19 September 2020

Who Are Those Short People?


A few weeks ago I did a column here about obscure movies. The point was, all of us have seen good movies that everybody knows about, but there are some good ones that almost nobody's heard of--and those can be fun to find and watch.

The same goes for short stories, and their authors. Just as we're familiar with the names of famous novelists, a lot of us also know the names of famous short-story writers: Chekhov, Munro, Cheever, Bradbury, O'Connor, Poe, Welty, Doyle, Saki, Twain, Hoch, Dahl, Serling, Asimov, Jackson, Kafka, Joyce, Carver, Oates, O. Henry, Lovecraft, Baldwin, Ellison, etc. (And yes, most of them are famous for novels as well.)

But . . . there are some lesser-known writers of shorts who I believe were equally as talented. Here are a few I happened to discover, later in my writing life than I would've hoped.


Richard Matheson -- A master storyteller, and one of the writers (along with Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, Earl Hamner, and others) for the original Twilight Zone. I first became award of Matheson when I found out he wrote the book that became the movie Somewhere in Time (which, God help me, I still love). I have here on my shelves two collections of Matheson's stories: Duel and Nightmare at 20,000 Feet. The title stories of those two books are among my favorites. Others are "Steel," "Prey," and "Third from the Sun."

Jack Ritchie -- My favorite short-story writer, period. He wrote many, many stories for EQMM and AHMM. I have only one of his story collections--Little Boxes of Bewilderment--but only because they're extremely hard to find. Some of my Ritchie favorites: "The Absence of Emily," "Traveler's Check," "The Green Heart" (adapted into the movie A New Leaf), "Shatter Proof," "The Operator," "Play a Game of Cyanide."

Augusto Monterroso -- A Honduran writer who, like Ritchie, wrote only one novel. Everything else was short stories, some of them flash-length and some of them humorous. Here are a few that I think are worth finding and reading: "The Eclipse," "The Outdoor Poet," "Dinosaur," and "Mister Taylor."

Cornell Woolrich -- A great writer who led an incredibly sad life. Known mostly for the movie Rear Window, which was adapted from his short story "It Had to be Murder." He also wrote many novels that were made into movies. I own one of his story collections, Night & Fear, but loaned it out years ago. (If the guy who "borrowed" it is reading this, may the fleas of a thousand camels infest your Fruit of the Looms.) My favorites, of Woolrich's stories: "New York Blues," "Detective William Brown," "For the Rest of Her Life," "Endicott's Girl."

John Collier -- A British novelist, Collier is best known for his short fiction, much of which is witty, dark, and full of plot twists. He wrote or contributed to a number of screenplays, and more than a dozen of his stories have been adapted for TV, radio, and film. I have only one collection of Collier shorts--Fancies and Goodnights--but the stories in it are wonderful. My favorites: "De Mortuis," "Youth from Vienna," "Over Insurance," "Bottle Party," "Squirrels Have Bright Eyes."

Charles Beaumont -- An author of mostly short science fiction and horror stories, and another of the many writers of episodes for the original Twilight Zone. He wrote only a couple of novels, early in his career, but wrote a lot of screenplays, including 7 Faces of Dr. Lao and The Masque of the Red Death. I have one of his short-story collections--Perchance to Dream--and I've enjoyed every story of his that I've read. Favorites: "The Jungle," "The Beautiful People," "The Howling Man," "Night Ride."

Fredric Brown -- My second-favorite short-story writer. Brown's story output was almost all crime and science fiction. Among other things, he was a master at what's now called flash fiction, and he wrote several novels that later became movies. I own three of his collections--From These Ashes, Miss Darkness, and Nightmares and Geezenstacks. I think his standouts are "Arena," "Nightmare in Yellow," "Voodoo," "Rebound," and "The Laughing Butcher." I'm always amazed that so few readers know about this writer.


Have any of you read these seven authors? If so, what do you think of their stories, style, etc.?

NOTE: Two years ago I posted a SleuthSayers column about both Ritchie and Brown, in case you want to know more about them.


Changing the subject, here– If you're interested in reading some excellent lesser-known short stories by the better-known writers, here are my suggestions:


"The Last Rung on the Ladder," Stephen King
"Never Stop on the Motorway," Jeffrey Archer
"Strangers on a Handball Court," Lawrence Block
"The Last Night of the World," Ray Bradbury
"The Blood Bay," Annie Proulx
"Torch Song," John Cheever
"Dead Man," James M. Cain
"Fetching Raymond," John Grisham
"A Retrieved Reformation," O. Henry
"Perfect Timing," Bill Pronzini
"Not a Drill," Lee Child
"Carrera's Woman," Ed McBain
"Survival Week," James W. Hall
"Poison," Roald Dahl
"Come Dance with me in Ireland," Shirley Jackson
"The Last Good Country," Ernest Hemingway
"A Happy Man," Anton Chekhov
"Running Out of Dog," Dennis Lehane
"A&P," John Updike
"The Mule Rustlers," Joe R. Lansdale
"Tenkiller," Elmore Leonard


I can't finish a discussion like this without mentioning the many other short-story writers whose work regularly appears in magazines like AHMM, EQMM, BCMM, Strand, etc. I won't try to list them because I would probably leave someone out, but many of those fellow writers (and friends) are famous as well, and some have oatbags right here in the SleuthSayers stable. I hope you're already reading their stories.


In closing, who are some of your favorites short-story authors, known and unknown? (And some stories to point us to?)


Keep writing, and be safe.

18 September 2020

Steinbeck's Writing Tips


John Steinbeck was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962. The Nobel committee cited his "realistic and imaginative writings" noting his "sympathetic humor and keen social perception." This "giant of American letters" gave us six tips about writing which I list below (from multiple internet sources):

John Steinbeck

  1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it is finished, you are always surprised.
  2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.
  3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn't exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person – a real person you know, or an imagined one and write to that one.
  4. If a scene or a sections gets the better of you and you still think you want it – bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave you trouble is because it didn't belong there.
  5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.
  6. If you are using dialogue – say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.
 Writers don't write the same way. I seem to follow many of these steps, especially #1, 2, 3 and 6.

I follow #2 but using a computer allows me to go back over what I wrote the day before and edit it. That jump starts me to write what follows.

John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Themes in Steinbeck's fiction included fate and injustice, especially to the downtrodden or the everyman protagonist.

John Steinbeck receiving Nobel Prize
 Here is an excerpt from Steinbeck's Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech –
"The writer is delegated to declare and to celebrate man's proven capacity for greatness of heart and spirit – for gallantry in defeat, for courage, compassion and love. In the endless war against weakness and despair, these are the bright rally flags of hope and of emulation. I hold that a writer who does not believe in the perfectibility of man has no dedication nor any membership in literature."
That's all for now. Y'all stay safe.

www.oneildenoux.com

17 September 2020

Why I Don't Read or Write True Crime, Part One


I don't read or write True Crime. At least not anymore. And not for a long time. Given the popularity of the genre, and the subject matter of this site, I do not expect this to be a popular opinion.

But bear with me. Let me explain.

I grew up in Spokane, Washington. During my early teens the city was terrorized by the "South Hill Rapist," a serial rapist who focused mostly on the aforementioned South Hill, an affluent walking suburb of the city. When he was finally caught and convicted, the South Hill Rapist turned out to be Frederick Harlan {"Kevin") Coe, the son of the managing editor of the one the city's two major newspapers, Gordon Coe. In a twist right out of a Hollywood movie, Coe Sr. was responsible for monitoring a tip line set up by his paper, The Spokane Daily Chronicle, intended to help find the rapist who turned out to be his own son.

By the time the Spokane police caught up with him, Kevin Coe had been running amok for the better part of three years, and brutally raped dozens of women. His parents were socially prominent, "pillars of the community," and his mother was also a whack-job (who first tried to give her son an absurd alibi, and then went to jail herself for trying to hire a hitman to kill both the presiding judge and the prosecutor in her son's court case), so his trial, where the brutality of his rapes was put on lurid display, was a regular media circus.

As such it is unsurprising that Coe's crimes, capture and subsequent trial attracted the attention of one of America's great True Crime writers, Jack Olsen. Olsen, who had famously written for publications from Sports Illustrated to Vanity Fair, and everything in between, spent eighteen months researching and writing a book about Coe, the critically acclaimed Son: A Psychopath and His Victims.

I was sixteen when Coe was caught and convicted, working my first real job, at a hospital which sat right at the foot of the South Hill. And my parents bought and read Son when it came out a couple of years later. And once they had finished it, I did too.

Olsen, a Washington state transplant who passed away on Bainbridge Island at the age of seventy-seven in 2002, was a hell of a writer. I was transfixed by Son, both recognizing and not recognizing the setting as my own hometown. This monster, Kevin Coe, drove the streets where I drove, ate where I ate, hung out in the parks I and my friends frequented, shopped where I shopped, and raped a whole bunch of innocent women along the South Hill's High Drive, where I dated a few girls and attended more than my share of parties.

It was not the start of a lifetime spent reading True Crime books though. And it wasn't until years later that I even gave much thought to the question of why. I found the story compelling. The setting, Spokane, was a place I thought I knew well, and yet I learned a lot about it I might have otherwise never learned, simply by reading Olsen's book. And, as I said above, Olsen could tell a story.

I just didn't find anything particularly compelling about the psychopath at the heart of the story. As I got older this proved to be the case with the relatively few other well-written, exhaustively researched True Crime books I read: Vincent Bugliosi's superb take on Charles Manson and his cult in Helter Skelter. A compelling account, and horrifying in the details of the things those hippies did on Manson's orders. And it's a story rendered all the more remarkable because it was written by the man who brought the whole lot of them to justice (Bugliosi prosecuted Manson and his followers for their killing spree). And yet Manson? A career petty criminal who never killed anyone himself, but somehow managed to convince others to kill for him. I was no more interested in him than I was in Coe.

The guy who prosecuted Manson and then wrote one hell of a book about it.

I started Ann Rule's classic The Stranger Beside Me, which dealt with her collegial relationship volunteering at a Puget Sound suicide hotline with eventually convicted and executed serial killer Ted Bundy, but didn't finish it. Something about the way Rule both documented her relationship with Bundy and also excused herself for profiting from that relationship, which she continued to cultivate for her own ends long after Bundy had been arrested and sentenced put me off. I just found it gross. All of these poor women who suffered at Bundy's hands, terrorized, tortured, and brutally murdered, and Ann Rule's giving the guy publishing advice while he's in jail awaiting sentencing on kidnapping charges. 

Did Rule have any inkling what Bundy had done? She mentions earlier in the book that she discussed with a police detective the possibility of Bundy being the killer the police were searching for who had identified himself as "Ted" to a potential victim at a popular Lake Washington park where another woman disappeared that same day. But after his kidnapping conviction she withheld opinion (at least for the time being), and even offered to co-write something about his experiences and split the profits with him.

I stopped reading not long after that.

And in this particular profit motive, Rule was something of a trailblazer. Nowadays you have popular podcasts such as "My Favorite Murder," which bills itself as a "true crime comedy" podcast, and boasts thousands of fans ("Murderinos," in the show's parlance). I thought it only fair to sample this podcast before mentioning it in this post, so I listened to a few of its episodes. Definitely not my thing.

And then I mentioned in passing that I was writing about both True Crime and the current True Crime podcasting craze during a conversation with a friend and fellow writer who once harbored ambitions of writing within the genre (he has since moved on to other genres). His response was worth quoting, so here it is, with his permission:

I especially dislike the hybrid true-crime memoir. If I’m immersed in a compelling story of murder, I don’t want to see the storyteller run the camera on themselves and tell us all about their relationship problems or their ailing grandparents or their struggles to get into grad school unless they have a direct and compelling connection to the people, places and events of the murder story.  (And “she was my second cousin, two twins over, we hung out a couple times at summer camp” doesn’t cut it.) It is cognitively dissonant in the extreme; it is the bait-and-switch technique of a literary used-car salesman. “Murder, grief, loss, community impact ... but let’s talk about my ex-boyfriend for the next fifteen pages and then weave in the fact that I lived in the murder town for a few months.” Who decided there was an audience for that?

The comfort food of a literary non-snob
Now let me be clear: I have things I love to read that would likely make you laugh out loud. I am not above diving in to pure escapism strictly for escapism's sake. I am many things: but a literary snob is not one of them. And I'm not slagging people who like to read this stuff, or enjoy these podcasts. I just don't, and I figured if I was going to broadcast this opinion, I really ought to deeply examine why. 

When I was in college I took a philosophy class in which the professor had us read M. Scott Peck's People of the Lie, and Hannah Arendt's stunning Eichmann in Jerusalem wherein she explored the seeming ordinariness of fugitive Nazi bureaucrat Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann, an architect of Hitler's "Final Solution" (extermination of the Jews), had fled Nazi Germany shortly after the end of World War II, and successfully evaded capture in South America for nearly two decades until Israeli intelligence agents tracked him down and captured him outside Buenos Aires, Argentina in May, 1960. Then they smuggled him out of Argentina, to Jerusalem, where the Israeli government put him on trial for war crimes. For her portrait of Eichmann, who was soft-spoken, slightly built, balding, near-sighted, and possessed of the demeanor of a clerk, Arendt coined the phrase, "The banality of evil."

Which takes me full circle: Coe, Manson, Bundy.  A hundred naked meth addicts running from the police in a variety of episodes of "COPS." Banal, bland, uninteresting monsters, not worth giving a second glance or a moment's attention.

Why should their willingness to visit untold misery and pain on innocent people profit them in the slightest? What is it about their innate viciousness that renders them worth my time and attention? Again, if you find this sort of thing compelling, you want to know what makes serial killers tick, I can understand and respect that. It's just not my thing.

But that's only half of the reason why I don't read or write True Crime.

The other half I'll expand upon in my next post in a couple of weeks, when I talk about my day gig, and how it's brought me into close contact with a variety of criminals and their victims.

See you in two weeks.

16 September 2020

Today in Mystery History: September 16


This is the sixth  in my occasional series on Great Events in Mystery History.

September 16, 1849.  Robert Barr was born in Scotland.  His family moved to Canada, where he grew up.  He was best known as an author of short stories, especially about crime, and wrote the first published Sherlock Holmes parody, in 1892.

September 16, 1874.  This day saw the premiere of the play Colonel Sellers, based on The Gilded Age, the novel Mark Twain wrote with Charles Dudley Warner.  The play concentrates on one aspect of the book: the trial of Laura Hawkins for the murder of her married lover, which was itself based on a true crime.  In a  decidedly post-modern touch, on some evenings she was found guilty, on others she was not.

September 16, 1927.  On this date Peter Falk was born in New York City.  He got his first Oscar nomination in 1960 for Murder, Inc.  His other crime-related movies included Murder by Death, The Cheap Detective, and The In-Laws.  But let's not beat around the bush: his great contribution to our field was of course Lieutenant  Columbo.  Did you know that they originally wanted Bing Crosby for the part?  Did you know that a kid named Steven Spielberg directed the first episode?  I'll stop now. 

September 16, 1961.  On this date The Defenders premiered on CBS.  Starring E.G. Marshall and Robert Reed as father and son attorneys, it has been called the first modern lawyer series.  The Defenders did not shy away from controversial subjects, with the heroes working on cases that dealt with abortion, neo-Nazis, capital punishment, and jury nullification, etc.

September 16, 1966.  Does anyone else remember T.H.E. Cat? It began on this night and lasted one season.  A half-hour show starring Robert Loggia as Thomas Hewitt Edward Cat, former circus performer and ex-con, now a cat burglar who prowled for good.

September 16, 1967.  The show that premiered this evening was much more successful.  Mannix starred Mike Connors as a Los Angeles private eye.  In the first year he worked for a large security firm, but for the rest of the show's seven years he was an independent operator with a secretary, played by Gail Fisher.

September 16, 1970.  A lot of TV premieres on this date, aren't there?  Dennis Weaver starred in McCloud, a Deputy Marshal from New Mexico who found himself working for the cops in New York City.  Surprisingly, they acknowledged taking the idea from Don Siegal's film Coogan's Bluff.

September 16, 1975.
  On this date a panic-stricken young woman runs through the streets of Isola, covered with blood.   That's the beginning of Ed McBain's Blood Relatives, featuring the detectives of the 87th Precinct.

September 16, 1984.  The premiere of Miami Vice, creating a national fad for pastel suits and cigarette boats.  Anyone remember this Sesame Street sketch?

September 16, 1987.  Yet another terrific TV series previewed on this date.  Wiseguy followed the adventures of an undercover cop, Vinnie Terranova.  It was ahead of its time in that each season consisted of a few "arcs," several episodes in which Vinnie wormed his way into an organized crime group and then betrayed them - which weighed on his conscience more with each season.  Among the guest stars: Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Jerry Lewis, Ray Sharley, Patti D'Arbanville, Tim Curry, Paul Winfield...

September 16, 2016.  On this date the Private Eye Writers of America gave S.J. Rozan the Eye for lifetime achievement.
   

15 September 2020

Let’s Get Zoomier: Amazing Zooming Tips


As a companion piece to my last SleuthSayers post The Next Best Thing to Being There about Zooming instead of meeting in person, I thought I’d do some tips on how to prepare and do a Zoom conference. So, you want to make sure you look your best, both personally, as well as in terms of camera angle, lighting, etc. Go full Hollywood with makeup, hair and lighting.

In the good old days when you could actually go out into the real world, we had to get out of bed, shower, shave, get out of our P.J.s and put on real clothes (not our daytime P.J.s). But now, in the age of Covid we’ve gotten sloppy. Hey, who needs to comb your hair when no one’s going to see it? And that shirt you spilled mustard on, no problem, it might be a limited Jackson Pollack design! But the internet age has changed all that with Zoom and other online video conferences. We can no longer hide behind the curtain of privacy that old fashioned phone conferences gave us. No longer can we multi-task while we’re on that conference call – no clipping your toenails or reading the latest mystery novel or Facebooking while you attentively listen to others talk. Now via video conferencing we have to allow a whole bunch of strangers into our homes, let them see our messy cluttered counters, our out-of-date wall paper and dusty bookshelves. But there is help out there for those of us who struggle with the idea of video conferencing. Here are my tips to make your Zoom even zoomier:

Personal Grooming: You want to look your best. Maybe get a haircut and a close shave: If your local hair salon isn’t open, why not try the do-it-yourself approach? I like to keep my hat on as it makes a good template so I don’t cut it too short and promotes my always-wear-a-hat brand. And I find that a good sharp axe makes for the closest shave.

You can trim your own hair. Watch out for the ears!

The secret to a close shave is a sharp blade.

This picture shows the final glorious effect – not bad for an amateur.

After you get your haircut and shave you might want to powder off the shine, like the Beatles did in A Hard Day’s Night:


--Make-up?

--Norm, take them down to Make-up and powder them off. The shine, you know.

--Sure.







To which George Beatle, while having makeup applied, says:

“Hey, you won't interfere with the basic rugged concept of me personality, will you madam?”


So, don’t forget to powder off the shine. Just make sure to use the proper utensils, like the custom panda powder puff as seen in the pic below. You can probably find one -- or maybe something even better -- at Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goopy store:


And let’s not forget the words of wisdom on this subject from Carole Lombard as Princess Olga in The Princess Comes Across:


Princess Olga (Carole Lombard): Oh, my poof!

[fishing out her sopping wet powder puff]

King Mantell (Fred MacMurray): Your what?

Princess Olga: My powder poof! It is vet!
[squeezing it out onto his shoes]




Camera Angle and Framing: Make sure your phone or laptop camera is aimed properly. Unless you want to look like grandma driving her humongous ancient Oldsmobile and not being able to see over the steering wheel, you need to make sure you aren’t angling your screen so that you are too high or too low in the frame.

Uh, hello? Where are you? I can’t seeeee you.

Proper Background: Make sure to have a clean, uncluttered background with nothing sprouting out of your head to conflict with the pearls of wisdom you’re spouting.

Uh, no that’s not the new Mickey Mouse club hat I’m wearing.

Lighting: Make sure the lighting is flattering. Don’t you just love that “is it Halloween yet” look? Or do you prefer the “did you forget to pay the electric bill” fashion? Or maybe a dark, noir rolling power outage vibe?


Hollywood Cool: Or you can go for the film noir shadow effect. The Shadow knows. This works particularly well during brownouts.


Always look your best: Look sharp. Pic out the right outfit. Add a tie. A tie can dress up any old shirt. It can also be a useful tool in letting everyone know how you really feel about outlining. And it can be used as strangulation ligature in a pinch if you feel like acting out a scene from one of your books.


Cute cameos: Don’t forget the photo bomb cameos. It’s always good when a baby or child or cute animal walks into frame and steals the scene. Remember what W.C. Fields said, “Never work with children or animals.” They’re scene stealers. Exception to the rule: Buster in these pix.


Final Reveal: And the final reveal, makeup and hair done, proper lighting and angle, appropriate attire. It all comes together in the end:


The Real Deal: And a pic from a real Zoom conference I did a couple of weeks ago with a book photo bomb:


So there you have it. All you need to know about Zooming and being Zoomier!
~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

Thanks to Steve Steinbock and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine for the review of The Blues Don’t Care in the current September/October 2020 issue just out. Four stars out of four. My first time getting reviewed in EQMM. A great honor!




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



14 September 2020

Rules of the Game


Before the lockdown, I played guitar and sang at three local open mic venues regularly. About a dozen other people played those venues, too, and I rated myself near the bottom as both a musician and singer. Now that I occasionally do Zoom performances with several of those same people, I feel better about myself. I've learned to select songs that work well as solo acoustic pieces in my particular style.

A few weeks ago, a very good jazz player--one of the few who sings even worse than I do--performed a song it took me two verses to recognize because he changed both the melody and the rhythm so much that they no longer matched the mood or content of the song. It was Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," and he combined a guttural growl reminiscent of Charley Patton with guitar riffs worthy of Les Paul, Pat Martino, and Joe Pass. My microphone was muted so he didn't hear my reaction. Luckily.

My first memory of such a gaffe was Jose Feleciano's unfortunate treatment of the Doors' "Light My Fire." I was never fanatical about the Doors, but Feleciano turned a rock song about hot sex into a lounge ballad about...something. The only other disaster that gives this one competition is Frijid Pink's heavy-metal version of "The House of the Rising Sun." You can find it on YouTube, but don't say I didn't warn you.
The first ten minutes of a play teach the audience how to watch what's going on. Will the lighting, sound, and acting be realistic or avant garde? Will the actors speak to each other or directly to the audience? Is the set realistic or abstract? Is the language formal, poetic, or profane? Years ago, I saw a production of Steel Magnolias in which M'Lynn's final monologue (Spoiler alert) about watching her daughter die featured the rest of the cast and set disappearing into darkness while the actress playing M'Lynn stepped into a spotlight. The entire play to that point used naturalistic lighting, and this shift pulled the actress out of the story and the audience out of the event. Two other directors and a light designer saw the performance along with me, and we agreed it was the kind of mistake a first-time director would make. We found out later that we were correct.
If a story is comedy, we need to understand what the author means by "funny." Chuck Palahniuk and Christopher Durang may not be everyone's shot of bourbon. I directed Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf ?years ago with two actors whose rapport and timing turned the first act into a routine worthy of Abbott and Costello. It made the play's darker turns later even more disturbing. I tried to explain this to someone who didn't see the production, and he was appalled that I thought anything in the play was funny.

These dissonances occur in stories, too. Every work--poem, short story, novel, essay, or play--has its own rules and boundaries, and the writer has to recognize them as he or she creates them. Science fiction on a different world needs to explain the crucial differences, maybe gradually, or maybe (Heaven help us) in an early information dump. Think of the opening scene of Huxley's Brave New World. A cozy mystery needs to establish the language and lack of graphic detail before we start holding the characters to the wrong standard. A romance needs to introduce at least one of the potential lovers quickly so we know who to care about (or not).
Once you've established those rules, follow them. Otherwise, the book, story or song becomes an incoherent mess. If you give us 25 pages of people who only say "Gosh" or "Drat" and put their beer glasses on coasters, we are in a certain world. When the heroine and the handsome stranger get together 200 pages later, we'll be shocked to see them naked and the woman displaying certain skills and using specific vocabulary to explain what she wants and enjoys. If the story includes a murder, we won't be looking for a graphic medical description of the damage, either.

The Beatles who wrote and performed "I Want to Hold Your Hand" are younger and less worldly than the quartet who gave us "Why Don't We Do It in the Road?" We had several years to watch them grow and experiment so the second one was less a shock. The Rolling Stones and The Pretty Things always had a different image. Later on, so did the Sex Pistols. And with a name like that, who would expect the group to release "Ave Maria" as a single?
Be careful what you promise a reader. You'll have to deliver it.

13 September 2020

Wearing Masks During COVID19: How Neuroscience Can Help Us.


Never have lives depended so much on getting a buy in from the public to wear masks. The evidence that masks protect us from COVID-19 is clear and unequivocal. In terms of scientific evidence, that is. Where it all falls apart is when emotional arguments are made against wearing masks.

Many argue that we should avoid the emotional aspect of COVID and simply concentrate on the rational arguments for mask use. 

However, this argument falls apart too, because all decisions involve emotions and we can’t keep people safe without appealing to them. Why? Because that’s how our brain works.



In the 1990s, the neuroscientist and physician Antonio Damasio wrote a groundbreaking book, Descartes’ Error: Emotion Reason and the Human Brain. Through studying people with brain lesions he demonstrated how decision making necessitates emotional input: decisions cannot be made without emotional input. 



Much research has supported these findings and this has been taken into the political arena by authors like Westen and Lakoff. The basic conversation in both these books is how all political decisions involve emotional input. 



Some may feel that decision-making that necessitates emotional input is not a good thing. They will side with Descartes and claim that purely rational decision-making exists. Like everything in the human body, from kidney to heart function, one doesn’t get to chose how organs work. The vast amount of evidence from lesion studies proves this to be the way the brain works.

I understand the concern with the idea that decisions are emotionally based - I grew up with scientists who felt emotions should never enter decisions. Emotions were seen as out of control and in need of control. 



Perhaps it would be reassuring to look at the areas of the brain that are involved in emotions - there is a complex, interconnected system that is utterly beautiful. A glance at some of the players may inspire you: these areas respond directly and indirectly to bodily and sensory inputs and coordinate, like a symphony: orbitofrontal cortex, dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, anterior temporal lobe, ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, anterior mid-cingulate cortex , amygdala, anterior insula, anterior cingulate cortex, dorsomedial/dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, medial temporal lobe, retrosplenial cortex/posterior cingulate cortex and periaqueductal gray.

So, although emotions are often viewed as the basest form of human reaction, they involve complex cascades of brain activity that are crucial for synthesizing social, empathetic and protective aspects of a decision.

This impacts mask wearing because different countries have different emotional narratives to which they generally respond.

All governments are using narratives to explain the spread of COVID-19. In Canada, the narratives of the federal and provincial governments are largely in line with each other and all appeal to a sense of helping others. This narrative has high emotional salience in Canada, where helping others, working together as a country to help each other is the basis of everything from our universal healthcare system to our investment in schooling. It is a core value. Not for everyone, of course, because no country has a homogenous set of values. However, most countries do have some values that are widely shared. 

Even some of the anti-maskers in Canada protest under the banner of “Hugs not masks”. Appealing to a sense of community well-being while spreading the virus may be odd, but it encapsulates the emotional weight of community in Canada. 



South of our border, COVID-19 infections and deaths are mounting, and masks would help limit the spread of this virus. There are many factors involved in this but one factor is the conflicting messaging coming from the federal government and the states. Another factor may well be the emotional weight given to the idea of individual decisions - much of the messaging has actually been against the community well-being by arguing that individuals can’t be forced to do things by others, particularly governments. We have some of that in Canada, but not in such large numbers because the narrative in Canada is that taking care of others is valuable and putting yourself above the health of others is generally frowned upon.

I have thought long and hard about how to encourage people to wear masks south of the border. Many of my colleagues in the United States spend their days and nights caring for COVID patients and then spend their free time on twitter encouraging people to wear masks. 


When I think of appeals that have been made to Americans, this comes to mind:




Or this as a mantra for today:





So many fine and civic minded Americans have called upon Americans to follow their better angels. These appeals are emotional - heck, I’m Canadian and they move me to the core.

Some of my American friends have argued that the population of America has changed and that appealing to better angels will not work because many are driven by anger and fear. The division of people into those who are angry and scared verses those who are rationally following public health measures is a fallacy. We are all scared and we are all angry. These are difficult times and we would be completely detached from reality if our responses to this drastic situation were not intense: remember our emotional systems are nuanced, coordinated and work with reality because they are dependent on input from our senses.

Directing our fear towards its source - this virus - drives many of us to wear masks, wash our hands, keep our distance from people and allows us to stay safe. Anger? That's a great energizer for fear and enables us to fight paralysis by driving us to action. We are seeing governments and others trying to direct anger when infections increase towards those who are infected and, these days, this is often young people who are painted with the narrative that they are selfish and irresponsible. When we direct anger towards our own, it's rarely productive and always divisive. When young people have heard inaccurate information that they are largely unaffected by this virus, we should look to the source of their behaviour and perhaps correct the information they were given, using that anger to drive us, energetically, to educate them and appeal to the values of community and empathy that we have raised them with. 

History has taught us that citizens who have been complicit in terrible things can and have turned things around - think postwar Germany. Surely, we can give our young and our fellow citizens the benefit of the doubt and appeal to their better angels - to their more noble emotions such as empathy. 

One of the bright spots - maybe - is the response Canadians have seen to mask mandates and this might help in America. “An overwhelming 95 per cent of the survey respondents say they now wear a mask on public transit. In mid-July, those numbers were as low as 45 per cent.”  In cities all over Canada, we are seeing similar response to mask mandates. Not certain if this would work with our southern neighbours given the violence that has accompanied masks refusal and the lives that have been lost. But maybe this provides some hope. Along with an emotional appeal to civic duty grounded in empathy. 

I don’t know if this will work. I’m just hoping that we can all turn the rising infections around by standing on the shoulders of scientists, who explained how we make all decisions, including whether to wear masks or not: facts without emotional appeals will simply not work to help people make the right public health decisions. 

12 September 2020

Sign Here, Please


Fran Rizer was one of the original SleuthSayers, going all the way back to our origin in 2011.  She went on sabbatical from our little asylum a few years ago, making occasional guest appearances since then, and she passed away last Christmas.  I think this is the first time we have mentioned that event here, so I apologize for our tardiness.

Fran was a proud South Carolinian.  She took up the pen after twenty-five years of teaching.  She is best known for her Callie Parrish mystery series, about a "mortuary cosmetologist."  She was a winner of the Porter Fleming Fiction Award, and a nominee for the Agatha.  Fran also wrote country music!  

Thanks are due to Barb Goffman who was kind enough to point out that this piece was waiting in the SleuthSayers wings and we are delighted to run it. There is one more that will show up at an appropriate time.

— Robert Lopresti


SIGN HERE, PLEASE 

A favorite online dictionary defines "autograph" as "a signature, especially that of a celebrity written as a memento for an admirer." Now, I am far from a celebrity even if a lady did run up to me in Target one day excitedly asking, "Are you Fran Rizer?" For a moment I was afraid she was about to serve me with legal papers of some kind. Then she said, "I read your books," which turned it into a pleasant encounter.

This is NOT what you think. I'm never bored during a
signing. This was made while waiting for a book
festival signing to open the doors and begin. When
there are customers around, it's best to have a
more pleasant demeanor.
For my purposes today, "autograph" will be limited to writing one's name in a book written by that person. When my first book was released, a friend advised me that I would have to do signings, which, according to him, would frequently mean hanging out behind a table in a book store and being ignored.

It hasn't worked out that way. To me, signings provide an opportunity to meet and visit with readers, not only of my books, but also others. Some folks get personal during those visits. A reader in Asheville, NC, took off her socks and shoes to show me how straight her toes are since her bunion surgery. We're now friends on FaceBook.

Several years ago, educational Core Curriculums stopped including the teaching of cursive handwriting. "It's no longer needed," they said.  "Everything is done electronically these days," they said. "Use that time to teach keyboarding or other electronic skills," they said. To former elementary teachers and probably to most people my age, this was distressing. I also wondered how much time the people who made that decision had spent in the classroom.
Many teachers disagreed with those decision-makers.  I acknowledge that most people write fewer checks these days. They pay for things with computers, plastic, and their telephones. A lot of communication is electronic and can be signed electronically.  There are, however, times when a real signature is needed.  My first thought is for a driver's license or a marriage license. Come to think of it, divorce papers require signatures, also. Anyone who has had a spouse who refused to sign those papers can testify to that.

I'm pleased to announce that many states and school districts reversed that decision in 2019. Cursive writing is again to be taught in elementary classes beginning in the 2019-2020 school year.. 


Cursive alphabet as taught in elementary schools.

Authors are generally handed a book or magazine to autograph. Those in other arts have been known to sign a wider variety of items. Many stories tell of rock stars who have signed their female fans' body parts. Occasionally those fans will have the signature tattooed before it's allowed to be washed away. Athletes sign equipment like footballs.  Musicians will sign instruments such as guitars, sometimes for a fan to keep, often to be auctioned.

As a child, my dad took Mom and me to many musical performances. At age ten, I had autographs from Ray Charles and Patsy Cline as well as numerous other country artists.  I threw them away when I decided I was too "grown-up" to do that. I didn't realize that an autograph is a way of preserving a special moment or event, a way of gaining pleasure from owning something of a person that is admired, but it might also be worth money.  Several of the ones I had would command good-sized payments from collectors.

Harper Lee's signature on a first edition of To Kill a
Mockingbird
is probably worth even more now.
The autograph of a famous author can be worth a lot. Value is determined by several factors including rarity, such as the few existing signatures of William Shakespeare. One of the more recent ones is Harper LeeShe did not like to sign books which makes some of hers even more valuable. In 2016, a first edition copy of  To Kill a Mockingbird, with Lee's signature sold for twenty-seven thousand dollars.

A lot of modern writers almost scribble their autographs. (Perhaps they never learned cursive either.) Two that attracted my attention for their embellished style are:

and 


Note that Fitzgerald signed his "Sincerely." Charles Schultz generally added a little cartoon sketch beside his autograph. Most of my readers want their names personalized with the signature though I keep telling them that if I'm ever in the news for any reason, signature alone is more valuable.  I tend to write something like, "Reader's name, Welcome to Callie's world, Fran Rizer." My stand-alones are usually signed with "Reader's name, Enjoy! Fran Rizer."

I've never had the nerve (or the inclination really) to follow what Tamar Myers (author of the Belgian Congo and the Den of Antiquity series as well as Penn-Dutch Magdalena series) advised me:  "If they buy a paperback, sign it with "Best wishes;" if they buy a hardback, sign it, "Your friend"; if they buy a complete set, sign it "You were wonderful last night." In the event you don't know Tamar, she as funny in person as her character Magdalena.

How about you?  Is your signature legible? What do you usually write?  What's the funniest or most interesting anecdote from your signings?

Until we meet again, please take care of… YOU.

11 September 2020

Share the Love



Always remember. Never forget.
 ~ September 11, 2001 ~


*********


Hi. My name is Kristin Kisska, and I am a book-aholic.

By book-aholic, I mean that I love all things bookish: shopping for books, the smell of books, the heft of a book in my hands, the satisfying turn--or swipe--of a page to start one-more-chapter-before-I-go-to-bed kind of books.

By design, I don't even know how many books I have in my possession. I have three different to-be-read piles all triaged by the amount of guilt I'd quash if I read them before any others, a collection that I keep proudly displayed of authors I've met, and my signed books. And then there's the pile of books that have been passed along to me. Sure, I also have an e-reader loaded with  good, unread content vying for my attention, but there's something special about a stack of paper ready to transport me to another world.

But my biggest (and growing!) piles by far are the books I've already read. My bookshelves would agree as they groan with each new addition squeezed onto the double- and triple-stacked mounds and even crammed over top, too.

Normally, when my piles take up too much of my floor's real estate, I'll haul a box of books over to my local library to donate so that they can sell them in their next fundraiser. But--no surprise--things aren't exactly normal these days.  My library has been closed these past six months due to the pandemic, and even though they are offering limited access to their collection, they are not accepting donations.

What's a book-aholic to do now that I have extra time to read?

Option A. Let my book piles invade every nook and spare corner of my home in a manner that would inspire Marie Kondo to host a decluttering intervention.

Option B. Pack up my books in shopping bags, then ding-dong-ditch them on my quarantining neighbors' front steps. They need entertainment too, right?

*** Or, better yet  ***

Option C. Drop my already-read (and sanitized!) books off at a Little Free Library.  Why?  Glad you asked.

In most areas of the United States, local libraries and schools are closed, and way-too-many people are experiencing financial hardships from layoffs and/or reduced income. Purchasing books is a luxury many in our communities may not be able to indulge in for the foreseeable future. People of all ages still appreciate entertainment. What better way to spend free hours than in a good, time-treasured paperback.

Share the love. Share the adventure.

If you loved a particular book you plan to donate, add a sticky note to the cover saying why. Even if you didn't enjoy the book and could barely eke through the first few chapters before giving up, it could become someone else's favorite read.

In case you haven't already noticed these dollhouse-looking structures planted in neighborhoods and school grounds, you may be surprised how many are nearby your space.  Here is a link to the Little Free Library sharing box map: https://littlefreelibrary.org/ourmap/ . Especially if you are donating books during the pandemic, please follow the CDC's sharing guidelines, which can be found here: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/community/index.html .

But what if you live in an area without a Little Free Library nearby? You can open one yourself.  Instructions are on their website. Or you can take a page from best selling author, Michelle Gable's playbook and host your own temporary free bookshop right in your own front yard.  PS - Dog not included.

Are you a crime or mystery author? Use your local Little Free Library network to increase your readership. If you write and have extra copies on hand of your novels or anthologies, consider strategically placing one or more in your neighborhood and share the news on social media, like author Tessa Wegert did. Include a bookmark with your website, or even a hashtag. A few fresh reviews, photos of your book in the wild, and the publicity may be just the boost your platform could use while in-person book events are discouraged.

What do you do with your already-read or extra books?

PS ~ Let's be social:


10 September 2020

The Self-Destruct Button



If Beale Street Could Talk film.png

I was talking to someone who shall be nameless about "certain people" who harp on how the Central Park Five should still be in jail.  Now the Central Park Five were falsely accused, and convicted, based on coerced confessions and a lot of cover-up of things like the fact that none of their DNA matched the DNA in the case.  But to "certain people" they should be still in jail because (1) if they were innocent, why did they confess in the first place? and (2) "These young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels."

My response to #2 is, "Who does?" and give them a steady stare.*

My response to #1 is, there's a long list of reasons.  The obvious reasons that they were juveniles (four were 15, one was 16), interrogated for hours, without counsel, without food (Dylan Roof was given Burger King takeout), and violence.  (One of the defendants said, "I would hear them beating up Korey Wise in the next room", and "they would come and look at me and say: 'You realize you're next.' The fear made me feel really like I was not going to be able to make it out."  Wikipedia)


And there's also the reason that (in my experience) young adolescents have a self-destruct button built into them which is inexplicable, unpredictable, and always hits at the wrong damn time in the wrong damn way.  Adolescent males are of most notorious for a tendency to direct their violence outwardly, as in every freaking school shooter we've ever seen.  But the self-destruct button hits both sexes in self-harm (cutting etc.), running away, running off with the absolute wrong/worst person possible, and/or suicide attempts, all of which are different ways of giving up on life.  Because they don't see any way out and / or they no longer give a damn.  Confessing to a crime you didn't commit is another way of doing it.


One example of this was done by Agatha Christie in Towards Zero, in which two characters - Sergeant Battle's daughter (a minor character) gives up and confesses to a crime she didn't commit, which stumps Battle.  Why would she do that?  Why?  He cannot understand - but because of his daughter, he can see and believe someone else…


And of course, in James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk, Fonny is falsely accused of raping a woman, and arrested and jailed before trial.  It's a slam-dunk case for the prosecutor, because a cop places him at the scene of the crime, Fonny has priors, as does his primary witness to his innocence, and he is black. The result?  He ends up accepting a plea deal and serves time - years of time - for a crime he didn't do.

Sometimes the law works against you.  Sometimes life works against you.  Drugs, hard knocks, poverty, and other disasters - "If it wasn't for bad luck, I wouldn't have no luck at all" - can easily lead to a hopelessness that can be summed up in "What the hell."  Whether it's confessing, killing, suicide, or cutting yourself to the bone.

Or running away:  99% of runaways leave home because home is a lousy place to be.  Most of them leave broke, with the clothes on their backs, and all the self-worth of a sandflea.  It makes them very vulnerable, easy targets for drug dealers, pimps, cons, gangs, cults, and anyone who shows them a hint of attention.  "What the hell.  It just doesn't matter."  To anything anyone does to them or with them.
And it's not just inmates and runaways.  I've seen a few college students hit a crisis and literally sandbag their entire lives.  One I knew was making straight A's, and then something happened (I never did find out what), and he literally quit coming to class the last 2 weeks.  I chased him down and told him if he'd come take the final, he could probably pull out a "D" (as in "D" for "done") or maybe even a "C".  And he said, sure, he would - but he didn't.  And so he flunked.  My class, every class, and dropped out of school.  No idea what happened after that.

I think the self-destruct button is far more common than any of us like to think.

Isn't that what most mid-life crises are?  Figuring, "What the hell", and going out and doing some incredibly stupid crap - from drugs to crime to skeevy relationships - that you may well be too old to survive?

And then there's long-lasting trauma.  I can't tell you how many people I'm talking to who are worn out, exhausted, and struggling with depression and even despair because of 2020 - I mean pandemic, politics, wildfires, hurricanes, and the economy all wrap up to make it hard to stay always cheerful and bright.  Not to mention the constant gaslighting.  Check out this wonderful article by DS Leiter: 

Not to mention some of our politicians.  Our own Governor, Kristi Noem, said last week at a Rotary event (after we passed the 14,000 case mark), that "I won't be changing my recommendations that I can see in the near future. I think this is where we expected we would be. None of this is a surprise. Originally, based on modeling, (our) peak day in June, we would have up to 10,000 people in the hospital in South Dakota that had COVID-19."  (Argus Leader)  In other words, until we have 10,000 people in the hospital in South Dakota, life will continue to go on as normal.  Of course, with only 880,000 people in the entire state, 10,000 hospitalized would mean the whole state has it, but what the hey.

Meanwhile, our Governor is having a great time.  Here she is at September 4th's South Dakota State Fair Bull Bash (Huron Plainsman)  Photo from Twitter:


Sigh...

Anyway, I'm certain that a lot of people are hearing [one of] the voices in their head** saying, "What the hell.  Maybe we should just go ahead and catch the damn virus and get it over with."  Except that the prognosis for 100% recovery from COVID-19 is decreasing rapidly with every new batch of information we get.  Or "What the hell.  Maybe we just won't vote - it won't do any good anyway."  Well, you can figure out your own reasons why that's bull.


All I can say is that this year, this pandemic, and life under almost any circumstances is a marathon, not a sprint.  Don't let the voices in your head get to you, and don't hit the self-destruct button.

“Nolite te Bastardes Carborundorum”***



* If you have lived an angelic past, God bless you and keep you, but we're going to run out of things to talk about.  And I probably won't believe you.

** Someday I should write a blog post about the voices, but don't expect it to be coherent.  As I tell my fellow Al-Anons, that I don't call mine "the committee" because committees are organized.

*** Yes, I know that isn't proper Latin.  😎 I like it anyway.  

09 September 2020

Exiles


I’m not sure what started this train of thought.  I might have been thinking about portrayals of the Raj, or the relationship between colonials and Empire, A Passage to India, Shakespeare Wallah, The Man Who Would Be King, and I drifted into more personal reminiscence.

My dad grew up in the wilds of Elyria, Ohio, and was sent East to boarding school when he was fifteen.  He was the youngest of five boys, and followed in his brothers’ footsteps.  I think plainly my grandmother Ada thought they’d get a better secondary education; it almost certainly helped them get into a good college.  My own experience with boarding school started at the same age, but I didn’t profit from it nearly so well.  I’m bringing this up because it has a parallel in Rudyard Kipling’s exile and return – you could definitely do something with this as metaphor, but I mean it literally, Kipling at five years old, uprooted from the heat and light of Bombay, packed off to the damp south coast of England, abandoned to the rigid torments of an unyielding Evangelical orthodoxy.

I don’t in any way mean to suggest my experience, or my dad’s, was anything like Kipling’s.  I idealize my father’s childhood, in fact, as some sunny upland of innocence, an unshadowed place out of Booth Tarkington or Don Marquis, gigging for frogs and going barefoot and swimming nekkid in the turbid shallows of the Black River, but this is utter nonsense, nobody’s childhood is unshadowed.  As for his years at Milton, he remembered them with enough affection to encourage me to apply there.  I wound up going somewhere else, and I wasn’t crazy about the whole prep school formula, either, but it was a long way from Dickensian horror.  Kipling wasn’t so lucky.  The years in Swansea, in the care of a retired Merchant captain and his wife, were manipulative and abusive.  Kipling’s own account, sixty years later, in Something of Myself, unflinchingly conveys his bewilderment and terror, the House of Desolation, he calls it.  “Often afterwards, [my] beloved Aunt would ask me why I had never told anyone how I was being treated.  Children tell little more than animals, for what comes to them they accept as eternally established.”  The despair is absolute, a lifetime after, the injury never forgiven.



Kipling says a couple of very interesting things about this period.  First off, remember that he was imprisoned there for six years, aged five to eleven.  He says, Turn a boy over to the Jesuits, for that time of life, and they’ll own him for the rest.  He also says, There were few books in that house.  But when they found this out, his parents sent him books, and they were rescue.  Lastly, he talks about his strategies for combating abuse.  “If you cross-examine a child of seven or eight on his day’s doings (specially when he wants to go to sleep), he will contradict himself very satisfactorily.  If each contradiction be set down as a lie and retailed at breakfast, life isn’t easy.  Yet it made me give attention to the lies I soon found it necessary to tell, and this, I presume, is the foundation of literary effort.”  Well, yes.  This is a very sly admission on Kipling’s part, that the cruelty he encountered here was an engine for his imagination.  You don’t have to be a survivor of domestic dysfunction to recognize the coping mechanics; even a pretty healthy family dynamic can require navigation.  Kipling is saying that the habit of secrecy, of concealment, of lies, is a survival mechanism, it’s protective coloration.  Oh, and he sings for his supper.  He begins to make up stories. 

Happily, this isn’t taking place in a complete vacuum.  He doesn’t have close relatives in England, but there are a few close enough to see the kid’s miserable, and his mother shows up finally to effect his escape.  (He never seems to blame them for this, by the way, Alice and John, his parents.  They identify as Anglo-Indian, overseas English, and it’s common practice to send your children home to Great Britain so they don’t go native.  The problem being that the foster family Kipling and his sister Trix were lodged with are opportunistic scum.)  We can all too easily imagine the twelve-year-old boy’s apprehension that he hasn’t broken free, that this is all a cruel joke, that the House of Desolation will open its jaws to him again, but no, this isn’t an imaginary release, they spend a careless spring and summer near Epping Forest, and we can’t help but think this is remembered in Puck of Pook’s Hill.


(One of Kipling’s gifts, it seems to me, is his enormous sympathy with childhood.  He re-imagines it.  Reading his children’s stories - or having them read aloud to you - The Just-So Stories, The Jungle Book, Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies, Stalky & Co., you can hear how each of them are pitched for a different ear.  The Just-So Stories are clearly aimed at four to six, Puck of Pook’s Hill and Rewards and Fairies aimed at a slightly older audience, say  seven to ten.  But he’s never condescending.)

Kipling was twelve going on thirteen when he went to public school at Westward Ho!  It was of course a curriculum that emphasized muscular Christianity, but the boy, Beetle in the Stalky stories, got his growth.  We imagine it was tough at first – did they even have hot bath water? – and there was caning, and institutionalized bullying by the upperclassmen, and for all of that, he pulls up his socks and soldiers on.  This isn’t the torment of Swansea, it’s a discipline he can embrace. 

He wasn’t, however, a terrific academic success.  His grades weren’t good enough to get him a scholarship to Oxford, and his parents didn’t have the means to pay his tuition, so John lined up a job for his son back in Lahore, assistant editor of The Civil and Military Gazette.


Kipling docks in India in October, 1882.  He’s just shy of seventeen, and he’s been away for eleven years.  “I found myself at Bombay where I was born, moving again among sights and smells that made me deliver in the vernacular sentences whose meaning I knew not.  …My English years fell away, nor ever, I think, came back in full strength.”

These next seven years account for Plain Tales from the Hills, Soldiers Three, Under the Deodars, The Phantom Rickshaw, and Wee Willie Winkie, along with poetry and six days a week of newspaper content.  The boy, once bereft and cast out, is home again.  His engine burns furiously.

Kipling was always full of industry, and his energies never deserted him, even if age slowed him down a little in the last five or so years of his life, but nothing matches the fever of that time in India. Both the Gazette and its sister publication, the Pioneer in Allahabad, were dailies, and he refers to the newspaper work as Seven Years’ Hard. He clearly wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything else.
     Try as he will, no man breaks wholly loose

          From his first love, no matter who she be.

     Oh, was there ever sailor free to choose,

          That didn’t settle somewhere near the sea?

I admit I have a real weakness for writers like Kipling, and Sir Walter Scott, and Dickens, or for that matter John O’Hara, who just pour it on.  Their invention, their freshness, their sheer concentration, is astonishing.  I’m sure they have their moments of despair and doubt.  But they lace up their God damn game shoes, and go out to play, with the score against them.

Kipling is one of those guys who’s anything but transparent.  In disguise, he takes on other voices, he protects himself.  He’s still in a boxer’s crouch.  Restless and forlorn.  The boy, abandoned, finding refuge in stories, a larger fate, a secret destiny.  Kim.  Kipling the spy.  The writer as double agent, infiltrating his own narrative, reporting back to us at great personal risk from an occupied country, where the real enemy is trust. 

Famously, he says of Bombay:
     The cities are full of pride,

          Challenging each to each –

     And she shall touch and remit

          After the use of kings

     (Orderly, ancient, fit)

          My deep-sea plunderings.

This is a man who put regret aside, but regrets color his life.  He forgets nothing, and forgives less.  Kipling absorbs, and apologizes.  Not even Dickens is less himself, or more.  Hidden, he rings true, as clear as water.