07 February 2020

Shot By Your Partner, Part Two


I published the first half of this story on Wednesday.   Better start there or you won't have any idea what's going on.

Here is the big finale...


The widow agreed to talk to them, against Wyngood’s adamant objections, but she insisted that Forillo had to be present too.

“There must be some mistake.”

“You figure this was somebody else’s death card that your husband just happened to tuck into his safe? Have you and Mr. Forillo killed other people?”

“No! But Arthur told me—“

“Did you ever see his death card?’

“No, but—“

“Did you, Mr. Forillo?”

The assistant shook his head. He hadn’t said a word since the safe had opened.

“But you knew he was supposed to died in a fall,” said Staney.

“That’s what he told us.”

“And where were you when your employer died?”

“We already told you. Ms. Duplessis and I were in one of the anterooms on the other side of the hall, finishing the paperwork.”

“That’s what you said,” agreed Merritt. “Funny thing is the techs didn’t find any sheets of paper in that room. They did find a bed sheet in the closet. Apparently it had been on the couch and there were bodily fluids on it. We’ve got a court order to see if the fluids belonged to you and Ms. Duplessis.”

‘They did,” said Forillo.

“Ed,” said the widow, alarmed.

“We’re in love,” he said. “Her husband was a viscious old bastard, but we didn’t kill him.”

Wyngood said “If they were together there they obviously didn’t push someone down the staircase.”

“I don’t know how long they were spreading fluids,” said Merritt, “but we have a twenty minute hole for Mr. Duplessis to die. That’s plenty of time. Plus, Mr. Forillo found the body.”

“Speaking of fluids,” said Staney, “have you two used the death machine?”

“What’s that got to do with anything?” asked the lawyer.

“We’ve already got a court order for blood, counselor. The courts say we can run it through the death-box.”

“Diabetes,” said Forillo, still blank-faced.

“Breast cancer,” said Ms. Duplessis. “Are you happy now?’

“We’re sorry, ma’am,” said Staney. “But the question remains: If you didn’t kill him, how did your names get on that card?”

“Oh god,” said the widow. She buried her face in her hands. “Don’t you see what happened?”

“Why don’t you tell us?”

“Arthur must have found out that we were having an affair. He killed himself out of jealousy. That’s what the death card meant.”

“That makes sense,” said Wyngood. “The machine meant he killed himself because of Talia and Sam.”

“Nice try,” said Merritt. “The problem is juries don’t like complicated stories. If the machine says shot by your uncle the jury is going to assume your Uncle Mike came with a gun, not that Uncle Sam came with a tank.”

“That makes no sense,” said Wyngood.

“Then try this. You’re both under arrest.”



“Machine-gunned by rebels.” Merritt was driving.

“No.”


“Sex with beautiful twins on your ninetieth birthday.”

“That’s it.”

“Hah. You wish. Drowned in a butt of malmsey.”


“A what of what?”

“Barrel of cheap wine. Some English king killed an enemy that way. Katy’s studying Shakespeare.”

“Smart kid. She must take after her mama.”

“Thank God for that.” Merritt pulled into a parking space.

Staney tapped his fingers on the plastic envelope that held the death card. “Give me a couple of minutes. I want to drop this at the lab.”


They decided to let Talia and Ed, as they called them now, stew in separate rooms at the station. After two hours they decided it was time.

“Divide and conquer,” said Merritt. “I’ll take the stud.”

“Knock yourself out,” said Staney and entered the widow’s room.

She looked like hell. Her eyes were red, her face was grim. “I’m not saying a word until Charlotte gets back. She’s arranging bail.”

“That’s fine, Ms. Duplessis. I don’t have a single question for you. I just want to tell you what’s going on. Detective Merritt is in the next room talking to your lover, who has not reached a lawyer yet. Merritt will tell him that there are two ways this can go. Either the jury is going to hear about the poor abused wife who was seduced by her husband’s evil assistant--”

“That’s not true!”

“Let me finish. The other choice is that the jury will hear that the black widow talked the innocent young man into killing her hubby.”

He shrugged. “Whoever confesses first frames the story and gets the best deal. My partner is telling your partner that Ms. Wyngood will convince you to sell him out before his lawyer finds the precinct house.”

Talia banged her hands flat on the table. “But we didn’t do anything!

“The death machine says you did and no one has proved one wrong yet.”

“Ed is not going to betray me. I have faith in him.”

“The real question,” said Staney, “is whether he has faith in you.”



Wyngood came back, swearing about the evil incompetence of judges, none of whom apparently saw the wisdom of holding emergency bail hearings for wealthy murder suspects. The lovers were still holding out an hour later when the detectives stopped for a coffee break. Staney had just had a first sip when his phone buzzed. He read the ID and looked at his partner. “Back in a few.”

He hurried to the crime lab where Roma, the questioned document man, was waiting for him.

“Why this one?” Roma held up the envelope with the death card. “You see hundreds of these things a year. Why did you send this one to me?”

“First tell me what you found.”

Roma shrugged. “Card stock is one hundred percent legit. Ditto the ink and font.”

Staney scowled. “So it’s real.”

“Not so fast. It’s time to quote Dr. Samuel Johnson.”

“Who’s he? A coroner?”

“Nope. He was an English dude who wrote dictionaries hundreds of years ago. But he also reviewed a book – not a dictionary – and he said ‘this is a good and original book, but the good parts are not original, and the original parts—”

“Are not good. I get it. But what does that have to do with the death card?”

Roma brandished the item again. “The card stock is used by all the Cassandroid machines. The ink and font are standard for the Mortellis Corporation.”

“So they shouldn’t be on the same card.”

“Bingo. This is the first serious forgery of a death card I ever saw. It took someone with access to good equipment.”

“How about a publisher who also owns art galleries?”

“Jackpot.”



“About time you got back,” said Merritt. “Forillo’s lawyer says he’s ready to cop a deal. You’ll never guess, but it turns out it was the widow’s idea and he was practically an innocent bystander.”

“No deal on the deal,” said Staney. “Get him into Conference Room C. I’ll fetch the ladies.”

The widow was crying and her lawyer looked ready to commit grievous bodily harm on somebody.

“Your partner was just in here, gloating,” she said. “I don’t know what kind of lie you talked Mr. Torillo into—“

“Ms. Duplessis can walk out of here with a clean slate in half an hour,” said Staney. “Or you can lecture me. What’s your pleasure?”



Room C had a long table, but it wasn’t long enough for the former lovers, who wanted nothing to do with each other. They sat at opposite ends, refusing to look in each other’s directions.

Wyngood and Forillo’s lawyer – fresh from the bar exam, by the look of him – were at their clients’ sides. Merritt sat between like a referee.

Staney stood. “You were right about one thing, Ms. Duplessis. Your husband somehow discovered you two were having an affair. He decided to kill himself.”

“Out of jealousy?” asked Merritt.

“I imagine that was the last straw. Did you know he had MS?”

Talia’s eyes went wide. “The doctor’s office called once about a test for MS. He said it was a mistake.”

“We can check his medical records, but I think we’ll find that he did. He knew it wouldn’t kill him – I’m guessing his death card really did say he would die in a fall – but out of a desire for vengeance, he decided to frame you two for murder.”

“Actually,” said Ed, “I’m surprised the old bastard didn’t try to kill us.”

Staney shook his head. “Breast cancer. Diabetes. Remember? He already knew how you were going to die.

“So he printed a false death card and killed himself where there would be plenty of people to notice that you two were conspicuously absent. I’m guessing he waited until he saw you sneak off to your hideaway. Then he headed for the staircase.”

“What about the blow to the head?” asked Merritt.

“Did it himself with his cane. One blow, hard enough to draw blood. Takes determination but he had enough hate in his heart for it, don't you think? Then the tumble down the stairs, which he had every reason to believe would be fatal.”

“So that’s it?” said Wyngood. “They’re free to go?”

“With thanks for their cooperation.”

Ed stood up, moving toward the widow, arms outstretched.

Talia stepped back like had had rabies. “Don’t come near me, you – you – backstabber! You were ready to perjure me into prison!”

Ed stammered something. It didn’t do any good.

“Listen,” said Staney. “Listen!”

Everyone turned to him,

“Mr. Duplessis’s last wish was that you two would be miserable for the rest of your lives. Are you going to going to give him the satisfaction?”

Talia turned to Ed, who was ready and waiting.

“Guess not,” said Merritt.



“What made you think it was a frame?” Merritt asked. They were at their computers, closing up files.

“A matter of character, I guess. We were supposed to think Duplessis knew his wife and assistant were going to kill him, but that he didn’t tell them, or try to do anything about it.” Staney frowned. “From what we knew about the guy, I didn’t think he would go that route. Frankly, I don’t think most people could. I mean, knowing someone close to them was going to be the cause of their death and going on like nothing was wrong? That’s got to be hard as hell.”

“I don’t know. Doesn’t sound so difficult.”

“When was the last time you went to a domestic disturbance?”

“Okay, you’ve got a point. I admit that was a good piece of detective work. Just don’t get a swelled head over it. Hey! There’s your cause. Swelled head.”

“No.”

“Nibbled to death by ducks.”

“Seems like it sometimes.”

06 February 2020

Favorite Places




I have written before about atmosphere and setting. No surprise: there are not all that many topics in writing. That mystery writers have favorite venues is one of the obvious and most enjoyable facets of the genre. Many fans have had their views of California shaped by Golden State mystery mavens from Margaret Millar to Raymond Chandler and our own Paul Marks, while Carl Hiaasen has put his stamp on South Florida, as Anne Cleeves’ has put hers on Shetland and the multitude of northern noir writers on Scandinavia and Scotland. Frenchwoman Fred Vargas, currently making Paris dangerous, also includes the Pyrenees, which take up a good deal of psychic space within the capacious mind of her Commissaire Adamsberg.

I have my favorite places, too, but thinking about the topic, I realized that I have only rarely set mystery novels in them. My first detective, Anna Peters, hung out in Washington, D.C., a consequence of her remote inspiration in the Watergate hearings. At the time of the scandal, I was convinced on that some underpaid secretary knew a whole lot she wasn’t saying. I devised such a secretary and moved her to an oil company.
Anna Peters' early environment

When Anna proved modestly popular, her speciality, white collar crime, kept her in big cities with only the occasional side trip to the sort of rural setting I really prefer. She had a visit to St. Andrews, Scotland, one of the world’s great good places, and got to Patagonia, Arizona, a favorite birding location, as well as to Trier, a shabby and historic burg whose Roman ruins caught my eye. But, basically, Anna was stuck in urban life – or well-heeled suburbs.

My second series character, Francis Bacon, the Anglo-Irish painter and bon vivant, was the urban man par excellence, and his city was London, whose light and ambiance encouraged good work. A serious asthmatic, he loathed the country and all its works. Animals made him sick and he thoroughly disliked them – despite the fact that two of his finest paintings depict a screaming baboon and a mastiff. He also did a fine African landscape, complete with elephant, but that did not reconcile him to any place without sidewalks.
Soho, Francis' favorite venue

This inexplicable distaste for the natural world and its more attractive inhabitants was, along with his tin ear for music, the hardest thing  about turning the real Bacon into my character. His rather gaudy sex life, his alcoholism, his genius were the merest bumps in the road compared to constructing a man who hated and feared dogs and found the rural landscape boring.

Perhaps in retaliation, my version of Bacon was frequently in difficulty in rural areas – no doubt confirming all his prejudices. He wound up on camel back in the wilds of Morocco, drove in terror down vertiginous French roads, and effected a rescue on horseback in Germany. His trials and tribulations culminated at a real English country house, his absolute least favorite venue, in his last (and final) outing, Mornings in London.

My own favorite landscape – the rolling woods and farmland of New York state and New England – have been reserved for stand alone, mostly contemporary, novels. Night Bus was set in a fictional town that drew from our village and the one next to it, while Voices went right back to my hometown in Dutchess County, where I am happy to say, the landscape of roughly fifty years earlier was waiting for me.
nearby rail to trail conversion

And that brings me to one of the great pleasures of favorite and familiar landscapes and, indeed, of memory, which I can best illustrate with reference to the climax of Night Bus, which required a lonely cabin in the Adirondacks. I was in such a cabin only once, when I was 18, but unbeknownst to me, the neurons, which had forgotten so much else, remembered exactly what I needed, right down to how the water supply turned on. It was one of the weirdly satisfying moments in my writing life.

It is not often that the pulp fiction writer channels Proust, but the French master of memory was absolutely right about recapturing the past. He wrote that memory, in awakening the past, frees it and the remembering mind for a moment from time. Proust mentions sounds and, that most evocative and primitive of senses, smell, as triggering memory. It is the sound and smell and sight of our favorite places that so often bring us what we need as writers, not only the momentary setting but the weight and flavor of the past.

Do you have favorite literary places as either writer or reader?
Not all favorite places wind up in print

05 February 2020

Shot By Your Partner


Rob Lopresti and cat
Let's talk about Machine of Death, a concept I mentioned back in October (and will review below).  I wrote two short stories for the sequel book and both were rejected. I lamented here that the concept was so specific I would never be able to get the stories published.

And Leigh asked: “Why not put them up at SleuthSayers?”

Why not indeed?

The idea began in a cartoon by Ryan North. Imagine a machine: you put a drop of your blood in it and out pop a card telling you how you will die. It is always right.

But like oracles in thousands of years of stories, it can be misleading and ambiguous. Old age could mean a nonagenarian collapses at the wheel of his car tomorrow and runs you over. Mary could refer to your beloved wife, or a hurricane.

North edited a book with David Malki! (yes,the exclamation point is part of his name) and Matthew Bennardo. It was so successful that they announced there would be a sequel and invited submissions.

I sent in two and, as you guessed, they were both rejected. Below you will find the one that is crime-related. Specifically I wondered: How would homicide investigations operate in the world of the Machine?

I hope you enjoy it.


Shot by Your Partner

“It’s the oldest question,” said Staney. “Did Adam fall, or was he pushed?”

"The dude’s name was Arthur, not Adam,” said Merritt. “Arthur Duplessis.”

“That was a metaphor. I was waxing philosophical.”

“You better watch that waxing. Hey! There’s your cause of death. Overwaxing.”

“Uh, listen,” said the coroner’s tech. He was standing at the bottom of the staircase, examining the corpse that was the reason for the gathering. “It’s not official yet, but the cause of death is a broken neck.”

“Wasn’t talking to you, sonny,” said Merritt. “My partner, Detective First Class Staney here, refuses to tell me what the death-box predicted for him.”

"None of your business.”

“You see what he’s like. But he promised that if I ever guessed correctly he would admit it.”

“I don’t remember saying that.”

“But I do. Choking on peanut butter.”

“No.” Staney looked around what was obviously the secondary staircase for this wing of the mansion. While it was a poor stepcousin of the curving grand staircase at the other end of the floor - a football team could have run up that one without feeling pinched - it was still better decorated than his own living room. “I take it Mr. Duplessis owned this place. Who are all those folks upstairs?”

The first uniform to arrive on the scene stepped forward. Her name tag said WALLINSKY. “The victim and his wife were hosting a fashion show. There were over a hundred people in the ballroom.”

“And nobody saw anything,” Merritt guessed.

“Not the ones we’ve talked to so far. They were all watching the show. And the room was dark except for the lights on the runway.”

“So Duplessis slipped out of the ballroom,” said Staney. “An older guy, stepping out of the darkness onto a brightly lit landing. He didn’t see where he was going and he took a tumble down the stairs. Could have happened.”

“In which case we can go home early.” Merritt frowned. “Who puts their ballroom on the second floor? When I win the lottery I’m building mine near the front door.”

“Billionaires do as they please. Ours not to reason why. Ours is to figure out if Mr. D. got a boost up on the way down.”

“Uh…” said the tech.

“Spit it out, sonny.”

“I’ve found something that might help you with that.”

“We’re all ears.”

“There’s a gash on the side of his head, above the temple.”

“And he didn’t get it falling down the stairs?”

“I don’t think so, sir. More like a blunt instrument.”

“Like maybe the cane?” asked Staney.

“Cane?”

“The wooden number with the silver handle. It’s lying near the wall behind you.”

“Get the Scenies to check it for prints and tissue,” said Merritt. “What’s your name, by the way?”

“Me?” The tech looked startled. “Uh. Davis.”

“Okay, Davis. Good work. Could that blow have killed him?”

“I don’t think so, sir. But it could have made him dizzy, disoriented.”

“And then he falls,” said Staney. “Felony murder.”

“Or gets pushed,” said Merritt. “Plain old vanilla murder. Hey, that’s your cause. Vanilla murder.”

“No. But that brings up the obvious question. Did our boy have a death tag?”

“If not, it’s too late now.”

Not long after the machine was invented a clever cop took a blood sample from a corpse and ran it through a box to see if something helpful popped out, like maybe the killer’s name and address.

Instead what she got was Division by zero error. Later trials with blood samples which had been taken before the victim croaked got the same result.

Implying that, somehow, the damned machines knew when somebody died. That wasn’t widely advertised since it was, as one distinguished biologist put it, “creepy as hell.”



On the other hand, the only creepy thing about Talia Duplessis was that neither cop could tell whether she was a thirty-year-old woman dipped in too much make-up or a fifty-year-old woman who had spent a lot of quality time with expensive surgeons. She looked terrific but a little artificial.

“I can’t believe he’s dead,” she said, again. They were in the main wing of the mansion, where the lucky one-percenters lived, as opposed to the side where they entertained. The cops were interviewing her in a room she called the salon, which looked to Staney like a museum exhibit on conspicuous consumption. “He was only sixty-seven.”

“We noticed he had a cane,” said Staney.

“Yes. Arthur suffered from rheumatoid arthritis, and it was getting worse. He should have used a walker, or a scooter. But he was too proud.” She frowned. “But why did he use the side stairs? There’s an elevator in the main hall.”

“Do you know why he was going downstairs in the first place?”

“No.”

“Where were you when he fell?”

“Me?” She paused to think. “One of the anterooms on the other side of the ballroom. Ed and I were checking the last minute details.”

“Ed?”

“Ed Forillo. Arthur’s assistant.”

“What was your husband’s business, by the way?” asked Merritt. “Was he a fashion designer?”

“Arthur? He didn’t have a creative bone in his body. He called himself a facilitator of the arts. He owned fashion magazines, and art galleries. A movie studio.”

“Did he have any enemies?”

“Enemies? Her eyes widened. “What a strange word. So medieval. I guess he had business rivals.”

“Were any of them here tonight?”

“Most of them.” She blinked, still playing catch-up. “What does this have to do with his accident?”

“There’s some evidence the fall might not have been an accident.”

“Oh my god.”

“Ms. Duplessis, do you know whether your husband ever used a death machine?”

“What? Yes. Broke neck in fall.” She shuddered. “That’s what it said. I told him we should block off the stairs, or move to a one-story house. He just laughed and said he might fall out of bed but he wasn’t going to sleep on the floor.”



“Mr. Forillo,” said Staney, “what exactly did you do here?”

The assistant was a good-looking man, thin and just over six-foot. Maybe thirty years old. If he was broken-hearted over his boss’s death he was managing to conceal it.

“I am—I was – Mr. Duplessis’ assistant.”

“I understand he owned a lot of businesses. Which one did you work for?”

Forillo smiled briefly. “My paychecks came from his publishing house, but I didn’t really work for them. My job was to coordinate his schedule, and keep any of his enterprises from taking up too much of his time.”

“You were his flak-catcher.”

“Something like that.”

“We understand you found his body,” said Merritt.

A nod. “The show was almost over and Ms. Duplessis wanted to make sure he was ready to make his speech. I didn’t see him in the hall and I thought he might have stepped out for a cigar.”

“His wife objected to him smoking? Even with the new med tobacco?”

“It’s terrible for people with arthritis.”

“I guess so,” said Staney. “How did you get along with Mr. Duplessis?”

A shrug. “I’ve had better employers, and worse. The money is good.”



A squad of detectives kept at the interviews until one A.M. when a wealthy guest persuaded the deputy chief to send everyone home.

“I don’t get it,” said Merritt, as they drove back to the station.

“What’s your problem now?”

“A man with all the money in the world, knew he was going to die in a fall. Why didn’t he move to a single story house? Hell, he could have hired a guard to stand at the top of the stairs, 24/7. Both staircases.”

“I guess he didn’t worry about it.”

“It’s crazy. You don’t see me going near a domestic disturbance.”

“If you keep slipping around on Vivian, I can tell you exactly which domestic disturbance you’ll die at. Hell, I can give you the address.”

“Wise ass. Hey, have I ever asked you if you die in a Domestic disturbance too?”

“You have.”



“Duplessis left the hall around ten and left this world before ten-twenty,” said Merritt the next morning. “Lao, our tame computer geek, pulled an all-nighter creating a matrix based on the statements of the guests. We have a list of everyone who isn’t alibied by at least two people.”

“We owe Lao a beer.”

“She doesn’t drink, but I’ll send her cheeseburgers with curly fries.”

“I don’t know how anyone can eat that crap,” said Staney.

“I guess she isn’t scheduled to die of a heart attack. Have I asked—”

“Yes. How many people are on that no-alibi list?”

“Nine. Including the grieving widow and the cold fish assistant.”

“Let’s see the others first.”



“I want to be diplomatic,” said Curtis Houston. “Speak no ill of the dead and all that. Arthur Duplessis was a turd in a five-grand suit.”

Staney’s eyes widened. “What would you say if you weren’t being diplomatic?”

“Just add examples, I suppose.”

Houston’s fashion business took up most of the ten-story building where they were seated. His office had a great view in two directions.

“What would his friends say?” asked Merritt.

“Hmm. That’s a puzzle.” He frowned at the ceiling. “I imagine they’d say that whatever he paid them to be his friends wasn’t nearly enough. Duplessis was vain, arrogant, and ruthless, never forgot a slight – I once saw him get a waiter fired merely because he looked like a different waiter Arthur hadn’t liked. I’m serious. He bragged about that.”

“So, he wasn’t an easy man to get along with.”

“No one got along with Arthur. You did what he wanted or you stayed the hell out of his way. You might think the MS would have made him take a broader view of things, but it just made him meaner.”

“MS?”

“Multiple sclerosis. Talia didn’t mention that?”

“She said he had rheumatoid arthritis.”

“It was more serious than that.” Houston shrugged. “Don’t ask me how I know. Of course he wanted to keep it secret from his competitors, but I’m surprised he would lie to his wife about it. Or maybe she lied to
you.”

“How was Mr. Duplessis as a businessman?”

“The instincts of a Rockefeller. The ethics of a pickpocket.” Houston smiled. “If gravity had an email account, I’d send it a thank you.”

“What if it isn’t gravity that gets the credit?” asked Merritt.

Houston’s eyes widened. “You mean – was he pushed?”

“If he was, who had a motive? Besides you, of course.”

“Me?” He looked astonished. “Don’t be silly. I loved the man!”



The next few interviews didn’t do much except confirm that Duplessis had not been a popular guy.

Suspect number six was Charlotte Wyngood, the victim’s lawyer.

“I understand due diligence, detectives, but I hope this isn’t going to turn into harassment of my client.”

”I thought your client was dead,” said Staney.

“I worked for both husband and wife.”

“Any conflict of interest there?”

She frowned. “What’s your point, exactly? Several people have told me you are asking some pretty rude questions.”

“Police investigations can get rude,” Merritt agreed. “That’s the worst thing about murder, I’ve always said.”

“Who said murder? Mr. Duplessis fell down the staircase.”

“After someone hit him on the head with his own cane.”

“Perhaps falling down the stairs…”

“He bumped the cane hard enough to leave blood on it? No.”

“I don’t see what this has to do with Ms. Duplessis.”

“We’re checking on everyone who isn’t alibied by at least two witnesses. For example, no one saw you after ten P.M.”

Wyngood’s eyebrows went up. “Oh, that’s why you’re here. The truth is, fashion shows bore me to tears. I was in one of the little rooms on the west side making business calls. I’m sure you can check my phone log.”

“Can and will. What did you think of Mr. Duplessis?”

A thin smile. “He paid his bills on time. And gave me some interesting challenges.”

“Ethical challenges?” asked Staney.

“I don't know what you’re implying-- Excuse me.” She looked at her phone. “Oh. It’s lucky you came by, detectives. A technician has arrived to open Mr. Duplessis’ safe.”

“And under Patriot Act III law enforcement representatives need to be present,” said Staney.

“To make sure there are no terrorist funds,” said Merritt, with a straight face.

“Very commendable,” said Wyngood, dryly. “Shall we go?”



“I say we’ll find a ton of Gazas in the safe,” said Staney, in the car. They were following the lawyer, who had refused to travel in a police car, even an unmarked one.

“Mind they don’t fall on you,” said Merritt. “Is that it? Crushed by a pile of gold coins?”

“My god, don’t you ever let up?”



The safe was a state-of-the-art cube six feet on a side, residing in the back of a closet in the victim’s dressing room.

The tech from the safe company was a state-of-the-art nerd with assorted gadgets hard-wired to his body. Once he had seen the court order, confirmed that cops were present, and received a thumb ID from the widow, the actual opening of the safe happened so fast as to seem an afterthought.

And a disappointment, too. Talia Duplessis immediately pulled out a leather folder. “Arthur’s will,” she explained, and handed it to Wyngood.

The rest of the loot was paperwork, stocks, and bonds.

Merritt was the first to spot a familiar rectangle of stiff white paper. “I’ll take that,” he said, picking up the death card in a gloved hand.

He read it and his eyebrows shot up. Then he handed it to Staney.

“Ms. Duplessis, what did you say was the machine’s prediction for your husband’s death?”

“Broke neck in fall.”

“That’s what I thought. So how do you explain this?”

Staney held the card out delicately, keeping it out of everyone’s reach. In the center of the card were the words: Talia and Ed.



Ah, but that's not the end of the story!  For the rest of the investigation click here..

04 February 2020

Words you think are synonyms--but they're not!



 Are there some word choices that drive you nuts? Or should that be crazy? English is full of synonyms. And it's full of words that many people think are synonymous but actually aren't. For the sake of language purists out there, I'm going to touch on some of these words that often are used interchangeably but shouldn't be.



Eager versus Anxious

Anxious has anxiety wound up in it. (Notice the first four letters in both words are the same!) If you are anxious about something that may happen or that will happen, you are worried about it. Eager, in contrast, has a positive connotation. If you are eager for something to happen, you are ... well, eager. Looking forward to it. So if you lost a tooth and know the tooth fairy always brings you a tidy sum, you are eager for the morning to come so you can check under your pillow. But if you are afraid of the dentist and need to have a tooth pulled, you are anxious about your upcoming appointment.

Convince versus Persuade

The difference here is subtle. You persuade someone else to do something. You convince someone that something is true. Persuade has an action element to it. Convince doesn't. So just remember: persuade to versus convince that. Example: I persuaded the love of my life to marry me by convincing him that I was the best thing that ever happened to him.

Currently versus Presently

Currently means something is happening right now. Presently means something is about to happen. I understand why people think these words are synonyms. The word presently sure sounds like it should mean in the present, but it doesn't. Example 1: Currently I am typing. I am about to finish this paragraph, and presently I'll begin the next one. Example 2: When a plane is a minute from landing, it currently is in the air but presently it will be landing.

Momentarily versus In a Moment

Momentarily addresses how long something is going to happen--for a moment. The term in a moment addresses when something is going to happen. Example 1: In a moment I'm going to pause momentarily (i.e., for a moment) to take a drink of water. Example 2: The terminally ill man may die in a moment or any moment now. But he's not going to die momentarily unless you expect he'll die and then come back to life soon after.

Historic versus Historical

If something is historic, it has importance in history. If something is historical, it happened in an earlier period of history. The election of the first female president of the United States will be historic. The mystery novel set in the year 1900 is considered historical.

Do you have any words you often see used as synonyms that shouldn't be? Please share in the comments.

And a little BSP:

I'm delighted that my short story "Alex's Choice" has been nominated for the Agatha Award this year. The story appeared in the anthology Crime Travel. You can read it on my website by clicking here. I'm nominated along with some fine writers: Kaye George, Cynthia Kuhn, Shawn Reilly Simmons, and fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor. The attendees of the Malice Domestic convention will vote on the winner during the convention in May. Links to all the nominated stories are available on the Malice website, which you can reach by clicking here. Then scroll down to the story titles.

03 February 2020

Crime Scene Comix Case 2020-01-007, Shifty Railroaded


Thus far this year, we haven’t visited our criminally favorite cartoonist, Future Thought channel of YouTube. We love the sausage-shaped Shifty, a Minion gone bad.

Not merely sausage-like, this villain is a shape-shifter of sorts. Our non-too-bright criminal robs a bank. He conceives of an ingenious escape plan. Brilliant, except for the unforeseen…


That’s today’s crime cinema. Hope you enjoyed the show. Be sure to visit Future Thought YouTube channel.

02 February 2020

When Opposites Repel


Leigh Lundin
Contronyms

Recently, we brought you an outrageous example of those Brexit colonialists claiming North Americans misuse ‘nonplussed’ to mean ‘unperturbed’ rather than ‘confused surprise’. Hmmph.

Thus nonplussed, I brought in the legendary James Lincoln Warren to sort out the word ‘belie’ in the same article. Today, we hope to render you further nonplussed with a list of forty dastardly contronyms, words with opposite meanings. Let’s have at it.

The ⇆ Glossary

belie
The subject gives lie to the object; the object gives lie to the subject.
bill
Having money (currency); owing money or seeking money owed.
bolt
To flee; to hold together.
bound
Head toward a destination, restrained from heading anywhere.
buckle
To fasten or join together; to collapse under pressure.
citation
Praising an act; issuing summons for an illegal act.
cleave
To adhere together; to split apart.
clip
To fasten together with a paperclip; to detach with shears.
consult
To seek advice; to give advice.
custom
A common practice; a unique bespoke item.
dust
To apply a fine power; to remove fine powder.
either
One or the other; both (original meaning; i.e, surrounded on either side).
enjoin
To order someone to act; to prohibit someone from acting.
fast
Firmly fixed, unmovable; unattached and able to move quickly.
finished
Completed; wrecked, destroyed.
garnish
To add or enhance (foods); to seize or withhold (wages).
handicap
An advantage to equalize (golf); disadvantage rendering equality difficult.
lease
To rent property; to offer property for rent.
leave
To remove oneself from a location; to be left behind in a location.
left
Departed; remained behind.
literally
Precisely and concretely; figuratively (through misuse).
model
Original upon which others are based; a copy.
off
Not operating (i.e, lights went off); operating (alarm went off).
original
A fresh idea; an old notion.
out
Visible (stars are out); invisible (lights are out).
Lookout Mountain, Tennessee
Overseeing Lookout Mountain
© courtesy Town of
Lookout Mountain, Tennessee
overlook
See to; fail to see.
refrain
To repeat an action; to not perform an action at all.
peruse
To skim; to read carefully (original meaning).
ravel
To separate; to become entangled.
rent
To lease; to offer property for lease.
sanction
To approve an act; to punish an act.
screen
To hide, obscure; to show (a film).
seed
To add seed (to a lawn); to remove seed (from a melon).
strike
To hit; to not hit (a baseball).
transparent
Invisible; obvious.
trim
To add (decorations). to remove (hair).
variety
A particular type; many types.
wear
To endure; to deteriorate.
weather
To withstand or endure; to be worn away.
Note: I have not included word combinations and phrases such as ‘back up’, ‘hold up’, ‘go off’, ‘out of’, ‘throw out’, and ‘wound up’ that can imply their own opposites.

Confused? My job’s complete. Can you think of others?

01 February 2020

Literary Trivia, Recycled




Since I was in a reminiscing mood the other day--and since I was having trouble coming up with an idea for today's column--I took a look at what I'd posted exactly ten years ago at the Criminal Brief mystery blog (the predecessor to SleuthSayers). Oddly enough, my subject that day was one I was discussing with a friend just last week: trivia about writers.

I have taken the liberty of re-posting that piece of nonsense here. You'll see some things that might be a bit off, including my mention of a couple of authors in the present tense who have since died and at least one research mistake (Christie did NOT kill off Miss Marple in Sleeping Murder, as my source said she did)--but I hope you might find a few interesting facts here. I know one thing for sure: our odd fascination with trivial details will always be around. 

Anyhow, here's that old column. Where'd all that time go . . . ? 


INSIDE INFO, by John M. Floyd

Saturday, January 30, 2010

(Yes, I know this isn't EXACTLY ten years ago--but it's close.)




I like trivia. I always have. I think it's fun to discover little-known and often useless facts about the people and places and things that share our world. Who knows, maybe it's fun because it is useless: the pursuit of meaningless information is more like play than work, and we have plenty enough work in our lives.

Stalking the rich and famous

Apparently I'm not alone in my fondness for unimportant details. We all know how the general public loves to get the skinny on celebrities and their antics. There seems to be no end to the number of fans who want to know what J-Lo wore to her premiere last night or what kind of cereal George Clooney eats for breakfast.

I can understand that, in a way. I like finding out that Sinatra was the producers' first choice to play Dirty Harry, and that E.T.'s voice was really Debra Winger's. But I'm also interested in another area of trivia: writers, and their backgrounds and habits. Because of that, I keep an eye open (both of them, occasionally) for little tidbits that shed more light on the sometimes secret lives of authors.

The quirks of Shakespeare

Here are some of those pieces of information that I've picked up and stored away in notebooks over the years. I can't remember where I found most of them, but at least a few came from a book called Writing the Popular Novel, by Loren Estleman. He calls them "Fiction Facts":


- At one point, Mickey Spillane was the author of seven of the ten best-selling novels of all time.

- F. Scott Fitzgerald kept track of his plotlines by pinning the drafts of his chapters up on his walls.

- When J. K. Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter novel, she typed three separate copies because she couldn't afford copying fees.

- Ian Fleming named his main character after reading a book called Birds of the West Indies, by James Bond. He liked the name because he considered it dull and bland and therefore appropriate for a secret agent.

- While serving as president of Anderson Manufacturing, Sherwood Anderson abruptly walked out of his office one day to pursue a career as an author (good for him!). Also in the "odd exit" department: Years later, Anderson died from peritonitis after swallowing a toothpick hidden in an hors d'oeuvre.

- Agatha Christie, who was convinced that others might exploit two of her main characters after her death, killed them off in two books--Jane Marple in Sleeping Murder and Hercule Poirot in Curtain--and arranged to have them published posthumously.

- Jack London once ran for mayor of Oakland, California, on the Social Party ticket; Upton Sinclair once ran for governor of California.

- In 1939 Ernest Vincent Wright wrote a 50,000-word novel called Gadsby without ever using the letter "e."

- The prolific John Creasey is said to have written his first published novel on the backs of more than seven hundred rejection letters.

- Jack Kerouac mounted a continuous roll of teletype paper above his typewriter so he wouldn't have to crank in new sheets.

- Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow's literary heritage: a number of Bonnie's poems were accepted and published in newspapers in 1933, while she was eluding the FBI--and a letter from Clyde to Henry Ford, praising the Ford as a getaway car, is now on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

- When asked what one of his stories meant, William Faulkner once replied, "How should I know? I was drunk when I wrote it."

- Erle Stanley Gardner dictated his books orally.

- Arthur Conan Doyle was an ophthalmologist; since it didn't pay particularly well, he took up writing only as a way to make ends meet.

- Frankly, my dear, Margaret Mitchell wrote the ending of Gone With the Wind first and wrote the opening only after the book was accepted for publication, ten years later.

- Both Robert Louis Stevenson and Mark Twain liked to write lying down, Ben Franklin and Vladimir Nabokov often wrote while in the bathtub, and Lewis Carroll and Ernest Hemingway (after injuring his back in a plane crash) wrote standing up.

- Rescued at the last moment: Tabitha King retrieved Carrie from her husband's wastebasket (the Kings were almost starving at the time), and the son of Leo Tolstoy fished the discarded manuscript of War and Peace out of a drainage ditch.

- Elmore Leonard writes everything in longhand, on yellow legal pads.

- Six-foot-six Thomas Wolfe also preferred to write standing up, using the top of his refrigerator for a desk.

- Charles Dickens's dream was to be a comic actor. Thankfully, he wasn't very good at it and decided on another career instead.

- J. D. Salinger sometimes avoids interruptions by writing in a concrete bunker near his home.

- It is said that Hemingway's simple, terse style came from the fact that he had memorized the King James version of the Bible and could recite it by heart.

- Stephen King wrote the first pages of Misery in a London hotel at a desk that had belonged to Rudyard Kipling.

- Switching horses in midstream: Janet Evanovich started out writing romances, Elmore Leonard started with Westerns, Lawrence Block started with erotica. And both James Dickey (Deliverance) and James Harrison (Legends of the Fall) published poetry long before they published fiction.

- William Sydney Porter (O. Henry) got the idea for his pseudonym from a guard, Orrin Henry, who befriended him while he was serving time in prison for embezzlement.



You get the idea: writers are a different breed, and writing itself is a strange occupation. But, as Stephen the Kingster once said, "It's better than having to pay a psychiatrist."




Just as recycling a long-ago column is better than having to dream up a new one. (I promise I'll post one next time that hasn't been previously driven.)

One more piece of trivia, in the where-has-the-time-gone department: Fifty years ago tomorrow, I signed on with IBM, fresh out of college, and stayed there 30 years. Great jumpin' Jiminy.

A final note: In the comments following this original post, that smartaleck Leigh Lundin asked if I could write my next blog post without using the letter "e." My response was: "Of cours I will." (But I didn't. Mayb nxt tim.)

Have a great February.





31 January 2020

What's a Plot?


I was asked about plot often when I taught creative writing classes and put together a lecture from information obtained from too many sources to list – writers, editors, publishers, art directors, couple guys on the street, a drunk woman in a French Quarter bar. More of an explanation than a guideline but some people found it helpful.

What's the structure of a plot?

1. Beginning – initial action of a situation. Often the problem (s) to be solved is introduced.

2. Middle – the part of the story which shows the hero's attempts to solve the problem.

3. Ending – the natural result of what happened in the middle. The hero either succeeds of fails or learn from the effot.

The modern dramatic plot.

INTENT – hero wants to achieve something.

FIRST BARRIER – something stands in the way.

FIRST BARRIER REVERSAL – hero does something to overcome to the first barrier.

HIGH POINT OF ACTION – hero is about to achieve his/her intention. Things look good at this point.

SECOND REVERSAL or RUG-PULLING – something happens to frustrate the hero.

CATASTHOPHE – hero falls to low point, may be permanently thwarted or even killed.

RESOLUTION – hero may get though it all and achieve his/her intent.

Plot is the catalyst to reveal character.

Start by answering the plot key:

"It is the story of _______________________ who wants to _____________________.

This is revealed through the character's external actions and internal thoughts.

Harry Whittington, in the introduction to his noir mystery FIRES THAT DESTROY, put it like this, "Once I have worked out a plot key, which will unlock the mystery, I know where I'm going, even if I don't know how I will get there."

from the cover of FIRES THAT DESTROY by Harrt Whittington

Writer-Editor Algis Budrys put it in his Seven elements of plot structure:

BEGINNING
1. A character(s)
2. in a situation
3. with a problem(s)

MIDDLE
4. character(s) makes an intelligent effort to solve the problem(s)
and
5. fails (repeat as necessary)

END
6. character(s) finally succeeds in solving the problem(s)
7. validation quickly follows
edited by Algis Budrys

There are so many ways to put it.

A Plot needs:

1. Forward Movement. Move character along his/her course.

2. Twists and Surprises. Conflict, problems that must be overcome. The unexpected should be there, yet it shoiuld be logical.

3. Darkest Hour. Just before the climax, where all seems lost for the hero.

4. Climax. The high point where the quest ends.

5. Character Change. Story usually has an effect on the hero and he/she evolves.

Do these guidelines work all the time? No. There are no rules to writing, just suggestions.

Thats all for now –
http://www.oneildenoux.com

30 January 2020

Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered...


First of all, a big shout out to Janet Rudolph and her posting of one of the funniest - and truest - reads I've seen in a while:  "Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village" by Maureen Johnson.  (Read the whole HERE)  Read it now, and then come back and  I'll continue on with some more handy tips.

When it comes to English Villages, I bow to her amazing expertise and only add one extra warning:  Don't be a spy.

Half of episodes of the 1960s TV show The Avengers were Mrs. Peel and John Steed tracking down dead / missing spies or each other in quaint English villages.  (The Town of No Return, Small Game for Big Hunters, The Living Dead, etc.)

My personal favorite was Epic (Season 5, Episode 11), where a bunch of has-been retired silent film stars kidnap Emma to make "The Death of Emma Peel" which was, from the scenes we see being filmed, a mish-mash of everything from Mourning Becomes Electra to The Perils of Pauline.  Absolutely hilarious.




When it comes to American small towns, the immediately obvious murder victims are:

The man/woman everyone hates.  And there is always at least one.

The town gossip.  These come in two types:  mean and relatively harmless.  In real life, the mean ones almost never get killed (mainly because they're very scary) while the harmless ones sometimes do when they get hold of the right information at the wrong time and pass it on to the wrong person.

The unknown ex-_________ of someone important who comes to town and pretends they're just passing through.  Next thing you know, they're dead.  If you're someone's ex, don't visit their small town unannounced.

The person on the phone who is just about to give valuable information about who / what / where / why.  (This was more fun back in the days when they got coshed on the head at a public phone booth, but cycling at the gym while on the smartphone works, too.)

There are no impoverished aristocrats.  However, there is always at least one Pioneer Family who by now has run to seed and drugs.  (See Neil Inveig, found shot to death in the opening of my own Public Immunity, who was Laskin's drug dealer among the upper crust.  There's still considerable argument in Laskin about who actually killed him, and it crops up every once in a while.)  Anyway, this feckless person is usually the catalyst, and occasionally the victim, of murder.

The pregnant girlfriend of the man everyone hates, the feckless Pioneer descendant, the sleazy politician / sheriff / officer.  This ties right into the basic American trope of:  if a woman wants to stay alive, she must not have sex with anyone outside of marriage, but even within marriage, don't marry the hero!  See my February column, Why There Always Has to Be a Virgin.

Don't be any of these.

As far as dangerous places in American small towns, there are some significant differences from English villages:

If you're in the High Plains and / or the West, "quaint" is not the term to use for many small towns.  Windswept, yes.  Desolate, even.  But not quaint.

The Last Picture Show (1971)
Shot of "Anarene, TX" main street  from The Last Picture Show, IMDB


Also, no American bar is as sacred in the same way as the English pub.  Murders happen.

On the other hand, not many people get murdered in American churches (gunned down by a mass shooter is another story), perhaps because that steeple is an obvious target for God's wrath in the form of a bolt of lightning, and most everyone truly believes in God's wrath.  After all, they've lived through floods, fires, tornadoes, (hurricanes on the coasts) massive thunderstorms, earthquakes, hail at harvest time, droughts, etc.  Most farmers and ranchers expect wrath to be unleashed at various intervals, so it's best not to anticipate it by downright blasphemy.

People are not nearly as fetishistic about trains in America as in Britain.  Oh, they have their fans, and most people enjoy a nostalgic ride on one, but the truth is when it comes to trains, Sheldon Cooper is far more British than American.

I think some of the reason is that Americans prefer individual transportation.  Fast cars.  Pick up trucks.  Small planes are popular.  Also ATVs, jetskis, motorcycles, snowmobiles, and anything else that can make a significant amount of noise and cover a lot of ground fast.

There are no marble busts in American small towns.  There are (more or less) bronze statues.

The varieties of death available to the average American increases dramatically as you head into the hinterlands.  Farms often have passels of hogs (which will eat anything), and other large animals that could be used to stomp someone to death, not to mention lots of heavy equipment.  Even in town, there are sheds stuffed to the gills with the odd stuff that could be used for nefarious purposes, from post-hole diggers to sledgehammers.  One of the reasons that English villages are quaint is that they apparently never need of any of these things.  Gardening shears seem to be as much as they ever use, at least on TV.

But the main difference, of course, between America and England is lots and lots and lots of guns.

'Nuff said.

29 January 2020

You've Tried The Rest; Now Read The Best




This is my eleventh annual list of the best mystery stories of the year as chosen by me. They are selected from my weekly best-story-review at Little Big Crimes.

2019 was the second year in a row that my number of favorites dropped by three.  So I have to ask my sibling authors: Is it you or me?  Probably me.   

The big winner this year is Akashic Press, since fully half of the stories come from their anthologies.  I should point out that they sent me free advance reader copies of all those books.  You cynics can draw your own conclusions.

Alfred Hitchcock and Ellery Queen Mystery Magazines both scored two winners.

Seven authors are men; five are women.  Two are Australian; one is Dutch.  The rest, as far as I know, are Yankees.

Three of the stories are historicals.  Three are funny.  Two have fantasy elements.

And congrats to the winners.  Your impressive trophies are in the mail.  If they never show up it's the fault of porch pirates.  Probably.




Boswell, Robert, "The Use of Landscape," in Houston Noir, edited by Gwendolyn Zepeda, Akashic Press, 2019.

Boswell offers a charming story about sociopaths.  Cole is the planner.  All he cares about is money.  Not to buy things;  just a way of keeping score.  He met his girlfriend when she tried to rob him. Tariq is a bartender and expert at cleaning crime scenes. Tariq has pointed Cole to a young woman, rich in money, poor in personality and brain power.

"Did I tell you what happened at Affirm today?" Madelyn asked.  Affirm was her gym.  She described the days activities in excruciating detail, a saga that lasted nearly twenty minutes.  Summary: she exercised.

You will be mightily entertained as the trio the narrator calls the Criminal Element plot their nastiness while discussing women's underwear and the books of Virginia Woolf.



Case, Sabrina, "Our Man in Basingstoke,"  in Fiction River: Spies, 2019.

Pity Sir Almsley.  He gave his estate to the War Office to help fight the Nazis, not expecting that he would be put in charge of a project to create new espionage techniques.  He has no skills in that field, his mission is underfunded, and his staff consists of what the sergeant calls "a human scrap metal drive."

But that's not all.  Peter Tilling, an enthusiastic and imaginative child, has been sent to a nearby farm to protect him from the blitz in London.  He is eager to slip into Almsley's estate to see the top-secret devices being built there.  Good luck with that, young Peter....



Clancy, Christi, "'Mocking Season," in Milwaukee Noir, edited by Tim Hennessy, Akashic Press, 2019.

Whitefish Bay is a pleasant bit of suburbia until it is disturbed by the arrival of Erin, who we might perhaps call a middle-aged hippy.  She lived in the one home that was not visible from the street, which disturbs the keepers of community norms, "the mothers," who feel that "It didn't seem right to live where you couldn't be seen."  And then there is her charismatic son Lief, who gets the boys into strange habits, like sleeping out doors.  That may be problematic because the mothers seem to care more about their yards than anything else...


Coward, Mat, "Shall I be Murder?", in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, January/February 2019.

In Coward's second appearance on my list, our narrator gleefully explains that he is "a self-confessed unreliable narrator."  Is he, as it appears, a blackmailer?  A murderer, perhaps?  Or something else entirely?  And clearly his obvious lying is part of his plan, but why?


Dapin, Mark.  "In the Court of the Lion King," in Sydney Noir, edited by John Dale, Akashic Press, 2019.

Chevy is an architect and he is in prison awaiting trial.  The police have security camera evidence that he killed his best friend, Jamie.

Fortunately, Chevy has a lawyer: an ex-girlfriend with no knack for the legal profession.  Oh, and the Vietnamese  in the prison want him dead.  Maybe the Lion King, a disgusting gang boss, can protect him for a price.

Don't worry.  Everything is going according to Chevy's plan...


Dean, David, "The Duelist," Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, May/June 2019.

My friend and fellow SleuthSayer, David Dean, is making his fourth appearance here.  This ties him for first place with Janice Law.

The time is pre-Civil War and the place is Natchez, Mississippi.  Captain Noddy has a habit of taking offense at innocent remarks by country bumpkins, and then taking their lives in duels.

Now a down-on-his-luck gambler named Darius LeClair has arrived in town and seems quite careless in talking to the dangerous captain.  Is he foolish or is he doing it on purpose?  Is he in fact a gambler or something quite different?



Fusilli, Jim, "Niall Nelson is on my Flight," in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, September/October 2019.

Betty's point: You don't send money back.  You don't negotiate out of insecurity.  You push hard.  You demand.
My question: Do they really want me?

Paul has written a treatment for a movie based on the life of musician Nick Drake and now he is flying to France to talk to a studio interested in  making the flick.  He is afraid he is not good enough.  His much-younger wife Betty clearly thinks he is not ambitious enough.   And it turns out a famous A-list actor is on their flight, someone Betty thinks he should find a way to talk to...

I love Fusilli's clever  had-I-but-known use of foreshadowing.  It was one of those men, I later learned, who set out to harm us.  




McCormick, William Burton. "The Three Camillas,"  Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine,  July/August 2019.

This is the second appearance here by McCormick.

The story is set during the rule of Caligula the mad in the Roman empire.  The narrator is Camilla Tertia, which is to say, the third Camilla. Tertia is twelve and, she reports proudly, "already considered far and wide the scoundrel and gossip of the family."

Her sister Secunda is about to make an unhappy marriage.  Tertia decides it can be prevented if her expensive engagement ring is lost - a bad omen!  And who better to make it disappear than Quintus the Clever, the luckless thief?  "Be an honest man, Quintus, and rob my sister!" 



McFadden, Bernice L. "OBF, Inc," in Cutting Edge, edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Akashic Press, 2019.

Andrew is being laid off because the head of his company has been accused of multiple sexual harassment issues, leading the corporate stock to walk off a cliff.

But good news!  OBF, Inc. wants to talk to him about a possible job.  What is OBF exactly and what do they do?  The answer is extremely interesting and thought-provoking.



Taylor, Art, "Hard Return,"  in Crime Travel, edited by Barb Goffman, Wildside Press, 2019.

The man and the woman had reached that stage where their relationship would either turn more serious or slowly begin to dissolve.  The seriousness wasn't about sex, a threshold they'd already crossed, but a step into some deeper, more emotional intimacy.

My fellow SleuthSayer has written a fine story about time travel as, I think, a metaphor for certain human interactions.




Tranter, Kirsten, "The Passenger,"  in Sydney Noir, edited by John Dale, Akashic Press, 2019.

It's a rare thing when I agree with the Edgars Award short story judges, but we can sing harmony on this one.

Robert reluctantly attends a birthday party for an wealthy man, who is the father of his ex-girlfriend.   The father confides that the  daughter's husband has vanished.  Can Robert help find him? And then there's the younger daughter, who is caught up with a pornographer...

If this sounds familiar it is because this is a very clever homage to a famous crime novel.



van Keulen, Mensje,  "Devil's Island," in Amsterdam Noir, edited by Rene Appel and Josh Pachter, Akashic Press, 2018.


The narrator is trying to be helpful to his friend.  Jacob's girlfriend  left him and he can't seem to get over it.  On one bad night he even says "I'd sell [the devil] my soul if he'd make Martha come back to me."

Later that evening they are standing among the cigarette puffers outside a pub when a stranger comes out of the smoke and asks Jacob for a light.  He says that he prefers the old-fashioned wooden matches called lucifers.  "I like the smell of them, though, that momentary blast of sulfur..."



28 January 2020

MGM: More Stars Than There Are in Heaven – Part II


by Paul D. Marks

We're back for Part II of my interview with Steven Bingen, co-author with Stephen Sylvester and Michael Troyan of MGM: HOLLYWOOD'S GREATEST BACKLOT.  If you missed Part I you can find it here: https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2020/01/mgm-more-stars-than-there-are-in-heaven.html .

Enjoy:


Paul: Welcome back, Steve. What are your and your co-authors backgrounds?  Tell us a little about your personal as well as Hollywood backgrounds.

Steve: There are 3 credited author's on this book, "MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot."

Years ago our agent was told by a publisher that there could never be a "unified vision" on a book with 3 perspectives.  That publisher didn't understand that we all felt exactly the same way about Hollywood's backlots and shared exactly the same odd obsessions.  Whatever the book's virtues and flaws, I defy anyone to figure out where one of our voices stops and another's starts.  Our collaborating was just like the production of most Hollywood movies.  The book's very existence is a sort of 2-Dimensional denial of the auteur theory.   Creativity by committee, if you will.

Mike (Troyan) and I both came out of Warner Bros. Corporate Archive – although his background is more academic than mine.  I have a background rooted in film production while his is more literary.  Mike is the author of "A Rose for Mrs. Miniver," about MGM star Greer Garson – which I can't recommend highly enough, by the way.

Steve (Sylvester), my other partner is in possession of vast amount knowledge and a vast collection of materials relating to MGM as a physical place.  He's the only one of us who was actually able to boast of visiting the MGM backlot before it was all destroyed.  In some ways, in visiting the studio he was able to do what I've aspired to do for my whole life. Because I was too late to see the place, the studio always seemed almost mythical, like Shangri-La or Camelot to me.  But it was real and Steve was there.  I wanted that perspective in the book.  It just seemed like a good fit for the three of us to coauthor – and it was.

Who have you contacted (MGM old-timers, etc.) and have they been willing to help?

I don't know if it was a conscious decision, but we tended to avoid talking to movie stars because their stories have been told so often, and because their worlds at the studio were so insulated.  Elizabeth Taylor was at MGM for decades, but her experience on the backlot would have consisted of being driven through the sets in a limo to her particular location.  I doubt if she would have had much opportunity or interest in exploring a place which wouldn't have seemed at all unusual to her because of the odd circumstances of her life.  It would be like asking a coal miner what was extraordinary about a mine shaft!

On the other hand we spoke to a lot of "regular people," some of whom worked on the lot for their entire careers who had amazing stories to tell, and who realized, even at the time what a bizarre and wonderful place MGM really was.  Some of our best stories were from people who grew up near the studio who used to climb the fences and explore inside as children.  I really do envy those people.

How many backlots were there?  Where?  What did they have on them?

MGM wasn't a single lot. Lot One contained the soundstages, corporate offices and post production facilities.  The backlot was literally at the rear, or back, of the plant.  As the studio grew it expanded across the street onto a property known as Lot Two.  Lot Two contained a small-town street, residential districts, railroad stations (with working trains) – the largest of which replicated New York's Grand Central Station.  It also had European and Asian villages, a jungle with a bridge, man-made lake, gardens, pools, castles, Southern and English estates, and a half dozen blocks, built full scale, replicating New York City and all its Burroughs – right down to the last street sign, man-hole cover, and fire escape.


Up the road a few blocks was Lot Three, which was even larger and contained three distinct old western settings, two more waterfront districts, a tropical rainforest, rock formations, winding roads, a Mississippi steamboat, a circus set, military bases, a POW camp, a vintage era New York Street, farms, ranches, an Arabian Knight districts and the world's largest process tank for shooting miniatures.

Lot Three was itself surrounded by the satellite lots; Four, Five, Six and Seven – which collectively housed zoos and stables, more sets, storage sheds, partial fleets of aircraft and locomotives, a peat farm….   whatever there wasn't  room for anywhere else.  When L. B. Mayer, the boss, took an interest in horse racing in the 40's, people used to suggest that the Santa Anita racetrack should perhaps be rechristened  Lot Eight!


What are your philosophical thoughts about the loss of the backlots?

I've always been haunted by and interested in Hollywood's backlots in general.  The idea that there exists places in the world where there are entire phantom towns constructed to mimic the real world – and yet where no one has ever lived, could ever live, is fascinating and mysterious and a little creepy.  Backlots are supposed to duplicate our lives, our homes, and the city streets we move thorough every day, and yet although they can be as familiar to us as places we've lived in our actual lives, they remain unknowable, untouchable, just out of normalcy and of recognition.

Backlots are like the purest form of architecture.  They really are designed just for aesthetic reasons.  The backlot architect doesn't have to worry about service elevators or building codes or faulty wiring.  A backlot just has to look good and to set a mood in order to do its job.  There are no real world considerations involved. Find an architect and ask him where else in the world that happens?

During the writing of this book it occurred to me that Hollywood's backlots are responsible for an awful lot of the defining non-movie architecture of the last century as well.  Think about it.  If Hollywood hadn't started designing sets to suggest moods or foreign settings would we really have shopping malls, or theme parks, or places like Las Vegas today?  All of these places, for good or bad, came out of backlots and the people who designed them.

I used to give tours of Warner Bros. Studio in my capacity as historian for the company.  Once I was showing the family of some executives an artificial lake out on the backlot and describing how that lake had been dressed as India for a film which I'd seen shot there.  I was going on about how the set had looked exactly like the real India when all of a sudden it occurred to me, and I told my bemused guests this, that I'd never personally been to India at all.  That my entire idea of what India is, in fact came not from the real thing, not from India at all, but rather from movies, some of which had undoubtedly been made right where we were standing right at that moment!

You should talk to my wife, she grew up in India for a time – but yes, she does have an American birth certificate....  But changing elephants in midstream now, What is your next project?

I can't speak for my partners…but…I will.  Honestly, I'm not sure if I'll ever be able to shake off the current project!  After all, I'm doomed to see the MGM backlot every time I sit back to relax and turn on the TV!

We'd love to make this book the first volume in a series about all 7 of Hollywood's major studio lots – the Seven Sisters.  I'm just not sure if logistically, and legally it's going to be possible to do so.  To look at it from the viewpoint of the other studios I can't really blame them for not wanting someone from the outside to come around and start rooting around in their past.  We were able to "do" MGM because so many different hands have been running the company and the people who owned the copyright on the materials we needed weren't the original owners. But I don't know if that set of circumstances could come up again in regards to another studio.  We'll see…

Thank you, Steve, for joining me here at SleuthSayers.  And good luck with the book. "MGM: Hollywood's Greatest Backlot" is available in bookstores and at Amazon.  Click here:



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And now for a little BSP:  I’m running a free promotion for people who subscribe to my newsletter. You can get a FREE e-copy of my novel Vortex. Just subscribe. And if you’re already a subscriber and want the novel contact me via my website or e-mail and I’ll send you the link for the download.


I'm also excited to announce that I've got a new book coming out in 2020: The Blues Don't Care. It's a little different for me. It's set in 1940s Los Angeles jazz scene during World War II. I hope you'll keep checking in for more news on this exciting new release.


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