09 October 2019

Capt. Blood



Captain Blood, famously, made Errol Flynn a star. It was the first of nine features Flynn did with Olivia de Havilland, and one of twelve with director Michael Curtiz. Flynn and de Havilland got along fine - she admitted the chemistry and spiked the rumors of a romance - but after a six-year run, ten of the twelve pictures delivering big box office, Flynn and Curtiz cordially loathed each other.



My own opinion is that the pictures Flynn made with Raoul Walsh in the 1940's are better movies, by and large, the best example being Gentleman Jim, but if not for the Curtiz swashbucklers, Flynn wouldn't have made it to the A-list. Curtiz was an awful bastard, by most accounts, but he brought home the bacon. Casablanca won Best Picture, and six of his other movies got nominated. He directed Cagney and Joan Crawford to Oscars, out of ten nominations overall for his lead actors.

Andrew Sarris, whose critical opinions I generally admire, feels that Curtiz had no genuine personality, as a director, that he basically ground out sausage, and that Casablanca was a happy accident, a sort of rebuttal to to the auteur theory, where the exception proves the rule. I'd beg to differ. If you say the director is in his pictures, then okay, Curtiz made an awful lot of crap. On the plus side, along with Casablanca, we've got White Christmas and Yankee Doodle Dandy. 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, the original Wax Museum. Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, Angels with Dirty Faces. Eddie Robinson and Garfield in The Sea WolfMildred Pierce, Young Man with a Horn, We're No Angels, and The Breaking Point ain't too shabby, either.


Curtiz was Hungarian.  He spoke five languages - "all of them badly," his son later remarked. Born a Jew in Budapest, he changed his birth name from Kaminer to Kertesz when he was nineteen, working in an acting troupe that crossed Europe. Kertesz was more ethnically Hungarian, in the anti-Semitic climate of the late Austro-Hungarian Empire. He began directing theater, and directed Hungary's first feature film, in 1912. He was also on the Hungarian national fencing team that year, in the Olympics. When the war came, he served in the army. He was wounded, and invalided out. He went back to the movies, and spent seven years learning the trade. He caught the attention of Warner Brothers in 1926, and by the time he went to Hollywood, he'd already made sixty-odd pictures.  He was 39 years old.

This story, familiar in some ways, is framed by larger political imperatives, Kati Marton puts it in context with her terrific book The Great Escape (2006), subtitled Nine Hungarians Who Fled Hitler and Changed the World. The nine are Curtiz and Alexander Korda, Robert Capa and Andre Kertesz, and Arthur Koestler, for the arts, with Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Eugene Wigner, and John von Neuman, for the sciences. I highly recommend it.



I'm belaboring the point, which is that where Andrew Sarris sees Curtiz spreading himself too thin, I see industry, ambition, restlessness and insecurity. Sarris regards him as sausage-maker - and in fact Warners maintained two individual film crews for Curtiz, one for the picture he was actively shooting, one for the picture he was prepping next - and I think it reveals an obsessive. There's for example the story that Curtiz grabbed for a notebook to write down a sudden idea, forgetting that he was driving at the time, and ran himself off the road.

I see Curtiz the refugee, the stranger, running in place to catch up, afraid something or someone is catching up with him. The upstart Jewish kid from Budapest, trying to break into pictures, and never quite gaining the confidence it won't all be snatched away. Curtiz in high dudgeon, with David Niven the target: "You think you know fuck everything and I know fuck nothing, but let me tell you, I know fuck all." This is not a guy who thinks he stands on rock, he's afraid he stands on sand. 



Sarris admits Curtiz has vigorous technique, but he doesn't believe Curtiz has a theme. I couldn't agree less. No, Curtiz isn't Walsh, he doesn't have the muscularity, and he for sure isn't Anthony Mann, another exile, who inhabits the true fury of separation, but what Curtiz brings to the game is an intimacy, set inside the bigger canvas, a larger scale. In his better pictures, Curtiz reveals himself to be trapped, isolated, estranged. Bogart, in Casablanca, says, "Nobody ever loved me that much."

08 October 2019

Open Your Heart and Bleed


What are your stories about?

I’m not interested in elevator pitches—“My stories are about a plucky private eye who searches for missing labradoodles with the aid of her grandfather’s long-dead schnauzer.”—but rather about the underlying themes in one’s work.

I’m pondering this question, as I have many times before, because Barb Goffman, moderator of “Short and Sweet but Sometimes Dark,” a short story panel at this month’s Bouchercon, asked participants to send her two recently published or about-to-be published stories to aid in her preparation.

As I looked through mine, I was reminded of how often I write about the lingering impact of expired relationships. Whether relationships end by choice or not, former lovers (survivors, in the case of death) carry emotional weight all the rest of their days, and this weight, in one form or another, informs much of my fiction.

I NEVER SAID GOODBYE

Michael Bracken, Heartache-bound
I had known Vickie since sixth grade, and she sat behind me in homeroom when I was a fourteen-year-old ninth grader at Mason Junior High School in Tacoma, Washington. I visited her home, where we played games, watched television, and dined with her family. Our first date—an unchaperoned date, no less—would be the first dance of the school year, held in a multi-purpose room with a stage at one end, theater seating at the other end, and a hardwood gymnasium floor between the two. Because Tacoma had public transportation, I would take the bus from home—a mere block from the junior high school—to hers a mile or so away, return with her, and attend the dance.

Between the time I asked Vickie to the dance and the day of our date, I learned that my parents and I would be moving to Fort Bragg, California, and we were leaving the morning after the dance. I told no one.

As planned, I picked Vickie up at her home and we traveled by city bus to the junior high school. We sat in the theater seats, listening to the music and watching some of our classmates on the dance floor. Vickie repeatedly asked me to dance, but I wouldn’t. I wanted to tell her I was moving, but I couldn’t.

After a while, she grew frustrated and left. Alone.

The next day I climbed in the back seat of my parents’ car, and we moved to California.

I never saw or talked to Vickie again.

I never told her I was leaving, I never said goodbye, and I have carried that weight for nearly fifty years.

MAYBE I DID THIS TIME

I did not have another girlfriend until I was a seventeen-year-old high school senior. Yvonne, a junior, served on the school’s newspaper staff with me, and we dated during the last semester of my senior year, the same semester my mother died during heart surgery. More than a girlfriend, she was one of the few people (along with my best friend Joe and my English teacher Mrs. Richmond) who helped me cope with the loss of my mother.

Even so, I struggled with my mother’s passing, and my stepfather and I did not get along. So, my grandmother traveled to Fort Bragg to take me home with her.

I think I told Yvonne I was leaving—I hope I did—but once again a budding relationship was truncated by events beyond my control, and at least two years passed before I again opened my heart.

AND THEN MY HEARTACHES BLED INTO MY STORIES

Over the years, I have survived many additional heartaches—the deaths of loved ones, the slow disintegration of relationships that began with such promise, relationships truncated for reasons beyond my control—and those heartaches bled into, and continue to bleed into, my fiction.

So, when I selected two stories for Barb, I found myself unable to find two in which the end of a relationship didn’t play at least some small part in the tale. I chose “Who Done It,” coming next month in Seascape: The Best New England Crime Stories 2019 (Level Best Books), and “Woodstock,” forthcoming in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. (I didn’t select “Love, Or Something Like It,” forthcoming in Crime Travel [Wildside Press], which Barb edited, because the theme is much too obvious.)

I could have selected any of several other stories because dealing with the emotional weight of expired relationships has long been an underlying theme in my work, just as it has in my life.

Still, if you prefer the elevator pitches, catch me when I’m feeling less confessional.


My story “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” published last year in Tough, has been named one of the “Other Distinguished Mystery Stories” in this year’s The Best American Mystery Stories. This is the second time one of my stories has made the list (the first, “Dreams Unborn,” made the 2005 list); last year my story “Smoked” actually made it into the anthology.

Join us at the launch party for The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods (Down and Out Books) at Murder By The Book in Houston on October 21. Seven of the contributors—Chuck Brownman, James A. Hearn, Scott Montgomery, Graham Powell, William Dylan Powell, Mark Troy, and Bev Vincent—will join me to discuss the anthology and their stories, and to sign copies. If you can’t get to the signing, contact Murder By The Book. I suspect they’ll let you preorder a copy that we can sign for you and that they can ship after the event.

07 October 2019

West of Hollywood


Libby Cudmore
Libby Cudmore
In this world, you have to ask for what you want.

In some cases, you have to pick a lock and break in.

When I heard that Brian Thornton was putting together a pair of crime-themed anthologies based on the music of Steely Dan, I knew I had to be part of it. It didn’t matter that the slate was already full.

Over the past several years I have positioned myself as the Queen of the Dandom, a mighty figure in the realm of Steely Dan Twitter, and as the author of the critically-acclaimed mixtape murder mystery, this was the project I had been waiting for.

I emailed Brian this:


Hi Brian,

I just saw your article about your Steely Dan anthology and I think it is the GREATEST IDEA EVER IN THE HISTORY OF ALL IDEAS. I was wondering… room for one more? I am a huge huge HUGE Steely Dan fan (I've seen them six times; am wearing my "The Dan Who Knew Too Much" tour shirt as I write this) and I know I could write you an amazing story… plus I'm quick!

Please and thank you!


Brian told me he liked my enthusiasm and my Dan credentials (since then, I have seen them another four times, bringing the grand total to 10 shows, plus The Nightflyers / Dukes of September) and although he initially told me he couldn’t make any promises.

I told him that if not this one, I’d love to collaborate on another. A few days later, he responded with this:


All that aside, I value passion, especially when it comes to music, and doubly so when it comes to GREAT music. I have no doubt that this collection will be the stronger for your participation.

So congratulations, kid. You’re in! I’ll make it work.


I was ECSTATIC. If the first lesson is shoot your shot, the second is to always be gracious and forward-thinking. Being a jerk gets you nowhere.

Settling on a song was the difficult part. So many of the good ones were taken – including “The Second Arrangement” – but I wanted to go with something a little off-beat. I’ve found a lot of fans underrate Two Against Nature and Everything Must Go, so my initial thought was to write a stalker story around “Lunch With Gina.”

A Beast without a Name
But the story wasn’t coming together, and with the deadline clock ticking down, I switched over to “West of Hollywood” from Two Against Nature. There’s a cold undercurrent of broken passion there that fascinated me, something wild that had since crumbled to dust. I based it around a pair of con artists and former lovers who reunite for one job in the Hollywood Hills.

As soon as I settled on the concept, the story came together in almost one draft. I like to think it was guided by the spirit of the late Walter Becker.

But never one to keep all the good stuff for myself, I was also able to recommend that Brian bring in my friend/fellow Steely Dan fanatic Matthew Quinn Martin in, and he wrote a devastatingly good story based on “Pretzel Logic.” Both stories will appear in the second volume, titled A Beast Without A Name, available from Down & Out Books on Oct. 28.

Libby Cudmore
It never hurts to ask for what you want. Be prepared for a no, which makes celebrating that YES even better. I am forever grateful to Brian for making space for me in this anthology, and I’m really looking forward to sharing “West of Hollywood” with all of you when it comes out.

06 October 2019

Those Crazy Crime Fighting Defiant Ones
part 2: Comics Team-Ups of Yore


Gary Phillips


— Velma

Those Crazy Crime Fighting Defiant Ones
Comics Team-Ups of Yore, part 2

by Gary Phillips

Captain America and Falcon 138
Now we come to the first such interracial costumed do-gooder team-up in mainstream comics. Marvel, earlier in the ’70s, gave us Captain America and The Falcon on the masthead. For somewhere in the midst of these two battling the likes of the Secret Empire and the Madbomb, they knew how to take it to the streets.

Take for instance in 1971 Cap & Falcon #138, “It Happens in Harlem” written by Stan “The Man” Lee and illo’ed by John Romita. The two, with an assist from Spider-Man, take out the local jive turkey mobster Stone Face and his crew.

In issue 143, “Power to the People,” again drawn by Romita but written by Gary Friedrich, a masked firebrand has arrived on the scene and is getting the brothers and sisters riled up. In chapter two in the book, “Burn, Whitey, Burn,” the Falcon in his civilian identity of social worker Sam Wilson has to prevent a riot. Sam is outnumbered and only the intervention of militant Leila Taylor of the People’s Militia saves him from a ass whuppin’.

Captain America and Falcon 143
Mind you, she called him an Uncle Tom and a male chauvinist when she first met him. Anyway, before the cops and the community really go at it, Cap and Falc unmask the hatemonger who turns out to be the biggest nazi of them all, Cap’s long-time nemesis, the Red Skull out to cause a race war and political destabilization. Once the Skull is taken care of, Leila and Sam share a kiss.

The following issue is quite the trip. Remember in our last episode Leila and Sam kiss in his office? When that happened peeping in on them from a nearby handy rooftop was Cap. One of his thought balloons read: “Sam – with the militant girl! I can see this is no time to try and square things with him!”

We’ll get back to that. This outing starts with the tale “Hydra Over All” by Romita and Friedrich, and has Cap working with Colonel Nick Fury, head of the spy organization SHIELD and… wait for it, the Femme Force, a special attack squad led by Agent Sharon Carter, Cap’s girlfriend and the grand-niece of Cap’s WWII-era old lady, Peggy Carter. It gets weirder. The good guys mop up the Hydra goons with ease. It turns out the attack is being televised live to the White House, viewed by President Nixon, Vice President Agnew and what seems to be the Chiefs of Staff. Turns out this whole deal was an elaborately staged demonstration. The Hydra hoods are LMDs, Life Model Decoys, and Fury wanted to show the effectiveness of his projects.

As Fury says to the prez, “… do we or don’t we get the bread…?”

Captain America dreams of Falcon
The other story in the book is “The Falcon Fights Alone!” written by Friedrich and illo’ed by Gray Morrow. This starts with Cap in his Steve Rogers identity having a dream in bed about Sam and Leila and him in his Cap outfit standing between some angry brothers and a white cop. In his sleep he’s mumbling, “I see them! He’s with her again!”

Oh jealousy, thy name is… anywho, on the following page we again see Cap peeping in on Sam and Leila only this time he’s talking to himself and his dialogue starts with, “If he’s that close to her… then he couldn’t be with me!” After Leila splits, Cap and Sam have a showdown which leads to:

“But I’m gonna change all of that!” Sam said. “I’m gonna be proud, baby… proud to be black… and proud to be me! And it’s all gonna start right now! Then, “… the Falcon Fights alone!

To underscore his point, Sam steps back into his office from the restroom where he’d been changing into his costume. Only it’s not his original green and orange get-up, but some new threads that are red and white. The two may be going their separate ways, temporarily as it worked out, but still buddies as they slap five just before a cat busted in to tell the Falcon two pushers have his friend tied up in an abandoned tenement.

The Falcon and Redwing
The Falcon leaps out the window, a handy rope nearby to swing on – as this is before he got his mechanical wings. His sidekick falcon Redwing, who he has a telepathic link with as well as other birds, flies with him. He effortlessly shoulders in a door and deals with the two pushers, who happen to be white though this is Harlem. And even though people don’t recognize him in his new costume, they embrace him for his bravery and making an effort to clean up the neighborhood. As he’s hoisted on the shoulders of well-wishers, Steve wakes up.

“Maybe I’m only dreaming, but I know it all really happened.”

2008 saw the publication of 76, a retro comic book miniseries set in that year and ably taking up the Wu Tangness of it all. It was planned as an 8-part effort with two separate stories playing out each issue, one in New York and the other in Los Angeles B. Clay Moore and Ed Tadem, writer and artist respectively, gave us kung fu street fighters Jackie Karma and Marcus King, looking into who was backing the dangerous Gil Gunn and his super-heroin on the East Coast. As things developed, swordswoman Holly Gold, PI Samantha Jones and the Soul Brigade all lent a hand.

Out west, in “Cool” writer Seth Peck and artist Tigh Walker told the adventure of Vietnam vet pals Pete Walker and Leon Campbell. In an interview with Peck posted on Comic Book Resources he noted, “[this] is the story of two bounty hunters, a stripper, a suitcase full of money, a sadistic midget, a porn star hit man, crooked cops, geriatric mobsters and L.A. lowlifes spending 48 hours trying to kill each other.”

Sadly, the groove thing that was 76 only saw five issues produced. As the real time seventies closed out, Don McGregor and the aforementioned Marshall Rogers produced Detectives, Inc.: A Remembrance of Threatening Green published in 1980 featuring Bob Rainer and Ted Denning. No kung fu’ing chumps through windows but both men carried a lot of emotional baggage we learn in the course of their case. The PI duo had an interesting genesis as the white McGregor (a writer on Black Panther and editor at Marvel in his career) related creating the pair for him and black artist-writer Alex Simmons (Blackjack) to play in Super 8 movies McGregor was making. Check out the trailer here.

Detectives Inc. series covers

To borrow from the 1975 Isley Brothers’ song, these defiant ones sure knew how to fight the power.
Redwing (falcon)



Gary Phillips has a retro pulp novel coming out from Polis, Matthew Henson and the Ice Temple of Harlem. He is story editor on Snowfall, a show on FX about crack and the CIA set in 1980s South Central.

05 October 2019

Those Crazy Crime Fighting Defiant Ones
part 1: Comics Team-Ups of Yore


Gary Phillips


Graphics novel author, expert, and historian Gary Phillips brings us the first double-fisted episode about crime-fighting duos. Gather ’round as Gary paints the colors in black and white comic strips.
— Velma

Those Crazy Crime Fighting Defiant Ones
Comics Team-Ups of Yore, part 1

by Gary Phillips

“Listen for the thunder, Troy! A bolt of lightning just struck my thinking machine!!”
So says Danny Raven to his partner Theodore “Troy” Young as the two scope out a bad guy in a Rolls. These two swingin’ dudes were globetrotting secret agents whose cover were being reporters – playing off of it seems the real life cases of overseas reporters who provided intel to the CIA. Raven was black and Young white in a daily black and white and Sunday color comic strip called Dateline: Danger! Introduced in November 1968, it was written and co-created by John Saunders and drawn by co-creator Alden “Al” McWilliams and ran for the Publishers-Hall Syndicate until 1974.

Dateline Danger!
Comics historian Maurice Horn noted in 100 Years of American Newspaper Comics, “One of the most noteworthy entries in the crowded field [of comic strips] was Dateline: Danger! a strip based on the popular I Spy program starring Robert Culp and Bill Cosby. There was much banter and wisecracking going between the partners as they raced cars, engaged in fisticuffs, and dodged bullets in the course of their everyday activities.”

Saunders was the son of comic strip writer Allen Saunders, who wrote among other features the Steve Roper and Mike Nomad adventure strip as well as stalwart Mary Worth. Coming full circle, McWilliams also drew issues of the Gold Key I Spy comic book as well as the Star Trek and Buck Rogers comic strips after Dateline folded.

Dateline Danger!
This interracial set-up was a bigger deal than one might think looking back on that time from here. A couple of years before the strip’s debut, there was the November 1966 Ebony magazine article, “What’s Not so Funny about the Funnies” by Ponchitta Pierce. The effervescent Ronettes girl singing group on the cover, Alfred Andriola, the artist of the Kerry Drake strip which the senior Saunders wrote, lays it bare in her piece.

“Comic characters are a white man’s land,” he said. “Let’s face it. You can’t deal with race or color in comics. A colored maid or porter brings a flood of letters. And if we show the Negro as a hero we get angry letters from the South.” He quickly adds that negative reactions are not limited to any area of the country. “All people who are anti-Negro do not live just in the South.”

Predating Raven and Young by decades in terms of and salt and pepper crime fighting pairings in the comic strips was Mandrake the Magician and Lothar. Created and originally drawn by Lee Falk at the height of the Great Depression in 1934, the strip starred the top hat and cape wearing master illusionist Mandrake and his then racially stereotypical African manservant, Lothar. This was not unusual for the time period of the ’30s and ’40s to have an exaggeratedly drawn minstrel-like black comic relief sidekick. Witness Ebony and the Spirit, Smokey and Joe Palooka and Mushmouth in Moon Mullins. Asians too got clowned like Connie in the Terry and Pirates strip and Chop-Chop in the Blackhawk comics.

Mandrake the Magician and Lothar
Mandrake and Lothar
Lothar too was initially drawn as a caricature but that changed somewhat a year later when Phil Davis took over the art duties. Lothar though remained big, spoke broken English and walked around in a leopard skin for God’s sake. “Not going to kiss the princess goodbye smack, smack,” goes one of his cringe-worthy lines to his boss who then orders him to pack their bags.

According to Jeff Herr in his column entitled “Racism as a Stylistic Choice and other notes” in the online Comics Journal (March 14, 2011) back on October 6, 1943 Ward Greene, an editor at King Features Syndicate sent a letter to Roy Crane who did the Buz Sawyer strip. This was prompted by Crane depicting as was his usual black buffoonish characters. It read in part, “Experience has shown us that we have to be awfully careful about any comics in which Negroes appear. The Association for the Advancement of Colored People protests every time they see anything which they consider ridicules the Negro no matter how faintly. For example, [George] Swanson did a little drawing showing a Negro baseball team breaking up to chase a chicken across the diamond. As a result, papers in cities like Pittsburgh and Chicago were threatened with a boycott by local Negro organizations. Of course, they are hypersensitive, but the sensitivity has, as you know, become more acute than ever with race troubles growing out of the war.”

Lothar would undergo changes in status over the years in the comic strip and other media from the radio to serials to a 1950s TV pilot that didn’t sell wherein he was portrayed by the often underused actor and ex-Rams running back Woody Strode (Spartacus, Black Jesus, etc.). Falk interjected that Lothar came from African royalty and had storylines over the years where Lothar reluctantly must assume the throne of the Federated Tribes. As Tim Jackson noted in his book, Pioneering Cartoonists of Color about the character, he, “… evolved from an illiterate, faithful manservant to a scholarly muscle man making an independent choice of whether to lend Mandrake a hand when his skills were needed. But for some reason, Lothar never lost his passion for wearing leopard print garments.”

Not for nothing about a year after the appearance of the Black Panther in Fantastic Four #52, cover dated July 1966, how Lothar and Mandrake met was retconned. In this version Lothar turned down being a bored prince of the renamed Twelve Nations in favor of being a globetrotting adventurer who was down with the black American experience. By the start of the ‘70s he also got a love interest in the form of his distant cousin Karma.

Daughters of the Dragon
In addition to disco and CB radio, the 1970s also spawned the private eyes of Knightwing Restorations Ltd. aka Daughters of the Dragon in Marvel Comics. Back then there was a spate of black and white comics magazines reminiscent of the old pulps. But premiering in the January 1977, Deadly Hands of Kung Fu #32 was the pairing of black ex-cop Mercedes “Misty” Knight and the born-in-Japan of Chinese and Japanese heritage, Colleen Wing. The two-issue story was written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Marshall Rogers, although they did not create the characters.

“There’s a Kung Fu assassin terrorizing the streets of China Town, and it’s up to the Daughters of the Dragon to deliver justice! Colleen Wing and Misty Knight are the dearest of friends, and the closest of allies. Will the “Daughters” be able to defend themselves, and the public, from this Kung Fu menace?”

That’s how the ad copy read. Actually the plot was about the two going to Japan for some R&R and wind up hunting down the killers of Colleen’s grandfather, ex-head of the Secret Service over there. Once the duo start looking into his death, kung fu fighting breaks out damn near around every corner.

Comics Code Authority
The Comics Code still existed then, which was an entity enacted in the ’50s to among other things make sure, “All lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations shall be eliminated.” The black and white magazines were not published under the Code so in the midst of the two kicking the hell out of a bunch of ninjas, some of the ladies’ clothes got torn off.

Later, echoing the passages in Farewell, My Lovely where Raymond Chandler has Philip Marlowe shot up with dope, and riffed on in French Connection II, the women are captured by the arms dealer villain Vachon and shot up with heroin toward turning them into sex slaves. Misty though has a bionic arm courtesy of Tony “Iron Man” Stark, the real one lost in an explosion when she was a cop. She fools the hoods into sticking the needle in that arm and doesn’t get hooked. Colleen on the other hand doesn’t have an artificial arm. But she does have her girl.

As the bad intent Dr. Hartman looms over the smacked-up nude and out-of-it Colleen, Misty escapes and snaps his neck with said robot limb. Through intense meditation, Colleen overcomes her addiction and serves up just deserts to Vachon, whose not too shabby when it comes to sword work, to avenge her grandfather. Misty and Colleen would go on to regularly show up in the four color pages of the Power Man (Luke Cage) and Iron Fist comic book -- the two gents a superhero version of the salt & pepper team.

Check back tomorrow for the second episode of those Crazy Caped Crime Fighters.



Gary Phillips has a retro pulp novel coming out from Polis, Matthew Henson and the Ice Temple of Harlem. He is story editor on Snowfall, a show on FX about crack and the CIA set in 1980s South Central.

04 October 2019

Beatniks and Bad Guys: Barry Gifford and David Lynch



David Lynch's Wild at Heart, based on
the novel by Barry Gifford.
Beatniks and Bad Guys was nearly the sole title of this piece, but I felt it just wasn't cool to leave Barry Gifford off the headline. Gifford is, after all, the Kerouac of crime fiction.  David Lynch's connection to Gifford's Sailor and Lula crime-novel series, beginning with Wild at Heart, also warrants room on the marquee. Though I like the way Gifford's writing blows Beatnik riffs in a film noir world, it was Gifford's non-fiction that grabbed me first.

Before cable, film noir (and crime film in general) was all over TV. If you we're a kid planted in front of the small screen,  you we're bound to come across films like The Big Sleep or The Big Heat or The Big Knife. If you weren't put off by black and white, and you liked the dirty dealings, the thrilling bad-assery of it all, likely you were hooked. Those movies kick-started my interest in film, and like most film buffs, I read what I could about how these flicks came to be. When I came across Barry Gifford's love letter to crime cinema, The Devil Thumbs a Ride, I knew I'd come across a kindred spirit.

It wasn't just the subject matter of Gifford's The Devil Thumbs a Ride that intrigued me; it was the soulfulness of his writing, the off-kilter way he came at crime films. When I discovered that Gifford's first non-fiction book was Jack's Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac, it started to make sense. Gifford had one foot in Birdland and one in Chinatown. He was a Beatnik who dove deep into crime fiction. Technically, he was a little late on the scene to be a real Beat, but he had the heart of one. I wasn't the first kid to read On The Road and have it stick with me for life. Finding an author who mashed up two of my great interests into one unique vision was a big deal.

Author Barry Gifford
Barry Gifford was born in 1946, just a couple years prior to Jack Kerouac's actual road trip that would be the basis of On the Road. Gifford's father was associated with the Chicago mob, and Gifford spent his early years living out of hotel rooms. Regular schooling wasn't in the game plan. "He learned from late-night noir movies and the strange characters that passed through the hotel lobbies," The Paris Review wrote. A stint in the merchant marine (Kerouac did time in the merchant marine, too) sent Gifford to swinging London in the mid-sixties, where he partied with the likes of John Lennon and Eric Clapton.

In 1967 Gifford moved to San Francisco and befriended the Beats who were still living there, including Allen Ginsburg. It was a momentous relocation. He was soon writing for Rolling Stone, and he met his future wife there. Many of the Beats he met provided their stories for Jack's Book. Novels, poetry collections, and more non-fiction followed. He even started Black Lizard Press, through which he published many of his favorite-though-forgotten pulp authors. I'll bet the first Jim Thompson book I ever read was a Black Lizard edition. Black Lizard was a big part of the neo noir boom of the 1980s. This noir comeback included films like the Coen Brothers Blood Simple and David Lynch's Blue Velvet.

When David Lynch asked Gifford to write the screenplay for Wild at Heart in 1990, based on the first of Gifford's Sailor and Lula neo-noir novels, Gifford initially refused. Gifford was busy writing the sequel to Wild at Heart (titled Sailor's Holiday) when Lynch called.  Lynch was fascinated by Sailor and Lula, who keep their love light alive in a dirty rotten world. "It was like looking into the Garden of Eden before things went bad," Lynch later wrote.

David Lynch at Cannes in 1990
with Wild at Heart
Gifford told Lynch to write the Wild at Heart screenplay himself, and then send it back to him for notes. They eventually shared credit for the screenplay. Wild at Heart was a success, winning the Palm d'Or at Cannes and planting its freak flag into the head of the '90s. It made Gifford's book a best seller. The Sailor and Lula series ended up running eight novels long.

The next time Lynch came calling, he wanted Gifford to adapt  one of the stories from Gifford's book Night People. Southern gothic meets the Lynchian edge of darkness in Night People. It might be for the wild at heart, but not for the feint of heart. It's also smartly hilarious. 

Gifford didn't want to adapt one of the Night People stories, though. He wanted to create something new, featuring a character who wakes one day as a totally different person.  Lost Highway's non-linear structure makes it a more difficult film than Wild at Heart, and one viewing isn't enough. It's bizarre and unique, a perfect pairing of two one-of-a-kind storytellers. I don't think Lynch ever had a more perfectly attuned collaborator than Barry Gifford.

I recently finished Barry Gifford's Writers (2015), a collection of short one act plays that feature famous authors in vulnerable situations. I felt he really got to the heart of these scribes in a deceptively quick and fun read. You have to be good to say so much in a such a thin tome, and Gifford succeeds.  "The Last Words of Arthur Rimbaud," featuring the dying moments of the French poet, is haunting and sad. The same can be said about "The Nobody," about Emily Dickinson's relationship with her sister.

"Spring Training at the Finca Vigia" is a masterful portrayal of Ernest Hemingway and his wife, the writer Martha Gellhorn. Along for the ride are Hugh Casey and Kirby Higbe, real-life pitchers for the Brooklyn Dodgers. It's 1941, and the setting is the Hemingway household outside Havana, Cuba. Hemingway comes off as a moody knucklehead, having drunken sparring sessions with the jocks while the cool-headed Gellhorn delivers Martini-dry insults.

At night a hammered Hemingway shoots at imaginary Cuban rebels who he believes are trying to rob him. Gellhorn pleads with him to stop, but Hemingway goes so far as to booby trap his yard with explosives. It's both funny and scary, a combo Gifford specializes in. For me, this mirrored Hemingway's belief that the US government was spying on him. This paranoia is one of the things that's suspected to have driven Hemingway to suicide.  The kicker is that is was revealed that the FBI really was spying on Hemingway, even going so far as to read his mail. Hemingway was right all along. Gellhorn took her own life years after Hemingway did. The same with pitcher Hugh Casey.

Jack Kerouac meets infamous New York mobster Joey Gallo in "One Night in Umberto's Clam House." It's as literal a representation of the Beat-meeting-the-noir that Gifford could have written. Gifford's whole unique vision is kind of summed up in thirteen pages. It also feels like a moment in a Lynch film when there's a snatch of dialogue that's casual and dangerous, past and future, with darkness and murder tiptoeing all around a diminishing edge of light.

For more Barry Gifford, take a trip down that lost internet highway to BarryGifford.Net.

The following articles, excellent all, helped me prepare for this piece: Michael Bible's "Still Weird on Top"; Jim Ruland's "Barry Gifford's Lifetime of Outsiders"; J.W. McCormack's "Barry Gifford is America's Offbeat Dostoevsky"; and Ron Wells' "Interview: Lost Highway Screenwriter Barry Gifford."

I discuss Gifford's The Devil Thumbs a Ride in my earlier two-part Sleuthsayers blog "My Dinner with Lawrence Tierney," from February 8 & 29. Tierney threw punches. Check it out.

I'm Lawrence Maddox, author of Fast Bang Booze, available at Down&Out Books. You can reach me at Lawrencemddx@yahoo.com. Tweets welcome at Lawrence Maddox@MadXBooks. 

03 October 2019

This Week in Historical Bastardry: Ptolemy the Thunderbolt



by Brian Thornton

Alexander the Great
This week’s bastard comes from the Hellenistic Age, that period in the historical narrative of the ancient Mediterranean that began with the death of Alexander the Great in Babylon (323 BC) and ended with the suicide of the last Hellenistic ruler, Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt in 30 BC.  During the intervening three hundred years a whole lot of ambitious and unscrupulous people (all of them related by blood in one way or another) did a whole lot of awful things to each other, and all in the name of furthering their own political aims.  This sort of bad behavior became so widespread that the phrase “Hellenistic monarch” tends to be near interchangeable with the word “bastard” for scholars who study the period.

And one of the most notorious of these bastards was a prince who rebelled against his father, married his sister, murdered her children, and stole her kingdom.  And all this after stabbing a 77 year-old ally to death in a fit of rage.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Ptolemy Keraunos (“Thunderbolt.”)

Ptolemy (pronounced “Tah-lemm-mee,” the “P” being silent) was the eldest son of Ptolemy I Soter (“Savior”), a Macedonian general and boyhood friend of Alexander the Great who founded the Ptolemaic dynasty of kings that ruled Egypt after Alexander’s death.  The Thunderbolt was the eldest of Ptolemy I’s legitimate sons to survive childhood; a product of Ptolemy’s marriage to his third wife, Eurydice (“Yur-id-iss-see”), and at least initially was designated as the first Ptolemy’s chosen successor as pharaoh.

The kingdoms of the "successors" shown here around 301 B.C.

The early Hellenistic period was an incredibly chaotic time.  The passing of Alexander the Great left a power vacuum too tempting for the generals he had set in place as local governors in his empire to resist for long.  The seemingly inevitable wars that followed are known collectively as the Wars of the Diadochoi (“Successors”).  In dizzying succession this ruthless pack of scoundrels began to pick each other off, the survivors of each round of violence circling each other looking for an advantage, making alliances and breaking alliances as it suited them.

And their children, often pawns in Hellenistic dynastic marriages, learned from their example.
The first of many Ptolemies ("Soter")

In the case of Ptolemy the Thunderbolt, he might have learned some of these lessons too well.  But where the father was wily, the son was aggressive.  Where the father plotted, the son preferred action.  Ptolemy Soter had from an early age developed a talent for picking the right side in any dispute.  His son did not possess the patience to weigh options.  Putting it kindly, the Thunderbolt was the prototypical “man of action” born into an age where intrigue ruled.  He was literally a man out of step with his own time.

In his eightieth year, with the question of succession pressing upon him, Ptolemy I gave up on his impulsive, hot-headed offspring.  Instead he chose a more sober half-brother (also confusingly bearing the name of “Ptolemy”) as his co-ruler and eventual successor.

Furious, Ptolemy Keraunos fled to Thrace (modern-day northeastern Greece, southern Bulgaria, and European Turkey) and the court of another diadochos, Lysimachus (“Lie-simm-muh-kuss”).  Lysimachus was married to Ptolemy’s half-sister Arsinoe (“Ar-sinn-oh-ee”), and his son by a previous marriage was married to another sister, Lysandra.  Ptolemy hoped to have Lysimachus’ backing in a war with his father for the throne of Egypt.  Lysimachus put him off with vague promises, but did allow the younger man to stay at his court (possibly so he could keep an eye on him).
Lysimachus

If the Thunderbolt expected things to be different for him in Thrace, he was mistaken.  His sisters were busy plotting against each other: Lysandra intent on seeing her husband Agathocles (“Uh-gath-uh-kleez”) succeed Lysimachus (who by this time was in his late seventies), where Arsinoe sought to secure her husband’s blessing for one of her three sons to succeed him.  In the end they were both foiled.

Arsinoe succeeded in convincing Lysimachus that Agathocles was plotting to overthrow him.  The king responded by having his eldest son and erstwhile heir executed.  Lysandra fled, and Ptolemy Keraunos went with her.

They traveled to Babylon, to the court of Seleucus, by now the only other of Alexander’s generals still left standing aside from Ptolemy in Egypt and Lysimachus in Thrace.  Seeing an opportunity, Seleucus agreed to raise an army on the behalf of the two, and assured them that he would support their bid to take the throne of his old rival Lysimachus.  During that same year Ptolemy I died.  The succession of his easy-going son Ptolemy II to the throne went off without incident.
The site of the battle of Corupedium in modern-day Turkey

Seleucus and Lysimachus faced off at the battle of Corupedium (“Kohr-up-ee-dee-um”) in 281 BC.  Meeting in single combat, the 77 year-old Seleucus defeated and killed the 79 year-old Lysimachus (now that must have been a sight: the Clash of the Geriatrics!).  Ptolemy, who had fought on Seleucus’ side, demanded Lysimachus’ kingdom as Seleucus had agreed.  And just as Lysimachus had, Seleucus stalled, all the while planning his triumphal march into Lysimachus’ capital of Cassandrea.

It was a fatal mistake on his part.
Seleucus I (Roman copy of a Macedonian original)

For Seleucus, a battle-hardened veteran of Alexander’s wars of conquest, and now the last of the diadochoi left alive, reckoned without the hot-headed son of his old rival Ptolemy I.  Enraged at having again been denied a throne he considered his by right, the younger Ptolemy stabbed Selecus to death in his tent.  The act earned Ptolemy the nick-name “Thunderbolt.”

Ptolemy then slipped out of Seleucus’ camp and over to Lysimachus’ army.  Upon hearing that Ptolemy had killed the hated Seleucus, the soldiers promptly declared him Lysimachus’ successor and the new king of Macedonia (a title up for grabs since its previous owner had died in captivity in 283 and his son was in no position to press his claim).  The only problem was that Arsinoe still held Cassandrea.  So Ptolemy struck a deal with her.

Arsinoe agreed to marry her half-brother, help strengthen his claim to the Macedonian throne and share power as his queen.  In return for this Ptolemy agreed to adopt Arsinoe’s eldest son (also named, not surprisingly, “Ptolemy”) as his heir.  You can guess what happened next.

While Ptolemy was off consolidating his new holdings in southern Greece, Arsinoe began plotting against him.

15th century French depiction of the death of the Thunderbolt
Once again furious (it seems to have been his natural state), Ptolemy killed Arsinoe’s two younger sons.  The eldest, Ptolemy-son-of-Arsinoe-not-to-be-confused-with-Ptolemy-Keraunos fled the kingdom.  Arsinoe did as well, heading home for Egypt and the court of her full brother, Ptolemy-II-King-of-Egypt-not-to-be-confused-with-any-of-the-other-Ptolemies-listed-herein.

But Ptolemy Keraunos did not live to enjoy his throne for very long.  In 280 BC a group of barbarian tribes began raiding Thrace.  The Thracians asked for his help against them.  When Ptolemy short-sightedly refused, the Thracians were forced to ally themselves with the invaders; a group of Celtic-speaking savages known as the Getae (“Get-tay”).  The Thunderbolt was captured and killed while fighting them the next year.

As for the sisters of Ptolemy, Lysandra and her children disappear from the historical narrative around the death of Seleucus (did Ptolemy or Arsinoe kill them as well?), and Arsinoe?  She talked her brother Ptolemy II into setting aside his first wife and marrying her.  She served as his co-ruler for the remaining ten years of her life.  Ever afterward Ptolemy II was known as “Philadelphus” (“sibling-lover”).  In the end, who was the bigger bastard?  The relatively straight-forward, hot-headed Thunderbolt, or his constantly scheming half-sister Arsinoe?

A coin from the reign of Ptolemy II Philadelphus depicting him side-by-side with his sister/queen, the formidable Arsinoe II


02 October 2019

The Long Treason


Approximately 1979
This month is a special anniversary for me.  Forty years ago I became a published author.

After three years of submitting to various markets I sold a story to the late, and not particularly lamented, Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine. I learned this fact when an envelope arrived in the mail with a check for $30 and a slip of paper with the title of my story on it. No contract, no letter of acceptance.

To say I was pleased would be a distinct understatement.

I was not the only person affected by the tale.  My wife brought a copy into the office where she worked and the next time I visited her co-worker Dorothy glared at me and asked "What happened afterwards?"  I assured her that I had no idea.  I got so tired of her asking every time she saw me that I finally told her that the day after the story ended the main character won the lottery and lived happily ever after.  Oddly enough, this did not satisfy her.

By the way, the story was inspired by the title, which popped into my head one day.  Where that came from is anybody's guess.

I just reread the story and can honestly say that in the forty years that followed I have been paid more for worse.  So, just in case your complete set of MSMM's is in storage, I am reprinting it here.  I have changed nothing, although it was physically painful to leave that horrible adverb: "suddenly."  Ick.

I hope you enjoy the other words.  And thanks to Leigh for catching a few typos.


THE LONG TREASON
by Robert Lopresti

The old man had lived on the hill beyond the village for as long as Pablo could remember.  When Pablo was learning to walk he had seen the foreigner, already old, walking alone through the jungle.  Three years before, the old man had stood outside of his shack, watching when the soldiers came to take off anyone old enough to carry a gun.

Pablo's brother, Felipe, had been sixteen and had cried as they led him off to fight some war for El Presidente.  He hadn't returned.  Pablo's father died two years later, and at the age of twelve Pablo had become the man of the family.

To help his mother feed the younger children, Pablo went to work for the old man.  In that South american country it was widely believed that all foreigners were rich, except the missionaries.  The old man was a foreigner, but he was neither rich nor religious.

The work was easy: odd jobs and chores, repairs to keep the old shack livable.  The old man was too weak to do them himself.  He didn't pay Pablo much, but who else in the village could afford to pay him at all, still too young to do a man's work?  The job would keep Pablo's family alive till he grew up.

Pablo was running an errand for the old man when he first heard about the visitor.  The visitor was a foreigner who drove up into the hills in a rented car, dressing too warmly, bribing too richly.  Most foreigners, especially wealthy ones, would have been robbed and killed on their first night out of the city.  However, there was something about this man that made even the hungriest ladrones put their knives away and keep their distance.

On his third day in the mountains he reached Pablo's village.  That night, while they made stew for the old man's dinner, Pablo told the old man about the stranger who was asking questions.  The old man just shrugged and went on cutting carrots.

When the stew was ready, the old man invited the boy to join him, as he often did.  He always accepted, because it meant one less meal his mother had to stretch out of their meager food supply.

Although they ate in silence, neither of them heard the approaching footsteps.  Suddenly the door burst open, almost torn off the hinges by a powerful kick.  The visitor walked in, holding a pistol.

Pablo had jumped up, ready to run, but the old man touched his shoulder and gestured for him to sit down again.  The old man had shown no other reaction to the stranger's sudden entrance.

The visitor spoke a name which Pablo had never heard before.  The old man nodded. "So you have found me at last.  It's good to see you again.  You have grown older."

The visitor glanced quickly around the one-room shack before closing the door and approaching the small table.  He was about fifteen years younger than the old man, just leaving middle age.  His voice was so gentle that it surprised the boy.

"You have gotten older, too.  I can hardly believe that you are still alive."  They spoke in their own language, but Pablo had been exposed to many languages, and could follow most of what they said in that one.

The old man gestured, like a host to a guest.  "Sit down and talk for a while."

The visitor's lips compressed into a thin line.  "You know why I am here."

The old man shrugged and for the first time in several minutes he noticed Pablo.  "Let the boy go."

The stranger's eyes ran over him and the boy shivered.  "Go where?  To tell who?"

"He'll go home to bed, and tell no one.  Don't worry, old friend; there's no one here who would rush to my rescue."

The visitor's lips turned up in a tiny smile.  "That doesn't sound like my old teacher.  Do you really care what happens to the boy?"

The old man got angry.  "I don't care about him, or anyone else. And no here cares whether I live or die. I've made sure of that.  But why does the boy have to see it?"

The foreigner looked hard at Pablo.  "Will you go straight home, and say nothing to anyone?"

Pablo nodded.  "All right.  Go."

The boy ran out.  Once outside, he stopped and looked in all directions.  Then he crept around the outside of the shack.  At the rear was a spot where the wall was so low that by standing on a barrel he could climb silently onto the roof.  He had tried once to do some thatching up there for the old man, but the roof was in such bad shape that the patchwork was useless.

He crawled up slowly.  Some spots were so rotten that he almost fell through.  The rain must have poured through the cracks, but the old man never complained about it.  He seldom complained about anything.

Finally he reached the center of the roof.  Peering through a crack he saw both men, directly beneath him, seated at the table.

Straining, he could her the old man speaking. "...so many years I thought that I had been forgotten.  I'm almost glad to see you."

"Many others have looked for you.  Am I really the first to succeed?"

"Oh, there were others, years ago.  I suppose the trail has become colder with time, and it takes someone with your persistance to follow it now."

"Where are those early searchers now?  Buried in the jungle beyond the village?"

Pablo saw the old man's face twist into a smile, or perhaps it was just a baring of teeth.

"This is a dangerous part of the world, old friend.  Death comes suddenly here."

The visitor gestured with his gun.  "I do not intend to die in this hellhole of a country."

"Suit yourself.  It's good enough for me.  I'm not as particular about things as I once was."

"I have some questions I'd like to ask you."

"Feel free.  If you become tedious, I'll stop answering and you'll shoot me.  So ask away."

"We know that your new friends lost track of you, and that they are angry with you.  Why?"

"After I changed sides I lived in my new country for three months.  I saw nothing but the inside of two bare rooms and did nothing except tell their top spies about our top spies. After three months I decided it was time to leave."

"Because of the accommodations."

"Not that.  I wanted to leave before they discovered that they had paid me for false information."

The visitor stiffened.  "False?  You mean you didn't betray us?"

"I changed sides for money.  Isn't that betrayal enough?  I simply chose not to give them the information they wanted, so I had to get away before they found out."

The visitor scratched his head with the hand that didn't hold the gun.  "If we could be sure that that was true, that the secrets you held are still secret--"

"It would change a lot of plans, perhaps a national policy or two.  Agents you thought were known would be usable.  Codes, programs, and operations that were cancelled when I left could be dusted off."

"But--"

"But you can't be sure, can you?  I might be lying to you.  Once a traitor, always a traitor.  I taught you that."

The visitor nodded.  "But it would be just lie you to sell out and then double-cross the buyers.  After you left we tracked down all the little betrayals you made along the way to the big one.  Have you always had a price?"

The old man smiled and said nothing.

"It was very interesting, you know, this hunt for my old teacher.  All the time I wondered whether natural causes had already finished you off.  Or someone from the other side.  You know there are several countries that put a bounty on you, alive or dead?"

"Who are you working for, by the way?"

Pablo watched the visitor's face go white.  "You know who I work for.  Just because you're for sale doesn't mean that everyone is."

"A patriot, are you?  You don't sound like a student of mine."

"But I am -- they never let me forget that.  Do you know what your selling out cost those of us you trained?  A black mark on our records forever.  Every time our name comes up for assignment or promotion, they remember our teacher and feel a touch of suspicion.  When you betrayed your country you betrayed each of us."

"When I had influence you were willing to ride on my coattails.  You should know by now that there are free rides are always expensive in the end."

The visitor was trembling with fury.  "It wasn't like that.  You know it wasn't."

The old man sat in silence for a moment.  "Is this interrogation over?"

"One more question.  You mist have been noticed around here, as a foreign on the run.  How come the beloved Presidente of this country didn't turn you in?  It would be just like him."

"The fool thinks that I'm a Nazi.  There's a lot of them down here and they've poured gold into his Swiss bank.  So, accidentally, I fall under their protection."

"In that case, why aren't the Israelis hunting you?"

"They were.  When they found me I convinced them of the obvious fact that I wasn't a Nazi, and won their silence about who I really was."

"How?"

"I sold them the location of a few real Nazis/"

The visitor shook his head "You sell them out while their bribes are protecting you.  You really are amazing.  I think that betrayal is compulsive with you.  It comes as naturally to you was breathing."

Pablo had never seen the old man look so ancent.  "Breathing isn't as natural as you might think.  Sometimes I have to force myself to take the next breath."

"Look at me, teacher.  Look at me!  I s there one thing which you have not betrayed?"

The old man struggled to his feet. "I have always been loyal to my own interest."

The visitor's laugh was cracked and angry.  Pablo hadn't realized how tense the visitor really was.

"Your own interest? Look at you!  Dressed in  rags, waiting in the jungle to be hunted down and killed, living in this hole with no one who cares enough about you to bury you when you die.  You've done very well for yourself."

The old man leaned against a wall, trying to stand straight.  The foreigner got to his feet.

The old man spoke, and his voice was cold and hollow.  "Do what you came to do."

"You betrayed us all."  The foreigner raised his gun.  Remember that."

As fast as a jungle snake, Pablo turned over and hit the weakest spot on the roof.  The wood gave, then cracked, and he fell through with a crash.  The wood didn't hit the visitor, but as he darted aside in confusion he lost his balance.  As he fell to the ground he fired one shot.  When Pablo was able to get up he found the visitor lying unconscious, and the old man bleeding from a bullet hole in his leg.

****

The old man groaned as Pablo tightened the rags around his leg.  The wound had started bleeding again while they were burying the visitor.  The body was deep in the jungle with its neck broke, all identification and money taken.  When someone came looking for him they would assume that he had been killed by robbers.

Pablo had been surprised at how easily the old man had recovered once there was a specific job that needed doing.  He had tied up his leg, and then killed the unconscious man, showing none of the exhaustion that had weighed him down a few minutes before.

But now that the work was done he lay on his cot in the shack and moaned.  "I'm going to die."  He tried to sit up and the effort sent tears down his cheeks.

Pablo pushed him back with an gentle hand on the shoulder.  "You will not die, old man."

The old man looked at him, and finally  asked the question that had hung between them for hours.  "Why did you do all this?  You mist have heard what he said about me.  What makes you think that I'm worth saving?"

Pablo smiled.  "I will take care of you.  You will get well."

The old man closed his eyes.  For hours he lay there he lay there trembling, and Pablo never left his side.  At one point, late in the night he began muttering: "Loyalty... a second chance... loyalty."

Three years, thought Pablo.  He must live for three more years.  Then I will be sixteen, old enough to be taken by the army, like my brother Felipe.  Old enough to be treated like a man.  I will go to the city then and sell the old man to the highest bidder, and Mama and the children will never be hungry again.

"You will not die, old man," he said softly.

01 October 2019

Daring to Paint on a Grin


Welcome to October, the month of everything spooky. So it seemed a no-brainer to me to invite a good friend of mine to guest blog today on SleuthSayers because she just had a short story come out in an anthology all about clowns. Yep, those guys and gals with face paint and big red noses who sneak out of your closet at night and … well, I'm not sure what happens next. I've never minded clowns myself, but I know they scare the bejesus out of a lot of people. So if you're one of them, or if you happen to like clowns, this blog post is for you. If you enjoy funny authors and funny crime short stories, this post is definitely for you. And if you've read this far, then you'll certainly want to keep reading, because here, finally, comes the good stuff. I hereby present my friend Eleanor Cawood Jones.

— Barb Goffman

Daring to Paint on a Grin

by Eleanor Cawood Jones

Recycling. I’m into it; chances are you’re into it. But now I’ve gone and recycled a clown. I don’t know that it’s particularly beneficial to the environment, but it’s sure been a lot of fun.

Enter backstory, stage left: Many, many years ago (okay, 2015, but who’s counting?) I was fortunate enough to receive an email containing a writing prompt and instructions from my friend Gretchen Smith. It went pretty much exactly like this: “Here’s the call for Malice Domestic 11. Write this now.” Well, lo and behold, the call was for convention-themed mystery short stories. And had I not once been snowed into a casino-hotel in Green Bay, Wisconsin, during an ice storm where there was a clown convention going on?

I had. (Could happen to anyone, right?) And if that’s not fodder for a murder, I must ask you what is.

And this is where my God-given ability to attract weird paid off, because “Killing Kippers” became my first traditionally published short story in Malice Domestic 11: Murder Most Conventional. And believe you me, I never thought anything good would come out of that convention experience. This after an initial run through Gretchen, who turned a laborious two pages into one catchy paragraph at the beginning, and a second laborious edit by Barb Goffman, who gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten from an editor.
I’d gone on and on in describing the action, and Barb’s words were simple. “Don’t do this to yourself.” So I turned all that snore-y prose into dialogue, and it allowed me to keep the description, add some humor, and keep the story moving. I think my friendship with Barb was largely born through revisions on that story. I believe she brought out the best story I had in me.

Yeah. … This was supposed to be a short bit about a recycled clown story, but as I’m writing it’s turned into a reflection on good friends, a sharp poke in the arm when you need to get going, and good editing advice. Because that story, although it remained largely intact from the first draft, took a village, and I was so utterly proud when it made it into print.

I was proud, too, because it’s the only story I may ever write where the point of view is first-person-drunk. (Don’t judge—I was surrounded by clowns for four days at a bar. How would YOU have coped?)

Many, many years later (this year) Barb sent me a call for an anthology based in England that planned to turn the clown stereotype on its ear. There are all those books and movies about scary clowns—but what are clowns afraid of? What’s behind that face paint and big red nose? The editor, Dave Higgins, said he’d accept reprints, and I shipped Kippers off to him.

Later, I was so delighted to hear that Kippers was going to be resurrected in the UK in Bloody Red Nose: 15 Fears of a Clown, and with co-authors who are largely from the horror genre to (oversized, floppy) boot. Delighted right down to my British Isles DNA. And now it’s out– official release date was Friday the 13th. Bwah ha ha! With this phrase on the back cover from Dave: “In a world filled with menace, dare to paint on a grin.”

So now … she’s ba-a-a-aaack! Kippers is here, along with fourteen other stories sporting titles like “Corn Stalker” and “The Killer Clown Massacre” and “Clowns on the Run.” And I've had the personal excitement of finding an editor and fourteen other authors I’d never met before. If you’d like to try something different and new I invite you to pick it up and enjoy. It’s a delight and joy to be in this new book with a revitalized story. And a horror writer? Never thought of myself that way. But, heck, if former nun Alice Loweecey can do it, why can’t I? (Insert evil grin here.)

So that’s this week’s recycling. Or maybe reincarnating. Yeah—a reincarnated clown. There’s a story in there somewhere, right? Maybe I’m a little bit of a horror writer after all.

Who else writes or reads in more than one genre, and was it by accident or design? For me it was as accidental as stumbling into a clown convention. But did I mention that could happen to anyone?



Eleanor Cawood Jones began writing in elementary school, using #2 pencils to craft crime stories starring her stuffed animals. Her stories include “Keep Calm and Love Moai” (Malice Domestic 13: Mystery Most Geographical) and “All Accounted For at the Hooray for Hollywood Motel” (Florida Happens). Coming soon: “O Crime, in Thy Flight” in Crime Travel and “The Great Bedbug Incident and the Invitation of Doom” (Chesapeake Crimes: Invitation to Murder). A former newspaper reporter and reformed marketing director, Eleanor is a Tennessee native who lives in Northern Virginia and travels often. You’ll find her rearranging furniture or lurking at airports.


Bloody Red Nose is available in paperback and ebook in all the usual places, including Amazon and Barnes & Noble. And you can find Eleanor on Facebook under her full name and on Twitter under @eleanorauthor.