25 November 2019

Recycling


by Steve Liskow

One of the first short stories I wrote fifteen years ago featured Maxwell and Lowe, the Detroit homicide detectives who played supporting roles in the still unsold "Woody" Guthrie series. They investigated the death of a wealthy banker who died from what appeared to be a self-inflicted gunshot. I called the story "Walking After Midnight," a Patsy Cline song. Several markets rejected it and I kept writing more stories because I was teaching myself to write short stories by...wait for it...writing short stories.

I sent out many other stories that got rejected, too, but eventually I sold enough to become an active member of MWA. In 2010, MWA called for submissions on a theme that "Walking" seemed to fit. I expanded it to make the theme more explicit and changed the title. It still didn't sell, so I cut some of that new thematic detail, changed the title again, and kept sending it out. The shot of my spreadsheet tells the story.

By the time the story sold, I had sold seven or eight other ones and was working on my sixth self-published novel. As "Dead Man's Hand," all that remained was the original premise, a blind man who still has a pistol permit and appears to shoot himself to death. I replaced Max and Lowe with different cops, and the POV shifted from the police to the son of the dead man, who didn't even exist in the first version.

Four other stories I sold in that period also changed titles. Two of them changed almost everything else, too. "Stranglehold," which won the Black Orchid Novella Award in 2009 as a 16,000-word novella, earned seven rejections as a 6700-word short story.

As I write this, eight of my 25 sold stories exist in at least two very different drafts. Sometimes I've cut them, but I usually change the characters or plot to make them better. My premise has only changed in one story, and that story still hasn't sold.

Last week, "Two Good Hands" appeared in Tough, and that story is unique. I added about 100 words after the first rejection because I decided the ending was too abrupt, but the other eleven rejections came with no other changes. I have a story knocking on doors now that is the only story I've never altered even though I'm running out of markets for it. That should tell me something, shouldn't it?

Where do all these versions live? I have a flash drive with a folder called "Stories, Unsold," and it has 34 drafts of 21 stories. They date back to 2004, and some of them are pretty awful, but I never throw anything away. One story exists in four different versions under two different titles.

That same flash drive has notes and outlines and early versions of several unsold novels. Blood On The Tracks earned 112 rejections between late 2003 and 2011. It went out as Death Sound Blues, Killing Me Softly (With His Song), The Cheater, and Alma Murder. The titles alone show how much it evolved. The first version was set in 1991, at Guthrie's 25th high school reunion. All that remains of that version is Megan Traine's name (Guthrie is the PI's fourth name, and he was a journalist in the first take) and the dead singer. That singer even went away in The Cheater and Alma Murder, which teetered dangerously close to Lifetime TV. I resurrected (?) the dead singer when I self-published the book in 2013.

My point is pretty simple. Never throw away ANYTHING. Someday, you will be able to  use the description of an intriguing place, a good line of dialogue, or a character you abandoned years ago. You will recognize that fact because now you've learned to write better and use stuff more effectively.

That flash drive still contains a gunfight I wrote in 2004 for a Woody Guthrie story that was never going to work. It also involved Blue Song Riley's boyfriend, and he never got to first base either. I recycled the idea and the mindset of that gunfight into Words of Love, the fifth Guthrie novel, which came out last week, too. (Last week was a good week.)

Postcards of the Hanging, published in 2014, had 44 rejections under that title, its fourth. I wrote  the first draft of my first novel in the early 1970s. Between then and 1982, it went out under three different titles with increasingly complex characters and subplots. Along the way, I learned how to write a bad novel more quickly and fix it later. The third version became my sixth-year project at Wesleyan in 1980, and that version is about 95% of what eventually saw print. I changed from chronological order to  flashbacks to make the book open with more energy. I also added about 12 pages of prologue and epilogue so agents understood that the book was NOT really a YA novel even though the main characters were in high school.

Six unsold novels. 34 drafts of 21 stories.

And people still ask me, "Where do you get your ideas?"

24 November 2019

2 or more persons...



There are times when law enforcement can't get some of the people operating in the criminal world. These people may be elevated in the  hierarchy, insulating themselves by using underlings to do the dirty work, thus appearing to keep their own hands clean. Or, they might be fringe players who contribute goods or services to other criminals, which then allow the crimes of these lawbreakers to go forward. Under these types of circumstances is where the smart investigator looks to the conspiracy laws.

The general conspiracy law is found in 18 U.S. Code 371. Conspiracy to commit offense or to defraud the United States. If two or more persons conspire either to commit any offense against the United States, or to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof in any manner or for any purpose, and one or more of such persons do any act to effect the object of the conspiracy, each shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.

From there, some specific conspiracy laws can be found for specific crimes. For instance, illegal drugs/controlled substances come under 21 U.S. Code 846. Attempt and conspiracy. Any person who attempts or conspires to commit any offense defined in this sub-chapter shall be subject to the same penalties as those prescribed for the offense, the commission of which was the object of the attempt or conspiracy.

So now, let's construct a simple drug conspiracy case.

Let's say that Jorge and Billy Bob are sitting in Nogales, Sonora, having a few tequilas and bemoaning the fact they're driving broken down pickups instead of Ferrari's. As a possible way out of their lowly financial predicament, Jorge mentions that he has a cousin in the cocaina business. Maybe if he asked nicely, this cousin would front him a kilo of high grade coke. If so, would Billy Bob be able to transport the kilo across the border to Nogales, Arizona, cut it with milk sugar so they then had two kilos of 40% cocaine and sell it to distributors that Billy Bob knew on the U.S. side? Billy Bob replies, "Hell, yeah." And so it begins.  There's no crime yet, but it is rapidly heading that way.

We now have two or more persons in agreement, or conspiring to transport and distribute cocaine in violation of 21 U.S. Code 841, Distribution of a Controlled Substance. Next, we need an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy.

Jorge goes to his cousin in the local cartel and gets a kilo fronted to him. He then waits for Billy Bob to return from the U.S. side of the border. Jorge just committed an overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy and is about to commit more.

Billy Bob has gone to his buddy Larry in Nogales, Arizona, and asked to borrow his fishing boat which has a concealed hiding place built into the fiberglass wall. Larry's not so sure, but finally agrees after Billy Bob explains about the fronted kilo and offers to pay Larry a thousand dollars for the loan of the boat and trailer to smuggle the coke across the border. Larry helps Billy Bob hook up the the boat and trailer to Billy Bob's pickup. Larry has now joined the conspiracy and both have committed overt acts.

Billy Bob drives down to Sonora, meets with Jorge and they hide the coke in the concealed space and fill the empty air space leftover with coffee grounds because they had heard that keeps drug dogs from sniffing it out. More overt acts. Billy Bob heads north and catches a lax search at Customs. He continues home, where he calls an associate to bring over some milk sugar to cut the coke. Agreeing on a price, the associate delivers the milk sugar and leaves. The associate has now joined the conspiracy, plus committed an overt act.

Billy Bob cuts the coke and fronts a half key each to three different friends. A week later, these three friends pay Billy Bob the agreed upon price because they have sold enough to acquire some cash. Billy Bob goes over to Larry's house and pays him the thousand dollars. He then drives south, meets Jorge in a bar and pays what he owes him. A whole bunch of overt acts, plus violations of other federal statutes. Our conspiracy to distribute cocaine is well under way.

Okay, so how do we build the case and prove it in a court of law?

One method would be the use of a Title III, also known as a wire tap. Let's say a reliable informant was sitting at the table when Jorge and Billy Bob had their initial discussion and he then relayed that information to us. We used the info to get a Title III warrant, set up a house with recorders and a tap on Billy Bob's phone, and started listening in on calls. A surveillance team sets up on Billy Bob's house. The first calls we get are the three friends saying they sold their product and are coming over to pay Billy Bob for the coke he fronted them. Surveillance verifies they showed up. Billy Bob calls his associate and says he's coming over to pay for the milk sugar he cut the coke with. Surveillance verifies he went to the associates house. Billy Bob then calls Larry and says he's coming over to pay him the thousand dollars for using Larry's boat with the concealed hiding place to smuggle the cocaine. Surveillance follows Billy over to Larry's house and back. Billy then calls Jorge to say he's coming down to the bar to pay for that kilo of fronted cocaine. Surveillance verifies the trip south and the meeting.

Or, maybe we insert an agent into the group as a buyer and he gets to meet other conspirators and witnesses some overt acts. Plus, if one of the conspirators flips, then they could all be toast. That's one of the reasons we make deals for a lesser sentence.


In any case, we go to grand jury with recordings and surveillance, or witness testimony and surveillance. We also have phone records to back up testimony. (NOTE: Use of a communications facility is both a separate crime and an overt act.) Border crossing records, financial records and sales receipts, if you can find them,for the milk sugar, also back up testimony. With your normal undercover buy, you usually only get the dealer who sold you the drugs. In our conspiracy case here, we got seven clearly involved defendants. And, if Jorge flips, then we start working on his cousin and the cartel.

I think you can see how the conspiracy laws allow us to cast a wider net and catch more fish. I would like to think that the conspiracy laws keep criminals awake at night, but most of them don't think that far. That's why we call it dope. They have to be right every time. We only have to be right once.


23 November 2019

Authors, Don’t Give Away Your Age! (at least not inadvertently) Bad Girl gripes again


Let’s face it:  by the time most authors get their groove on (oh wow – *slap* on the wrist, Bad Girl, for that telling expression) they aren’t spring chickens.  From stats I’ve seen, most authors get their first book published in their 50s or 60s.  I was 49, I think.  (The first novel came after 40 short stories.)

But publishers would have it different.  It’s the old, “I want a 21 year old with a PHD and 15 years experience” syndrome.  It’s a crummy fact.  Younger authors are better for a house than older authors, as said older authors will not have as many writing years left.   My agent told me that I was ‘okay’ at 49.  Had I been older, his advice was “keep it to yourself.  And keep dyeing the hair.”

So it’s in an author’s interest not to appear retirement age.  Why, then, do so many mature but newbie writers give themselves away?

No need to be careless.  Here’s the advice I give my Crafting a Novel Students:

Names:  Recently, I read a mystery book where the protagonist was named Dorothy.  She was supposed to be 35 years old.  Now, I may be over 35.  (Okay, by a good 20 years.)  *No* one in my age group was named Dorothy.  In fact, I don’t know a Dorothy under age 65.  What I *do* know is something about the author.  Not only must she be over 65 (and she is), but she didn’t do her research.

Helen, Jean, Phyllis, Mildred:  That’s my mother’s generation.

Linda, Debbie, Carol, Cathy:  Baby Boomers

Tiffany, Jennifer, Alex, Natalie, Caitlin:  Echo-Boom

You can look them up online (popular names for each decade.)  And okay, it’s not a hard and fast rule.  But when we see certain names, they automatically bring to mind people of a certain age.  Yes, someone can be named after a grandmother.  But unless you explain it (or describe the person immediately) we are going to have a picture in our minds.

What it does reveal in painful technicolor (*slap* again) is that the author is a generation or two older than her protagonist.  Do you want a publisher to know that?  No you don’t.

Cell phone:  If you are writing a current day novel, your protagonist is gonna be glued to her cell phone.  And she won’t be phoning.  Nope, she is going to be texting like crazy.  I am blown away by the number of older authors who have their 30 year old protagonists picking up the cell every five minutes to *talk* to someone.  Really?  Do you *know* any 30 year olds?  Talking on the phone went out with cassette tapes and big hair.  Young folk don’t call anymore.  Only their fingers work.  In my latest book Crime Club (which is YA) my teens use dialogue in person, but text each other as soon as they are alone.  Yes, in a book.  You can make it interesting.  But for Gawd sake, make it real.

And about time settings:  If you are writing a book that takes place in the 60s 70s or 80s, you are immediately dating yourself.  Yes, it’s convenient not to have to worry about cell phones.  But publishers tell us there isn’t a market for books set in those decades yet.  Historical ends at 1950 so far.  So if you are writing in those decades mentioned, we all know you are probably a nostalgic 60 plus type.

Music:  If your protagonist is 20, and she is bouncing along to Glass Tiger, or Fine Young Cannibals (my music) you had better find a way to explain it.  That’s what her parents listened to.  Even worse, the Beatles.  That’s almost grandparents.  Regularly, I find 65 year old writers having their 30 year old protagonists listening to music that went out in the 70s.  And I hear authors say, when I question them, “Maybe she’s into retro.”  Yeah, and maybe the author is 65 years old and doesn’t know what is current.

Do what I did in The Goddaughter.  Research what is current.  Gina’s smartphone sings “Shut Up and Drive.”

Final words:  In class last term, I was explaining the above phone choice I made for Gina back some years ago, and couldn’t remember the name of the artist who sang the song.  One of my students said, “I’ll ask Siri.”  A minute later, she was giggle like crazy.  “I put in ‘Shut up and Drive’,” she told the class.  “Siri answered:  ‘That’s not very nice’.”

Welcome to our Brave New World.

Bonus for the eagle eyed:  Can anyone pick out the no-no in my post above?  (I'll leave in the comments toward the end of the day.)

THE ANSWER:  repeated here as well as below. Note the double spaces after the periods in the post above. Obviously written by someone who learned on a typewriter. Before sending off a manuscript, I always use the Word Replace function to replace two spaces with one. Ta-da! Young again. *winks at Leigh*

Just out! That book where the teens text each other...CRIME CLUB. 
The Number One Gifted Book on Amazon.ca -
A perfect gift for the teen or tween in your family.

"Scooby Do meets the Sopranos"  

link to CRIME CLUB

22 November 2019

Crimes Against Women Are Nothing New


This is the second of three virtual panel discussions by some of the authors whose short stories appear in Me Too Short Stories: An Anthology, edited by SleuthSayer emerita Elizabeth Zelvin. Here's the lineup.

Moderator: Elizabeth (Liz) Zelvin
Participants: Rona Bell, Ana Brazil, Diana Catt, Gin Gannon, Madeline McEwen, Ann Rawson


Liz: Crimes against women are as old as history and can take place anywhere. These authors set their contributions to the Me Too Short Stories anthology in particularly interesting milieux. Let's hear about them.

Ana: "Miss Evelyn Nesbit Presents," is set in 1914 in New York City. Evelyn Nesbit was a celebrated beauty who was raped and ruined by a famous architect and discarded by her abusive millionaire husband. All of this is true. My story imagines Evelyn meeting a silent film producer who has written a script about her shameful past.

Diana: “The Final Recall” is set in a city in the Midwest in the near future. A post-doctoral scientist is conducting neurological research in the field of memory using cutting edge technology that allows her to reconstruct visual memories from cadavers.

Rona: “The Call is Yours” is set today in New York City, but reflects back more than thirty years. The story is about a woman responding to a present-day police call to report sexual crimes no matter how long ago.

Liz: The Call Is Yours was a real police program, NYPD's response to the Me Too movement. wasn't it, just a year or two ago?

Rona: Yes. The call for reporting with no regard to time frame was intriguing.

Gin: "Banshee Scream" is set in a world where banshees exist. A banshee's job is to hunt killers who would otherwise get away with murder, the ones the law can't deal with.

Ann: My story is set in Liverpool, England in 1980. The protagonist moves between two milieux, the very middle class University campus and one of the rougher areas of the city with crumbling tenement buildings and tower blocks.

Maddy: "Stepping On Stones" is set in the early 1960s in Capetown, South Africa during the apartheid era.

Liz: Your descriptions of the South African setting are beautifully evocative and seen through your child protagonist's eyes. Did you spend part of your own childhood there?

Maddy: Yes, I spent many happy and innocent days in South Africa. I’m sure my memory is soaked in nostalgia. The wildlife fascinated me. There were so many dangers in Capetown, primarily from my ignorance and foolhardiness. Despite all this, South Africa was like my first all-time best friend.

Liz: Speaking of danger, an encounter with a sexual predator is at the heart of your story.

Maddy: My older sister has reminded me of the many near misses I experienced during those years. While I can remember them when prompted, they pale by comparison to the warm and comforting memories I have of those endless days without form or fences.

Liz: For all of you: what made you choose an era other than the present and a setting other than where you live now?

Ana: I can only write about historical eras and settings! I wrote about Evelyn Nesbit and the fictitious producer because I could see a lot of parallels between Evelyn’s life in 1914 and the lives of today’s well-known actresses who have spoken out because of the Me Too movement.

Gin: As a retired lawyer, I'm too aware of the limits of law and how often it lets people down, especially women. Improving the law and the related institutions will happen someday, but that process— education and political debates and legislation and court cases—wouldn't make for an interesting story. Banshees can take short cuts.

Rona: It is fascinating to juxtapose current day expectations about reporting sexual crimes and societal norms from other decades.

Liz: Attitudes have changed so much.

Rona: Memory is the key. The protagonist's task is to remember the sexual violence and apply present day norms to that memory.

Diana: I needed to set the story in the near future because the technology as I wanted to use it doesn't exist yet. However, the situation in my story builds on the current state of memory research.

Liz: You mean dementia and particularly Alzheimer's research?

Diana: With liberties!

Liz: I found it chilling to think of our memories surviving us. But if they ever do, I hope they stick to silent films and never advance to talkies. How about you, Ann?

Ann: I went to University in Liverpool in the late Seventies and early Eighties and afterwards lived for a year in the same rough area I described. I was never stalked and attacked like my protagonist. I did have some much milder but still frightening experiences.

Maddy: Today, children have far less freedom to roam, explore, and discover without adult supervision. Bobbie's experience and that of her friends goes unnoticed until she draws attention to herself.

Liz: Have you written about Capetown before? A particularly striking setting is sometimes described as "becoming a character," and your evocative writing has that quality.

Maddy: I've never written about Capetown before. My memory of that time is vivid, in part due to the dazzling quality of light.

Liz: You say nothing about the role of color in society, and that will surprise most American readers, since apartheid is the main thing they know about South Africa in that era.

Maddy: South Africa was embattled in apartheid, but the enclave of British naval personnel like my dad avoided the topic of politics. Now I am aware of some of my many white privileges, but in the 1960s I was oblivious.

Liz: Why did you choose not to make it a more important part of your story?

Maddy: For this story, I glossed over apartheid because I didn’t want the ethnicity of the perpetrator or victim to be an issue. I wanted to focus on the naiveté and vulnerability of the children.

Liz: Last question—how does the way women are treated today compare with how they are treated in the milieu of your story?

Ana: I looked into a lot of historical sources to craft Evelyn’s story. I also read many recent #MeToo accounts. For many actresses, it seems like little changed from 1914 to 2017. Over a hundred years and very little change!

Gin: In the real world, there's much less chance that justice will be served for crimes against women than in my fictional world. My banshee is practically the poster child for believing women.

Ann: In 1980, we didn't have the concept of date rape. Girls and women were more likely to assume that assaults in those circumstances were their own fault. They were less likely to report it as a crime, and they would be more ashamed. I remember being groped by my boss as a teenager. I was totally unprepared for such a thing to happen to me. I told one of the girls at work, but I never told anyone else.

Rona: We have more heightened awareness and questioning about what is permissible now and even what constitutes a crime. Social media brings a whole new level.

Ann: I think things have improved for women a lot since then. But sadly, some of those same feelings of shame and responsibility persist. And even if a case gets to court, the research shows us that jurors still think about the issues in the same way.

Maddy: My mother couldn’t apply for a credit card or buy a house or car on her own. Today, I can do all of those things. However, when I went to buy a phone recently, I could not access the data plan because the account was in my husband’s name. I then, briefly, experienced the humiliation of the clerk calling my husband for permission to add me to the account.

Diana: Some of the attitudes in my story accurately reflect current experiences of some women in science—not-so-subtle comments designed to reduce a woman’s confidence, question her credentials or abilities, and make assumptions about her commitment to a career if she has children.

Liz: And in the future?

Diana: Change takes time. I'm optimistic people can learn, but I'm not so optimistic it will be fixed in the near future.

Liz: That's why we have fiction: to help us envision the changes we’re hoping for.

21 November 2019

Cold Ads, Cold Cases


by Eve Fisher

Unfreakin' believable:  This is South Dakota's latest ad about the drug wars:

"Meth:  We're On It"

Check out the posters here!  Argus Leader

Apparently, the idea is to say that meth addiction is everywhere, and people of all ages, etc., are on meth, and we need to fight it together.  On the other hand - I know my first reaction was, "What?"  If it works, great...
but is it just another version of the 2015 ad, "South Dakota, We're Better than Mars"?


Or the memorable South Dakota ad campaign that tried to cut down winter accidents with the following slogan:


And they swore that it was all about jerking the steering wheel, not, uh, something else.

Let's just say that I have ceased to believe that any Don Drapers are here in South Dakota.  Granted, he was a true s.o.b., but the ads were good.
BTW, the State of South Dakota's total budget for anti-meth initiatives in 2020 includes $1 million for meth treatment services and more than $730,000 for school-based meth prevention programming.  But this ad campaign "Meth:  We're On It" has already cost $449,000, which could perhaps be used for more... treatment?  Or something?  
Meanwhile, a lot of the news over the last week or so has been a cold case from 1974.  Ellabeth Lodermeier disappeared on March 6, 1974 from her Sioux Falls home, and hasn't been seen since. Seven months later, three of her credit cards were found at a railway station in Manitoba, Canada, but police said this was a red herring.  Then in 1992, Lodermeier's purse and pocketbook were discovered near the Big Sioux River, but nothing came of that.

Ellabeth Mae Lodermeier
Ellabeth Lodermeier
Then, in December, 2018, the Argus Leader ran an investigation piece on her disappearance, and that led to some brand new leads.  (Read here)  So last week, a team of dogs was out searching.  The police have called the results, "promising", but nothing more.

Meanwhile, before her disappearance, Lodermeier had filed for divorce from her husband, Gene.  A lot of people - including her family - believe that he killed her.  But he died back in 2013, in prison for grand theft.  Nonetheless, he spent the rest of his life under suspicion, which he bitterly resented.

Personally, I'm in awe of cold case law enforcement.  Starting all over again, to solve a crime, to find a person, etc. - takes a certain kind of dedication, and more puzzle-solving abilities than I have.

(That's part of the reason I love New Tricks so much - they solve cold cases - along with the fact that I think they're one of the greatest team shows I've ever seen.  Each and every one of them contributes, and who finally figures it out changes with the episodes.)  
One of the big cold cases that was solved in South Dakota was back in 2014, when South Dakota police finally found the bodies of two high school students, Pamela Jackson and Cheryl Miller, who had vanished on their way to a party in 1971. For over 30 years, people believed they had been kidnapped and murdered. One man was even indicted for the charge - a convicted rapist in prison - based on a supposed confession to another inmate. Later, it was proved that the "confession" had been faked. Nonetheless, his family had to put up with a lot of harassment from law enforcement - including digging up the family farm - and neighbors.

And then, in 2013, Brule Creek water levels dropped significantly, and there were the wheels of the girls' Studebaker. "was in third gear, with the keys in the ignition and the lights on. One tire was damaged. ... Miller's purse was found, [then AG] Jackley said. Inside it was her license, notes from classmates and photographs."  (Argus Leader)  It was simply a tragic accident.

Missing girls press conference

Which is easier to deal with?  Tragic accident or horrendous crime?  If you were family or friend of someone who'd gone missing, which would be easier to live with?

I was thinking about that, and decided that, with a crime, the question would always be, "why couldn't we have seen it coming?" or "why couldn't they have caught the criminal back then?" Or simply statement:  "It isn't fair that they got away with it!"

And it isn't.  Life isn't fair - and the fact that we actually recognize it is, to me, one of the major proofs of the existence of God - and that's why I'd plump for a tragic accident.  The heart's still broken, but at least it's free of vengeance.













20 November 2019

Bon appetit!


by Robert Lopresti

This is my last column before Thanksgiving so I thought I would offer something food-related.  It's simple enough.  Below you will find ten foods (or something foodish).  Your task is to recall the crime movies in which they play important roles.   Actually two of them are from crime TV shows, but they may be the easiest on the list.

To make your life easier, they are arranged alphabetically by the title of the movie/show.  Answers are below. See you in December.  Don't overeat!

Elderberry wine.

Goldfish.

Cannoli.

A towel full of oranges.

Coffee brewed from yesterday's grounds and filter.

Leg of lamb.

Half a grapefruit.

Big Kahuna Burger.

Liver, fava beans, and a nice chianti.

Cherry pie and a damn fine cup of coffee.

SPOILERS BELOW!

Elderberry wine. Arsenic and Old Lace. 
Aunt Martha (Jean Adair): For a gallon of elderberry wine, I take one teaspoon full of arsenic, then add half a teaspoon full of strychnine, and then just a pinch of cyanide.
Mortimer (Cary Grant): Hmm. Should have quite a kick.

Goldfish. A Fish Called Wanda.
In order to get animal-lover Ken (Michael Palin) to talk, the maniacal Otto (Kevin Kline) eats his goldfish.  By the way, the goldfish in the scene were made of Jello.

Cannoli. The Godfather.
After a brutal murder in a car Clemenza (Richard Castellano) shows his priorities.  "Leave the gun.  Take the cannoli."  Fun fact: whenever oranges or even the color orange show up in a Godfather movie, it spells danger, and probably betrayal.  And speaking of that fruit...

A towel full of oranges. The Grifters.
Mobster Bobo Justus (great name), played by Pat Hingle,  is dissatisfied with the work of his  employee, Lilly (Anjelica Huston). He threatens to beat her with a towel full of oranges, even making her prepare the weapon.   The idea is that the beating leaves no telltale bruises.  (Oh, and speaking of the color orange... not related to food, but to filmmaking; the color red shows up only once in the movie, and it's there for a very specific purpose.)

 Coffee brewed from yesterday's grounds and filter.  Harper.
After William Goldman finished the screenplay, based on Ross Macdonald's novel The Moving Target, he was told to wrote a scene for the opening credits.  Resisting the usual private eye-meets-client opening, he started with a close-up of Paul Newman's famous blue eyes.  Then the P.I. tries to make coffee and finds he has nothing left but yesterday's stuff in the trash.  One writer notes: "This coffee moment follows the character through the entire the film, haunting him. Harper wears a suit and tie, but there are old coffee grounds in his shoes, his socks, his soul..."

Leg of lamb.  "Lamb to the Slaughter."
The wife of a police chief kills hubby with a frozen leg of lamb, then roasts it and serves dinner to the investigating officers.  A classic Road Dahl short story turned into a classic episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. It reminds me of Susan Glaspell's classic early feminist short story "A Jury of her Peers," since both turn on the inability of men to think from a woman's point of view.    Hitch was a well-known gourmet, of course, so I was amazed that I had to go to his TV show to find a memorable food scene.  There is even a website that points out food scenes from his movies, but I repeat my claim: no specific food gets a memorable scene.

Half a grapefruit.  Public Enemy.
Gangster Tom Powers gets irritated by his girlfriend during breakfast and smacks her in the face with half a grapefruit.  There is a ton of violence in the flick but this is the scene that became famous.  Supposedly Mae Clarke asked Jimmy Cagney to go easy on her.  He promised to do so, but once the camera was rolling...

Big Kahuna Burger.  Pulp Fiction.
Packaging for the (fictional) Big Kahuna Burger brand appears in several movies by Quentin Tarentino and his friend Robert Rodriguez, but it was in Pulp Fiction.that Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) endorsed the dish: "This is a tasty burger!"  The movie is actually obsessed with food, with characters discussing what the French call a Quarter Pounder (Royale with Cheese), visiting a 1950s-themed restaurant, robbing a diner, and getting shot over a pop tart...

Liver, fava beans, and a nice chianti. Silence of the Lambs.
Dr. Hannibal Lecter: "A census taker once tried to test me. I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice chianti."  I've always wondered how fava bean farmers felt about this odd advertisement.  Several webpages  suggest that novelist Thomas Harris gave Dr. Lecter a characteristically subtle and erudite joke.  It seems liver, beans, and wine are forbidden with certain kinds of anti-psychotic drugs. So the doc was explaining that he had been off his meds.

Cherry pie and a damn fine cup of coffee.  Twin Peaks.
During the summer of 1990 the TV-watching public went nuts for David Lynch's bizarre and highly stylized mystery series.  One memorable set was the Double R Diner where FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper would go for pie and, yes, a damn fine cup of coffee.  This could have been a throwaway line but Kyle Maclachlan really sold it, making it seem as if "damn" was the most extreme cuss word his character could imagine.

Did I miss any of your favorites?  Put them in the comments.

 

19 November 2019

Collateral Damage


At the Private Eye Writers of America’s November 1, 2019, Shamus Awards Banquet in Dallas, Texas, Max Allan Collins said something during his presentation that has been the talk of the mystery community ever since.

In explaining why he said what he said, which you can read here, Collins wrote about the other presenters working under the same trying conditions: “Speakers preceding the awards proper began abandoning the mic, and just talking loud — one made a joke of it and yelled his entire fifteen minute presentation (that got very old). A stand-up comedy routine that went flat had been prepared with visual aids that would have been difficult to see even under better circumstances. A lovely speech written by the absent recipient of the Eye (PWA Grand Master, Les Roberts) proved too lengthy.”

I was one of those presenters.

Unlike Collins’s presentation, the entirety of my seven-minute presentation was captured on video. Here it is:





18 November 2019

Local Color


When my late mother-in-law was very old, she developed a passion for Harlequin Romances. A booksellers dream, she ordered up what she called her “little books” by the case, and consumed them at the hair dresser, in the evening, waiting for a train or an appointment. They replaced her now arthritis-denied needlepoint for staving off tedium. She claimed that what she really liked about them was the local color. Her tastes ran to UK settings with local customs like afternoon tea (she had a sweet tooth) and a fair degree of pre-war quaintness.

Recently a couple of new mystery series have gotten me thinking, like my mother-in-law, about the charms of other societies, not just the geographic settings but the cultural ones as well. Sujata Massey has followed up her impressive debut, The Widows of Malabar Hill, about an ambitious young Parsi woman in 1920’s Bombay, with The Satapur Moonstone, set this time in a forested princely state outside the city. In both, the restrictions faced by middle and upper class women combine with carefully observed venues to add believable complications and challenges for her pioneering female lawyer and detective.

Perveen Mistry, apparently based on one of the author’s own female ancestors, has found a niche in the otherwise much-restricted legal system by catering to the legal needs of women in purdah. She, herself, moves relatively freely in her society, although possible pitfalls and dangers were vividly illustrated by her experiences in the initial novel.

In The Satapur Moonstone, Perveen is off in the hinterland, back when the term really had meaning. Parts of Satapur are cut off during the rainy season, with tracks only passable by palaquin – Massey gives a vivid account of the discomforts of this conveyance for both the passenger and the bearers – or on horseback. She also has to conduct delicate negotiations – neither too forward nor too deferential – with the males she encounters, including the Agent of the Raj, whose all-male station, she discovers to her dismay, is her only possible shelter.

The underlying mystery is neatly constructed, but I must confess that it is the curious customs, Perveen’s nicely-calibrated courtesy, and the picture of princely India with imperious royals, impoverished locals, and spectacularly crumbling royal estates that really bring enjoyment.

 If Massey’s Perveen Mistry is distinguished by her iron self control and her sensitivity to the different customs and values of Bombay’s heterogeneous community, Auntie Poldi of Mario Giordano’s Sicilian mysteries is off the charts in the opposite direction, a truly operatic character, or perhaps we should say, a Wagnerian character, because, though Auntie Poldi’s lamented husband was Sicilian, she is Bavarian. And larger than life.

In Auntie Poldi and the Sicilian Lions, she decamped to Sicily intending to commit suicide. Her plan involved large amounts of alcohol and seemed easy to accomplish given her weakness for drink. But Auntie’s suicide required a house with a sea view. Renovating this property, along with the beneficent interference of the Sicilian relatives, not to mention the salutary influence of a local murder mystery, keeps putting Poldi’s termination on hold. With her fabulous black wig, her caftans, her hobby of photographing handsome Italian policemen, and her appetites for food, drink, and romance, Poldi is an over-the-top character. And kind of nice to see, given that she is in her sixties.

 My own preference would be for Giordano to scale her back just a tad, but as described by her would-be-novelist nephew, she comes across as a genuine force of nature. Forces of nature being best enjoyed in smallish doses, it is fortunate that the Aunti Poldi stories have a great deal of Sicily as well as a great deal of the Bavarian diva. Sicilian food– abundant, apparently delicious and the pleasing obsession of half the characters – is a big player, as is Sicilian agriculture.

The novels are full of lovely groves of olives and oranges, flowers, ornamental palms and horticultural specimens, and vineyards thriving in the volcanic soil. In Giordano’s books, the island is a paradise, marred only by those so useful snakes, Mafioso and greedy multinationals, both of whom covet the island’s water supply in the newest, Aunti Poldi and the Vineyards of Etna. The plot is silly but the scenery is top flight. As my mother-in-law knew years ago, local color and a touch of the exotic have their place.

17 November 2019

Plussed (or Non)


Belie – An Ambidextrous Word

Last week I found myself using ‘belie’ in a story. A check for nuances compelled to look it up. Alice tumbled into the rabbit hole.

In the following, let’s use common English sentence structure:
    subject verb object

A sentence might read,
    A belies B.
    Her eyes belied her motives.

I had assumed belie implied (A) put the lie to (B), the subject is true and the object is false. Surely the verb exhibited a grammatical positive and negative polarity.

Not that simple, said my New Oxford American Dictionary. It offered examples both ways. In other words, sometimes (A) was true and sometimes it wasn’t. Polarity wasn’t constant.

Example 1   A ⇉ B
Example 2   B ⇉ A
Her cruelty belies her kind words.
His smile belies his viciousness.
    B is false (the object).
    A is false (the subject).

Logic (to me) says the subject (A) gives lie to or proves false (B). My beloved 3-volume OED long ago became landfill, so I turned to half a dozen internet dictionaries. A search turned up similar conflicting results. They all agreed about disagreement: Sometimes the subject made a liar of the object and sometimes the object made a liar of the subject.

At that point, I needed to deploy the big guns.

James Lincoln Warren
The legendary
James Lincoln Warren
James Lincoln Warren.

James’ house, a full-scale reproduction of the HMS Hotspur, contains a brass spyglass and a sixteenth century oak podium with the complete Oxford English Dictionary. At least that’s how I imagine it because I’m envious.

James kindly looked up belie for me and lo, it was as lesser dictionaries indicated. Belie cuts both ways. It doesn’t observe polarity. Sometimes the subject is true, sometimes the object.

James said no context beyond the contrast between the subject and object is necessary for them to be easily understood. Which is capable of deception?

Such amorphism disturbs me a bit. Offhand, I can’t think of another word in which, say, the subject sometimes trumps the object and other times the opposite can happen.

Nonplussed – or Not

Once upon a time in the New Oxford American Dictionary, I stumbled upon the following note:
In standard use, ‘nonplussed’ means ‘surprised and confused’: The hostility of the new neighbor's refusal left Mrs. Walker nonplussed.

In North American English, a new use has developed in recent years, meaning ‘unperturbed’— more or less the opposite of its traditional meaning: Hoping to disguise his confusion, he tried to appear nonplussed.

This new use probably arose on the assumption that non- is the normal negative prefix and must therefore have a negative meaning. Although commonly encountered, this modern use of nonplussed is not considered part of standard English, and is better replaced by unperturbed, unruffled, unfazed, or composed.
Never, ever had I heard the second ‘American’ meaning. I conducted a local poll of four dozen or so people. Out of nearly fifty responses, only one thought the second might be valid, but self-admittedly from a verbal standpoint, the word nonplussed was ‘not in his wheelhouse’.

I would have argued the point with Oxford, but I wondered if they had fallen victim to what I think of as the Wikipedia Effect or the Google Effect. If you watch Wikipedia, sometimes public content and wording depends on the loudest, most intimidating bully in the room. Higher level editors can often work these issues out, but when the bully is a higher level editor, the point becomes moot– or deleted along with embarrassing history.

If you haven’t experienced the Google Effect, imagine your long-time neighborhood suddenly called a name you never heard of. You enquire: whence did this come into existence? A van driver might hold the key.

Google Street View Mapping Vehicle + Dalek
Google Street View Mapping Vehicle
The Google Effect refers to Google mapping. You may have seen their vehicles driving the streets. Early versions featured cameras on roof-mounted tripods like Disney World used for its old Circle-Vision theatre in TomorrowLand. The latest cars recently spotted in Winter Park are driven by Daleks.

It turns out Google occasionally didn’t know how to name an area. If they couldn’t find a listing, worker bees exercised various options. Sometimes they asked a random resident, “What do you call this place?” Reportedly one label emerged from an erroneous realtor’s sign. It appears the new name for my old neighborhood came from an obscure street a few feet long called Fairview Shores.

In my selective sampling, all of my victims understood the standard meaning of ‘nonplussed’, except for the unsure guy who didn’t use the word at all. I’d like to ask Oxford how they came up with such a notice? What region in this vast country stands accused of this heresy?

An image sticks in my head, one of Oxford University sending a bored post-grad student to New York to document language abominations. He spends his research time in bars and picking up dates on West End Avenue.

Then on 42nd street, he invites for a romantic rendezvous a certain lady, called ‘Bam-Bam’ by her friends and another name entirely by the NYPD. When she sharply turns him down, he says, “You don’t have to act so negative.”

“I’m not negative, I’m non-plussed,” she replies, whereupon he pulls out his 80p Marks & Spencer notebook and starts jotting a new entry.

That’s how it happened. I’m sure of it.



Curious note: During the impeachment hearings, Fox or one of the righter outlets flashed a headline: Dems Seek Heresy Evidence. I’m nonplussed.

16 November 2019

Boucherconnections, 2019




Two weeks ago I attended my sixth Bouchercon mystery convention, in Dallas. My wife Carolyn and I drove over from our home in Mississippi, partly because I don't fit well in airplane seats and partly because I just don't seem to have the patience anymore for all the mumbojumbo at the airport. (I really need to try to trade all those frequent-flyer miles left over from my IBM career for something more useful, like frequent-moviegoer tickets.) Anyhow, our mode of travel for this trip was private automobile instead of commercial aircraft, and except for running into a rainy cold front halfway there, we had a pleasant and enjoyable drive.


I also enjoyed the conference. I've heard some writers say they prefer smaller gatherings, but one reason I like Bouchercon is that it IS big, and therefore attracts a lot of writers, some of whom I know from earlier meetings and some from a computerful of emails and blog posts. I also like the fact that it includes readers as well as writers. I'm not saying I have a lot of groupies--my fans are mostly my publisher and my wife, and I'm not always sure about my wife--but it's impossible to write a lot for mystery magazines and not occasionally run into folks at a mystery conference who tell you they like your creations (whether they really mean it or not). And where else can you spot literary heroes like James Patterson, Sandra Brown, Lawrence Block, Elizabeth George, Laura Lippman, Robert Crais, and so on, in the wild? Or sit down and meet face-to-face with your editors? Very few of mine live in the sunny South.

Let me say one thing, up front. I don't go to Bouchercons for the panels and other events. I do attend them, and I always enjoy them and learn something, but that's not my primary reason. I go to Bouchercons to reconnect with old friends and meet new ones. I did a lot of both, this time.


Highlights of this year's conference, for me:



- Short-story panel. I was on only one panel this year, and I had fun there--probably because it was made up mostly of longtime friends. It was called "Short and Sweet--and Sometimes Dark," and featured me, James Lincoln Warren, R.T. Lawton, Mysti Berry, Michael Bracken, and (moderator) Barb Goffman. Four of us are current inmates at the SleuthSayers asylum and one (JLW) was my master and commander at SS's predecessor, Criminal Brief, for four years. NOTE: If there are better panel moderators anywhere than Barb Goffman, I have yet to meet them. She's wonderful.


- Catching up a bit with old friends. I won't try to list them here for fear I might leave someone out, but you know who you are. In this sense, Bouchercon always feels a little like coming back to school after summer vacation and seeing all your pals again.

- Meeting for the first time (in person) several longtime email or Facebook buddies: Kevin Tipple, Travis Richardson, Frank Zafiro, Kaye George, Alan Orloff, Rick Ollerman, Dixon Hill, William Dylan Powell, Sandra Murphy, etc.

- Signing of the 2019 Bouchercon anthology. I knew only the editor and two of the other contributors, one of whom was unable to attend B'con this year, but we had a good time at the "release party" and a big crowd in the signing line. Those of you who have done this in the past know it's a fun session, and this was also the first time I'd seen the new book, which is always a thrill. Several folks even brought copies of previous Bouchercon anthologies to be signed--I've been fortunate enough to be featured in the most recent four (this one, Florida Happens, Passport to Murder, and Blood on the Bayou).

- The book room. This is always a place to run into people you've been trying to catch, and I love browsing the shelves even though I already own far too many mysteries. I especially enjoyed visiting with Don and Jen Longmuir, who this time oversaw the bookroom but didn't represent their own store (Scene of the Crime Books in Ontario) and who have always been SO good to me in selling the books I bring to Bouchercons. I also had a great time talking with Joe R. Lansdale and his daughter Kasey, who are both wonderful writers, at their book tables--I thought I owned all of Joe's novels and story collections, but I found and bought a few more from him this trip. (Another reason I like Joe Lansdale: He's from East Texas, so I can understand him when he speaks.)

- Signing at the MWA tables. Those who participated were given a half-hour to sit and sign anything anyone brought to us--books, anthologies, magazines, programs, etc. This turned out to be (as expected) more of a visiting session than a signing, but I think it worked. I was seated beside Charles Salzberg and thoroughly enjoyed our time together. That's the great thing about this kind of event--I probably wouldn't have even met Charles otherwise. Thanks, Margery Flax, for assigning me a table.

- An informal get-together of the contributors to Michael Bracken's new P.I. anthology, The Eyes of Texas (which takes the prize, I think, for the best title I've ever seen for an anthology, along with Barb's upcoming Crime Travel antho). About half the authors in Eyes of TX were there, and it was great seeing the ones I knew and meeting the ones I didn't. I admire them all. Some of us even had dinner together the first night and lunch the next day.


Overall, I thought this was one of the best Bouchercons I've been to. The hotel, the events, the guests of honor, the location, the food, everything--except maybe the weather, the first couple days--was excellent. I've heard some horror stories about some of the B'cons I missed, over the years, and I'm glad this one worked so well.

As for regrets, I have only two. One is that I missed seeing several people I had really hoped to meet or reconnect with: Jan Grape, Jim Wilsky, Cathy Pickens, Paul Marks, Jane Lee, Earl Staggs, Greg Herren, Marcia Preston, Dennis Palumbo, a few others, Maybe next time. My other regret is that the Bouchercon anthology signing happened to be scheduled in the same time slot as several other sessions I would have enjoyed attending: the presentation of the Derringer Awards, a Bill Crider tribute, and an Elizabeth George interview. I missed all three, but (as I mentioned) I had a good time at the signing.


So, those are my observations. Did you attend this year? If so, what did you think? Have you also attended Bourchercons in the past? How many? Which of those do you think were the best? Do you plan to make Sacramento next year?

As for this year's conference, I thought it was a great four or five days, spent in the company of friends and acquaintances and my wife and 1800 writers and readers who love mysteries. What could be better than that?




15 November 2019

Don't Shoot the DJ: Moby's Then it Fell Apart



Moby
Reader's of crime fiction are used to grappling with unlikeable lead characters.  The badder the lead, the better the read. Jim Thompson's Nick Corey, Donald Westlake's Parker, and Larson's Lisbeth Salander are just three of the countless  characters enjoyed from a safe distance. I really do like them, but if they called, I probably wouldn't pick up.

For obvious reasons, autobiographies do the opposite. Even when the authors are famous for being less than savory, a character emerges in their books we eventually cozy up to. This seems especially true for show-biz memoirs. The Errol Flynn offered up in My Wicked Wicked Ways commits his swashbuckling with a wink and a smile. Few readers would turn down an invite to Flynn's Zaca, the ultimate party boat. I recently finished all three of Artie Lange's books, including his latest, Wanna Bet? He's a stand-up comedian who's also a hopeless addict, and he turns his self destruction into comedy routines. He's cleaned up (again), and I'm rooting for him.  Julia Phillips made a lot of powerful tinsel-town enemies with her tell-all You'll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again.  She was a film producer who duked it out in 1970's Hollywood , a boy's club where few women producers were invited. I was in awe of her by her book's end.

I just finished Moby's Then it Fell Apart (2019). I'm not necessarily a fan, but his book promised a particular look at the 2000s that interested me. By particular look, I mean raves, nightclubs, parties, sex, drugs, and a mega-star rave-king's access to such. It's over three hundred pages long, and I gobbled it up in a few days. Much like My Wicked Wicked Ways or You'll Never Eat Lunch in this Town Again, I couldn't put it down. It didn't seem to matter that by the book's end, I was dubious of Moby. I wasn't sure I liked him, or if I was even rooting for him.

In case you've never heard of Moby and you've never been been to a rave, you're not alone.

I haven't been to a rave either, but I'm not ruling it out.

House, trance, techno, all the dance music you'd hear at raves (ecstasy-fueled DJ-driven dance parties), seemed to me (at first) like disco with the soul hoovered out. This music often used loops and samples, bits and pieces, from others songs. I didn't immediately embrace musicians who used parts of other songs to create their own songs. Where's the musicianship in that? It seemed like cheating at best, stealing at worst.

Moby DJ'ing in 2004
I've lightened up. Some techno broke through the noise. Movie scores have been adopting techno elements for years now. Daft Punk scored the 2010 Disney reboot of Tron to positive results. Sampling is everywhere in pop music too, and it's here to stay. Some of it really works. I like "Standing Outside a Broken Phone Booth with Money in my Hand" by Primitive Radio Gods, which samples a B.B. King song from 1964. When it's B.B.'s turn in the song, it's like a lovely lost memory from the the distant past, remembered again.

Moby came out of this world of raves and sampling, and for awhile he owned it. His album Play blended all of these modern mix master elements into a huge commercial and critical hit. With Play Moby busted out of the bounds of electronic dance music and he became one of the biggest stars on the planet.
Moby's breakthrough .

Then it Fell Apart is a kind of fall and rise and fall again story. It alternates between Moby's troubled youth and his life as a star. It begins in the late 90s, the period right before Play came out, when Moby had alienated his dance music audience with his last album Animal Rights. He was playing sparsely attended gigs, and he had to use pre-recorded vocals because he couldn't afford to hire a real live singer. During this period, he was unabashedly desperate for fame, recognition, and all the women that stardom could bring. He roamed nightclubs and bars, looking to hook-up, hoping to be recognized, only to end up going home alone.

Moby, hanging with Lou Reed and Steve Buscemi
Play wasn't a success when first released, but eventually the album rocketed into the stratosphere and changed everything for Moby. Moby hit the waterslide of success head first, mouth open. His heroes, like David Bowie, Lou Reed, and Joe Strummer of The Clash, become his pals. He partied non-stop, all night long, day-after-day. Everything Moby had ever wanted in his wildest star-struck dreams was his. His claims of bedding women are Wilt Chamberlain-esque.  One-nighters were every night. Yet emotional troubles were bubbling up into Moby's pulsing nightlife like a sampled voice from a troubled past.

If he met women he really liked, Moby suffered untold mental anxieties that prevented him from establishing relationships. The few times he was able to forge a lasting bond, he was unable to stay monogamous and the relationship fell to pieces. And there was no way Moby was able to stay monogamous.

Moby said "no" to cocaine, until he didn't.
 A big part of the problem was Moby's vast intake of alcohol and drugs. Pretty much anything went, except cocaine. Moby feared it, and it's the only drug on the platter that he consistently turned down. While reading Then it Fell Apart, I knew his aversion to booger sugar wouldn't last, and once he started using it his life would spiral and the book would get better and better. I wasn't disappointed.

By the mid-2000s, Moby's star was on the wane. Again. His follow up to Play was moderately successful, but he wasn't able to recapture the magic. As he grew desperate to hang onto stardom, Moby turned into a creature of the night. His dream was to buy a bar with a basement, so he could sleep underground like a vampire during the day, then go topside at night and consume.  When he finally succumbed to Lady Caine's siren call, things got scuzzy. In one story, he woke up in a van covered in poop. The party escalated beyond Moby's control, but now Moby felt numb to the non-stop action. His self-hatred grew, and he considered suicide numerous times.

Like a line of coke cut with baby powder, Moby balances his tales of electronic dance-music glory with a recounting of his wretched childhood. Moby serves his book well by alternating his childhood traumas with his adult excesses. You forgive adult-Moby's debaucheries because of child-Moby's destitution. Moby writes that his parents were unstable beatniks. His dad committed suicide by driving into a bridge when Moby was two. Afterwards, Moby and his mom survived on food stamps and the occasional secretarial job she could get. His mom dated bikers and participated in orgies and drug use. Moby was witness to both. Moby's mom often left him to fend for himself, and he was molested at a young age. His maternal grandparents were wealthy (his grandfather was a banker), and they were the only hint of stability in his young life.

Moby's great love was music, especially punk and New Wave. This new music, abhorred by the popular and affluent kids in his neighborhood, saved Moby and gave him an identity.  He joined bands, played real instruments, and wrote real music with lyrics. DJ'ing was right around the corner. Moby's ability to so spectacularly rise above the bad hand he'd been dealt is his most endearing quality.

Mick jagger in 1965, the year
Moby was born.
A couple incidents in the book, beyond the party stories, sharpened the image of Moby for me. One is when Moby is introduced to Mick Jagger at a party Moby is throwing for the Black Crowes. Richard Branson asks Mick if he'd heard Moby's new album. Mick replied "Oh, I've heard it." Mick doesn't follow up with Moby, and you can feel the silence. Before Moby can say "Nice meeting you," Mick has moved on to talk with a beautiful woman. I wonder if Mick sized Moby up (can you believe this DJ who uses other people's music) and found him wanting. For decades Mick has seen them come, and he's seen them go. He knows talent, and he's witnessed colossal flame-outs. I wonder why Mick didn't curry favor with this new star as other older rock stars, like the late-great Bowie, did.

Natalie Portman
Moby describes an incident where he beats up a banker at a bar he owns. This story gave me pause. For all his talents and success, for all his fame, Moby will never be viewed as a physically intimidating person. Perhaps he's aware of this, and that's why the story is in the book. Moby says he was able to throw a good punch because he'd been taking kickboxing lessons. Through all the sex and drugs and music making, Moby had left out the kickboxing lessons. It made me wonder if there were other, even more mundane things like kickboxing lessons, that had been left out. Was it really all drugs and women and parties? How much of this is Moby's Rock 'N' Roll Fantasy?

Moby, 2009. Sobriety.
Moby is a student of fame. He loves the famous. He makes no secret of it. It makes sense that his book is cultivating his own brand first, his own new chapter of being famous, facts be damned.  Moby details in the book a time when he briefly dated Natalie Portman. She denies it (boy does she deny it), and it sparked a twitter feud. She remembers Moby as being "a much older man being creepy with me when I had just graduated high school." Moby eventually backed down and apologized. He even cancelled his book tour, which I think was a mistake.

I really enjoyed this book, and I'm not part of Moby's fan base. I was wired in from the beginning. I'm not sure I believe all of it, but I have no doubt that Moby created himself from nothing, and is still creating himself in some fashion today. I went along for the ride, like the narrator in his song "Southside." I went on Moby's crime spree, as if I was reading Westlake's Parker. If you've loved any kind of popular music over the last sixty years, if you like crash-and-burns, rise and falls, modern-day myth-making, pick it up.


I'm Lawrence Maddox. 

My novel Fast Bang Booze is available at DownAndOutBooks.Com. 

You can reach me at MadxBooks@Gmail.com. 

Party on.


14 November 2019

Midway


So, I'm a veteran. Specifically, a "squid" – a sailor, for you lubbers. I served in the U.S. Navy from 1985 to 1989. During that time I met a lot of people I would not have otherwise met, went a lot places I would not have otherwise gone (Lookin' at YOU, Diego Garcia, and Mombasa, Kenya), and had a lot of experiences I would not have otherwise had.

Many of those people, places and experiences – or any number of funhouse versions of them – have made appearances in my subsequent fiction since I started writing back in the late 1990s. Just this year I did the previously unthinkable (at least to me): I actually wrote crime fiction based in large part on my experiences in the Navy. So large, in fact, that it was set on a naval base, with an unnamed quartermaster (navy quartermasters are expert navigators, not, as I had to explain to my Army veteran father, supply department personnel.) as the point-of-view character.

I say "unthinkable" because during the lion's share of the thirty years since my honorable discharge in 1989, I've had a "complicated" relationship with my four years in the Navy. I won't go into the details, but for the longest time I looked back on my years on active duty through a pretty dark lens.

It was only with the wisdom which (hopefully) comes with age that I've been able to make a sort of peace with the memory of those years. I made great friends. I am a different person for having done what I did. I made mistakes which, in retrospect, can only be described as both life-changing and educational.

And, most importantly, I am a vastly better person for having served. And that helps give me balance, and fills me with pride.

But that's just background. It's not really what this post is about. If anything it's intended to establish my bonafides for why my readers (BOTH of you!*rimshot*) ought to give credence to my thoughts about the new Roland Emmerich war epic, Midway.

So, while I didn't serve during World War II (my grandfather did), I did serve in the Navy. What's more, when I was a kid, I was obsessed with the war in the Pacific theater. Specifically, campaigns like Guadalcanal, Saipan, Tarawa.

And, of course, the Battle of Midway, the turning point of the war, where the outnumbered, outclassed U.S. Navy laid a trap for the vaunted Imperial Japanese Fleet, and over a couple of days cut its carrier force in half. Four aircraft carriers, the Hiryu, Soryu, Kaga, and Akagi formed the backbone of the Japanese task force intended to take the island so that it could be used as a staging point for a proposed conquest of the Hawaiian Islands.

The dive bombers and torpedo planes of the U.S. Navy sank all four of them in this single engagement. American losses totaled a single carrier (U.S.S. Yorktown) and a cruiser (U.S.S. Hammann).  This hammer blow from which the Imperial Japanese Fleet never recovered was the first significant American naval victory in the Pacific Theater, and, as I said, the turning point of the war there.

There have been other film treatments of the battle, most famously Midway (1976), which featured both actual archival footage from the battle, and an all-star (and all aging) cast, headed by Charlton Heston. It's worth a look, especially for Heston (who is great as usual), for the combat footage, and for Henry Fonda as Chester Nimitz.

So how does Emmerich's take on this landmark moment in 20th century history hold up? For my money, the result is mixed. Emmerich, who has made his name most famously for helming the sci-fi "Aliens-Are-Not-Our-Friends" epic Independence Day and a string of natural disaster movies, plays to his strengths here.

Emmerich's Midway is thinly-plotted and frequently visually arresting. Screenwriter Wes Tooke's flat script gives the terrific cast nothing much to do other than give long "as you know..." speeches intended to convey contextual backstory, while also serving as the sorts of square-jawed archetypes so often found in patriotic war movies.

Emmerich's take on Pearl Harbor
The great strength of the film is unsurprisingly the combat scenes. It's not just Midway which gets the Emmerich treatment here. The Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor, and Lt. Col. James Doolittle's famous bombing raid on Tokyo also get some screen time as part of the set-up of for the titanic struggle at Midway.

These moments are by and large faithfully executed, with a refreshing amount of attention to detail paid by the film (the Japanese planes strafing "Battleship Row" in Pearl Harbor is just a single example). The CGI for the most part holds up pretty well, although there are a few places where it breaks down. A funeral scene set in a cemetery overlooking Pearl Habor comes to mind. The rows of white crosses serving as background for the beginning of said scene looked fake, almost like they were silent film era painted background scenery pulled from a basement somewhere and dusted off for this movie. It's a distraction.
Woody Harrelson looking authentic as Nimitz

The equipment, locations, costumes, etc., are also pretty impressive. And Emmerich is to be commended for this. Because these are the sorts of things that the "Hollywood Treatment" usually gets wrong. Especially ships, planes and uniforms.

The things this film gets wrong about Navy life are both unsurprising and small. I served aboard a number of ships, and visited friends on countless others. I've seen my share of shipboard berthings both in the modern Navy and doing archival period research. I have never seen actual berthings which were as spacious and easy to get through as the ones onboard the U.S.S. Enterprise in this film.

You don't "lay around" a flight deck like this. You "roll around" like a tumbleweed!
I've also been on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier when it was underway. Even with the ship moving at a slow speed, the wind is ever-present, noisy, and frequently capable of sweeping an unsuspecting fully-grown man across the deck like a tumbleweed across a street in a John Wayne film.

So the sorts of full, back-and-forth conversations which crop up on the Enterprise's flight deck over the course of  this movie are, to be charitable, implausible. Also, note to Mr. Emmerich: wind tends to ruffle hair and blow loosely-worn hats (called "covers" in the Navy) right off the wearer's head.

And speaking of wind, there is NO WAY some of the conversations taking place between several of the dive-bomber pilots and their machine-gunners while in flight could have happened. These guys aren't talking via radio. They're shouting at each other across a space of several feet, around the frames of their open cockpits, and while seated just a few feet behind their plane's single engine/propellor.
No way Dick Best (Ed Skrein) shouts all the way back to his gunner from that cockpit

Anyone who has ever flown in a prop job knows these sorts of conversations were physically impossible. The wind, the engine, the propellor? WAY TOO LOUD.

Where Emmerich gets it right are in the bombing runs and dog fight scenes. After watching this movie I think I have a vague notion of what it must have felt like to fly high above the clouds, heel over and point your plane's nose straight down at the deck of a Japanese carrier far below, gaining speed the closer I got to the deck, flying through the teeth of a hail of steel intended to shred both myself and my plane, only pulling up just short of my target, and after having delivered my payload.





Holy. Hell.
"Courage" doesn't begin to describe what these heroes demonstrated.

And to his credit, Emmerich seems bent on celebrating them.

Good. Names like Dick Best, Wade McCluskey, and Clarence Dickinson ought to be household words in the United States. Right up there alongside those of admirals such as Nimitz, Halsey and Spruance. Hopefully this film will help, in some small way, to make that happen. If so, better late, than never.

So in conclusion: Midway – a mixed bag. I'm glad I saw it in the theater, and while it has its short-comings, it plays pretty straight with the facts (For what it's worth, Midway gives a more than fair airing of the Japanese side of the conflict), the performances are solid, and the combat scenes alone, conveying as they do the awful eye-catching, horrific, kaleidoscopic, terrible magnificence of war, are worth the price of admission.

And that's it for me. As always, Your Mileage May Vary.

See you in two weeks!