12 November 2019

Crime Travel -- How Did We Get Here?


It seems odd yet also right that the publication date for a time-travel crime anthology seems to be sneaking up on me. It feels like ages ago when I put out the call for stories for Crime Travel. (It was about a year and a half ago.) And it feels like I've been waiting for years for the publication date to approach (maybe I have ... because, you know, time travel). But now, suddenly, the launch date is less than a month away--how did that happen?--and I'm scrambling to write this blog.

If only I could go back and write this at a more leisurely pace ...

It's August 2013. I let my beloved dog Scout go a month ago, and now I'm writing a time-travel story involving a dog. I can't bring Scout back but maybe with this fictional dog ... My friend and former critique group partner C. Ellett Logan reads the story after it's done and tells me I don't need to join a bereavement support group. I've clearly worked it all out on the page.
Scout

Later that year: The story, now named "Alex's Choice," is rejected for the first time.

2014 - 2016: I keep fiddling with the story, keep sending it out, keep getting rejections. Time travel stories can be a tough sell.

July 2016: I send the story to Linda Landrigan of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. I expect she too will pass because the story doesn't feel right for the magazine, but I figure it can't hurt to try. Linda ultimately does turn the story down, but says she liked a lot about it and it made her cry. Yes! I made Linda cry. (I know. That shouldn't make me happy. (Sorry, Linda.) But getting that reaction from her is good.)

September 2017: I gripe with my friend Donna Andrews about this story that I can't sell, and she says, "Why don't you put together your own anthology?" She has the perfect name for it, too: Crime Travel. I think about this a lot. I have experience putting together anthologies. I've done a bunch with Donna and Marcia Talley (the Chesapeake Crimes series), as well as editing one of the Malice Domestic anthologies. But this would be the first one I'd do all on my own, including choosing the stories. I'm intrigued but worried about the time commitment. Ultimately, intrigue wins out ...

Thanks for the
support, Carla!

November 2017: I talk with Carla Coupe, the then number two person at Wildside Press (who is now blissfully retired) about this anthology idea, and she likes it. We spend the next few months ironing out details.

June 2018: I put out the call for stories. Scared I'll be overrun with submissions, I only share the story announcement with the Short Mystery Fiction Society, the Chesapeake Chapter of Sister in Crime (my home chapter), the Guppies Chapter of SinC, and with my fellow bloggers here at SleuthSayers. I mention in the call for stories that the royalties will be donated to a literacy charity yet to be chosen.

November 2018: The deadline has come, and I have 53 stories to choose from. I wonder what in the world I was smoking earlier that fall when I decided to not read the submissions as they came in and instead to wait until I had them all to start my review. I had pictured myself somehow reading them all in one blissful snowy weekend. Maybe that could happen if I were a speed reader or could actually time travel. Otherwise ...

December 31, 2018: I had hoped to have the acceptance decisions made by this date. Nope.

January 31, 2019: I had hoped to have the acceptance decisions made by this date. Nope. Instead I find myself struggling to read all the stories while getting my paid work done too.

February 19, 2019: Finally, the decisions have been made. Fourteen stories have been chosen for the anthology, and I'm including my own "Alex's Choice" too. (Hey, I didn't start this process for nothing.) I'm so excited for the authors whose stories were chosen because they're all really good. I'm sad for the authors whose stories I had to turn down. And I'm exhausted because it sounds like the hard part is done but I know the hard part is really just beginning.

Spring and summer 2019: Editing, editing, editing. Proofreading too.

Also spring 2019: Our charity is chosen. All royalties will be donated to 826DC, a Washington, DC, nonprofit designed to help children and teens improve their creative and expository writing skills, as well as help teachers inspire children to write.

Late August 2019: The publisher, John Betancourt, sends me the cover. I love it so much, it is ridiculously hard not to share it with the world immediately.

September 6, 2019: Kristopher Zgorksi hosts our cover reveal on his BOLO Books blog. Thank you, Kristopher!

Fall 2019: ARCs go out. I hear back from some of the recipients quickly, and they all have good things to say. Whew!

November 2019: Contributor Eleanor Cawood Jones arranges our launch party. Thank you, Ellie! It will be on ...

Sunday, December 8, 2019: This is our official publication date, our launch party date, and it's Pretend To Be A Time Traveler Day. The trifecta! (Pretend To Be A Time Traveler Day is a real holiday. You can look it up!)

The launch party will run from 1 - 3 p.m. at Barnes and Noble in Fairfax, Virginia (12193 Fair Lakes Promenade Dr, Fairfax, VA 22033). The following authors are scheduled to be at the launch event (and some of them might even dress up in the time period of their story): James Blakey, me (Barb Goffman), Eleanor Cawood Jones, Adam Meyer, Art Taylor, and Cathy Wiley.

Maybe with the help of time travel
the rest of the authors will make the launch
The rest of the authors with stories in the book, who alas can't make it to the launch, are: Melissa H. Blaine, Michael Bracken, Anna Castle, David Dean, Brendan DuBois, John M. Floyd, Heidi Hunter, Barbara Monajem, and Korina Moss. So pleased to have four fellow SleuthSayers involved.

And now, with only two hours until this blog is to be posted at midnight November 12th, I feel grateful for all the people who have had a hand in making the dream of this book come true, as well as for the people who will buy this book and enjoy these stories.

If you like time travel and if you like crime stories, I truly think you will love this anthology. It is already available for pre-order directly from the publisher in hardcover, trade paperback, and ebook. It's been a long time coming for "Alex's Choice," the story I wrote six years ago in Scout's honor. I hope when you read it you'll agree that it has been worth the wait.

11 November 2019

Novellas, the New Frontier


Ten years ago, I won the Black Orchid Novella Award, sponsored by the Wolfe Pack, AKA the Rex Stout Appreciation Society. Stout, who passed away in 1975, was a master of the novella and often produced a combination of novellas and short stories to fill out a Nero Wolfe book. The form is rare now, partly because it's too long for most magazines and too short to publish as a stand-alone book. There are few markets for them. Black Cat Mystery Magazine will look at a 15K-word MS, but reluctantly. The few other markets I know skew very literary.

Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine co-sponsors the Black Orchid Award (Nero Wolfe supposedly raised orchids, a trait he picked up from his creator) and publishes the winning entry every year. The contest rules define a novella as between 15 and 20 thousand words. Other sources give different counts, but the point is that it's enough longer than a short story to need more meat or the bones will show through.

I never considered writing a novella until 2009. By then I had accumulated scores of rejections for several novels and a handful of short stories. I had sold three or four stories, too. But "Stranglehold" clocked in at almost 7000 words, longer than most markets would even look at. I ran out of places to send it. One of my writing friends commented that many characters showed up quickly and it was hard to keep everyone straight. I tried cutting characters, but discovered I really needed all of them. I tried cutting words and made the story unintelligible. It sat on a floppy disc (Remember those?) for about three years, out of sight, and pretty much out of mind.

Then I saw a post about the Black Orchid Novella Award. Could I expand that short story and introduce those many characters more gradually?

Over the next three days (That's not a typo), I added 9000 words. I added one short transition scene, but nothing felt like padding. I sent it out and guess what? I'd written a novella that needed four years for me to recognize it.

Several years later, I won the contest again with only the second novella I've ever written. That novella had the opposite problem, though. About two years after "Stranglehold," I wanted to use the same characters in a novel, but it wasn't going anywhere.

My novels usually have two or three subplots that are variations on the main theme, and here everything except one minor variation felt forced and artificial. I struggled off and on for several years, then decided to lean on that subplot and try to cut the mess down to another novella. "Look What They've Done to my Song, Ma" won in 2016.

With that wealth of experience, I think I know how a novella works now. That's probably the kiss of death, isn't it?

Don't think of a novella as either a short story or a novel. Treat it as a distinct little creature. My ideal short story uses four or five named characters and no more than the same number of scenes, preferably in few, maybe even ONE, location. Novels are at least fifty scenes with more people or places, and several subplots.

A novella has one subplot and more scenes, a few of which might even be backstory, and more characters than a short story. Without going back to actually count, I'm going to guess that both the novellas above have about a dozen scenes and about the same number of characters. I try to keep the cast as small as possible, but let myself write big and messy because it's easy to cut scenes later. It's also easy to spot characters who serve the same function and combine two or three of them...if you even need them at all.

My current WIP, an early plan for another novella, has one subplot and a cast of 12. I'll probably eliminate some of those characters, either by cutting them or killing them, but I don't know which yet because we're still in the first date stage. I never kill someone until the second date.

That's another difference. When I begin outlining a novel, I think I know the ending (Sometimes that changes) and my main worry is how the PI will figure it out. I discover that by writing the scenes, and I often go back to change or add something so it all works at the end.

When I write a short story, I usually know the conflict, gut the rest of the story grows and develops while I write and rewrite as I go along. More often than not, the "real" ending shows up on the third or fourth draft.

I knew the ending of "Stranglehold" because it was a finished short story. According to my spread sheet, it was only the seventh short story I submitted anywhere, and I first sent it out in January, 2005, only about 18 months after I returned to writing after a long hiatus. Four years later, I expanded it into the novella.

"Song" didn't exist except as several pages of incoherent notes and a partial outline that made no effing sense. When I finally figured out the main plot, the subplot grew out of the characters and I pounded out a first draft in a week or so. I had a general idea of the ending, but didn't know how Woody Guthrie would solve the mess until I actually wrote that scene for the first time. It was like driving down a dark road at night and seeing a hitch hiker appear in your headlights.

That seems to happen to me more and more now. My WIP doesn't even have headlights yet. I don't even see the double line down the middle of the pavement. I have a general idea and I think I know the characters, but I don't quite know where I'm going. It's more interesting than worrisome.

I now allow myself to write quickly and worry about nothing except getting words on paper. A few years ago, I couldn't have worked this way, but now I know that if I write absolute junk on Monday, by Tuesday, something better will show up. Maybe I'll figure it out during the night or on a cardio machine at the health club, but something better will appear.

The way to solve a writing problem is by writing. You can fix anything you can put on paper. You can't do anything until then. Well, maybe if you're Mozart...

I'm beginning to look at novellas and short stories more closely because I've written myself into a dead end in both my series. That perception may change, but my mind is beginning to work in smaller units now. I suspect that in the next year or so I will move to publishing more short stories in digital formats, and a novella or two would flesh out collections. Rex Stout did it, and maybe what's old is new again.

We'll see.

10 November 2019

Phyllis


Stories from Canada and the United States are mirroring each other. In the United States, many patients have no access to doctors because they are either uninsured or underinsured. In Canada, our growing doctor shortage is leaving patients without access.

Please note that I didn’t say anything about the healthcare system, because talk like that is too impersonal; when it comes to patients, not having a doctor when you need one is very personal.

Let me introduce you to Phyllis Smallman, a feisty and funny writer, mother, grandmother and wife of over 50 years to her best friend and high school sweetheart. Phyllis was the first recipient of the Crime Writers of Canada Unhanged Arthur Ellis award and wrote, among other books, the Sheri Travis mystery series. She won multiple awards for her writing. She grew up in Southern Ontario but, at an age when most people retire, she and her husband moved to Salt Spring Island, B.C. to be closer to her children and embark on a new adventure.

In October 2017, 72-year-old Phyllis found blood in her urine. Her family doctor was concerned but couldn’t get an appointment with a specialist to do a cystoscopy before the spring of 2018. Phyllis trusted that the system would keep her safe, but her family began to worry as she developed other symptoms. Phyllis, a self-described foodie with the personality of a small energetic terrier, was too nauseous to eat and was experiencing extreme fatigue.

My point of contact to this story was through her daughter, Elle Wild, another Arthur Ellis Award-winning writer. Elle was worried and wanted her mother to be seen sooner. Elle, her brother and father spent a great deal of time trying to get Phyllis into a specialist. They called everywhere and finally found a specialist who could see her before Christmas. When the cystoscopy was done there was too much blood for a definitive diagnosis, but an infection secondary to a previously-inserted mesh was thought to be the problem. Phyllis was put on a six-week-long course of antibiotics and then put in the queue for a second cystoscopy and a CT of the kidney.  The antibiotics did not improve Phyllis’s health. Her nausea became more severe, she lost weight and became so weak that she couldn’t even walk across the room. She slept most of the day.

Through conversations with Elle, the growing anxiety of the family was palpable as Phyllis, their lively matriarch, began to disappear into long sleeps and uncharacteristic exhaustion. Phyllis’s deterioration continued day by painful day, and by February, the family had had enough. Despite Phyllis’s objections, partly because she continued to trust that she would get taken care of in our system and partly because she was too exhausted to go to appointments, the family paid for a private CT and she was diagnosed with a kidney tumour.

However, there was another queue for a specialist to do the biopsy and yet another one to see an oncologist. It was only on April 16, 2018 that Phyllis finally received a definitive oncologist report: an advanced and aggressive form of cancer that had started in her bladder and had spread to her kidneys. She was given six months to live and offered palliative chemotherapy. Her daughter, Elle, moved with her family to Salt Spring Island to spend time with Phyllis and to provide emotional support to her distraught father.

Phyllis did her best to complete the course of chemotherapy, but was only able to do half of the treatment because of fatigue, nausea and her emaciated state. Phyllis Smallman died on October 1st, 2018.

In her obituary, her family wrote: “Those who spent time with Phyllis knew her as a caring person who loved fiercely, laughed loudly, and was always a friend to anyone in need. In keeping with her dark sense of humour, her last book was ironically titled Last Call, the final Sherri Travis mystery. The night Phyllis died, Last Call won a Reader’s Favourite Book Award. Our Phyllis knew how to make a grand exit.”
Tragedy is defined as a story involving a great person destined to experience downfall or utter destruction through a conflict with some overpowering force, such as fate or an unyielding society.

The story of how Phyllis spent her final year is a tragedy. The unyielding social truth she faced was that Phyllis simply could not get access to the doctors she needed: this reality met her faith in our healthcare system and made a mockery of it. The lack of physicians left her family alone in their growing worry for Phyllis and isolated as they watched her die, without a doctor to tell them what was happening and perhaps even intervene to help.

When people say that healthcare is a human right, I agree. There is nothing as inhumane as a patient unable to get the care they need.

09 November 2019

My Rules of Mystery


Many writers have drafted up a set of "rules" for how to write and, specifically, how to write mysteries. I thought now would be a nice time to toss in my five cents on the matter. And the following list can equally apply to short stories or novels.


1.   First rule of mystery writing: There MUST be a mystery.

Readers KEEP reading, page after page, because they want to know the answer/solution/explanation of that mystery.

2.   Does a mystery always need a dead body?

No. But the "crime" needs to be significant, e.g., a serious physical assault, the robbery of a valuable jewel, a threat to kill.

An empty chocolate wrapper (and Who ate the candy?) is a children's mystery. A severed head is an adult mystery.

3.   The mystery must be solved at the END of the story.

Ask a question very near the beginning, e.g., Who murdered Roger Ackroyd? Answer this question very near the end.

If you don't answer the question, and the mystery remains a mystery, the reader will throw your book at the wall.

You could answer the question in the middle, but you better have another good question to ask at that point to lead the reader through to the end; and there needs to be a good, justifiable reason for doing this.

4.   There is a difference between mystery and suspense.

A bomb that brings down an aircraft is a mystery. A passenger on a plane thinking the guy two rows ahead may have a bomb in his overhead luggage is suspense.

5.   Be aware that “Mystery” is a broad church.

There are many sub categories (or genres) to mysteries, e.g., noir, cozy, police procedural, private eye, locked room. And feel free to mix these up.

6.   Genres have rules.

If you’re writing in one of the genres (99% likely), be aware there are conventions and reader expectations for each.

Unless you truly are one of the masters of literature, mess with reader expectations at your peril.

7.   You are unlikely to be one of the masters of literature.


8.   Write what you know. If you don’t know, find out.

Don’t write a story about a private eye, or a kindergarten teacher, if you have no idea at all what is involved in those professions. Don't set a story in Latvia if you don't, at least, know the country's capitol or what language the people speak (Riga, Latvian/Russian). Don't write about Euclidean geometry, if you haven't any idea what that is. Don’t guess; research (libraries, Google, talk to people).

A good writer is a good researcher.

9.   Clichés

Avoid these like the plague.

There are countless websites that list clichés and common and overused tropes.

10.  Conflict is your friend.

Conflict, at its simplest, is the "disagreement" between a person and another (person, external force/creature). It's between protagonist and antagonist; or to put it another way:

Main Character vs. ________________

Every work of fiction (mystery, or other) that’s ever been sold to a publisher has had conflict in it (literary fiction excluded). Conflict invites drama; it is the fuel of a story. If your story has no conflict, there will be little to engage the reader.

A scene where a married couple eats dinner and discuss what color to paint their bathroom is not drama. If one of the diners suspects the other of sleeping around, you have conflict (and they can still be discussing what color to paint the bathroom (see next)).

11.  Subtext is your friend.

Subtext is not written, it is implied. It is the underneath; the feelings and intuition, the unspoken meaning.

Even a shopping list can have subtext.
  • Milk
  • Bread
  • Eggs
  • Hammer
  • Shovel
  • Bag of quicklime
  • Bottle of champagne 
Subtext is one of the writer's tools of magic.

12.  Plants are your friends.

Don’t have the hero pull out a gun and shoot the bad guy on the last page, if there’s been no mention (or any kind of reasonable expectation) that the hero is carrying a gun. Plant it. Remember your Chekhov: Gun on wall in first act. Gun fired in third act.

And plants apply to everything, not just guns. Bad guy's sneeze gives away his position in the shadows; plant his allergy earlier. Hero must rescue cat from tree, but he can't; plant his fear of heights earlier.

Without planting, events and actions will appear implausible, and your book will meet the wall.

A good writer is a good gardener.

Note: Yes, I know I'm retooling Chekhov's meaning (he was more concerned with the relevance of things in a story, i.e., don't include something, if it isn't needed later).

13.  Red herrings vs. Playing fair

Feel free to mislead and misdirect your readers (let them reel in many red herrings), but always play fair. Give your readers some real "clues" as to what is going on; so, at the end of the story, they'll slap their heads and sigh, "Oh, but of course!" Give them enough clues so that they "almost" might be able to work out what is going on, before you yank the curtain back and startle the snot out of them.

Never try to "trick" your reader; your book will be thrown at the wall.

And if you end your story with: it was all just a dream, you'll hit the wall before your book does.

14.  MacGuffins are a thing.

Many mysteries make use of a MacGuffin. A microfilm that everyone wants, and will kill for, is a MacGuffin. The Maltese Falcon is a MacGuffin. The object of a quest: a diamond mine, an unknown Beethoven Symphony, the Holy Grail, can all be MacGuffins. MacGuffins give the characters something to do.

Wikipedia sums it up best: "In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin) is an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself."

The shark in Jaws IS NOT a MacGuffin.

15.  Impose a deadline

Deadlines work well in suspense (We have to find the bomb, it explodes at midnight!!!), and they also work in mystery. A deadline focuses a story on its end/outcome and creates urgency. Think of a story as a tunnel. The deadline is the light at the end.

The detective on board the train must identify the killer before the train arrives at its destination and all the passengers disembark. An unknown man who smokes Gauloises has threatened to hijack a school bus, and it's two hours until school's out.

16.  Twists are good. (there be spoilers here)

A TWIST ENDING is not a prerequisite for a mystery, but if you can write an unexpected and satisfying twist into your story's end, it will certainly make it more memorable; it will add another layer of icing to the cake. A twist ending completely upends and rearranges the facts and events of what's come before it.

The Sixth Sense: The child psychologist IS one of the dead people the kid is seeing. Psycho: Norman Bates IS his mother.

Pro tip: Twist endings are never arbitrarily dreamed up at the end of writing a story. They are written in right from the very beginning. Robert Bloch knew on page one of Psycho that Norman Bates' mother was dead and that Norman was the killer, and Bloch carefully hid this in the fabric of the storytelling. He didn't let the reader in on the truth until the end.

PLOT TWISTS can appear anywhere in a story and are different to the "twist ending." Plot twists change something significant about the story and/or the characters, but don't rewrite the whole thing.

Star Wars: Luke, I am your father. The Shining: All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

An excellent, legendary plot twist appears in Psycho, about one third of the way in. Mary Crane, the book's main character (the one we've been following and who we care about), is murdered. She's gone for good. Never comes back. Bloch was one of the masters of literature; he could get away with that kind of thing.

17.  Last rule of mystery writing: Ignore all the rules at your pleasure. Except for the first one.


So, do you have any "rules of mystery" that you live and write by?



stephenross.live/
Twitter: @_StephenRoss/

08 November 2019

Bad TV in the Early 1950s



OK, TV was in its infancy and people at home watched any free entertainment they could watch. But some of the stuff was bad.

Researching for my 1950s private eye series, I needed information about early TV and it's a hoot. Thank God for YouTube where you can see snippets and full episodes of TV shows on air between 1950-1953 such as simpleton private eye shows like pipe-smoking Martin Kane, Private Eye who always paused in the middle of a case to visit his tobacconist to secure more pipe tobacco. The show was sponsored by the United States Tobacco Company.

William Gargan as Martin Kane, Private Eye

Other clunkers included Rocky King: Inside Detective, The Plainclothesman and Saber of London, where a British police inspector comes to New York City to show the colonials how to solve homicide cases. There were a few detective shows not completely terrible like Boston Black, Sky King and Dragnet.

Mr. and Mrs. North starred Richard Denning and Barbara Britton as husband and wife sleuths was a real sleeper (not the good kind, he kind that put the viewer to sleep). This prim couple slept in separate beds. Common with early TV.

Barbara Britton and Richard Denning as Mr. and Mrs. North

TV was filled with insipid variety shows and a glut of westerns like Roy Rogers: King of the Cowboys Wild Bill Hickok, The Lone Ranger, The Gene Autry Show, Death Valley Days and others.

I Love Lucy was a big hit, although I never liked it, just as I disliked The Red Skelton Show. I thought Skelton was a nincompoop. I was a strange child. And there was the awful Amos N' Andy.

Lot of game shows like What's My Line?, You Bet Your Life and I've Got a Secret. There were some good dramas on Four Star Playhouse and Masterpiece Playhouse and others.

Some good TV crept through like Jackie Gleason's The Honeymooners, Candid Camera and George Reeves in The Adventures of Superman and my favorite – Sid Caesar's Your Show of Shows with writers Carl Reiner (later The Dick Van Dyke Show), Neil Simon (The Odd Couple), Broadway's Lucille Kallen, Danny Simon (The Carol Burnette Show), Joseph Stein (Fiddler on the Roof), Michael Stewart (Bye Bye Birdie) and the great Mel Brooks.

Early TV science fiction shows bordered on comedy like Captain Video and His Video Rangers and semi-serious pieces with unsophticated special effects like Tales of Tomorrow.



Captain Video and his Video Ranger. Love the helmets and goggles.

The series reportedly improved after 1952 with scripts by SF writers James Blish, Arthur C. Clarke, Damon Knight, Jack Vance with occasional input by Isaac Asimov, Cyril M. Kornbluth, Robert Sheckley and others.

Another hit science fiction show was Tom Corbett – Space Cadet.

The picture says it all.

Links to episodes on YouTube:

SPECIAL UNCONNECTED NOTE:
Ever notice when they appear, flotsam and jetsam are always together on beaches in novels and short stories? Flotsam never shows up alone. Neither does jetsam. According to four dictionaries – flotsam and jetsam are marine debris associated with vessels. Flotsam is debris not deliberately thrown overboard, debris from shipwrecks or accidents. Jetsam is debris thrown overboard by humans, trash or item tossed overboard to lighten a ship's load.

So, if a beach has flotsam and jetsam, the beach is multitasking. Pretty cool.

Dead trees, driftwood, coconuts, leaves, sticks and other natural things are not flotsam or jetsam. They are debris.

OK, there were many GREAT movies in the early 1950s, which will be the subject of a subsquent posting.

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




07 November 2019

Execution Day


by Eve Fisher

Charles Rhines was executed Monday afternoon here in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.  He was, as you may have guessed, a murderer.  Back in 1992, he was a 35 year old burglar, robbing a Rapid City donut shop that he'd been fired from 3 weeks before.  A delivery man, Donnivan Schaeffer, came to deliver supplies, and Rhines ambushed him.  Rhines stabbed Schaeffer, then tied him up, and stabbed to him again, this time to death. Rhines got away with over $3,000 in cash and checks.  (Argus Leader)  Rhines was the 20th person to be executed in South Dakota.

I'm not here to discuss whether or not murder should always get the death penalty.  Or ever.  Or in between.  I'm a member of South Dakotans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, and I'll just leave it at that.  No, I'll add one thing:
635997082051139751-Thomas-Egan-1835-1882.jpeg
I do know that there's been at least one person executed in South Dakota who was innocent - Thomas Egan, who was convicted of killing his wife. He was “hanged” three times on the 13th of July 1882; the rope broke on the first attempt, and on the second attempt the rope did not break his neck. Despite this, the powers that be said, "Drop him till he dies", and on the third attempt he did. Years later, his stepdaughter admitted to committing the crime when she was on her death bed.  (DeathPenaltyInfo)

I'll also add that, The Death Penalty Information Center (U.S.) has published a list of 10 inmates "executed but possibly innocent".  And of all executions in the United States, 144 prisoners have been exonerated while on death row.

Meanwhile, Charles Rhines is definitely guilty of killing Donnivan Schaeffer.  Perhaps if he'd been 15 instead of 35, he'd have gotten life (which, remember, in South Dakota is without parole).  Then again, maybe not.  Jurors said that they gave him the death penalty because of his "chilling laughter during his confession while comparing young Donnivan Schaeffer’s death spasms to a decapitated chicken running around a barnyard,” according to a letter from the South Dakota Attorney General's Office to the U.S. Supreme Court in March 2019.

NOTE:  Confessions - especially to the police - aren't always tearful.  Even after conviction and incarceration, I've seen a few callous, bragging, laughing, boasting prisoners / inmates, who show no compassion or remorse, and are downright cruel and mocking.  Is it a cold-stone nature?  Long-term effects of drugs?  Bravado in the face of a future in prison?  Denial in the face of what they've actually done?  Absolute refusal to change?  Hard to say.  Any and all are possible. 

But I've talked to a number of inmates who are guilty of serious crimes, and almost all have told me that it takes a while (sometimes a very long while) to face up to the reality of what they did, to feel the horror of it, and to own up to what must come next:  Living with it.  I can understand this a couple of ways:
(1) From the Bruce Springsteen song "Dead Man Walking":  "Sister I won't ask for forgiveness
My sins are all I have."
(2) From years in Al-Anon, talking with people who have suffered child abuse, domestic abuse, etc., and are still dealing with abusers and/or family members who deny it ever happened:  most people have a really hard time admitting that they're monsters.

I also understand the disbelief that many family members feel when they hear that their loved one's killer finally wants to apologize.
"What, now?  Why not then?" 
Because then they truly weren't capable of it.  Maybe now they are.  Maybe that's another reason for not imposing the death penalty.  To give them the chance to repent before they die.

Meanwhile, there's no more tense place than a prison on the eve of an execution.  Nobody likes them, from the staff to the inmates.  The security, which is already tight, goes through the roof.  The area around the penitentiary is closed.  Extra searches.  Extra checks.  COs and staff are called in early and let out late.  The whole place goes on lockdown until the execution is over, which means that all the inmates are in their cells, waiting until the man is dead, which, of course, only increases their restlessness and hostility.  Not to mention fear.  For all inmates, an execution is a skeleton-in-your-face reminder that the state has the power to kill people.
"Each man's death diminishes me,
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee." - John Donne
I'd like to end this with two quotes.  First of all, please read this poem by Inmate Sam Lint.  

http://dakotafreepress.com/2019/10/28/pen-pen-why-do-i-think-differently/

a poem by Samuel Lint, Inmate #16334, South Dakota State Penitentiary, October 2019.


“Reverence must be paid even to those sinners whose souls seem to be dead, because it is Christ, who is the life of the soul, who is dead in them; they are His tombs, and Christ in the tomb is potentially the risen Christ.” - Caryll Houselander


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06 November 2019

How to Kill Your Story



I have been reading a novel by an author I much admire and have run into a roadblock.  About a third of the way through the main character began acting like an A.S.S.

I refer to a person with Amateur Sleuth Syndrome.

I will not name the author or title (I only review things I like) so forgive my vagueness in what follows.  X is in jail, accused of murdering Y.  Our main character, Hero, is trying to prove him innocent.  Hero gets a call from a Mysterious Stranger, offering to provide the evidence he needs, but when he goes to meet good 'ol Mysterious he is locked in a building and almost killed by the same M.O. that took out Y.

Okay, so far, so good.

But why didn't Hero have a cell phone when he got locked in?  This book was written well within the age of ubiquitous cells, so where the heck was it?

It gets worse.  Having escaped with his life Hero now has a compelling bit of evidence that X is innocent - specifically an attempted second murder.  Does he inform the cops?

Heaven forbid.  Instead, amateur that he is, he is determined to get at the truth himself.  His flimsy, off-the-cuff defense for this is that the cops have already made up their minds about X and wouldn't be interested.

So he is definitely acting the A.S.S.  But I  diagnose another illness complicating the case of this suffering piece of prose.  Namely, E.A.T.S.  Editor Asleep at The Switch.  Because any editor worthy of his two hour lunch should have spotted these issues, which the writer could have solved in a few minutes.

Dang, said Hero. I left my cell phone on the breakfast table.  Or forgot to charge it. Or there's no signal in this building.  How inconvenient, seeing as how I am about to die and everything.

And later:

I don't dare go to the cops, Hero explained.  They'll just think I faked the crime to try to get X out of jail.

Not a very good argument, that, but better than a whole heap of nothing.


As long as I'm complaining, let me tell you about two other plot-killers I have encountered. One was a short story featuring a woman suffering from U.G.  By this I mean Unnecessary Guile.  This private eye needed to know who owned a car so she contacted a cop friend and used all her Feminine Wiles to persuade him to look up the information for her.

Fair enough, I suppose.  Except that the car had just committed multiple traffic violations, endangering the public.  If you wanted to get police attention wouldn't you lead with that?  Or at least mention it?

And then there was a story in which a police officer was guilty of Cop Rejecting Accepted Procedure, or C.R.A.P.  He chose to get information in a way he knew would make it unusable in court.  Okay, there are lots of fictional fuzz who bust the rules left and right, but this guy was supposedly before (and after) a straight arrow.  So what were we supposed to make of this weird aberration?  Methinks somebody got lazy, and I don't think it was the character.

I hope you find these tips useful.  Follow them and it will be less likely that your reader will engage in something T.A.B.U. (Tossing Away Book Unfinished).

05 November 2019

Once Upon a Time in…Los Angeles


Me with gangster car at Melody Ranch backlot
Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood is getting a lot of notice for a lot of reasons, one of which is his recreation of a certain era of L.A. (1969) and various L.A. landmarks. And that’s our topic for today boys and girls. So if I might indulge in some personal memories of some of the locations in his movie. Unfortunately, in the really good old days, emphasis on old, we didn’t carry cameras with us all the time, so I don’t have a lot of pictures of those locations from then and what I do have are mostly in boxes and mostly not scanned.


Cinerama Dome

Entering the Cinerama Dome theatre when it was a new and exciting thing was like entering a giant geodesic egg (okay dome). It was a big deal when it first opened in the early 60s on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, a little east of the Strip. It was built specifically to play movies that were shot in the three camera Cinerama process. A process that didn’t last very long for a variety of reasons I won’t go into here.

I remember going there to see these exciting movies, only two of which were filmed in the real three camera Cinerama. After that movies called Cinerama were filmed in SuperPanavision 70 and released in some kind of Cinerama format, but they weren’t the real thing.

I think the first movie in full three camera Cinerama that played at the Dome, and one of the two in three camera Cinerama, was The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, an expansive movie about both the brothers Grimm (Laurence Harvey and Karl Boehm) and their fairytales. I remember being awed by the huge, curved screen. It was like you were enveloped in the fairytales.

The next was How The West Was Won, a thrilling epic western. I saw that when it opened there, too, and still have the book I got then. That was a time when big movies and things like companion books that went with the movie could be bought in the theatre. My book is just like the one in the picture here, though since mine is hiding away in a box this is a reasonable facsimile. I still watch the movie every once in a while, but listen to the music soundtrack often. The movie is definitely another Hollywood era and likely one we won’t see again. It was thrilling to see on the huge screen, especially that POV shot from inside the barrel rolling down the hill. If I recall, some people could have used airsickness bags.

In Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood Tarantino has Krakatoa: East of Java playing at the Dome in the background, and it did, and I saw it there. Unfortunately for the filmmakers, Krakatoa is west of Java. But no one figured that out till after the movie was done.

I saw a lot of movies at the Dome and it was always a thrill, but nothing like those first two in real Cinerama that made you believe you were in the middle of it, especially the action shots in How the West Was Won.


Casa Vega

Casa Vega is where Brad Pitt’s and Leonardo DiCaprio’s characters, Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton, tie one on in Once Upon a Time. And, if you love Mexican food, as I do, you end up trying a lot of Mexican restaurants. And one of them was Casa Vega. I used to go there a lot when I lived in the (San Fernando) Valley. The food was good, though I haven’t been there in a long time. It was a nice place to take a date or just hook up with friends for some margaritas, hot sauce and food.

And at least I never got asked to leave as I did in another Mexican restaurant where we were drinking margaritas by the pitcher and being obnoxious as young people, men and women, tend to be. And I started breaking the margarita glasses in my hand, on purpose. Just snapping them into pieces. After breaking a few of those the management politely asked if we could get the hell out. But Casa Vega was a little higher class place and nothing like that ever happened there.

Since I live so far away now I haven’t been there in a while, but writing this is making me hungry for Mexican food and it might just be worth the drive. Who knows, maybe I’ll run into Rick and Cliff.


Playboy Mansion

A party scene was filmed at the mansion…which was/is famous for its parties. Unfortunately, I never made it there, but I went to plenty of fun Hollywoodsy parties, with a lot of the same people who partied with Hef and his bunnies. The less said about most of those the better. Still, it would have been nice to go to the Playboy Mansion once or twice.


El Coyote


El Coyote, one of my favorite places
I’ve been to all the places on this list (except one) many times and have enjoyed them all over the years, well, maybe enjoy isn’t the right word for the last one on the list. But the one place (besides
Corriganville) that is very special to me is El Coyote. Now, this is a place I’ve been to at least a million times. You probably think I’m exaggerating, but hardly. I lived pretty near as a kid and we’d go often, probably since I was about 3. In fact, my mom went when she was a kid and it was at a different location. And when I lived in West L.A. as an adult, it was my home away from home. I’d often meet my friend Buddy (name changed) since his photography studio and my apartment were equidistant from EC from different directions. But I’d go there with everyone and often. When I met Amy, the future and now current wife, she had to pass 3 tests:

1. Like the Beatles – she passed with flying colors.

2. Not smoke – again, she passed with flying colors.

3. Like El Coyote – now this one was more iffy as she’d never been there. Would she like it or would she not? Will she or won’t she? This was a make or break issue. I could never marry someone who didn’t like El Coyote. I could be friends with them, lots of people I know don’t like it. It’s the kind of place you either love or hate. So I’m tolerant, I can be friends with EC Haters, but I couldn’t marry one. My heart raced as we made our way into the tackiest restaurant on the planet. We ordered our food. I awaited the verdict – she liked it. We got married that day. Well, not really, but we did get married. And it seems to have taken. And we both still like it but we live pretty far now so we don’t get there as often as we used to. But every now and then we need a fix.

I even had my bachelor party at El Coyote in a back room. It was a co-ed bachelor party, but Amy didn’t come, though in retrospect I don’t see why she couldn’t have. Well, maybe there was just that one… And I set a lot of scenes there in things that I write. Well, they say write what you know and I know El Coyote pretty well.


When Buddy and I used to go there, about once a week, I’d get in fights with people for smoking before the anti-smoking in restaurant laws were passed. One of them was a doozy, but I’d probably get in trouble all over again if I went into the details.

And I’m not the only person who loved El Coyote. It was Sharon Tate’s favorite restaurant. And on August 8, 1969 she and Wojciech Frykowski and Abigail Folger had dinner there – what turned out to be their ‘last supper’. Roman Polanski was out of town. And Tarantino recreates that last supper in Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood. Supposedly, he shot at the same booth they actually ate at. It’s a poignant moment when you know what is to follow in real life.


Musso & Frank

Musso & Frank is a Hollywood Time Machine back to the past. To the glory days of Hollywood. What can you say, an L.A. institution. Been around since 1919 and recently celebrated its 100th birthday. On Hollywood Boulevard, though Hollywood Boulevard ain’t what it used to be…if it ever was.
Amy and me at Musso a couple of months ago with
one of the famous red-coated waiters in the b.g.

It hasn’t changed much since it was founded, and I’d bet real money that some of the waiters are the original ones from 1919. Musso’s is the kind of place that the phrase “if these walls could talk” was invented for. And if they could you might hear Chaplin or Bogart or Marilyn Monroe saying things they’d never say in public. And speaking of Bogart, it’s like that line in Casablanca, “everyone comes to Rick’s,” well, in real life sooner or later everyone comes to Musso’s.

When there, in the wood and red leather booths, eating your Welsh rarebit, if you squint just a little you can still see the ghosts of Fitzgerald and John Fante (one of my favorite LA writers), Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. If you cup your ear just right you might hear Dorothy Park quip off an ironic bon mot. If you close your eyes for a few seconds you can see a whole array of Hollywood royalty, actors and screenwriters and if you open them you might see them in the flesh, even today.
There was even a semi-secret back room, where writers of all kinds would hang. Well hang out.
The food is mostly trad, things like Welsh rarebit, steaks, chicken pot pie, Lobster Thermidor and the like. And there’s a full bar, which reminds me: I’m pissed off about the last time I went there a couple months ago. I’ve been wanting a Harvey Wallbanger in the worst way, which you used to be able to get just about anywhere but is almost impossible these days. But for some reason I forgot to see if they still made them there and ordered something else. Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to go back. Research, you know.

Musso is where DiCaprio and Brad Pitt meet Al Pacino in the movie.


The Bruin Theatre

The Bruin Theater is in Westwood. UCLA is in Westwood, just a couple blocks north. Westwood used to be one of the places to go on dates and for fun. Westwood used to have about a dozen bookstores and it was great fun walking from one to another, each a little different, and coming home with an armload of books. All fun and terrific. Then there was a gang shooting and people largely stopped going. I went on the second half of my first date with Amy there. First we went to a screening, then we went to a restaurant called Yesterdays that I liked to go to in those days. There was a live band playing a lot of Beatles music, so it was a perfect first date 😊.

I used to see a lot of movies at the Bruin and the Village theater across the street. There’d even be premiers and sneak previews. They were big, old-fashioned theatres, with big screens, not divided into tiny little theatres that make you wish you would have just watched something on your big screen TV.

And I guess, according to Tarantino’s fable Sharon Tate went there and watched a Matt Helm movie that she was in. But if I were to have put my feet on the seat in front me like she does in the movie I probably would have been kicked out.


Corriganville

As I mentioned in my SleuthSayers post of September 24, 2019, Corriganville is one of my favorite places on Earth. Of course, it’s not the same today as it was then. Then it was a working movie ranch and tourist attraction, today it’s a park. But I have my memories.

Recently, Tarantino recreated the Spahn Ranch of Manson Family infamy at Corriganville Park for Once Upon a Time. I’m not sure why he didn’t do it at Spahn, which is just down the road. And down a piece from that is the former Iverson Ranch, the greatest movie ranch of all, imo. If you’ve seen The Lone Ranger TV series you’ve seen the Iverson Ranch. The famous Lone Ranger Rock, where he rears Silver in the opening, was on the Iverson. The rock is still there and parts of the former ranch are park today, but most of it is developed.

If you missed my Corriganville piece, check out it out at https://www.sleuthsayers.org/2019/09/once-upon-time-in-corriganville.html.


Melody Ranch

“Do not forsake me, oh, my darlin’…” is how the theme song to High Noon opens. I love cowboy music, as distinct from country-western, and that is one of my favorite songs, from a truly classic western movie. And some of that movie was shot at Melody Ranch.

I’ve done some “time” there, and Melody Ranch is another fun and fave place. And it’s still going strong as a movie location ranch. I doubt if you could count high enough to reach the number of things filmed there which, besides High Noon, include Combat (TV series), Deadwood (TV series), Django Unchained, The Gene Autry Show, The (of course) Gunsmoke (TV series), Westworld (TV series) and tons of others. Tons.

On the western street at Melody Ranch
It got the name “Melody Ranch” from Gene Autry when he owned it, naming it after his radio show. But in terms of the movie biz, it started out as Monogram Ranch. Monogram was one of the low-low-low budget film companies that were around in the 1930s. They merged with Republic Pictures, the King of B film studios, and the ranch became theirs. Autry bought it in 1953 and stabled his horse Champion there until he died in 1990. Today it’s about 22 acres and owned independently. At its height, I believe it used to be about 110 acres.

Tarantino used the ranch as the location for the Lancer set in Once Upon a Time.

I love backlots, soundstages, exterior sets, whether I’m there for business or pleasure. And Melody Ranch, with all its history, is a fun place to be.








Aquarius Theatre

The more things change, well, you know the rest.

The Aquarius theatre in Once Upon a Time is a Hollywood landmark on Sunset Boulevard. It went through many incarnations since its opening as the Earl Carrol Theatre (Earl Carrol was known for the Vanities, and the theatre was a supper club with stage shows). If you remember the old TV show Queen for Day, it broadcast from there for a time. In the 60s, it became a rock venue called the Hullabaloo, which eventually morphed into the Kaleidoscope club. Between the two, lots of big acts played there. Canned Heat, Jefferson Airplane, Love, the Grateful Dead, the Byrds, the Yardbirds, the Doors, many more, and, of course, the Seeds. I saw many of these bands, though not all at the Hullabaloo/Aquarius, whatever it was called at the time. I have a friend who saw the Seeds there (remember them, “Pushin’ Too Hard) about 600 times. I exaggerate, but not by much and maybe he didn’t see all their shows there. And then it became the home of Hair for what seemed like forever.
In 1968, the exterior was repainted and it became the Aquarius and home of the play Hair for I think about 130 years, give or take a decade or two. And, of course, it changed a lot over the decades, but not too long ago it was repainted back to its psychedelic glory to look as it did in 1968/69. I don’t recall in the movie that anything was set there, just that Pitt and DiCaprio drive by and it lends background atmosphere to the time frame. Definitely a blast from the past.

And, while I have some memories there, I thought I’d turn the rest of this section over to my friend Terry Tally, who practically lived there:

“Walking into the Hullabaloo Theater in 1967 was like stepping back in time. Originally a posh supper club called the Earl Carroll Theater, it was built in 1938, and renamed the Moulin Rouge by Ciro's owner Frank Sennes before becoming the Hullabaloo in 1966. Its interior was a throwback to a bygone era with its classic bar, sweeping staircase to the lounges, the larger than life art deco statue of Beryl Wallace, and elegant tuck and roll seating. I saw The Seeds many times in those days whose signature song Pushing Too Hard opened the door for me to other garage bands of the time. Music was really happening in L.A. and many bands like Love, The Doors, Buffalo Springfield, and The Byrds played there on the unique revolving stage where one band would exit while still playing and another would come on playing their first song in a cool rotation.

You didn't need to be 21 to get in, and it was the hangout place for young Hollywood hipsters and babes in mini-skirts. Kids would be jammed under the porte cochere waiting to get in, and there were always familiar faces in the crowd. My wife and I share memories of seeing the same shows, though we didn’t know each other at the time, where many of the 60s greatest musicians launched their careers alongside house band The Yellow Payges, The Strawberry Alarm Clock, Sopwith Camel, The Troggs, Hamilton Streetcar, The Peanut Butter Conspiracy, The Standells, and The Music Machine whose members all wore black leather gloves.”


Vogue Theatre

My friends Andy, Richard and I used to go up to Hollywood Boulevard to see movies, sometimes all three, sometimes just two of us. We saw tons of movies there. I know we went to the Vogue, but to be honest I don’t remember what we saw there. There were a bunch of theatres on the Boulevard and we’d hit them all. At that time, Hollywood Boulevard was no place to write home about. Maybe not as bad as Times Square was before it got Disneyfied, but bad enough in most parts of it. But at least there were no dorks dressed up in costumes charging you to take a picture with them like there is today with Spiderman, Batman and the others haunting Hollywood Boulevard from one end to the other. And God forbid if you try to take one of their pictures without paying. Hopefully your insurance is paid up.

One of our favorite genres, and believe me, it was a genre, were (outlaw) biker movies and there were a ton of them in the late 60s.

The Wild Angels, Hells Angels on Wheels, Glory Stompers, Born Losers (which introduced the character of Billy Jack. And while a lot of these movies don’t hold up for me today, I still love Born Losers.). And, of course, Hells Angels ’69 (in which many Hells Angels played, uh, Hells Angels – how cool was that), which is appropriate because that’s the year Tarantino’s movie takes place. And many, many more. In fact, Jack Nicholson became famous in Easy Rider. But I knew him well already from these low budget biker movies and Roger Corman movies. He was no overnight sensation to me 😉.

So, one time Andy and I are heading to one of the theatres on the Boulevard. We walk up outside and there’s a ton of choppers backed into the curb. I don’t remember how many, but I’m thinking realistically maybe thirty. That’s a lot. And the theatre they’re parked out front is playing one of the biker movies we’re heading to see. We were young, and maybe stupid, but we bought our tickets and went inside. And about ten rows back from the screen is a row of Hells Angels and their girls. Now, they’re not sitting staggered throughout the near-empty theatre, they’re sitting from one side of the theatre in one very long row.

We sat a few rows behind them. And we knew if they talked or howled or did whatever they might do we weren’t going to ask them to shut up. So the movie started. And they sat in rapt attention. They might have talked a little or laughed, but mostly they were just glued to the screen. And for all we knew they were on the screen.

We didn’t bother them. And they didn’t bother us. But it gave a little more verisimilitude to the movie to have them there.

I don’t remember which movie it was or really which theatre, but it could very well have been the Vogue. And, as I recall, from Once Upon a Time, there isn’t really a scene set there, but Tarantino dressed up the marquee the way it would have been in 1969 for the background, since it looks a bit different today.


Cielo Drive

Back in the day, the good old days in some ways, the bad old days in others, and for years after the Sharon Tate murders in a house on Cielo Drive, almost everyone who came from outside of L.A. wanted me to take them up there for a drive-by (so to speak). So I would dutifully do so. We’d drive by the house. They’d gawk at whatever they could see of it. Say how horrible it was, all the usual stuff. I was never really sure what the fascination was. Some kind of morbid fascination with Manson, with L.A., whatever.

The people who eventually bought the house had it torn down, I think partially because they were tired of the gawkers and partly because when Sharon Tate and her friends were murdered it was such a shocking crime. Today, the property is still there, with a new house on it. But nobody’s asked me to take them there in a long, long time. I assume that’s because it’s not the house and also because these days we have shocking crimes every other day and the property on Cielo is old hat. Plenty of new murder scenes to check out. If you’re lucky maybe even a fresh one, with the cops still there.

***

There’s more places in Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood that I could talk about, but this is a partial trip into my town. I loved growing up in L.A., there were so many pop cultural touchstones and I got to see or participate in many of them. I still love L.A., though today I’d say it’s more of a love-hate relationship. But regardless of anything else, my heart will always be here in one way or another.

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:


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



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

04 November 2019

Mythic Mystery


The last few nights I have been watching Die Walkure on PBS. I am not a big Wagner fan, finding his operas slow going, despite all the exotic trappings, the remarkable singers, and the frequently beautiful music. But I had seen broadcasts of the production when it debuted at the Met a decade ago, and I was curious to hear the new cast and to see how the famous – or infamous – Lepage machine had held up.

Wotan tries to get Fricka to see things his way
What struck me on this second viewing was how contemporary the situation was and how familiar the details of the whole Ring must be to any modern mystery aficionado. It’s a classic story of greed and power leading to disaster and regret, with some right up-to-the-minute touches.

Wotan’s troubles really start with luxury real estate in the opening of the Ring cycle. He goes into debt to the giants Fafner and Fasolt in order to build Valhalla, a home for the gods, complete with the rainbow bridge to bring the dead heroes who will defend the gods in the afterlife. Just how that will work out is left unclear, but later on, Wotan will worry that his semi-undead army might be led astray by bribes from a rival.

Those worries are in the future. The giants build Valhalla and, as contractors are wont to do, demand payment. When Wotan is short of cash, the giants seize Freia, the goddess of youth and beauty. The gods realize that this is a bad bargain, for without Freia, they are going to age and die.

Crisis in Valhalla. Wotan and Loki, fire god and trickster, go off to seize the Rheingold. The McGuffin in the opera of the same name, the Rheingold, had already been stolen from the Rhine Maidens by the master craftsman, Albrecht, who has forged the Ring of the Nibelungs, a trinket which guarantees world domination at least some of the time.

The Valkyries
Alas for Wotan, though he and Loki trick Albrecht and seize the treasure, every last scrap including the famous Ring is owed to the giants. They, in turn, immediately fall out over it. Fasolt is killed and Fafner, in a real self re-invention, turns himself  into a dragon, slinks back to the Nibelung forest and guards the golden hoard in his cave.

Wotan has his palace, the giant has his payment. All should be well, but Wotan, Valhalla in hand, wants the security of the Ring and realizes that his hands are tied by the treaties he has made with his rivals. Unlike certain modern politicians who withdraw from treaties without more ado, Wotan wants plausible deniability. He wants a hero who will, as heroes in these things tend to do, fight the dragon and get the gold.

Wotan sets out on this dodgy project, romancing first Erda, the wise earth goddess, and producing the Valkyries, lively equestriennes in odd costumes with wonderful music. But though Brunhilde, the protagonist of Die Walkure, is the most complex, morally alert and interesting character in the whole Ring, she is not a hero. Male gender required.

Brunhilde
Wotan’s second try, a liason with a mortal woman, produces the ill-fated twins, Siegmund and Sieglinde. While the boy is out hunting with his father, the family home is attacked by Hunding, a nasty piece of work, who murders the mother and kidnaps Sieglinde, forcing her to marry him, combining a @MeToo moment with news out of the Middle East.

Siegmund, brave, loyal, devoted, has hero written all over him, but when he finds his sister and falls in love with her, he offends the Fricka, queen of the gods and defender of marriage. Siegmund must die, and only Brunhilde’s courage saves Sieglinde and her unborn child. This will be the long-sought hero who, hampered by a notable lack of sophistication, will kill the dragon, marry his aunt, betray her love, get himself killed and bring on Gotterdammerung.

It’s a lot of keep in mind, but somehow with a philandering politician, a wronged but shrewd wife, luxury real estate, unsupportable debt loads, more or less bare-faced theft, plausible deniability, not to mention rape, murder, and mayhem, the world of the Ring doesn’t really seem that exotic.

03 November 2019

History and Mystery


Leigh Lundin
Perhaps I've always enjoyed historicals without fully realizing it. To pose a question, are Agatha Christie novels historical? What about the novels of Arthur Conan Doyle?

Generally, we don’t call fiction written in and about the author’s own time as historical novels. Yet modern readers can consider them a slice of history. Who better to fill us in on fine details of the day than someone living then and there?

I don’t find the tales of Edward Marston as smoothly written as, say, Ellis Peters or the wonderful Lindsey Davis. But that lack of ‘smoothinity’ (I’m aware of ‘smoothness’ but this suits my purpose) lends additional verisimilitude. The reader can feel the dirt in roadside food, the pinch of the cobbler’s shoes, the stench of an outhouse.

We live in a politically correct ‘woke’ atmosphere. We foster a supercilious attitude where we think we’re some way superior to those who’ve come before. Novels set in ancient Egypt or Imperial Rome remind us we’re not so different, not different at all.

Many of us, R.T. Lawton and Janice Law, David Edgerley Gates and Eve Fisher, to name a few colleagues, love the research as much as the writing… and reading.

For your pleasure, following are a dozen historical novels, new and old, you might want to nab.


The Alienist first appeared in 1994, the first in a short series. Who can resist New York City Police Commissioner Teddy Roosevelt?


The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco’s first novel published in 1980, is one of my all time favorites. Monesteries aren’t all peace and quiet.


I loved the virtually vanished Jewish Alps, the Borscht Belt Catskills in upstate New York. Think The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel entertains The Hotel Neversink.


Thanks to Tirzah Price at Book Riot for many of these suggestions and further details.

What are your favorite historical novels or series?

02 November 2019

A Pair of Kings



For many years, one of my favorite writers has been Stephen King. I started with The Stand, which I still consider to be his best novel (next best: 11/22/63), and recently finished his latest, The Institute. Looking up now at my shelves, I count 71 of his books, including a couple that are nonfiction and several that are collaborations. I liked 'em all.

Even though he's prolific, to say the least, King still can't write novels and stories fast enough to suit me, so imagine how pleased I was to learn, several years ago, that his son Joe--pen name Joe Hill--was cranking out fiction as well. I also own all of Hill's books (my favorite: The Fireman), and a few days ago I finished reading his latest, a collection of short stories called Full Throttle.

I won't try to summarize every story in this collection, but I'll mention some that stood out, for me:


"All I Care About Is You" -- A story about the future, and about relationships between humans and machines. I think this is one of the two best stories in the book, and one of several that brought tears to my eyes. Science fiction at its finest.

"Throttle" -- A plot that Hill says was inspired by Richard Matheson's short story "Duel" (and its screen adaptation), this is a story about a group of bikers who are targeted and terrorized by a monster truck and its faceless driver. One of two stories in this book co-written with Stephen King.

"Late Returns" -- In this story a librarian takes a job driving an antique Bookmobile, and finds that some of the customers who visit him on his route have been dead for fifty years or more. An emotional and satisfying story, otherworldly but not horrific.

"Faun" -- Another tale inspired by a late author and one of his masterpieces--in this case Ray Bradbury and his short story "A Sound of Thunder." Here, a team of big-game hunters travels through a magical door in a New England farmhouse to a fantasy-world forest of orcs and fauns and centaurs.

"In the Tall Grass" -- One of the scariest and weirdest of the stories featured here. A young man and woman driving across the country make an unscheduled stop in rural Kansas when they hear a child's voice calling to them from a field of eight-foot-tall grass beside the road. The good Samaritans enter the tall grass to try to find him and find unspeakable horror instead. I didn't like this quite as much as I figured I would, but it's still good, and I thought it was better than the Netflix Original adaptation I watched the other night.

"By the Silver Water of Lake Champlain" -- To me, the best story in the book. The plot involves two  children who discover the dead body of a Nellie-like dinosaur at the water's edge, and what happens afterward. A fantastic short story, soon to be an episode of the streaming series Creepshow.


Have any of you read Full Throttle yet? If so, what did you think? Has anyone read Joe Hill?

I'm already looking forward to his next book.



01 November 2019

Crime Scene Comix Case 2019-11-006, Shifty in Love


We welcome our criminally favorite cartoonist, Future Thought channel of YouTube, back to SleuthSayers. They produce more than one animated comic, but our favorite is Shifty.
It was bound to happen– Shifty falls in love. Naturally when our boy courts a girl, courting means something entirely different. Don’t pierce thine heart on the prick of roses.


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