of the London coffee-houses one rangy, gangling flitch called Ebenezer Cooke, more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent, who, like his friends-in-folly, all of whom were supposed to be educating at Oxford or Cambridge, had found the sound of Mother English more fun to game with than her sense to labor over, and so rather than applying himself to the pains of scholarship, had learned the knack of versifying, and ground out quires of couplets after the fashion of the day, afroth with Joves and Jupiters, aclang with jarring rhymes, and string-taut with similes stretched to the snapping-point.
When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of a fine spring afternoon.
It was just noon that Sunday morning when the sheriff reached the jail with Lucas Beauchamp though the whole town (the whole county too for that matter) had known since the night before that Lucas had killed a white man.
I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot,” or “That Claudius,” or “Claudius the Stammerer,” or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius,” am now about to write this strange history of my life; starting from my earliest childhood and continuing year by year until I reach the fateful point of change where, some eight years ago, at the age of fifty-one, I suddenly found myself caught in what I may call the “golden predicament” from which I have never since become disentangled.
Of all the things that drive men to sea, the most common disaster, I’ve come to learn, is women.
I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.
The towers of Zenith aspired above the morning mist; austere towers of steel and cement and limestone, sturdy as cliffs and delicate as silver rods.
I will tell you in a few words who I am: lover of the hummingbird that darts to the flower beyond the rotted sill where my feet are propped; lover of bright needlepoint and the bright stitching fingers of humorless old ladies bent to their sweet and infamous designs; lover of parasols made from the same puffy stuff as a young girl’s underdrawers; still lover of that small naval boat which somehow survived the distressing years of my life between her decks or in her pilothouse; and also lover of poor dear black Sonny, my mess boy, fellow victim and confidant, and of my wife and child. But most of all, lover of my harmless and sanguine self.
He was born with a gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.
Psychics can see the color of time it’s blue.
In the town, there were two mutes and they were always together.
Once upon a time two or three weeks ago, a rather stubborn and determined middle-aged man decided to record for posterity, exactly as it happened, word by word and step by step, the story of another man for indeed what is great in man is that he is a bridge and not a goal, a somewhat paranoiac fellow unmarried, unattached, and quite irresponsible, who had decided to lock himself in a room a furnished room with a private bath, cooking facilities, a bed, a table, and at least one chair, in New York City, for a year 365 days to be precise, to write the story of another person—a shy young man about of 19 years old—who, after the war the Second World War, had come to America the land of opportunities from France under the sponsorship of his uncle—a journalist, fluent in five languages—who himself had come to America from Europe Poland it seems, though this was not clearly established sometime during the war after a series of rather gruesome adventures, and who, at the end of the war, wrote to the father his cousin by marriage of the young man whom he considered as a nephew, curious to know if he the father and his family had survived the German occupation, and indeed was deeply saddened to learn, in a letter from the young man—a long and touching letter written in English, not by the young man, however, who did not know a damn word of English, but by a good friend of his who had studied English in school—that his parents both his father and mother and his two sisters one older and the other younger than he had been deported they were Jewish to a German concentration camp Auschwitz probably and never returned, no doubt having been exterminated deliberately X * X * X * X, and that, therefore, the young man who was now an orphan, a displaced person, who, during the war, had managed to escape deportation by working very hard on a farm in Southern France, would be happy and grateful to be given the opportunity to come to America that great country he had heard so much about and yet knew so little about to start a new life, possibly go to school, learn a trade, and become a good, loyal citizen.
Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space.
He—for there could be no doubt of his sex, though the fashion of the time did something to disguise it—was in the act of slicing at the head of a Moor which swung from the rafters.
High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour.
They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did.
The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting.

How did you fare? Our enquiring minds want to know.

01 June 2019

A H8ful Play


by John M. Floyd


I just finished writing a mystery/western short story which is set almost entirely on a stagecoach in Arizona in the early 1900s. To get a little extra inspiration, I first re-watched a movie by Quentin Tarantino called The Hateful Eight. It's nothing like my story, but some of that movie takes place on a stagecoach, and I wanted to see it again anyway.


The Hateful Eight (2015) is sometimes listed as The H8ful Eight, and one poster subtitles it "The 8th Film by Quentin Tarantino." (The first seven were, if you count only feature films and if you count the two Kill Bill installments as one movie: Reservoir DogsPulp FictionJackie BrownKill BillDeath ProofInglorious Basterds, and Django Unchained.) I thoroughly enjoyed all of them, except maybe Death Proof, and even it had its moments--but let me say, before going any further, that you might not agree with me about the quality of these movies. A lot of folks don't. What I think you might agree with me about, though, is that they're all incredibly entertaining. And if a film is entertaining enough, I have found that I can forgive almost anything else about it. (How else could I love Blazing Saddles?)

Bottom line is, The Hateful Eight is a thrill ride, a violent, outrageous, fast-moving, wonderfully-cast, beautifully-filmed movie that could easily have been a stage play instead. Some might say it IS a stage play. The plot is completely driven by dialogue, throughout, and almost the entire film is shot in one location: a way station on a stagecoach line. There are a few scenes that take place outside the station, before and during a blizzard, but those scenes mostly involve the stagecoach in which most of the characters arrive. As usual, Tarantino plays around a little with the timeline, but in a good way.

He also uses several actors that have appeared in his previous films--Sam Jackson, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Kurt Russell--and the rest of the cast includes longtime favorites of mine like Bruce Dern and Jennifer Jason Leigh. In case you're wondering (I'm sure you're on the edge of your seat), the Eight are:


1. The Bounty Hunter -- Samuel L. Jackson
2. The Hangman -- Kurt Russell
3. The Confederate -- Bruce Dern
4. The Sheriff -- Walton Goggins
5  The Mexican -- Demian Bichir
6. The Little Man -- Tim Roth
7. The Cow Puncher -- Michael Madsen
8. The Prisoner -- Jennifer Jason Leigh

I'll let you match the faces to the names. NOTE: If you don't recognize the name Demian Bichir, you're not alone. I think he's probably best known as Mary-Louise Parker's love interest (and the mayor of Tijuana) in the Showtime series Weeds, which I really liked. If you still don't recognize him, you're still not alone, but I assure you he does a great job in this movie. Channing Tatum is also featured in a key role, but doesn't have much in the way of lines or screen time, which probably explains why it's not The Hateful Nine.

The main thing I wanted to say is that I think I learned several things, as a writer, from watching this movie multiple times. One was that the structure is almost perfect, and involves some really explosive and unexpected plot reversals. I always admire that. Another is the fact that, as I've said, well-written dialogue can indeed be enough to completely carry a film, start to finish. Not a play; a feature film. (And this is almost a three-hour-long feature film). A lot happens and a lot of folks get shot or otherwise dispatched in the course of the story, but the action is minimal compared to the dialogue. Once again, whatever you might think of Tarantino as a director (my wife wouldn't watch one of his movies if you handcuffed her to the theater seat), the characters in this film are fantastic, and are defined almost totally by what they say to each other.

They're also hateful. But I can forgive that.




31 May 2019

The Gary Phillips Interview– Part 2: The Be-Bop Barbarians and Beyond

by Lawrence Maddox

In Gary Phillips' graphic novel The Be-Bop Barbarians (Pegasus Books, 2019), three African American comic book artists, struggling to make it in the face of daunting racism, are caught up in 1955's burgeoning civil rights movement.  It takes place in Harlem, and happens at the moment when comics, jazz, and the civil rights movement were on the cusp of major cultural eruptions. Gary placed his tale at the point before all these elements exploded in new directions.

The Be-Bop Barbarians took my breath away. When I finished it I felt I'd just put down an important work. I don't feel you can read it without thinking about the tensions, racial and otherwise, that are happening in America now.

In Part 1, I got to talk with Gary about some of the historical elements that influenced The Be-Bop Barbarians. These included the civil rights campaign that was ignited by Rosa Parks at the end of 1955; the Sleepy Lagoon murder trial; and the real-life artists who were the inspiration for his three main characters. But wait, there's more!

Lawrence Maddox: Last year you won an Anthony for The Obama Inheritance, which riffs on right-wing conspiracy theories and treats them as if they were true. I feel the '50s, the era of The Be-Bop Barbarians, had its share of conspiracy theories too. Any connection between The Obama InheritanceThe Be-Bop Barbarians, and how conspiracy theories are used to manipulate public opinion?

Gary Phillips: We've always had those who have been able to pull the wool over people's eyes and play into their audience's weird fears and night sweats, whether it's Alex Jones, or The Amazing Criswell, who was in Plan 9 from Outer Space. People are entertained by them, but some can get sucked in.

Soundtrack Beat Battle Judging Panel March2011 (cropped).jpg
Nipsey Hussle in 2011
Just recently, there was this conspiracy around Nipsey Hussle and Dr. Sebi. [NOTE: Dr Sebi was a Honduran herbalist whose remedies were said to be a challenge to the medical establishment. He died in police custody.]  The rumor is that Nipsey was murdered because he was planning this documentary about Dr, Sebi, and big pharma took him out. These things always persist. Are there truths to them? I just worked on this show [Snowfall on FX] that purports that the CIA helped bring cocaine into South Central in the '80s. Do I believe it? Well actually I do believe it, but there are others that say it didn't happen.

LM: When your graphic novel Big Water (2013) came out, I reviewed it for All Due Respect Magazine.  This is my second crack at one of your graphic novels.  Any connections you'd care to draw between Big Water and The Be-Bop Barbarians?

GP: Both of them, in various ways, deal with some parts of the socio-political landscape.  Big Water is about the fight, in a fictional municipality, to keep the water a public right as opposed to allowing the water rights to be sold to a private company. It was also about community organizing; it was about people coming together to work for a common cause.  Certainly we can see some of that in The Be-Bop Barbarians. That hearkens back to my days as a community organizer. Invariably my experience as a community organizer will show up in some form in my work. Not in all my work, but time and again it's a part of what I write about. For me it's still a fascination to place that world in the context of crime fiction. It's something I always come back to. It's the stuff I dig, it's the stuff I watch, read. Not exclusively, but it's the thing I always gravitate to. I guess I try to figure out ways to overlap those two worlds as seamlessly as possible.

LM: In your work you often have heroes, or antiheroes, that are destroyed by forces that are much larger than them. I'm thinking of Zelmont Raines in The Jook (1999).

GP: (Laughs) He's also done in by his lack of impulse control.

LM: Other examples are Deke Kotto and Tim Brady from Cowboys (2011). 

GP: For sure.

LM: Sometimes you've got heroes like O'Connor from Warlord of Willow Ridge (2012) who are able to make a difference and overcome these dark and powerful forces. 

GP: There you go,  but only in incremental ways, right? Only these little tiny victories.

LM: Can one person make a difference?

GP:Yes. The true heroic answer, Larry, is yes, one person can make a difference. They have to. From Martin Luther to Martin Luther King to Rosa Parks to Delores Huerta, yes.  Absolutely. But as we also know, no matter how much will and drive one has, which no doubt is important, which no doubt sets a certain standard for people to rally around, in the end it is about people working together and making these things happen.

I do believe that certain things happen because an individual steps out, or something happens to that individual, but then other things start to work together to make bigger things happen. So even if we talk about Rosa Parks that evening not going to sit in the back of the bus, she was actually not the first black woman to do that. The difference was she was a part of a bigger thing, the NAACP.  She'd already gone to non-violence training school. She was already part of something. This incident became the thing, like Ollie in the book became the thing that could advance some tougher work. It shows you have to have these mechanisms in place so that when something like that does happen, you're ready to act. You're ready to move.

LM: You've got a lot going on this year besides The Be-Bop Barbarians. Let's talk about the The Movie Makers.

GP: It's out now. Down & Out Books is reviving the old serial thing.  It was Frank Zafiro's idea to center on a grifter couple, and they asked various writers to do a kind of, I guess it's not really a novella, it's too short.  It's an extended short story, a novelette. My story is twelve or thirteen thousand words, and we're doing these episodes centering on this grifter couple. Mine takes place in the land where make-believe is the coin of the realm, Hollywood. It's Harold Robbins meets Jim Thompson.

LM: I really liked your story "Demon of the Track" from the wickedly fun anthology Pop the Clutch: Thrilling Tales of Rockabilly, Monsters, and Hot Rod Horror that came out earlier this year.  I noticed that Ollie from The Be-Bop Barbarians and Deacon Coles from "Demon of the Track"are both Korean War vets. What was your inspiration for Deacon?
I attended the Pop the Clutch signing in Burbank
 earlier this year. It was an incredible line-up of
authors, including Gary Phillips. Hoping to get
John  Floyd's signature on this baby one day!

GP: Deacon Coles in "Demon of the Track was inspired by Ed Dwight. [NOTE: Ed Dwight was a military pilot with a B.S in aeronautical engineering.] Kennedy was pushing to have a black astronaut and Ed was put into the program. He faced opposition due to racism. When Kennedy got killed Ed got squeezed out of the program. He actually became a sculptor after all that. Ed Dwight has always fascinated me. I thought it would be interesting to take this guy and make him a jet ace during the war.  Because of racism, he can't get a job as a pilot. So what does he do? He starts racing cars.

LM: You've also been writing for TV.

GP: Coming up I have a co-writing credit on an episode of Snowfall on FX.

LM: John Singleton was one of Snowfall's Creators and Executive Producers. His sudden passing must've been a shock.

John Singleton in 2013
GP: Crazy that John is gone. Fifty-one is way too young, but he got a lot done in that time. He had a drive and a love for all kinds of stories, but of course he really made his mark telling a tale of South Central,  Boyz n the Hood (1991), where he and I grew up. As a Co-Creator of Snowfall, he would often be in the writer's room with us, or on set. John would crack me up because there'd be a time when he'd insist on this or that detail, but it would be about authenticity. In the episode I co-wrote there's a scene set in the projects. When the cops arrive he had me add the "crip whistle," a distinctive call-out that trouble was coming.  A seemingly small thing that did so much to capture that time period.

LM: You've written books, short stories, graphic novels, comics, and now TV.  Is it hard to switch between these different mediums? Is there another medium that you still want to explore?

The many mediums of Gary Phillips.
From The Maddox Archives
GP: You're a storyteller, so you know that each medium defines how you tell the story. A script, as you know, is all short hand.  This is also the great thing about writing comic books and graphic novels. You have to think visually. Similarly in TV, you have to boil everything down. On Snowfall we'd spend hours of the day just talking about the motivation of the characters. Then you'd have to figure out how you'd boil all that down to this one thing. You'd have to get it right so when you're at the table-read the actors aren't saying, "What the hell are you talking about?"

I always think about a scene in Scorsese's Howard Hughes flick The Aviator (2004). It's that scene where DiCaprio can't touch the door knob because of his own weird germophobia. It's such a great scene because it boils down so much psychologically about Hughes. Here's this guy who does all this incredible stuff, but he can't touch this door knob because it's full of germs and other people have touched it.

As a writer I'm always asking, "What are those things, those images, that one thing that will symbolize and crystallize what my character is about?" So whatever medium you're writing in, be it comic books, scripts, prose, or radio plays, whatever the hell it is, you just got to figure out how to convey the complexities in a simple and straight forward way, yet keep some of that richness that you want to maintain. I think we all try to figure that out as writers and storytellers. Not that you get it right all the time. You keep trying rework it and achieve that clarity on the page, or as presented by the actor, or what have you.

I'm very happy that I've been able to work in different mediums, and I hope to keep being able to do that.  It's always the next idea that fascinates me, or the next set of complications for my characters that keeps me going. Sally Wainwright, who wrote Gentleman Jack on HBO, said she likes to write the things that she wants to see. That's true for me, too.  I write the things I want to read or that I want to see. In my work, if I'm entertained, I hope others are entertained too, as well as intrigued. I also hope I've given my audience a little something to think about.

Gary was an initial believer in my debut novel Fast Bang Booze and helped it see the light of day. 

If you have a favorite Gary Phillips work, let me know on Facebook or Twitter, LawrenceMaddox@Madxbooks. 



30 May 2019

True Crime or Not True Crime

by Brian Thornton

Lately I've been thinking about the space that lies between writing fiction and nonfiction. I've tried my hand at both.

My professional background in writing nonfiction includes earning an advanced degree in history and penning a number of books on a variety of nonfiction topics–some historical, others not. One (which I ghost-wrote) was even on the topic of long-distance fatherhood; and this several years before I became a father myself.

My fiction includes a number of published short stories, several edited story collections, novellas, and coming soon, a novel. It's been the focus of my writing career for the past several years.

To be clear, I loved writing all of my books (hey, getting paid to do something you love–isn't that really the definition of the perfect job?). I did, however, put off writing book-length fiction for a number of years because there were far too many well-paying nonfiction opportunities out there.

Which renders the one opportunity I did actually turn down all the more striking by contrast. Several years I passed on the opportunity to write a true crime book.

And just last week I had occasion to revisit that decision. More on that in a bit.

First, I have nothing against the subgenre of true crime writing, or against those who practice it. In fact, I number several true crime writers among my friends in the writing community. It's just not my thing.

For me it all started with Truman Capote's landmark In Cold Blood, which, in many ways, effectively launched true crime writing as a subgenre. While I found Capote's writing compelling (no disputing the fact that it's a masterwork.), I also found it profoundly disturbing.

That book stayed with me. It was as if Capote transcribed a nightmare.

Now, some people will point to that as an example of great literature, and they're right.

And while I read literature to be affected, to be moved, I don't read it looking to be kept up at night. I don't find anything the least bit entertaining about that. (If I did, maybe I'd read horror.).

On top of that, I didn't read Capote's book until after I myself had been the victim of crime (both violent and nonviolent) multiple times.

I can't speak for other crime victims (nor would I attempt to), but having been on the receiving end of a mugging, of multiple all-too-plausible death threats, of more than one robbery, and of more than one beating, I can honestly say that I don't need to read "gritty true crime," because I've lived it.

Ficional crime I can handle. "Realism" is not "reality," and I well understand the remove in place between them when it comes to fictional treatment of crime and punishment. So while I strive in my own writing to make my characters feel each punch, swallow hard when staring down the barrel of a pistol in their face, it's fiction. Realistic fiction, but fiction, nonetheless.

Which brings me to the events of last week. I won't go in to particulars here, but readers of this blog (BOTH of you!*rimshot*) know what my non-writing day gig is. Suffice it to say that someone threatened to shoot me last week.

There is a process my place of employment follows in situations like this, and that process was followed. The threat was not found to credible, and I supposedly don't have anything to worry about.

But that split moment when I realized I was being threatened?

That flutter in my stomach; the way my throat closed; every hair from my forearms to the back of my neck standing on end – every autonomic and visceral reaction I had at that moment and in the ones which have followed, flashing to thinking of how it would affect my family if something happened to me, wondering whether I was safe walking to and from my car at work or out in town, the hundreds of glances over my shoulder in mundane moments...

I don't need to relive any of that.

And reading about that particular manner of emotional and physical terrorism being actually visited upon real, living, breathing people?

I think I'll stick to crime fiction.

Thanks for reading, and see you in two weeks!

29 May 2019

The Good, the Bad, and the Positive



by Robert Lopresti

When I was in college I took a course in film studies and one day the professor talked to us about bad movies and good movies.  Specifically he said that a good bad movie was better than a bad good movie.

If he defined his terms I don't recall but I think we can get the gist of it.  A bad movie is mere entertainment.  A good movie is about something besides the plot.  It has a message, a theme, a view of the world.  And my professor was saying that a good bad movie - one that "merely" tries to entertain and succeeds - is a better flick than one that tries to change your life and fails.

I realize that some of you are even now composing messages that argue with pretty much every word in the paragraph above.  That's fine.  But let's kick the idea around a bit.

One of the problems, of course, is that a well-done piece of "mere entertainment" is probably as carefully thought through and layered as the allegedly deeper "good" movie.  The first Star Wars movie, for example, is a great popcorn flick but George Lucas certainly knows his Joseph Campbell and the archetypal Hero's Journey is baked solidly into the film's DNA.  

Or take Psycho, which I imagine we would agree with the professor is a good or even great, bad movie.  Hitchcock himself described it as a fun movie, like a trip "through the haunted house at a fairground." But perhaps unlike  many of the thousands of slasher films that it inspired, there is a lot of meaning bubbling under the surface.

For example: next time you watch it, starting from the very first scene watch for references to parents, living or dead, who impose on and  distort the lives of their children.  You will find that this is mentioned several times before the Bates Motel looms up on the dark road.  Someone - Robert Bloch who wrote the novel, or Joseph Stefano who wrote the screenplay, or director Hitchcock - went to a lot of trouble to put these nuggets in.  Is it establishing a theme, as the creators of "good movies" might call it, or merely increasing suspense through foreshadowing?  Or is that a distinction without a difference?

Of course, you can argue that every movie has a message.  Jim Britell noted that "the message of most American movies is that only Batman or Clint Eastwood can go up against Mr. Big."  Not very empowering.  

In the world of fiction as opposed to film, the distinction is likely to be called genre fiction versus mainstream fiction (or even just "literature.")  Crime fiction, the reviewers will tell us, is just entertainment, with no deeper message.

Or is it?

Let's take Rex Stout's Gambit, which is a standard whodunit (with one exception that we will get to).  In the first scene private detective Nero Wolfe is burning a copy of Webster's Third International Dictionary in his fireplace.  His main objection is that the book is descriptive rather than prescriptive.  That is, it tells you how words are being used, not how they should be used.  Then a client arrives and we move into a murder investigation and the dictionary is not mentioned again.

However...

All the characters we meet in the book have a strange relationship with the idea of knowledge.  Some insist vehemently on something they know, which turns out to be wrong. ("I know you!" snaps Inspector Cramer, completely misinterpreting Wolfe's motives.) The enchanting beauty of one character,  who is by no means stupid, is twice described as being related to her giving the impression of knowing nothing.  Others have important information but don't know how to use it.  The murderer misuses specialized knowledge to commit the crime.  

The unusual thing about the book is  that Nero Wolfe knows the identity of the murderer with almost a quarter of the novel left.  What he does in the last chapters, and what makes him the hero, is figure out how to use the knowledge he has acquired in order to defeat the bad guy.

In short, the entire novel is a polemic against that dictionary, pointing out that knowing something (like the meaning of a word) is not enough.  You have to know how to use what you know.

One more example.  Good Behavior is one of Donald E. Westlake's best comic crime novels.  In it, his hapless burglar, John Dortmunder, organizes a major robbery in a skyscraper  but his real purpose is to rescue a nun who is being held prisoner in the penthouse.

Or putting it another way: like any fairy tale knight, his quest is to rescue a maiden from a tower. "She'd have to let her hair down a hell of a distance, wouldn't she?" Dortmunder muses.

And once you notice that fact, images of chivalry pop up in the book with great regularity.  (The villain is a wealthy industrialist named Ritter... as in Knight-Ritter?)

Would we say Westlake is trying to do more than entertain, or that his thematic elements are simply one of the things that makes the book such fun?  And again, does it matter?

I'm going off on a tangent now.  On rare and wonderful occasions something I have written has received a review.  People will ask me whether it got a good review.  I usually respond (if it is true) that it received a positive review.  Which is not the same thing.

A good review is one which  allows the reader to accurately  decide whether the book/story/movie is one they would enjoy.  That is not quite the same as a positive review.

Several decades ago I read a newspaper review of Douglas Adam's first novel, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  It was a negative review.  The critic basically said that this was a patheitic example of what passed for humor in science fiction.  To prove his point he included several examples of the alleged humor.

I read them and when I managed to stop laughing I said: "I need this book immediately!"  The review was not positive, but it was good - because it told me that 1) the critic had no sense of humor, and 2) Adams was brilliant.  

And that's all I have to say, which is good.  I'm positive.