01 December 2019

A Few Words about A Few Words


Leigh Lundin
Death & Dismemberment

I grew up among men of few words– farmers and ranchers– solitary, largely silent men who spent dawn to dark alone, feeding, farrowing, calving, cultivating, plowing, planting, harvesting and husking alone in utter quiet. They practiced what OSHA considers one of the most dangerous careers in this country.

In a profession with lots of moving machinery, injury or death could strike at any time. Even if it didn’t, exposure to toxic chemicals often meant a slow, agonizing demise.

A schoolboy and men I’ve known died under overturned tractors. Neighbors lost limbs in combines and corn pickers. One man lost both hands. A shattered transmission tore off a man’s foot. A ruptured hydraulic line sliced through the chest of another.

One time, a worker severed a hand. My grandfather ripped open his shirt. He jammed the forearm stump into the man’s bare stomach creating sort of a gasket. It bought time until he could further stem blood flow with a binder twine tourniquet.

If that’s not sufficient, airborne chaff and flour are extremely explosive. A grain dust explosion leveled an industrial railroad area in Minneapolis.

The Hits Keep on Coming

Those who worked the land could die a hundred imaginative ways– gored by an ox, trampled by cattle, thrown from a horse, kicked by a mule, attacked by a wild boar. A worker could literally drown on dry land, not in water, but in sugar.

As a toddler, I developed firsthand knowledge of georgic dangers. When adults were distracted, I nearly drowned falling through the ice of a pond. I lost my little finger in a pump accident, a mere triviality taken in stride.

As hard as the life was for men, it had to be worse for women. Men could  choose solitude or danger, choose to ignore it, accept it, or madly welcome it. For wives left alone, a tunnel of crushing boredom darkly loomed.

So I say this with some conviction:

Most writers don’t fully appreciate the word ‘laconic’.

John Deere tractor and 1-finger wave
One-Finger Wave
Greetings & Salutations

On a country lane or the lane of a state highway, one could encounter farmers atop heavy machinery, driving to where it’s next needed. With wheels 0.003 inches from sliding off the shoulder, passers-by greeted one another. They didn’t wave “Howdy,” doff the hat or make a sweeping bow.

They nodded.

If they felt particularly chatty, they raised a single finger from the steering wheel.

No, not that one. They simply lifted an index finger.

That meant, “Hi, how are you, Burt? Glad to see you. Fine, fine day for field work. Might see you later when the farrier shoes Thunderbolt. Best to Lacy.”

Melodie, Eve, and I recently discussed small towns. A fixture in many Midwestern villages was the ‘elevator’. This word could mean many things in rural areas. Farmside, it implied the conveyor that shuttled bales of hay and straw into mows, or corn into silos.

In-town, it meant the grain elevator where wagons and truckloads of corn, oats, wheat, barley, sorghum, soy beans, and rye gathered to be weighed and tested for moisture, tilted into the air and emptied into bins or rail cars.

In the city, it meant the lift in fancy-ass department stores. The term could’ve also referred to Congressman Numnutz’s shoes.

The Conversationalists

In a hardware or feed store, two friends bump into each other. Their dialogue might unfold like this:

Nod. “Burt.”
Nod. “Ed.”
A Paul-Harvey pause.
“Beaut day.”
Pause.
“Yep.”
Pause.
“Sorry, I heard about…”
Nod. “Thanks.”
Silence.
“The co-op.”
“I know, goddamn it.”
Silence.
“Bessie…”
“Couldn’t be helped.”
“Nope.”
Pause before fulsome burst of conversation.
“Market’s down.”
“Called loan, I reckon.”
“Shame.”
Sigh.
“Economy.”
“Goddamn Democrats.”
“Numnutz’s a Republican.”
“Oh. Goddamn Republicans.”
Lengthy rest from excessive blathering.
“Heard Ellie…”
“Don’t go spreading that.”
“Deserves sympathy.”
“Welp, wagons unloaded.”
“Sunday.”
“’Kay.”
“Give Lacy…”
Nod.
“Yep. You too.”


The one man in town who did talk couldn’t be understood… by adults. Orrie’s severe speech impediment didn’t slow his chattering one wit. Kids learned what he was saying, and Orrie-talk became a secret language.

Townsmen didn’t entirely refrain from gossip. Cutting hair caused a Samson-like weakness of tongue-loosening, but even in the barbershop, rumors were contained.

The town women, my mother and grandmother among them, marveled with the wives of the barbershop and elevator owners. Mrs Unger told Mrs Callahan, “I don’t understand Dick. Three weeks ago he hears Pauline’s running off with Art Dodger and Dick doesn’t tell me. Three weeks! I ask him why, why? He just hunches over his plate and says it wasn’t his business. Well if not our business, whose is it? Why me?”

Show, Not Tell

Life on the most remote homesteads had to be terribly trying for pioneering women of any era. Alone home all day without healthy human interaction, some had to wonder if the term of solitary confinement was a life sentence.

A few husbands mastered the art of showing, not telling. On cold winter days after milking and mucking, a rancher might retire to his workshop. On their anniversary, he might emerge all tongue-tied with an inlaid jewelry box. It couldn’t offset a difficult, lonely life, but it refilled the hearts who remembered the promises of younger days.

And So It Goes


In traffic, if you see a familiar and devastatingly good-looking guy raise a single finger in greeting, you can pretty well guess who it is.

Just wave back. As Red October’s Captain Ramius might say, one finger only.

30 November 2019

A Story in Reverse




I have always admired writers who are willing to take risks and try new techniques and venture out of their comfort zones. That's hard to do, and I respect them for it. Then again, I also admire people who compose classical music and carve ice sculptures and paint frescoes on the ceilings of cathedrals--but I don't try to do those things, and wouldn't be able to if I did.

As for writing, well, most of my short stories are traditional, past-tense, first- or third-person, once-upon-a-time fiction, the kind of stuff I like to read. I usually leave the stream-of-consciousness, surreal, hyperbolic, slipstreamy exercises to those who are comfortable with that kind of thing, and who--at least supposedly--know what they're doing.

But . . . now and then, once in a blue moon, I find myself clipping on a bungee cord and trying something new. My most recent attempt to wander off the grid resulted in a story I placed in the 2019 Bouchercon anthology, Denim, Diamonds, and Death (Down & Out Books). My story is called "The Midnight Child," and involves the robbery of an East Texas bank by a team of four seasoned criminals. The "different" thing about this story is that it has a nonlinear timeline. Nothing quite as weird as movies like Memento or Pulp Fiction (both of which I loved, by the way), but at least unusual.

Here's what I mean. My story consists of five scenes, the first of which is set at 5:30 p.m., when the team of thieves has already completed the heist and has gathered at a remote spot to divide the loot and go their separate ways. The second scene, though, takes place an hour earlier, at 4:30, when the team commits the crime and makes its getaway. The third scene is even earlier, at 3:40, as they're sitting together at a bar, going over last-minute plans and getting ready to leave and head down the street to the bank. The fourth scene is at 2:55, as they kill time at a nearby motel before driving to the bar. The fifth and final scene jumps ahead to 5:40, and picks up at the point where the first scene left off.

If you think that doesn't sound too interesting, I agree. It doesn't even sound like a story I might want to read. What happened, though, is that this crazy time structure allowed me to do some things in that first scene that needed further explanation--sort of a reverse foreshadowing--and by rewinding to a point an hour earlier and then continuing to back up in time, I could make those things clear, and eventually explain why everything was working out the way it was. Then, in the very last scene, only after these connected flashbacks cleared up most of what was going on, I was able to conclude with what I hope was a satisfying ending.

I had never seen things done quite that way before, but that was one of the reasons I found myself wanting to try it. As it turned out, "The Midnight Child" was great fun to write--a lot more fun, I think. than it would've been if it had been told in chronological order. I hope it's fun to read.

Will I ever do this again, with other stories? Possibly. If it seems that might be a good way to spin the tale. Certainly not every story would lend itself to this kind of writing. One thing I don't want to do, and that I believe some authors are guilty of, is to write a story that's different just to be different. I once read a novel written without ever using the letter "e." It was an interesting read (not one occurrence of "the" in the entire book), but it was interesting mostly because I wanted to see how such a thing could be done. It added nothing to the story itself. It seemed more gimmicky than innovative.

Another example: Cormac McCarthy wrote No Country for Old Men--and The Road too, if I recall correctly--without using any quotation marks to designate dialogue. In my opinion, both were fine books (especially No Country), but not because of that piece of experimental style. I don't think the absence of quotation marks hurt the narrative, but I also don't think it helped. I guess it was memorable, though; I sure remember it. Maybe that was its purpose.

What about you? Have you, in your own fiction, played around with different storytelling techniques? If so, do you think your efforts were successful? Did you enjoy the process? Have you read stories or novels that broke these kinds of rules, or seen movies experimentally filmed? Did you like them? Would you try something like that in your own work, in the future?

Maybe this is all moot. Maybe all art is an experiment, and all artists are innovators.

As for me, call me irresponsible, or just stubborn . . . but I usually prefer the old way.



29 November 2019

Good Movies of the early 1950s


After criticizing some of the popular music of the early 1950s, here are some of the good movies of the early 1950s. Listening to the radio might have been painful but we had a lot of great movies to choose from at theaters. Here are some:

Released in 1950:

Sunset Boulevard (Paramount) William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olsen



Harvey (Universal) James Stewart, Victoria Horne, Cecil Kellaway, Josephine Hull

The Asphalt Jungle (MGM) Sterling Hayden, Louis Calhern, Sam Jaffee, John McIntire, Marilyn Monroe



D.O.A. (Harry Popkin Productions) Edmund O'Brien, Pamela Britton, Luther Adler, Beverly Garland

Winchester '73 (Universal) James Stewart, Shelly Winters, Dan Duryea, Stephen McNally

Father of the Bride (MGM) Spencer Tracy, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Bennett

Cinderella (Disney) Ilene Woods, Eleanor Audley, Verna Felton, Mike Douglas, William Phipps

Released in 1951: A banner year for good movies

A Streetcar Named Desire (Warner Brothers) Vivien Leigh, Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden

Strangers on a Train (Warner Brothers) Farley Granger, Robert Walker, Ruth Roman, Leo G. Carroll



An American in Paris (MGM) Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron, Oscar Levant, Nina Foch

A Place in the Sun (Paramount) Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth, Taylor, Shelly Winters, Raymond Burr

Detective Story (Paramount) Kirk Douglas, Eleanor Parker, William Bendix


The African Queen (Horizon Pictures) Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn, Robert Morley

Ace in the Hole (Paramount) Kirk Douglas, Jan Sterling, Richard Benedict


When Worlds Collide (Paramount) Barbara Rush, Richard Derr, Peter Hansen, Rachel Ames

The Thing from Another World (RKO) Kenneth Tobey, Margaret Sheridan, James Arness

The Day the Earth Stood Still (29th Century Fox) Michael Rennie, Patricia Neal, Hugh Marlowe, Sam Jaffe



Alice in Wonderland (Disney) Kathryn Beaumont, Ed Wynn, Sterling Holloway, Jerry Colonna

Released in 1952: Another banner year

High Noon (Stanley Kramer Productions) Gary Cooper, Grace Kelly, Lloyd Bridges, Lon Chaney, Jr.

The Snows of Kilimarjaro (20th Century Fox) Gregory Peck, Susan Hayward, Ava Gardner

Carrie (Paramount) Jennifer Jones, Laurence Olivier, Eddie Albert)


Against All Flags (Universal International) Errol Flynn, Maureen O'Hara, Anthony Quinn

The Crimson Pirate (Warner Brothers) Burt Lancaster, Nick Cravat, Eva Bartok, Dana Winter


Deadline – USA (20th Century Fox) Humphrey Bogart, Ethel Barrymore, Kim Hunter

Singin' in the Rain (MGM) Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor, Debbie Reynolds, Jean Hagen

Viva Zapata! (20th Century Fox) Marlon Brando, Jean Peters, Anthony Quinn

Released in 1952: Now this was a year for movies

From Here to Eternity (Columbia) Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Montgomery Clift, Donna Reed, Frank Sinatra, Ernest Borgnine



Shane (Paramount) Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, Brandon De Wilde, Jack Palance

How To Marry a Millionaire (20th Century Fox) Lauren Bacall, Betty Grable, Marilyn Monroe

House of Wax (Warner Brothers) Vincent Price, Frank Lovejoy, Sue Allen, Carolyn Jones, Charles Bronson

Mogambo (MGM) Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly



The Robe (20th Century Fox) Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Victor Mature, Michael Rennie

Roman Holiday (Paramount) Audrey Hepburn, Gregory Peck, Eddie Albert

Stalag 17 (Paramount) William Holden, Don Taylor, Otto Preminger, Robert Strauss

The War of the Worlds (Paramount) Gene Barry, Ann Robinson, Les Tremayne, Cedric Hardwicke

The Wild One (Stanley Kramer Productions) Marlon Brando, Mary Murphy, Robert Keith,  Lee Marvin

Peter Pan (Disney) Bobby Driscoll, Kathryn Beaumont, Hans Conried

This is a subjective list. There were many other good movies I did not list.

That's all for now.
http://www.oneildenoux.com

28 November 2019

You Bet I'm Thankful!


Some Thanksgiving Day ruminations for you:

Over the course of my entire life I have been fortunate in my associations.

Focus on the lamp.
Friends and family are the major reason I have gotten this far, and no matter how much further my time in this particular patch of the Cosmos may stretch, I have no doubt they will continue to provide the rocket fuel which sends me hurtling past my limitations, soaring toward the next great adventure, the next turning point, the next...

Well.

You either get it, or you don't.

So on this, a day we Americans set aside every year to take a moment and give thanks for what we have and for what we've managed to avoid, is it any wonder that being thankful is going to be the core today's post?

Me, I got lots to be thankful for. My family, my friends, my health, a day gig which I still find rewarding and challenging, and a writing career which still manages to lift me up a hell of a lot more than it gets me down.

And I'm grateful for all of it. Not just the highs, but the lows as well. You know, taking the good with the bad, your experiences shaping you, and how coming through negative stuff can make you better, healthier, wiser, etc. That kind of thing.

Or, as the great poet Rainer Maria Rilke once famously put it:

If my devils are to leave me, I am afraid my angels will take flight as well.

And isn't it amazing how one single thing can serve as a touchstone for different phases of your life, carrying with it multiple meanings, freighted with experience which has rendered you a person transformed?

Like the reading lamp in the photo at the top of this post.

That lamp was a wedding present from my dear, long-time friend, Jane. My wife and I got engaged on a January trip to New York, right in front of the Alice statue in Central Park back in 2010–and Jane and her husband Bob were there to witness the whole thing. Robyn and I were married nine years ago this past October. And this coming December 27th will mark nine years since we took possession of, and moved in to, our house.

The lamp above came with us. Since the day we brought it through the door, that lamp has never left the room where I photographed it earlier this evening.

Which is ironic, because, aside from the carpet and the paint, that lamp has been the only constant in this room. It has anchored every permutation, every set-up, every furniture lay-out since we moved in.

The room itself is an upstairs bonus room, with lots of light, big windows facing the street, and a half wall which allows it to overlook the entry hall directly below it. All in all a well laid out, profoundly interesting room.

For while there we didn't quite know what to do with it: I had bookshelves (the ones you get at Target, put together yourself, you know the type) in there, and we put a television, couch, love seat, etc., in there for a while. But we were never really satisfied with the lay out.  Not to get all "Feng Shui" on you, my readers (BOTH of you!*rimshot*), but keeping it a TV room where I also stored books just didn't really match its energy.

What did definitely work, from day one, was keeping the lamp above in that room's window.

Our work schedules are staggered, so I nearly always get home before my wife, and one of the things I have done since our first day in this house was to go in to the upstairs bonus room and turn on Jane's lamp. Literally leaving a lamp burning in the window for Robyn.

Like this.

And every time I've turned on that lamp, I've thought of Jane. And I've been grateful all over again for this thoughtful gift.

Jane and I bonded over our shared loves of both history and literature. She's the person who convinced me to give The Great Gatsby another chance, after I decided in high school that I didn't like it (I know, I know...). I introduced her to Yeats and other poets she had never really taken time with. I could go on and on. But I think you get the picture.

Now, Jane and I lived on opposite ends of the continent. Her in New York, with her family, and me in Seattle, with mine. And I always looked forward to the day that she and Bob would visit Robyn and I here and see her lamp, and its prominent placement within our home.

But, that didn't happen.

Jane passed away a few years back, without ever getting to see her gift put to such on-going and continual use in our house. Last year, Robyn and I put permanent shelves into the bonus room which Jane's lamp has for so long anchored, thus turning it into a proper home library.

And finally, the energy of the room matched the energy of that lamp.

There is even a smaller room, a cubby hole, actually, directly off of our now "library," which Robyn had the terrific idea of making in to a library for our son. He never met Jane, and never will. But he knows about her. And he knows how, in a weird way, our library, and his are both products of his dad's friendship with this wonderful, caring, classy lady.
Our son's library. Can you see the reflection of Jane's lamp?

After all, in this world what do we have, except for each other? And if the lamp that lights my wife's way home, the reading lamp whose very energy demanded we build an entire room around it, can spark in me the memory of a dear friend every time I turn it on, how could I be anything but grateful for it, for the experience, for the friendship, for the memories?

And in all of that, is there not, a variety of immortality?

I'd like to think so. And I'm grateful for that, too.

So Happy Thanksgiving, one and all. I'm thankful for all of the above, and for my marriage to the best wife a guy could ask for, the funniest, kindest, smartest, most delightful son a man could wish for, and for so much more.

How about you? Please feel free to leave a comment and let us all know what you're thankful for this year.

And on that note, I've got to go turn out Jane's lamp.

Happy Thanksgiving!

27 November 2019

The Mighty Wurlitzer



Lara Prescott's novel The Secrets We Kept is about CIA's successful efforts in the late 1950's to bootleg Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, which Novy Mir had refused to publish in the USSR. The manuscript was smuggled out, and translated into Italian. CIA arranged for the first Russian-language edition, hoping to embarrass the Kremlin. They got more than they hoped for when Pasternak won the Nobel Prize but was discouraged (to put it mildly) from accepting. For the Soviet Union, it was a public-relations disaster, the engines of terror fearful of a poet.

The Secrets We Kept is deliciously juicy, on any number of levels, and terrifically serious. The catty asides, on the one hand, the abyss of the Gulag on the other. The voices carry the story, and the sense of period is absolutely convincing. I highly recommend it, as a fiction - although I don't imagine Lara Prescott needs my help, she's getting a lot of good press - but also in the documentary sense, as a corrective. The history is genuine.

White propaganda, so-called, is basically information, although it may well be slanted in your favor. Think, for example, the Voice of America, or Radio Moscow. You know the source. Grey, though, is more along the lines of a false-flag operation, where a story, pro or con, might be planted in a supposedly neutral (or even hostile) media environment. Black propaganda is deniable. The provenance isn't traceable.

Back in the 50's and 60's, this effort was managed with a certain sophistication, as well as brute force. The legendary Frank Wisner, one of CIA's clandestine chiefs, called it "the Mighty Wurlitzer," and it was an instrument Wisner played well. The coordination of underlying narrative is a tool of spycraft, generally, as in the development of a legend, using false background material or selective truths, but Wisner wasn't just selling ice to Eskimos, he was developing a brand. He was mythologizing America, and American virtues, as dedicated countermeasures against Stalinist myth and methodology.

This exemplifies and defines the Cold War. The crazy thing to me is how it's redefined itself, and metastasized, in the present day. Obviously, you can blame the Internet, or social media, but there seems to be something more afoot. We've internalized this Wall of Noise. One of the standard practices of Intelligence is discrimination. All information isn't equal. The phenomenon we're seeing now is that everything has the same weight, that it deserves a hearing. Which gives rise to dense constructions of unreason, hysteria, alternative realities. You have to wonder if it's a symptom, or the disease itself. It's like the Black Death, in the Middle Ages. It made no sense, it struck down the evil and the virtuous alike, the young, the old, the hale, the sick. It didn't matter. There was no explanation, other than the Hand of God. This is like some willed, mass brain death, a plague of information noise. What will the post-Apocalyptic world be like? One thing we might wish for is a large, empty silence. 

26 November 2019

P.I. Nocturne


Benny Goodman and Gene Krupa
In a couple of recent SleuthSayers posts, O’Neil and Leigh talked about pre-rock music. I’d like to take my cue from them and offer my nine cents’ worth (inflation) on the topic. Music infuses my life and because of that it also infuses much of my writing.

As I mentioned in my comment on O’Neil’s post, I think there’s a lot of good music before rock. I love baroque music and well, that’s a hell of a long time before rock. But mostly I’m talking here about the swing/big band music of the 1930s and 40s. I love a lot of that music.

I’m a rock n roller, love to sing it, play it, not saying I’m any good, just like to do it. I grew up on it. And when I was a kid and teen it was all I wanted to listen to. My dad liked classical music and swing and if we were in the car and he put those on I would gag. But somehow, as I got older I began to appreciate other genres of music besides rock. I think partially because I was exposed to it as a kid—very much against my will—and also because I like/d old movies from the 1930s and 40s and was exposed to that music in them as well.

Duke Ellington - Take the A Train

When I was a kid, I got to see Benny Goodman play. And I hated it. I didn’t appreciate it. I feel like an idiot saying that today, but it is what it is. That said, I can still say I saw him. These days, I love his music, especially Sing Sing Sing, and wish I could have seen him again as an adult.

Benny Goodman - Sing Sing Sing

A very long time ago, my friend Linda (who’s also into old movies, old music and old L.A., like me), and I would cruise around L.A. and see various swing bands and singers. It was long enough ago that we actually got to see some of the performers from the 30s and 40s, who were still around. We saw Tex Beneke leading the Glenn Miller Orchestra. We saw Bob Eberly and Helen O’Connell, who, when they were with the Jimmy Dorsey band (one of my favorite big bands), sing their hits Brazil and Tangerine. You might recall an instrumental version of the latter wafting in from down the street in Double Indemnity.

Bob Eberly and Helen O'Connell - Tangerine

So, even though I loved—and still love—rock ‘n’ roll, my musical horizons expanded quite a bit as I got older. I found there was a lot of great and sinuous music pre-rock. Just listen to Sing Sing Sing, or Duke Ellington’s Take the A Train or Artie Shaw’s Frenesi and so much more.

There’s also been some great musical moments in film noirs:

Elisha Cook in Phantom Lady


Louis Armstrong in The Strip, and Mickey Rooney drumming his heart out in that.

And the jazz scene in the original D.O.A.

But the point I’m leading up to is that, as a writer, my story/novel titles are often inspired by music and songs. Mostly rock, because they’re mostly set in the rock era, but sometimes swing. The title of my upcoming novel, The Blues Don’t Care, is inspired by a Nat King Cole song. And a story I did many years ago, Sleepy Lagoon Nocturne, takes its title both from the infamous Sleepy Lagoon incident in L.A. during World War II and the song of that name, which inspired the name of the lagoon in that incident. My story title Born Under a Bad Sign is inspired by the blues song of the same name that was originally recorded by Albert King and covered by Cream, so it hits two genres of music.

Nat King Cole - The Blues Don't Care

Some of my story titles inspired by music are: Endless Vacation (Ramones), Poison Heart (Ramones), Deserted Cities of the Heart (Cream), and more. In fact, I just finished a story called Can’t Find My Way Home (Blind Faith) and another, Nowhere Man (the Beatles). Music is everywhere in my writing.

I sometimes write things set in the past. The Blues Don’t Care (coming out in 2020) is also set on the L.A. homefront during World War II. It’s largely set on Central Avenue, L.A.’s swing and big band center. And the music of that era wafts sensuously around and through the plot. Doing the research for that was so much fun that getting any writing done was difficult. (I’ll be talking more about this book closer to its release. But right now I’m just talking about the music.)


Many of my characters also listen to music, and sometimes play it, like Ray Hood, the lead character in Dead Man’s Curve, named after the Jan and Dean song. P.I. Duke Rogers (from my novel White Heat and its sequel Broken Windows, both set in the 1990’s), listens to a variety of new wave and alternative music, everything from k.d. lang to Portishead and even some Eric Clapton. His less open and less tolerant partner, Jack, only listens to classical and cowboy (not country) music, which he thinks are the only pure/legitimate forms of music (and I like those genres too). He calls Duke’s music “space case” music in Broken Windows. But the music isn’t there only to help define their characters. I use their musical tastes to highlight the difference between the two characters and their contrasting personalities.

Music is a big part of my writing, helping express character and mood, though sometimes music can be difficult to express in a “two-dimensional” medium. It’s a bummer we can’t have a soundtrack to our stories/novels, but I’m sure that’s coming with e-books, if it isn’t already here.

I often listen to music while I write and most often it’s the kind of music that can get me in the mood for what I’m writing. So if I’m writing something set during WWII I listen to big band, if I’m writing something more contemporary, I listen to one kind of rock or another. You get the idea.

Today I’m listening to Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington and who knows what stories they might inspire or how it will affect what I’m working on right now. That’s one of the great things about music, it can inspire you in so many ways and bring out emotions, thoughts and feelings that we sometimes stifle in our everyday lives—and it can do the same for our characters. And remember, it don’t mean a thing if ain’t got that swing.

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:


Don't forget to check out Broken Windows, the sequel to my Shamus award-winning novel, White Heat. Betty Webb at Mystery Scene magazine says: "Broken Windows is extraordinary."



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

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


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.