13 February 2020

Revoked


Woollcott in 1939 photographed by Carl Van Vechten
Alexander Woollcott
One of the reasons I dig around in old books - especially old miscellanies - is that you can find the most amazing things.  Take Alexander Woollcott (1887-1943):  critic & commentator for The New Yorker, radio personality, occasional actor, and constant pain in the ass.  (He was the inspiration for Sheridan Whiteside in The Man Who Came to Dinner.)  He was also obsessed with murders, past and contemporary, and he spoke and wrote about many with that acidulous wit that has been equalled only by Dorothy Parker (whom he once described as "so odd a blend of Little Nell and Lady Macbeth").  

So I was rereading Woollcott's While Rome Burns, and - thinking of us, dear SleuthSayers and fans! - headed straight for the section "It May be Human Gore".  I struck the motherlode.  The following - from the chapter "By The Rude Bridge" - is one of my favorite murders of all time.  

Let's just start off by saying that in September, 1929, Myrtle Adkins Bennett, Kansas City housewife, shot her husband, John G. Bennett, to death over a hand of contract bridge.  Where's the mystery, you ask?  Well, read on:  


*********************
(From While Rome Burns.)

"The Bennett killing, which occurred on the night of September 29, 1929, was usually spoken of, with approximate accuracy, as the Bridge-Table Murder. The victim was a personable and prosperous young salesman whose mission, as representative of the house of Hudnut, was to add to the fragrance of life in the Middle West. He had been married eleven years before to a Miss Myrtle Adkins, originally from Arkansas, who first saw his photograph at the home of a friend, announced at once that she intended to marry him, and then, perhaps with this purpose still in mind, recognized and accosted him a year later when she happened to encounter him on a train. That was during the war when the good points of our perfume salesman’s physique were enhanced by an officer’s uniform. They were married in Memphis during the considerable agitation of November 11, 1918. The marriage was a happy one. At least, Senator Jim Reed, who represented Mrs. Bennett in the trying but inevitable legal formalities which ensued upon her bereavement, announced in court—between sobs—that they had always been more like sweethearts than man and wife.

Bridge declarer.jpg"On Mr. Bennett’s last Sunday on earth, these wedded sweethearts spent the day playing a foursome at golf with their friends, Charles and Mayme Hofman... After dark and after an ice-box supper at the Bennetts’, the men folk professed themselves too weary to dress for the movies, so the four settled down to a more slatternly evening of contract bridge. They played family against family at a tenth of a cent a side. With a pretty laugh, Mayme Hofman on the witness stand referred to such a game as playing for “fun stakes,” though whether this was a repulsive little phrase of her own or one prevalent in the now devitalized society of a once rugged community, I do not know.

"They played for some hours. At first the luck went against the Hofmans and the married sweethearts were as merry as grigs. Later the tide turned and the cross-table talk of the Bennetts became tinged with constructive criticism. Finally, just before midnight, the fatal hand was dealt by Bennett himself and he opened the bidding with one spade. Hofman hazarded two diamonds. Mrs. Bennett leaped to four spades. Discreet silence from Mrs. Hofman. Stunned silence from Bennett. Hofman doubled. That ended the bidding and the play began.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/
wiki/User:Newwhist
"Mrs. Bennett put down her hand. At her trial it was the policy of the defense, for strategic reasons, to minimize the part the bridge game had played in the ensuing drama, but the jury could not be confused on this point and three of the jurors went so far as to learn bridge in the long leisure of the jury room. Nor could the mind of that stern realist, Mayme Hofman, be befogged. When summoned as a witness by Senator Reed, she knew she was really coming to the defense of Mrs. Bennett as a bridge player.

“Myrtle put down a good hand,” she said staunchly, “it was a perfectly beautiful hand.”

"In any event, while she was dummy, Mrs. Bennett retired to the kitchen to prepare breakfast for her lord and master, who would be leaving at the crack of dawn for St. Joe. She came back to find he had been set two and to be greeted with the almost automatic charge that she had overbid. Thereupon she ventured to opine that he was, in her phrase, “a bum bridge player.” His reply to that was a slap in the face, followed by several more of the same—whether three or four more, witnesses were uncertain. Then while he stormed about proclaiming his intention to leave for St. Joe at once and while Mr. Hofman prudently devoted the interval to totting up the score, Mrs. Bennett retired to the davenport to weep on the sympathetic bosom of Mayme Hofman:

“No one but a cur would strike a woman in the presence of friends.”

"I have not as yet been able to learn whether the game was ever settled, but when Mr. Hofman had completed his work as accountant, he ventured to reproach the host for unseemly behavior, to which comment Bennett replied by a strong suggestion that it was time for the guests to go home. Mrs. Hofman—one can imagine her bridling a good deal and saying that she considered the source—had got into her wraps and Mr. Hofman was tidying up in the bathroom, when he saw his hostess advancing through the den, revolver in hand.

Image result for james thurber cartoons new yorker
James Thurber, The New Yorker
via Pinterest (Link)
“My God, Myrtle,” he cried. “What are you going to do?”

"He soon learned.

"There were four shots, with a brief interval after the second. The first went through the hastily closed bathroom door. The second was embedded in the lintel. The next two were embedded in Mr. Bennett, the fourth and fatal shot hitting him in the back.

"The next day the story went round the world. In its first reverberations, I noticed, with interest, that after her visit to the mortuary chapel Mrs. Bennett objected plaintively to her husband’s being buried without a pocket-handkerchief showing in his coat. To interested visitors, she would make cryptic remarks such as “Nobody knows but me and my God why I did it,” thus leaving open to pleasant speculation the probable nature of her defense.

[Seventeen months passed, and finally Woollcott asked a Kansas City friend what happened to the case?]

“Oh!” the good doctor replied, “she was acquitted. It seems it was just an unfortunate accident.”

Natty couple in 1929
Wikipedia Source
"It seems the dutiful Mrs. Bennett had merely gone for the revolver because her husband wanted to take it with him to St. Joe; that in stumbling over a misplaced chair in the den she fired the first two shots unintentionally and that her husband (pardonably misreading her kind intentions) had sought to disarm her. In the ensuing Apache dance of their struggle for the gun, it had gone off and wounded him fatally.

"The defense was materially aided by the exclusion on technical grounds of crucial testimony which would have tended to indicate that at the time Mrs. Bennett had told a rather different story. It was also helped no little by the defendant herself who, in the course of the trial, is estimated to have shed more tears than Jane Cowl did in the entire season of Common Clay. Even the Senator was occasionally unmanned, breaking into sobs several times in the presence of the jury. “I just can’t help it,” he replied, when the calloused prosecutor urged him to bear up.

"The Reed construction of the fatal night’s events proved subsequently important to Mrs. Bennett, in whose favor her husband had once taken out a policy to cover the contingency of his death through accident. Some months after the acquittal a dazed insurance company paid her thirty thousand dollars.
"Footnote: Protesting as I do against the short-weight reporting in the Notable British Trials series, it would ill become me to hoard for my private pleasure certain postscripts to the Bennett case which have recently drifted my way. It looked for a time as if we all might be vouchsafed the luxury of reading Myrtle’s autobiography, but this great work has been indefinitely postponed. I understand she could not come to terms with the local journalist who was to do the actual writing. That ink-stained wretch demanded half the royalties. Mrs. Bennett felt this division would be inequitable, since, as she pointed out, she herself had done all the work.
"Then it seems she has not allowed her bridge to grow rusty, even though she occasionally encounters an explicable difficulty in finding a partner. Recently she took on one unacquainted with her history. Having made an impulsive bid, he put his hand down with some diffidence. “Partner,” he said, “I’m afraid you’ll want to shoot me for this.” Mrs. Bennett, says my informant, had the good taste to faint."
************

Back to my musings:

For the more curious among us: What bridge hand could be that bad? See Snopes' reconstruction HERE.

Source:
https://www.rosewoodhotels.com/en/the-carlyle-new-york/gallery
As for Myrtle's later years, and there were 61 of them, she died in Miami, Florida, in January, 1992 at the age of 96. "After World War II and throughout the 1950s, she worked as executive head of housekeeping at the elegant Hotel Carlyle in New York City, living alone there in an apartment. At the Carlyle, she developed friendships with the rich and famous, including the actors Mary Pickford and Henry Ford II." Later, she traveled the world, working for a hotel chain, and left an estate - valued at more than $1 million - to family members of the late John Bennett. (Wikipedia)

Final Note: According to Woollcott, "It was Harpo Marx who, on hearing the doctor’s hasty but spirited résumé of the case, suggested that I make use of it for one of my little articles. He even professed to have thought of a title for it. Skeptically I inquired what this might be and he answered “Vulnerable.”"

But personally, I prefer the title "Revoked."

12 February 2020

Man Without a Star


Kirk Douglas. He wasn't the easiest guy to work with, by all reports. He was driven, and not a little of that leaks into his performances. His acting was muscular - not in the sense of beefcake, but the physicality, his center of gravity, the weight. And the restlessness, an inner engine, a furnace. Anger, certainly. He was trapped by it. If one thing defines Douglas, as a presence, it's that he seethed. He gave off heat like molten glass.



Like anybody else, he made his share of stinkers, but in the main, he brought something to all of his pictures. Most of them are solid, some are extraordinary. Once or twice he played a real skunk, Ace in the Hole, The Bad and the Beautiful. More typically, a guy who was fatally flawed, In Harm's Way, Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Arrangement; most famously, van Gogh in Lust for Life. Occasionally, he actually got to be the good guy, Last Train from Gun Hill, and Seven Days in May, notably Spartacus, but by and large, his characters are ambiguous.



He made Man Without a Star in 1955. In brief, it doesn't sound like much. A drifter wanders into a range war, and sides with the little guys, even though he hates barbed wire and what it represents, the end of the Old West, getting crowded in by rules and fences. You've ridden this trail before. Excuse me, no.



The big reveal, when Douglas tears his shirt open to show his scars - roped up in the hated wire, and dragged - isn't simply physical. It's bottled-up psychic fury. This is Douglas balanced on the edge of psychosis, the buried past, the unforgiven injury, the animating event. Nobody is better at this, Like his Holocaust survivor in The Juggler, a much underappreciated movie, this is a guy who isn't simply bruised, but in torment. The thing about both pictures is that they're about redemption. The characters Douglas plays haven't always gotten a second chance. And the other theme in Man Without a Star is the promise of the distant horizon, of escape and reinvention.



There's a darker alternative, of trying to find rescue in flight, and when Douglas to all intents and purposes remade Man Without a Star in 1962, Lonely Are the Brave was 'heroic' on a more intimate canvas, black-and-white, composed in shadows. It was tragedy, absolutely and utterly formal. Douglas exec produced, and this darkness was no accident. He later said it was his favorite among his pictures.




*

Douglas was instrumental in breaking the blacklist. He might have exaggerated his part, but credit where credit's due. Just as it took a collective cowardice, and turning a blind eye, to sustain the blacklist, it took a collective will to beat it. Nobody did it singlehanded. Kirk Douglas did his share.

He hired Dalton Trumbo to write the screenplay for Spartacus. (The novelist Howard Fast, who'd written the book, was himself a former Communist, turned apostate.) They had issues with the script. Trumbo wanted it to reflect the contemporary Red Scare. Douglas wanted it to be more universal. It was a message picture, yes, but not a sermon. Douglas fired his original director, Anthony Mann, and got Stanley Kubrick on board, his guy from Paths of Glory. Maybe he thought Kubrick was more likely to tug his forelock.

Didn't happen. Toward the end of the shoot, they had a conversation about how to credit the screenplay. Trumbo was blacklisted, the kiss of death. Kubrick suggested he himself take script credit. Douglas said fuck it, let's give it to Dalton and take the heat.  Heat they got. Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons did columns telling moviegoers to boycott such a Commie picture, but Spartacus ran the table at the box office. Otto Preminger followed suit with an on-screen credit for Trumbo, with Exodus.

It was the beginning of the end, no question. It was about money, of course. The blacklist was bad for business.

*

Kirk Douglas had an unquiet heart. A guy with a chip on his shoulder. He was a romantic, how not? And just below the surface, some deep and unknowable sorrow. He may never have made peace with himself, but now he rests.  


11 February 2020

Life of Crime Leads to Writing Crime Fiction



Several fellow crime fiction writers, including a handful of SleuthSayers, became crime fiction writers while working in, or after retiring from, law enforcement occupations. I approached my crime fiction writing career from the other direction.

I stole cars.

I don’t remember exactly how many I boosted during my relatively short career, but I would venture to guess at least a dozen, all different models from the same manufacturer.

These weren’t well-planned thefts; they were crimes of opportunity. Though I was too young to legally drive, that didn’t stop me. I saw cars I wanted, waited until the owners were distracted, and took them.

Back at my place, where I had the tools necessary to alter the vehicles’ appearances, I repainted them, and I turned at least two hardtops into convertibles. Then I wheeled them around for a few weeks until another opportunity presented itself.

And another opportunity always presented itself because the boys in my neighborhood were careless, always leaving their Matchbox cars unattended.

FROM CARS TO MOTORCYCLES

I came by my criminality honestly. My stepfather was an “Honorary Hell’s Angel.” At least, that’s what the card in his wallet said.

I don’t know if that’s a real thing or if it was some sort of gag, but my stepfather co-owned a service station, back when service stations did more than sell over-priced snacks and make you pump your own gas, and he actually employed Hell’s Angels as mechanics. Every time I visited the station, usually in the company of my mother, the bikers were there, sometimes working, sometimes not, and their choppers were parked behind the building along with several cars awaiting repair or awaiting pickup after being repaired.

The rest of this story may or may not be true, but this is the way I heard it, and there’s no one left to confirm or deny any part of it.

A group of Hell’s Angels lived in a house across the street from my stepfather’s service station. One night, one of them looked out the window, realized the service station was being robbed, and saw that the guy working that night was in trouble.

So, he shot the robber.

I don’t know if that event was the impetus, but shortly after that, my stepfather sold his part-ownership of the service station and we moved to another state.

FROM MOTORCYCLES TO BICYCLES

My junior high school was probably not as rough as I remember, but I wasn’t the only student who carried a knife for protection, and I once had a revolver shoved in my face while waiting at the bus stop after a school dance by a kid who wanted my bus money.

I was, by that point, building badass bicycles from parts I found in a ravine below a bridge a few miles from my home. I don’t remember what all I discovered during my initial visit, but I returned to the same spot several times and, over the following months, collected frames, handlebars, seats, wheels, and more.

I was much older before I realized I had probably stumbled on the dumping ground of a bicycle thief and that I might have been in possession of stolen goods.

FROM BICYCLES TO STORIES

I was going to wrap this up by suggesting my life of crime led me to write crime fiction, and then I remembered the story of my first professional fiction sale, which I wrote about in my initial post as an official SleuthSayers member. “Smooth Criminal” began “I wrote my first professionally published story when I was 17, sold it when I was 18, and saw it published when I was 19. That’s the story I tell, and the story I’ll continue to tell, but it isn’t the truth. The truth is more complex and involves my committing one of the worst crimes a writer can commit short of plagiarism.”

So maybe my life of crime didn’t actually end when I began writing. Maybe it was just the beginning.

Coming April 14: The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe: Parodies and Pastiches Featuring the Great Detective of West 35th Street (Mysterious Press), edited by Josh Pachter and featuring “Rollicking new stories written especially for this collection by Michael Bracken and Robert Lopresti.”

10 February 2020

My Own Medical Thriller


I don't write medical thrillers because I only like to do research up to a point, and the amount of research I'd need to write in that field is well beyond that point.

We all can name a few biggies, though. Robin Cook and Michael Palmer each wrote several. I first met Michael Crichton through The Andromeda Strain, and learned years later that he won the Edgar for A Case of Need, originally published under the pen name Jeffrey Hudson. Tess Gerritsen, also a doctor, wrote several thrillers before she unleashed the Rizzoli and Isles series.

I'm now involved in my own medical thriller without planning it at all. So far, it has a happy ending.

Two Sundays ago, I finished my workout at my health club and returned to my car. I had found a space ten feet from the entrance, and now I was sandwiched between two SUVs, each slightly smaller than the state of New Jersey. Looking behind me was like looking through a soda straw.

The entrance driveway lay at about 7:00 to my space. The driveway is narrow, especially when cars park on both sides of it, so a sign proclaiming "One Way [right turn only]" guards the entrance. It was almost directly behind me. Another sign says "Do Not Enter" and stands to the left. This makes sure all traffic in that narrow driveway moves counterclockwise. Theoretically.

I eased out, looking to my left, where traffic should come from, and a driver who decided to turn around and take the short way back hit my car. Damage to both vehicles was minor--I have a broken taillight and a dented quarter panel--and I got the worst of it. We exchanged insurance information and notified the appropriate people, then went on our way.

Several hours later, my left arm felt heavy and weak. I've hosted a bad back since 1971, and this felt like the mild collision aggravated the long-standing problem. Oh well. Then my wife noticed I was having trouble using that hand to type at the PC and insisted that we go to the hospital.

The staff looked at my symptoms and medical history (both my mother and grandmother had strokes) and sent me for a CAT scan. Over the next several hours, I got lots of practice telling various doctors, nurses, interns, nurses, technicians and administrators my age (72), the month (January) and that we were in New Britain, Connecticut. I became expert at repeating "Today is a sunny day" and touching my index finger to my nose the other people's fingers in turn.

Every two hours, a nurse or tech asked me for an encore. I had to resist their pushing and pulling with my left hand, which was discernibly weaker. I had no indicators of being a stroke risk: I weigh 15 pound more than when I graduated from high school in 1965, I quit smoking about 15 years ago, my cholesterol level has pleased my primary-care physician for years, and I don't use cocaine. I average about half the "tolerable(?)" amount of alcohol allowed to men my age, and women are more prone to strokes anyway.

So what? The staff decided to treat the issue as a Transient ischemic attack (TIA), in which the blood supply to the brain is blocked for a short period of time and produces symptoms that resemble a strok. In my case, that was the weak arm.

My listening station for The Eagles
 By about 5 am the following morning--roughly 17 hours after the accident and ten hours after my arm first felt weak--I felt fine. But the night felt like I was a shooting scene with police scouring me for shell casings, blood spatter, footprints, and a partridge in a pear tree. I lost count of how many people asked me to answer those questions again and tested my arm and leg strength and coordination. They were like different detectives asking the same questions to see if my story changed.

By early afternoon, they also gave me an MRI, which is kind of cool if you're not claustrophobic. The kids running the machine both looked like former students. Truthfully, when you teach in the area for 33 years, everyone looks sort of like a former student. These two guys let me choose the music to listen to while they ran me through the tube. I picked the Eagles over Katy Perry, Adele, and someone else I'd never heard of.

Back in my room, I talked to two more doctors, three more nurses, had my sixteenth and seventeenth blood pressure checks, and told my age, location and the month again. Finally, the lead doctor told me he was pretty sure I did not have a TIA, but they wouldn't definitely say my troubles were related to the fender-bender, either.

The MRI and CAT scan ruled out a thrombotic stroke, but he wanted to be sure I didn't have an embolic stroke (a clot forming in the heart and traveling to the brain instead of originating in the brain itself) and ordered an echocardiogram, basically a heart sonogram. It was fun and the woman administering it was young, attractive, ultra-competent, and hilarious. She let em hear what my heart sounded like during the procedure, more of a gurgle than the lub-dub I expected. She also apologized for the coldness of the gel she spread on my chest and for having to rip the sensor contacts off my chest and taking all three chest hairs with them.
An echo-cardiogram (posed by model)

They finally discharged me about 24 hours after Barb drove me in. I spend the next month taking Plavix, Lipitor (They both sound like Superman villains, don't they?) and aspirin. They don't think I had a TIA, but they're taking no chances.

I still blame the minor accident. On the other hand, it was cool watching a bunch of people who really knew their stuff give me a first-hand tutorial on medical mystery research.

09 February 2020

Another World: Writing a Mystery Book


I wrote a new book. Except it’s not new anymore. I wrote it 2 years ago. Edited. Reedited. and yes, did that multiple times. Sent it to an editor and then another. Reedited.

Now it sits in my computer and I have a problem.

It’s not the book that’s the problem: it is the mystery novel that wanted to write.

The main character was written as a rebellion against the need to have a woman detective who is either a drunk or who sleeps around because she’s deeply damaged. Because, you know, that makes her interesting. I wrote her as someone who has lived a life with troubles – because that’s what life brings - but is like the women I know and love. They may be damaged by life but are not busy damaging others in their life. Women who I’ve looked up to. Women who make me laugh. Women who force me to think.

I wrote the things I have learned from friends, patients and my own life. There’s domestic violence to racial profiling of Muslims. I tried to write it as others had lived it. I told the stories that I have heard - the ones that had made me hold my breath in fear of missing a word.

I’m on my final edit. The problem is me.

During the writing and editing, my dearest friend was ill and then died. My father was ill and then died. My mother is now ill. All this has required time and energy to help during their illness. Time to deal with the loss.

Here is the crux of the problem: when I write I do little else. I enter this world and disappear for hours on end. I live it, breathe it and reality pales in the face of the world I’ve created.

Now, my reality has jagged edges, and cuts into this world. Sawing into it until it disappears like morning mist in sunlight. When it’s gone, I can’t get it back.

My ability to concentrate - to enter other worlds - was how I’ve done everything of value. It was as natural as breathing. It’s how I studied medicine, how I spent long hours with patients and trained, it’s how I parented by disappearing in the world of my children.

All the best things in my life were dependent on not having a reality so jagged that it sawed through every thought.

So, my book and I are now on separate worlds. I have no idea how we will live on the same planet again.

Recently, I decided to research writers block, thinking there may be suggestions that help. Unfortunately I found none. Advice like ‘Find the right surroundings’ mean little to me. I can write and have written anywhere. ‘Silence your inner critic’? That’ll be a cold day in hell. I’ve met her and write anyway.

 I could go on.

Except I can’t.

With the book that is.

Here’s the next problem: I write in my head anyway. I’m always revising and thinking of the book. Except when I sit with my book. That is the worst - to write but not write. 

So, instead of my book I’m writing an article about writing my book, which is amusing but not even that coerces me enough to write.

The one thing that keeps me hoping is coffee. The night before I have a day with even one block of time, I go to sleep with visions of coffee and writing. It won’t be tomorrow because there is far too much to do.

Maybe Monday?

08 February 2020

Why The Detective Stopped By


Somehow I managed to get a fantasy tale into the Jan./Feb. 2020 issue of Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. “The Detective Who Stopped by Bedford Street” tells the story of an unnamed New York police detective who uses an unusual method to crack stubborn cases. When he’s stumped, he visits a quaint vintage shop in Greenwich Village and listens to a beat-up old radio that the proprietor has vowed never to sell. When tuned correctly, the radio broadcasts critical moments in a case. The clues are often vague, but our detective is a clever sort, isn’t he? With the mysterious radio and the unstinting support of the shop’s mysterious proprietor, our nameless hero closes an impressive number of cases, and becomes a legend in the department, to his everlasting embarrassment.
 I can remember the exact moment the idea popped into my head. It was right when I was trying to finish another story that was resisting easy closure. Two years later, I can see that the few strands of the radio story—what Robert Lopresti wisely calls a “magical shop” story—were inspired by two different things.
The first is a famous John Cheever story called “The Enormous Radio.” It first ran in the New Yorker in 1947, but I first came upon it in 1981, when a paperback collection of the writer’s work (The Stories of John Cheever) was published and became a huge hit with people like me who’d never heard of Cheever. I bought my copy off a mass paperback stand at K-mart.
You owe it to yourself to check out the story. Current subscribers can read it at the New Yorker website, but for some reason you can also find the entire text online. In the piece, a New York couple discovers that their brand-new radio picks up conversations of people living in their apartment building. And so ensues the kind of sordid middle-class drama that Cheever was famous for. I don’t want to say more because it’s not my place to do so. It’s bad enough I swiped Cheever’s premise; I’m not going to give his ending away.
Back to our cop and his magic radio. I was probably a few hundred words into my story when I realized my biggest plot challenge: I needed to come with as many different audio clues as possible for our detective to grapple with. As I quickly figured out, it’s tricky to do that. For example, the most obvious clue is having a victim mention the name of his or her murderer. You can only trot that one out once.
Here, two classic movies were instructive, if only to remind me just how slight audio evidence can be. In the 1974 Coppola film The Conversation, everything hinges on the various shades of meaning of a recorded chat between two people. We know exactly what the two people say, but the meaning is unclear because we aren’t privy to the subtleties of context. In DePalma’s 1981  Blow Out, the critical sound of a car tire blowing out isn’t fraught with meaning until our hero finds audio of the sound that immediately precedes it.
In my story, I dispensed with the long-hanging fruit first, then worked my way up the ladder of audio complexity. The detective’s greatest triumph comes when he identifies a murderer based on the killer’s strange tic.
And now, since I’ve annoyingly danced around the plots of three, no, four creative works, I should probably be more forthright about the origins of the second big element in this story: the so-called magical shop itself.
Weirdly, I have always been a sucker for such shops, ever since I was a kid. For few years in my youth my father rented an office space above an Italian deli in the New Jersey town where I grew up. The office building was strangely trapezoidal, which meant that one window in my Dad’s studio jutted out like the bow of a ship, overlooking the main drag of my hometown.
My hometown’s business district, as depicted in an old postcard, long before I arrived on the scene. (The Blue Onion not pictured.)
I used to like sitting in that window and drawing pictures of the impossible cute gift shop across the street. If I’m not mistaken, it was called The Blue Onion, and its blue-painted, shingle roof and gable were anomalies in an otherwise boring Jersey town filled with pizza joints, strip malls, sanitized stucco buildings, and yes, that Kmart I mentioned earlier. I must have sketched dozens of versions of the Blue Onion, in all seasons, but its Christmas appearance—two front windows decked out with twinkling lights and faux snow—was probably my favorite.
In the 1990s, I lived in Hoboken, New Jersey, and took the train across the Hudson to New York City each morning to go to work. From the PATH station to my job at Scholastic, I walked past a charming shop on Bedford Street. It was the sort of place that sold antiques and “vintage” objects side-by-side with beautiful new objects carefully curated by the proprietor. I never went in, but I imagine that everything in it was ridiculously expensive.
 (credit: Denise Kiernan)
Later, when I went freelance, I conned my way into writing a twice-monthly “destinations” column for the now long-gone New Jersey section of the New York Times. All I did for these pieces was chase down places in the state that trafficked in, as my gruff editor once put it, “quaint shit.” I know it’s got a gritty reputation, but Jersey has lot more of these sorts of places than Tony Soprano would like to admit.
I now live in a town in North Carolina that has quaintness in spades—shops and entire barns devoted to relics from another time. Emporia like these always seem to promise a hell of a lot more than they deliver. But foolishly, if I have a few minutes, I still go peek inside them. I don’t know why. I can’t afford anything in them half the time, but still I browse. I suppose, like my detective, I go looking for the magic.
 josephdagnese.com


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.
founder
Creation (company, city); destruction (sink, go lame, fail).
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.