11 October 2020

Dr. Obenson: Doctor and Detective


Dr. Ken Obenson is one of only two certified forensic pathologists practicing in New Brunswick, Canada. He holds the distinction of being  first black pathologist certified by the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada in forensic pathology. 

Although he investigates deaths in deceased of all age groups from babies to adults, it is with the death of babies where, “I often need to apply all the detective skills that I acquired through training and experience. Infants don’t have the usual stigmata of disease or injury unlike adults who tend to have well documented disease histories - and infants can sustain injuries that may not be as obvious at autopsy as adults.”

“My role, in the case of a natural death, is to make sure that I make the best effort to find the explanation for the death so I can allay some of the fears of the family,” Dr. Obenson explains. “When an infant dies, the parents almost always blame themselves. It can be heartbreaking for the parents when we are not  able to  provide a definitive cause of death. Unlike some other practice groups, we don’t use the term SIDS because it is a diagnosis of exclusion. SIDS or not, the cause death is undetermined and this is what they (the parents) worry about. Not just for this baby, but for others they may have in the future.” 

One case he investigated was particularly illuminating. It was the death of an infant who was only a few days old. The CT, X-ray, autopsy, toxicology, microbiology and other examinations found no cause of death. Information gathered by the police, revealed that the baby was visited by its’ large extended family who had all held the baby. On a preliminary examination of slides of the markedly autolyzed tissue that he had sampled at the autopsy Dr. Obenson found evidence of viral infection (suspected to be parvovirus) in one section of liver. Knowing exactly what to look for, he reexamined the slides more closely  and found  further evidence of the infection in several other organs. 

Because he was able to determine that death was the result of a viral infection, Dr. Obenson was able to allay the parents’ fears that something congenital was responsible for their baby’s death and reassure them that their next baby would not be at risk of dying. It also allows them to make different decisions about how many people their next baby comes into contact with while vulnerable and perhaps they may even insist on hand washing and other infection precautions in the future. Very importantly, it saves them from unspoken accusations that they might have done something directly to cause their baby’s death, like smothering, etc. 

Dr. Obenson was quite satisfied with the outcome in this case, knowing that the finding of a lethal viral infection probably helped  the parents in dealing with  their loss.  This is why he insists that as per international guidelines, a  thorough post mortem examination be performed in infants, after a comprehensive death scene investigation with review of  radiologic, toxicological, histologic and microbiological findings. 

“My role, when there is a homicide of an infant, is collect evidence such that the law is able to hold whoever is responsible to account,” he explained. “I have been qualified as an expert witness in court which means that because of my training, certification and experience, I am able to  give opinion evidence as to the cause and manner of death, unlike 'eye' witnesses who can only speak to what they have seen or heard.” 

Although for most of us, the murder of an infant is unthinkable, it does happen. Dr. Obenson explains that if there is an adult unrelated to the infant living in the house, like a new boyfriend, they are statistically more likely to kill that child. However, biological parents also do kill their babies, with fathers being more likely to do so violently than mothers. Unfortunately the less violent the trauma the more difficult it can be to detect physical evidence of foul play. For example, Dr. Obenson points out, if a baby is smothered, petechial hemorrhages in the eye  that are often seen in, but not exclusive to an asphyxial death are less likely to occur in infants- which is why these death investigations can be so complex. 

Dr Obenson takes his role as an impartial witness seriously and derives no personal satisfaction from a conviction. His only responsibility is use all available evidence from death scene, to social circumstances to post mortem examination and ancillary tests to arrive at a reasonable opinion on the cause of death. 
Dr. Obenson has practiced forensic pathology in the United States, in Jamaica and for nearly 20 years in Canada. He says, “We don’t have as many suspicious child deaths in Canada, particularly homicides. My theory is that the social safety nets in Canada alleviate some of the social stresses families feel.” 

This is the best argument I have ever heard for supporting families: protecting children.

10 October 2020

Kyle in Payables Has Been Binge-Watching, and Now You Need to Care About Zettabytes


Please welcome the newest inmate to our cozy little asylum.  Robert Mangeot  has been around the short mystery fiction scene for a few years now. His stuff is in a few anthologies and appears frequently in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine (and has made my best-of-the-week selection four times.) He’ll have a piece in AHMM's November/December issue due out later this month. Bob is a healthcare industry long-timer when not writing, as his first piece makes clear.
— Robert Lopresti


KYLE IN PAYABLES HAS BEEN BINGE-WATCHING, AND NOW YOU NEED TO CARE ABOUT ZETTABYTES

by Robert Mangeot

Here’s Kyle again, five minutes late for the 8:00AM St. Healthcare Payables team Zoom huddle. He’s bleary-eyed--again--and slurping coffee (“Kyle, can you mute, please?”) after all-nighter binge watching the just-dropped Wicked Streaming Show That Has People Talking, season two. WSS.2, in Kyle-ese. He’ll gush baggy-eyed over each and every spoiler if anyone hangs on the Zoom too long. Usually, we can’t stay mad at him. Kyle is bedrock here in Payables, first with the virtual high fives and the loudest voice singing “Happy Birthday.” This morning, though, the coffee isn’t kicking in yet, and he’s digging this new email promising a GIFT CARD!!! if he clicks there and takes this important HR survey. Gift cards? Hello, WSS merch.

Don’t do it, Kyle. Don’t.

Kyle does it. Clickety clickety click. He’s heard about email scams and stolen files and that stuff. They do training in Payables, thank you very much. But this email seems legit. The logos and fonts are right for HR (they are), the linked website looks like HR (it kinda does, those smiling nurses), and the password log-in seems fine (it’s so not). Anyway, his melatonin is off this morning.

Let’s call the malware BigBummerExpress. Kyle’s computer doesn’t slow to a crawl processor-wise. It doesn’t flash the Blue Screen of Death. It doesn’t laugh a super-evil laugh like that cray hacker episode from WSS.1. BigBummerExpress is loaded and running, sure. And yeah, there’s patient information on his computer for the grabbing.  

Kyle isn’t who BigBummerExpress is after.

                                                                                  #

Meet the United States healthcare system. We Americans spend $3.6 trillion annually on all things medical and surgical, much more per capita than most other industrialized nations. Three trillion isn’t the largest number involved in this caper, but it’s the motivating number.

However we got here and whatever your opinion about it, U.S. healthcare is a huge market. Most money is spent well enough or at least well-intendedly. As for the rest, there’s a reason that entire professions--including mine--have spun up to chase bad actors. And lately, there’s the bad actor golden ticket: ransomware. 

To be clear, I am not a technology expert. I’m not involved in cybersecurity. I’m a humble regulatory nerd who barely understands how my laptop crunches its ones and zeroes. But with cybersecurity being crucial to those regs, I try to stay hip on the trends.  

In September, Universal Health Services--a giant at 400 facilities--announced a major cyberattack had taken down clinical systems. Universal is not releasing details, but if it sounds like ransomware, it probably is. Patient appointments were rescheduled, test results were delayed, and patients inbound to their ERs were diverted elsewhere. 

Universal is hardly alone in the cyber battles. In 2019, hospitals and clinical practices reported nearly 1,000 successful ransomware attacks. What makes healthcare an outsized target over other sectors? Large health organizations can find the pay-off money somehow. Paying up may be a care imperative. Also, medical software products are often older and assembled as a patchwork. Lastly, a patient record contains a more comprehensive set of personal data than your average retail outlet. Such records are so valuable that the Dark Web apparently coined its own term: Fullz.

Health data has grown to mind-boggling size and mushrooms further each year. Experts predict that cumulative health data about you and me will reach 35 zettabytes this year. A zettabyte is tech-speak for one sextillion. That’s roughly one byte for all the grains of sand on all the Earth’s beaches--multiplied by 35. Or to see all the commas, we’re talking 35,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes of health data out there.

And the problems usually start with phishing

                                                                                #

A month has passed since Kyle did that vendor survey thing. He’s forgotten about that gift card or reporting a concern because, bless him, rumors go WSS.3 will be the full throttle, slam-bang finale. In that month, BigBummerExpress has used his system credentials to cruise the company IT platforms and learn where that sweet data is, how it’s structured, what protects it. To the Security people, if they spot any oddness in Kyle’s activity, it looks like him accessing places he’s authorized to access. 

It’s encryption time. 

8:15AM, the Zoom huddle and Kyle slurping coffee. His boss is asking Kyle to mute when everyone’s Payables screens flicker off. Text messages start flying. His boss manages to say, “I gotta go.”

                                                                             #

It’s no wonder that crime fiction often involves a cyber angle. The technology and its human implications can be fascinating, and it brings plenty of cat-and-mouse games. If anyone is mulling a healthcare cyber tale, here’s a general lay of the land for 2020 realism. 

To read the industry studies, hospital ransoms used to be small, way cheaper than fighting the protracted fight. A volume business. Fast forward to 2020: Those studies put asking prices in the millions. Today’s ransomware isn’t just encrypting data natively but stealing it on threat of release, so that companies can’t plug in the back-ups and refuse to bargain. Big game hunting, in the lingo.

Healthcare providers have layers of serious defenses in place. Be assured the good guys are damn good—and have to be. Federal regs (anyone remember the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act?) require detailed IT security plans and regular self-assessments, at the pain of major fines and enforcement should personal health information be jeopardized. Europe’s laws are even tougher.

Cybercriminals are such an everyday threat that it’s an insurable risk. Of course, no underwriter goes on the hook for potential millions only to stay out of the response and prevention discussions. Like I said, serious defenses.

That can have a weak link.

                                                                             #

Kyle is messaging his buddy. He had another emergency Zoom interview, this time an IT consultant dude with an open collar shirt and razor stare. The consultant dude kept showing Kyle that HR email and asking about BigBummerExpress and even about his browser history. His affiliations. This FBI lady joined the call, too. She didn’t utter a word. Just made notes. 

It was awesome.

It’s been weird at St. Healthcare. HR sent an actual email with an actual performance warning. It took forever to get the Payables and medical record interface back running, and while it’s not been on the news, Kyle figures somebody must’ve coughed up for the hackers to go away. 

Hackers. Big money. Affiliations. What Kyle’s thinking, this would make full throttle WSS fan fiction.

09 October 2020

Quotes from F. Scott Fitzgerald


I never heard F. Scot Fitzgerald say this things, of course, but these have been attributed to him.



"You don't write because you want to say something, you write because you have something to say."

"That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you're not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong."

"First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you."



"Cut out the exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke."

"Writers aren't people exactly. Or, if they're any good, they're a whole lot of people trying so hard to be one person."

"All writing is like swimming underwater and holding your breath."


"Genius is the ability to put into effect what is on your mind."

"Often I think writing is a sheer paring away of oneself leaving always something thinner, barer, more meagre."

"Mostly, we authors must repeat ourselves – that's the truth. We have two or three great moving experiences in our lives – experiences so great and moving that it doesn't seem at the time that anyone else has been so caught up and pounded and dazzled and astonished and beaten and broken and rescued and illuminated and rewarded and humbled in just that way before."

"You can stroke people with words."

"The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function."

"Action is character."

"Nobody ever became a writer by just wanting to be one."

"Show me a hero and I will write you a tragedy."


F. Scott Fitzgerald's grave

The last line of THE GREAT GATSBY. It always moves me.

Ernest Hemingway once described F. Scott Fitzgerald this way. "He is the great tragedy of talent of our bloody generation."


















That's all for now. Y'all stay safe.


www.oneildenoux.com

08 October 2020

The Evidence in the Case


A few weeks ago, when the Atlantic article came out saying that Donald Trump had called people in the military "losers" and "suckers", I got into it on-line with someone about evidence.  They didn't approve of anonymous sources.  So I posted the video of Trump calling McCain a loser and "not a war hero":



And the Howard Stern interview, where Trump called STDs his "personal Vietnam.  I feel like a great and very brave soldier."


And said that I thought we could perhaps extrapolate future behavior from prior statements.  Now I wouldn't have minded an argument on freedom of speech - I'm always ready to defend that one - or even the validity of judging someone by their past behavior.  BUT the reply I got was that "the videos are just circumstantial evidence."  So I blew a gasket.  Because of course no, they're not.  

(Legal Definition)  "Circumstantial evidence is proof of a fact or set of facts from which one could infer the fact in question. For example, that a suspect is seen running away from a murder scene with a weapon in hand is circumstantial evidence he committed the murder. This contrasts with direct evidence, which directly proves the fact in question. An eyewitness who testifies to seeing the suspect shoot the victim is direct evidence." The direct testimony, on record, on tape, is direct evidence.  Period.  You can argue that the person was lying, or bragging, or telling a story - but you're gonna have to prove that.  Meantime, what they said is what they said.  

In history, we call direct evidence primary sources: original things (diaries, letters, stelae, pottery, tombs, and other original artifacts of all kinds).  Secondary sources are analyses or discussions about primary sources (like textbooks, pundits, op-eds, and conspiracy theories).  For an historical argument to be sound, it must be supported / defended by primary sources, and must be analysis of the evidence.  Yes, opinions will crop up and even barge in, but there damn well better be strong primary sources. 

That does not mean there will not be debate, furious, even murderous.  It also doesn't mean that point of view doesn't matter, whether from the originator or the historian.  For example, in the old days, i.e., up until the 1950s, most history was about war, royalty, and nobility, with a very occasional mention of peasants.  That was what was "important" to the primarily European men who wrote history.  And there was also plenty of documentation - low hanging fruit you might say.

But then things changed, because historians began to study things like 100 years of church registers, noting the number of bastards born in, say, a town in Normandy.  Or the court records of counties, noting how many cases of assault there were in an average year (a lot - the Middle Ages had a fairly high level of violence).  Or... you get the idea.  And suddenly we had social history, with histories of (for example) a village in the Pyrenees like Le Roy Ladurie's brilliant Montaillou.  This was based on Inquisition documents (1294-1324 AD) where they wrote down the interrogations of peasants about the Catharist heresy in their village (and there was a lot), and along the way recorded everything from how people got their bread (and how much it cost) to who combed whose hair for lice and why.  

This also changed what was seen as the impetus for change.  For example, today, it's pretty much a given that the Renaissance was largely triggered by the Black Death, which (by killing a third of the world in its first 4 years - 1347-1351 - and its repeat performances every 10-20 years for the next 300 years) basically overturned much of the medieval order of peoples and ideas (including that "God's in His heaven and all's right with the world - obviously something was seriously wrong), and set the stage for not just the Renaissance but Martin Luther and the Reformation.  

In the same way, Jared Diamond's 1997 Guns, Germs & Steel, challenged the traditional Western Eurocentric theory of world history by showing through primary sources (direct evidence) that the gaps in power and technology between human societies originate primarily in environmental differences and had nothing to do with the superiority of Europeans over the rest of the world.  (See Wikipedia for a concise overview, but better yet, read the book yourself - fantastic.)  And it in turn fed off of Alfred W. Crosby's The Columbian Exchange, which discussed the widespread transfer of plants, animals, culture, human populations, technology, diseases, and ideas between the Old and New Worlds, changing ecosystems world-wide.  (Again, read the book.)   
BTW - one of the great examples in literature of historical arguments (and how much analysis, deduction, argument, and debate they require) is not Dan Brown, but Tom Stoppard's 1993 play Arcadia, which deserves far more productions (and at least one movie!  Please!) than it has gotten.  Alternating between the mid-1800s and the present, the present scenes show dueling historians arguing over the following primary sources:  mid-1800s "game books" (i.e., hunting records at a country house), a diary (by a young girl), and a number of letters and notes tucked into a poetry book which itself was heavily underlined.  All of which seem to indicate that Lord Byron killed minor poet Ezra Chater in a duel over Chater's wife at this country house where they were all guests at the same time, and after which Mr. Chater disappeared, and Lord Byron fled to the Continent for two years.  Solving what belonged to whom (including who did all that underlining) is a masterclass in historical deduction and detection.
Also, I would give almost anything to have seen the 1993 production: directed by Trevor Nunn with Rufus Sewell as Septimus Hodge, Felicity Kendal as Hannah Jarvis, Bill Nighy as Bernard Nightingale, Emma Fielding as Thomasina Coverly, and Harriet Walter as Lady Croom (Wikipedia).  
Anyway, the point is that you can debate the meaning of various primary sources, i.e., direct evidence - what you cannot debate is that they are real and they are relevant.  We have to keep people accountable for what they say and write.  Especially politicians, who currently are trying to have it both ways:  They mean what they say until they're in the hot seat, and then they either never said it or didn't mean it or were only joking.  

We have to keep reminding people that without the clear, continuous definition of original sources / direct evidence vs. secondary sources / circumstantial evidence, we will lose more than good historical argument:  we will miss justice as well.  And perhaps democracy.

07 October 2020

The Inspiration Panel


Next week was supposed to be the Bouchercon in Sacramento.  Alas, it had to had to move to virtual  due to you-know-what. Some of you are no doubt mourning for all the panels you won't get to attend in person, the bars you won't get to close, etc.

I can't help you with the bars, but maybe I can cause you to miss the panels a little less. Last year I wrote a play inspired by many panels I attended at mystery, science fiction, and library conferences.    I present it here for your amusement.  (And by the way, if anyone wants to perform it... contact me.)

Jewish Noir panel, Raleigh Bouchercon*

THE INSPIRATION PANEL

The stage is set for a typical conference panel: two tables together lengthwise, covered with black tablecloths.  Water pitchers and five glasses.  Three microphones.  Five chairs behind.

EVE walks onto the stage, with a great sense of purpose. She is forty, dressed flashily, but not expensively.  She carries five name tents which she carefully places on the tables.  From left to right they read: EVE BROCKHURST, CHARLES LEMMON, DEBORAH DRAKE, BILL FONTANA, AMY KITE. 

As EVE is going around the table to her seat DEBORAH arrives. She is in her thirties, dressed in business attire.  She reads the tents, stiffens, and then switches her tent with CHARLES’.  As she comes around to her seat the others arrive, read the tents, and take their places.

After a beat EVE looks down the line, nods at the panelists and then smiles at the audience.

EVE
Welcome, everyone!  Have you been enjoying our annual writer’s conference?  Good, good!  This is the Inspiration Panel, just in case you boarded the wrong flight.  (She laughs at her own joke.)  My name is Eve Brockhurst and I am the author of six books of poetry, including The Falling of the Dew, which our local newspaper called “remarkably sincere.”  The fact is, I was surprised to be asked to moderate a panel, even one as distinguished as this.  I figured the committee would need me to speak on the Poetry Panel, or the Nature Panel.  Or even the Marketing Panel.  (Brightening by sheer will power.)  But Fraser, our dear director, told me that what he needed most was a strong personality who could keep these ferocious characters in line!
Readers Recommends panel, Toronto Bouchercon

She gestures at her panel.

DEBORAH looks irritated. 

CHARLES is slumped in his seat. He is sixty years old and wears a sports coat with no tie. 

BILL is all coiled energy. He is in his thirties, dressed in business casual. 

AMY is glowingly happy.  She is in her late twenties and dressed younger.

EVE
But that’s more than enough about me.  It’s time to introduce our wonderful panelists who will inform and, dare I say it, inspire you today.  First on my left is Charles Lemmon.  He is-

She looks left and realizes for the first time that DEBORAH is sitting next to her.  She does a quick check down the line to see that everyone else is there.

EVE 
Whoops!   My mistake. Someone did a little shuffle on me.  (She sorts her notes.)  First in line is Deborah Drake, the author of the new romance novel—

DEBORAH
Women’s fiction.

EVE
Excuse me?

DEBORAH 
Women’s fiction.  It’s about real-life problems.  Not the kind you can solve by going to bed with a man whose chest size is higher than his IQ.

EVE
O-kay.  I can see you have a lot on your mind today.  Deborah’s woman’s fiction -- Woman’s?

Short story panel, Bouchercon 2017
DEBORAH
Women’s.

EVE
Thanks. It’s about a woman suffering from Reynaud’s Syndrome and it’s called The Girl With Cold Fingers.  The first time I met Deborah was at a conference just like this three or four years ago.  She came up after a panel to tell me how much she had enjoyed my book The Dancing of the Leaves, and I complimented her on her taste.   It’s so wonderful to see a person one has mentored becoming a success.  Deborah, our subject is inspiration.  In general, what inspires you?

DEBORAH
Great question, Eve.  I find that there are sparks all around if you know how to look for them.  I’m thinking right now that my next book might be about a woman with a stalker, maybe a former lover who is too self-centered and frankly too thick to take no for an answer.

BILL is getting more and more agitated.

EVE
Well, that is certainly the sort of real-life problem many of us women have had to face.  Is this based your personal experience or something you’ve heard about or…

DEBORAH
As you said we all face this sort of thing from time to time.  Men who think they have a right to your attention, who don’t understand when they are not wanted—

BILL
What about the men who have been led on?

DEBORAH
Sometimes a man simply refuses to—

EVE
Just a moment, dear.  Bill – this is Bill Fontana, everyone – You had something to add?

BILL
I just think a writer needs to look at all sides.  Modern readers don’t want set pieces with cardboard characters where one person is all right and the other is all wrong.  If you’re writing for grown-ups characters need to be nuanced.

DEBORAH
In your latest book the villain tried to strangle a kitten. How nuanced is that?

EVE
Bill, you’ll have your chance.  Deborah, do you want to finish your thought?

DEBORAH
That would be nice, wouldn’t it?

EVE
I’m sure.  Our next panelist (DEBORAH does a doubletake.) is my dear friend, one of our most distinguished, most senior, a veritable elder statesman-

CHARLES
Please!  I’m not dead yet.

EVE
Of course not.  I just wanted to point out that you have written so many books.  Even more than my six volumes of poetry.  Charles Lemmon, your most recent book is historical fiction, The Battle of Sattleford Creek.  What’s it about?

CHARLES
(Pause.) It’s about the Battle of Sattleford Creek.

EVE
I might have guessed that, I suppose.  So many titles are ironic these days, don’t you think?  My book The Fire Sonnets contains no sonnets, and never mentions fire!  I suppose that’s why the critics found it so surprising.  One of them said “Eve Brockhurst has-”

CHARLES
Eve?

EVE
Yes?

CHARLES
How are we doing on time?

EVE
Good point.  Charles, at this place in your long career, how do you still manage to find inspiration?  What moves you to keep writing?

CHARLES
The credit card companies.  Something moves them to send me bills.

EVE
Oh, come now.  Do you really mean you are only writing for the money?

CHARLES
I’d better not be, because there’s precious little of it.  And security, don’t make me laugh.  You teach English at the college, don’t you?

EVE
I do.  I have the honor of opening up the minds and hearts of—

CHARLES
You can get tenure.  Then you have work for the rest of your life if you want it. What I wouldn’t give for that.  A publisher can kick you out in the snow after you give them the best years of your life.

BILL
Wow, that is one bad cliché.

CHARLES
Shut up, Bill. 

DEBORAH
I’m glad I’m not the only one he interrupts.

EVE 
Actually. I’m an adjunct professor.  No tenure, I’m afraid.

CHARLES
Then you’re in the same boat as us professional writers.  I don’t know how a publisher can sleep at night, when they fire an editor you’ve been working with for – well, a long time, and suddenly you’re an orphan and no one wants to promote your book because the last guy picked it.

EVE
So do you find that—

CHARLES
No ads.  No tours.  No publicity.  And you know damn well that when the book doesn’t sell, they’ll say it’s the fault of the writing.  Never the publisher’s, oh no.  I might as well give up on quality and start self-publishing crap.

EVE
Now, come on, Charles!  That attitude is very old-fashioned.

CHARLES
Don’t call me that!

EVE
Some of the best, most original work coming out today is self-published.  My fourth book--

BILL
And a lot of the worst stinkers, too. 

DEBORAH
You’d know about that.

BILL
Oh, I’d forgotten.  Men aren’t allowed to talk at this panel.  Go right ahead.

EVE
Come on, Bill.  We value everyone’s opinion.

BILL
Hell of a way of showing it.

DEBORAH
Bill isn’t very good at taking cues, I’m afraid.  At understanding what people are trying to tell him.

EVE 
All right, Bill.  Since you’re so eager to talk, tell us.  How do you find inspiration?

BILL
That’s a stupid question, Eve.  Isn’t it really just the old cliché: how do you find your ideas?
Short stories panel at Left Coast Crime, Vancouver

DEBORAH
See?  He doesn’t listen.

BILL
Not so, Deborah!  A good writer, a great writer, is always listening.  That’s how he comes up with dialog that sounds true. 

EVE
So you get your inspiration from the people around you…

BILL
That’s right.  And I get so much more.  Like insight into personality.  How a person will say one thing and mean something completely different.  For example, maybe they’ll claim for months that they want to leave their husband and start a new life, but when their lover offers to take them up on it, it turns out they were just teasing him along—

DEBORAH
And this is your idea of honest observation?  No wonder Kirkus hated your last book.

CHARLES
Kirkus hated everybody’s last book.

EVE
You know, I think we’ve been neglecting one of our panelists.  Amy Kite is a fresh new face on our city’s literary scene.  She is the author of The Dragons of Zanzanook

AMY
(Correcting the pronunciation) Zanzanook.

EVE
Sorry!  Her book is a fantasy novel which has attracted major support from the publisher.  There’s an ad in the Times.

CHARLES
Oh my God.

EVE
An author’s tour.

CHARLES moans.

EVE
And I believe you are booked on one of the morning shows next week.  Is that right?

AMY
Two, actually.

CHARLES
Jesus.

EVE
Sorry.  I must have missed one.  Let’s talk about what inspires you…

AMY
Thank you so much, Eve.  I just want to say how inspired I feel simply by being here with all of you today.  What an honor!  This is my first time at a writer’s conference, you know, and here I am with Charles Lemmon!  I’ve been reading his books since I was a little girl.

CHARLES
Well, that’s wonderful.  You young whippersnapper.

AMY
And Deborah, what was the name of your novel about the girl with Irritable Bowel Syndrome?

DEBORAH
Twists and Turns.

AMY
Yes!  My mother loved that one!

BILL
Oh, I can hardly wait.

AMY
Mr. Fontana.

CHARLES
Here it comes.

AMY
When I needed a break from writing my book I would read your novel in which the psychotherapist turns out to be the serial killer.

BILL
Which one?  I wrote two of those.

AMY
Three actually.

BILL
I didn’t…  Oh yeah.

CHARLES
And there it is.

Setting as Character Panel, Left Coast Crime, Vancouver, 2019
Setting as Character panel, Left Coast Crime, Vancouver
AMY
I’m afraid I don’t remember which one I read most recently.

CHARLES
Boom.

BILL
Let’s not forget our moderator, Amy.  What do you think of Eve’s poetry?

AMY
I’m afraid I haven’t read it yet.

EVE
You probably don’t read poetry.  So few young people do these days.

AMY
Oh, but I do!  I must get around to yours.

BILL
Yes.  Do get around to it.

EVE
Well, that’s very sweet, Amy.  Let’s start another round.  Deborah, what is the inspiration for the book you’re working on now?

DEBORAH
We covered that, remember?  Stalker?

EVE
Oh.  Right.  (Checking her notes.)  Well, what inspired you to start writing in the first place?

DEBORAH
I’d say it was Greg.  My darling husband.

BILL
Oh, brother.

DEBORAH
He is my biggest cheerleader.  He knew from the moment we first met that I was a creative soul and he has always encouraged me to—

BILL
Point of order.

CHARLES
Point of order?  Is this a congressional hearing?

EVE
What is it, Bill?

BILL
I’m just wondering if this is the same husband you told me hasn’t opened a book since he got his MBA.

DEBORAH
I never said any such thing.  And frankly, I resent you constantly interrupting me.

EVE
Well, Fraser was certainly right about this group needing a strong hand, wasn’t he?  Deborah, I think it’s wonderful that you have such a supportive husband.

Ecology Panel Audience, Left Coast Crime, Toronto, 2019
Ecology Panel, Left Coast Crime, Vancouver
DEBORAH
 I can’t imagine how I could go on without him.  We truly are soulmates.

BILL
I thought you didn’t write romance fiction.

DEBORAH
You know, Bill, I think I know why you model all your villains on your psychotherapists.

EVE
I think we’re running out of time, so we had better move along.  Charles, can you tell us a little about what inspires your current work in progress?

CHARLES
I’m not sure I have one, Eve.  I write historical fiction and that means two or three years of research for each book.  By the time my next one is ready my publisher will probably have burned through five or six editors, and all that any of them care about are the latest trends.  The new expert, straight out of some Ivy League day care center, wants me to write a Civil War novel with zombies.

BILL
You’re kidding.  Zombies are like five years past their sell-by date.

EVE 
And Bill, you already talked about your plans, so any other thoughts about inspiration?

BILL
Great question!  As a thriller writer I’m concerned with revealing the truth of the human heart.  By which I mean that people are totally and remorselessly evil. 

CHARLES
Jesus.  I thought zombies were depressing.

BILL
That goes doubly so for the female heart, of course.

CHARLES
And publishers.

EVE
Moving right along.  Amy.

AMY
Yes, Eve?

EVE
Let’s get back to your debut novel, The Dragons of Zanzanook-

AMY
Zanzanook.

EVE 
Thank you so much, dear.  Would you say you were more inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien or George R.R. Martin?

AMY
(Laughing.)   Neither one, Eve.  My starting point was my doctoral dissertation on late medieval monasticism in a military context.  I just threw in dragons to make it commercial.

CHARLES
(Inspired.) Damn it, girl, we have to talk!

Short Story Panel, Left Coast Crime, 2015
Short Story panel, Left Coast Crime 2015
AMY
I’d love that!

EVE
Now we have time for a few questions from the-- Oh, I’m told we don’t.

BILL stalks off in disgust.

EVE
Please join us in the vendors’ room, where all the authors will be happy to sign their books for you, and I will be happy to take pre-publication orders for my seventh book of poetry, Life, Be Not—

The microphone is shut off.  She frowns at it.

*Photo by Peter Rozovsky

06 October 2020

Coast to Coast Noir - The Many Shades of Noir


Amazon

I’m happy to announce that the third volume in our Coast to Coast crime fiction series dropped last week. (See how cool I am: “dropped”.) I’m also happy to say, we’ve had some success with the first two volumes, Coast to Coast: Murder from Sea to Shining Sea and Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea. When the last volume came out I did a piece here on editing for it: click here. For this volumeNoirI’m going to talk a little about noir, what we decided our definition of it is, and a little tease about each author’s story.

The authors in this volume are: Colleen Collins, Brendan DuBois, Alison Gaylin, Tom MacDonald, Andrew McAleer, Michael Mallory, Paul D. Marks, Dennis Palumbo, Stephen D. Rogers, John Shepphird, Jaden Terrell, Dave Zeltserman.

Coast to Coast: Noir from Sea to Shining Sea is the third in our series of Coast to Coast crime anthologies from Down and Out Books. The first two Coast to Coast collections garnered fifteen nominations and/or awards between them. Hopefully we’ll keep our record going with volume three. We have twelve terrific writers and stories.

The way that all the books have been laid out so far is that the stories start on the West Coast and each succeeding story moves a little farther east until we hit the East Coast. The thinking on this, at least in my mind, is to move left to right because that’s how we read on a page and it just seems comfortable.

From the intro to the book and pretty much what we suggested to the authors:

“What we asked for was noir in the classic tradition of David Goodis and Jim Thompson or movies like Double Indemnity. Our definition of noir is basically somebody tripping over their own faults: somebody who has an Achilles heel, some kind of greed, or want, or desire that leads them down a dark path. But within that the authors could be as down and dirty as they wanted. Time frame wasn’t an issue either. The stories could be set anywhere in time from now till back when.

We also don’t think noir has to be the dark of a rainy night or ominous shadows from Venetian blinds. There doesn’t even have to be a femme fatale. But one definite thing about noir: No one is safe. There’s no place to hide in this collection of twelve stories from the dark side of the American Dream. Noir can happen anywhere to anyone who’s just a little greedy, a little too proud, or a little naive. It can happen to a college student working at a steel mill or the chef-owner of an upscale Greek restaurant. Even the most pure of heart can succumb: a correctional officer at a maximum security prison or a father seeking justice. And it’s not always about money, sometimes it’s about power, fame, revenge, payback.”

So here’s a little tease for each story, in author alphabetical order: 

Look your Last by Colleen Collins

Location: Denver, Colorado 

Story: A young woman follows in the footsteps of her P.I. father who was murdered. She takes on a case that has ties to her father’s murder. 

Noir themes: private eye, revenge, fate, the past haunts the present. 


The Dark Side of the River by Brendan DuBois

Location: rural Massachusetts

Story: An ex-con trying to get on the right track again is persuaded by his brother to help him in a drug scheme.

Noir themes: femme fatale, ex-con trying to reform, family and loved ones can drag you down.


Where I Belong by Alison Gaylin

Location: Hudson Valley, New York


Story: A teenager leaves home after a video of him beating up his stepfather makes him an internet sensation.

Noir themes: outsider, loner, greed, some people are born bad.




Nashua River Floater by Tom MacDonald

Location: Nashua, New Hampshire

Story: A detective is hired under the table by a state trooper to investigate a homicide of a criminal who was recently released from prison. He uncovers some secrets from the past. 

Noir themes: private eye, secrets from the past, alcoholism.



On an Eyeball by Andrew McAleer

Location: Boston, Massachusetts 


Story: A woman C.O. at a high security prison endures sexual harassment in her job. She isn’t happy about it…

Noir themes: femme fatale, sex, revenge is best served cold.




The Dark Underside of Eden by Michael Mallory

Location: Springfield, Missouri

Story: A reporter for a local radio station looks into the apparent suicide of a young intern at the station who he was having an affair with. 

Noir themes: sex, power, corruption, the innocent are sacrificed.



Nowhere Man by Paul D. Marks

Location: Santa Monica/Venice Beach, California

In 1965, a guy working at the DMV sells information on the side and causes a young woman’s murder. It affects him more than he thought it would… 

Noir themes: greed, the innocent are sacrificed, you can't escape fate. 


Steel City Blues by Dennis Palumbo

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania


Story: A young college student works in the local steel plant and finds himself embroiled in a steamy affair with the foreman’s wife. But nothing is quite as it seems. 

Noir themes: sex, seduction, greed, femme fatale.




Detour to Dolmades by Stephen D. Rogers

Location: Providence, Rhode Island

Story: The chef-owner of a high-class Greek restaurant is the master of her domain, until she lets her defenses down. 

Noir themes: homme fatale, gangsters, pride can bring you down.



Pandora’s Box by John Shepphird

Location: Los Alamos, New Mexico

A young college student is seduced into joining a group of grifters in a plot involving the  Los Alamos National Laboratory and a Grateful Dead rock concert.

Noir themes: sex, drugs, loss of innocence, a con man luring a young woman into crime.


Sins of the Father by Jaden Terrell 

Location: Nashville, Tennessee


Story: A former Night Stalker special forces helicopter pilot comes to his daughter’s rescue… 

Noir themes: mistakes made in the past, regrets, revenge, redemption.




The Long Road by Dave Zelsterman 

Location: small town, Kansas 

Story: A husband can’t remember what happened before he was in a car accident. His wife discourages him from thinking about it, but he won’t leave it alone. 

Noir themes: lies, deception, you can never escape your own past.





We also did a Zoom panel with 9 of the 12 authors you might want to check out: 


So there you have it. This collection shows that noir can be many different things in many different settings. And, much as I like classic noir films and books, the stories don’t have to have unceasing rain, Venetian blind shadows or flashing neon signs. But I think there is a theme to them and that theme shows up in each of these varied stories.

~.~.~

And now for the usual BSP:

The Blues Don't Care got a nice review from It was a Dark and Stormy Book Club.

“On one level it’s a mystery where Bobby Saxon, with secrets he wants no one to find out, works to solve a murder and clear his name under extraordinary racially tinged circumstances. With a lot of twists and turns, this is an excellent mystery.  It takes place in World War II-era Los Angeles, and the author does a brilliant job that brings the long-gone era alive with memorable characters, scents, descriptions, and most of all, jazz. Highly recommended."


Buy on Amazon or Down & Out Books


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

05 October 2020

A Touch of Frost


Inspector Frost with one
of many new sergeants
One of the downsides of advancing age is an inability to read as much as one once did. This is a nuisance for everyone, but especially for writers, for whom the written word is up there with food and drink. Lately of an evening, I have found myself looking at wavering lines of print and clicking on the TV to Britbox, a combined service of the BBC and ITV which was a Christmas present last year.

The service has an assortment of good programing, but, especially in this time of virus and isolation, I've been favoring Gardener's World and A Touch of Frost. The latter was a long running UK favorite, originally from Yorkshire TV, starring David Jason as Inspector William "Jack" Frost, a self-described street copper with a nose for crime and good-sized problems with bureaucrats and authority.

He's old fashioned and quick-tempered and not altogether loath to cut corners, characteristics that look less desirable in cops these days than they probably did back at its debut in '92. His saving grace, besides being an excellent, even obsessive, investigator, is his sympathetic knowledge of his community, including the many poor but decent folks who wind up in difficulties.

David Jason in A Touch of Frost
Inspector Frost, himself is often in trouble, especially with his ambitious and rather dim Superintendent Mullett. Out of the office, Frost's absorption in his cases drives any number of nice women out the door, even while his grumpy charm attracts new ones. As played by David Jason, this character proved durable and extremely popular.

And he had good scripts. These are formulaic, unsurprisingly, given that some 42 episodes were made, but well done, nonetheless. Most episodes had two cases running simultaneously, one involving a death, the other less serious. Although there was a solid cast of regulars, the Inspector was frequently paired with new sergeants and constables, some of whom seem to have been assigned with the express purpose of exasperating him, others for whom he comes to feel genuine affection.

Frost expects all of them to work hard, and there is a good deal of cooperation and delegating of duties except for the last twenty minutes of most episodes, when, despite his years of experience, Inspector Frost rushes off on a hunch of his own, confronts various bad guys and winds up in an obstacle laden chase or facing a gun or a serious fight.

Even at the start of the series, Jason, small and a bit plump, was getting up in years, so it is not too surprising that he finally retired from the role at 68, noting that a real detective would have been off the force eight years earlier. During his long run with A Touch of Frost, however, Jason managed to finesse the problem of his advancing years with the vigor of his performances and the robust physicality of his acting – catch the pop eyes and flushed face when he's angry or the sly twitch of a smile when he has outsmarted some crook.

Frost's nemesis,
Superintendent Mullett
He's good in quieter scenes, too, suggesting a genuine sympathy that counterbalances his brash personality and impulsiveness. This sense of balance is reflected in the scripts, too. They are clever without being obscure; the perpetrator's motivations are plausible, and at least some of the criminals are in morally complex situations.

There's enough surprise to keep the stories interesting, and enough familiarity in Frost's unending struggles to thwart Superintendent Mullett, to rescue the romance of the moment, or to finish his mostly rushed and unwholesome meals to make the show relaxing of an evening. This is definitely one of the better mystery imports.

04 October 2020

Small Claims 0


Previously I described the steps I used to take a conglomerate to court. Long before, I was sued by a dishonest man and lost a small claims case that, had I been more knowledgeable, I might have won.

My friend Geri lived a mile from me and I watched over her house when she vacationed. Often she’d schedule work while she was away, and this time she wanted to replace her fence.

Thanks to hurricanes and moisture, fences have short life spans in the Sunshine State. Fences were a concern for me too, so I researched ways to give fences extra years, a realm of excitement beyond words. The following are the fruits of my labor, otherwise called ‘best practices’:
  1. Embed posts in concrete.
  2. Shape the concrete into a dome to run off water away from the post rather than collect moisture around it.
  3. Don’t install panels at ground level, but elevate them an inch or so above.
  4. Don't use staples or ordinary nails. Use ring-shank nails to resist winds.

I typed a list of the above and sketched a diagram of setting posts in concrete. These I stapled to the sales proposal given Geri and agreed to the extra charges and signed off. The installer missed their start date, so on her way out of town, Geri asked a neighbor to phone me at work whenever construction commenced.

The First Hint

The neighbor gave me a heads-up at eight the next morning. By the time I arrived, workmen had already set several posts… without concrete. After I explained they were supposed to use cement, a worker with a garden trowel spread dry sandmix around posts.

No, I said, they’re supposed to be set in concrete shaped to aid water runoff. I returned to work leaving them to it.

I flew to Miami and returned the following afternoon. The job had been wrapped minutes before my arrival. Except…

The pickets (paling panels) rested directly on the ground. Grounded palings made wood rot more quickly, wicking moisture from the soil up through the grain.

The crew had removed and reset only the first post in concrete; they hadn’t bothered with the others. Many showed a sprinkling of dry concrete but nearly as many went without.

Now suspicious, I looked closer. On the plus side, they hadn’t used staples but, after pulling one nail, I discovered they’d used ordinary smooth box nails. They company had completed none of the requirements they’d agreed to.

I’d let Geri down. I was so ticked off, I missed the most obvious mistake of all.

“Uh,” said the neighbor. “Why did they install half the fence backwards?”

“What?”

“Half of the fence is inside out.”

The workmen had installed the left side of the fence facing out and the right side facing inward. Stick with me if you can handle the excitement.

stockade fence

03 October 2020

A Semifinal Word on Semicolons


 

Semicolonoscopy [sim-i-co-lun-OS-cah-pee] – An examination to detect abnormalities in the use of a certain mark of punctuation.

A popular topic recently at one of the writers' forums (fori?) was semicolons--their use, their overuse, etc. Should fiction writers even include them at all? 

I think it's interesting that some of my writer friends are banner-waving fans of semicolons, while others say they should be used occasionally but sparingly, and still others avoid them like Kryptonite. And that last group seems to be growing. Many talented writers feel that semicolons should never be used because a period can always do a better job. Kurt Vonnegut once said, of semicolons, "All they do is show you've been to college"--and in her Huffpost US article "Semicolons: How to Use Them and Why You Should," Claire Fallon said, "The semicolon has come to be seen as the gall bladder of punctuation marks: It theoretically serves some sort of purpose, but if it were removed entirely, everything would probably be fine."


My opinion, for what (little) it's worth . . .

I think semicolons, troublesome as they are, should remain a part of your writer's toolbox. Even if you're a fiction writer. But I also think they should be stored in one of the back compartments, along with exclamation points, and I agree that their overuse can make you an embarrassment to friends and family.

So when and why, if ever, should you use a semicolon? I can think of only three reasons, the first two of which are good ones.

1. Use a semicolon to separate phrases in a list that contains commas.

Example: Our Zoom session included writers from Athens, Georgia; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Ruston, Louisiana.

2. Use a semicolon when two complete sentences are too closely related to be separated by a period. And some of them are. (To paraphrase something I saw at the blog Legible awhile back, "A period says, 'Full stop. New idea.' A semicolon says, 'Pause; related idea.'")

Example: "The editor says she loves short stores; they're addictive."

Sure, you could use a period instead--but here I think it would provide too much separation, and too much of a pause.

3. Use a semicolon before a connecting word like therefore, otherwise, instead, or however.

Example: I might as well write this column; otherwise, I'd have to mow the lawn.

I can't recall ever using a semicolon this third way, just as I wouldn't use one before a conjunction like and or but, which is also acceptable in certain situations. I would just reword the sentence to avoid needing the semicolon.


A recent example of semicolonization

Here's something that came up just last week, in a mystery story I finished writing yesterday. The following is a paragraph near the beginning of the story:

The old woman was inching toward him through the trees and undergrowth along the creekbank, her back stooped and her eyes on the water. On her head was a blue baseball cap with a gray ponytail sticking out the hole in the back; in her hands was a pump shotgun. Just as Jabbo was trying to decide whether to hide or run, she raised her head and looked straight at him.

As you can see, I chose (after some hemming and hawing) to use a semicolon in that middle sentence. I realize a period could've been used, but--again--I thought there was too close a connection there, and that a period would've created too much of a "pause." A semicolon just felt right, and gave not just the sentence but the whole paragraph the rhythm I thought it needed. Feel free to disagree. (Hey, I haven't sent the story anyplace yet, so if enough folks do disagree, I might throw pride out the window and change it.)


A disadvantage for fiction writers

I think one of the semicolon's biggest problems is that it can make your writing appear too formal. If you're going for formal, fine, but most of my fiction writing is informal, and the last thing I want to do is have it look stiff or stilted. I certainly don't like to use more than one semicolon every couple of pages. And I never use a semicolon in dialogue. When I see that in my reading, it snaps me out of the story. It just doesn't look or feel right. 

A quick example, here. I just finished re-reading William Goldman's The Princess Bride, and at one point Buttercup's father sees something through the window and says to her mother, "Look!" Irritated and busy with something else, the mother replies, "You look; you know how."

I understand that it's an ideal place for a semicolon, because (as I keep saying) those are two complete sentences too closely related to be separated by a period. To say "You look. You know how." sounds clunky to me, and risks losing the scolding snippiness of the reply. And even though a grammatically incorrect comma sometimes works for this kind of thing (especially in dialogue), I don't think it would, here. The reply "You look, you know how." doesn't feel right, and might even be misunderstood. So the semicolon works. But . . . if I were writing something like that today, instead of fifty years ago when Goldman wrote it, I think I might substitute an em-dash, which it's hard to misuse anyhow. The result would be "You look--you know how." Which might solve the impression-of-formality problem.

The result of that particular semicolonoscopy is obviously a matter of opinion. I'm not even sure about it my ownself. John Sandford, one of my favorite authors, has used a lot of semicolons in dialogue in his Lucas Davenport novels, and colons too, but--for some reason--they don't seem to bother me. (Hey, if you're good enough at what you do, you can get away with a lot.)


The road to Damascus

When I started writing fiction for publication 26 years ago (boy does the time fly) I was guilty of using far too many semicolons, and commas too. I thought there was no end to the clarification those marks of punctuation could provide. I can still get carried away with commas at times, but otherwise I have (hallelujah) seen the light. I've cut way back on semicolons, and exclamation points as well. I probably still use too many dashes and too many parentheses, but we all have our vices. I think one reason I enjoy using dashes and parentheses is that I like to interject "asides" into sentences, when I write and when I speak. But that's another matter, and a discussion for another day.

Sometimes my use of semicolons depends on the project. One of my writer friends for whom I have great respect is also an occasional editor of anthologies, and he's not fond of semicolons. So when I submit a story to him, I make sure there are no semicolons to be found. It's not hard. As I mentioned earlier, the way to avoid or remove semicolons is to construct or reword sentences such that they're just not required.


What's your opinion? Use them whenever you like? Use them in moderation? Weed them out entirely?


In summary …

I plan to continue to use semicolons, annoying or not, when I feel they're needed. I'll treat them like bacon, or Hostess Twinkies, or real ice cream--they're not part of my regular diet, but now and then they just hit the spot.


I'll close on a profoundly serious note, with something from my latest effort, a book of 300 short poems called Lighten Up a Little:


THE BOOK DOCTOR
When edited, writers have said
Semicolons are something they dread;
What if someone had stolen 
One half of your colon
And plugged in a comma instead?

Sounds painful, right?

See you in two weeks.




02 October 2020

Widow's Walk


 

I learned a new-to-me term recently ~ Widow's walk.

It's actually been around for centuries, but not hailing from a coastal area, I'd never noticed it before. Truth be told, I've heard of the word cupola, which is often used interchangeably with widow's walk. Both technically refer to lookout platforms situated above a building's roof. 

The term widow's walk originated in the eighteenth century referring to the exterior architectural feature of a rooftop patio. Though the original function of the elevated platform was practical--to facilitate a homeowner's ability to fight rooftop fires, which were common given the proximity to the chimneys.  

However, more romantic, nautical connotations suggest that the name widow's walk may have evolved through lore. 

The term, widow's walk, has two subtext elements. First, it implies that the structure has a view of the sea, or at least a large body of water. Secondly, it implies the risk of death, or at least the dreaded possibility of it. It conjures images of women wearing hoop skirts and hugging woolen shawls, bracing themselves against the salty gusts from a dark and stormy ocean, keeping watch for their husbands from their ventures on the sea.

Perhaps you've run across a widow's walk referenced in literature. 

In his book Chesapeake, James A. Michener described a widow's walk as "derived from romantic tales of those loyal women who continued to keep watch for a ship that had long gone to the bottom of the coral reef."  

In the crime fiction genre, the earliest version of the title Widow's Walk I could find was the 1846 classic mystery by French author, Charles Rabou. In 2002, it also graced the title of the 29th novel in Robert B. Parker's Spenser series. 

Even more recently, it was the title of the seaside ghost story in the 2019 feature film of that name.

Last month while visiting a quiet beach community in Virginia, I stumbled across a widow's walk (not literally).  A recently renovated beach house boasted one of these lookout towers.  In my defense, who wouldn't be drawn to it?

Since the owner happened to be onsite, he offered to give me a tour. Hoping not to appear too stalkerish, I hopped at the chance to ascend his spiral staircase to the widow's walk several stories above ground and bask in the sweeping ocean views.

What the owner didn't realize was that even before I took my first step inside his beach house as my private tour began, my crime-fiction wheels got a-churning. This signature piece of architecture begged to be the scene of a (fictional) murder. So--ever the slave to my muse--I revised my current work-in-progress by changing the location. 

This widow's walk is now showcased as the climactic setting of my latest short story of suspense, "Vendetta By the Sea," slated to be published in the upcoming anthology, VIRGINIA IS FOR MYSERIES: VOLUME 3 sometime in 2021.

Want to know more about the history of this architectural feature? You can read more in the blog post, "The Myth and Reality of Widow's Walks" <here>

Has a real setting ever inspired one of your crime fiction stories?


PS ~ Let's be social:



01 October 2020

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


This is Part Two of a three-part series. For Part One click here.

When I was a boy in elementary school I lived on a rural bus route far enough from school that if I missed the bus, it was either a long walk or a briefer, but not insignificant, bike ride to school.

Both my parents worked jobs that got them out of the house early, so if I did miss the bus, I was indeed on my own. My mother used to set the timer on the kitchen stove before she left for work every morning, and I knew that when that timer went off, it was time for me to go out to the stop in front of our house.

This was our system from the day I started 2nd grade until I moved on to junior high school several years later. In all those years I only missed the bus a couple of times.

And yet for a stretch of several months in fifth grade, I began riding my bike to school. I did it because another boy in my grade suggested we do it together.

His name was Greg, and we had been in the same class a few times, although that year we weren't. We occasionally played Foursquare or on the monkey bars at recess, and we were briefly in Cub Scouts together, but I wouldn't say we were exactly "friends." We just did things together, at school, and riding to school together. 

Greg was a nice enough guy. Not really ebullient. Not flashy. He talked about how he already knew how to make French toast and how he made it himself for breakfast most days. As someone who had yet to move past mastering cold cereal, I was duly impressed by that. Greg was just "handy," or at least seemed so, in ways where I felt deficient. 

Best of all, Greg wasn't mean. We didn't have a lot of "mean" kids at school. Don't get me wrong, every kid has it in them and we all channeled that regularly, and even with people we may have actually liked. But that was mostly kids trying things on, figuring out who they were and how they were going to get through their days. You know, "growing up." Most of the kids I grew up with weren't that kind of "mean," the sort of person who takes joy from actually making someone else miserable. Certainly not mean like Peter, the kid who stole my dad's stocking cap off of my head while my class was lined up waiting to get on the bus one afternoon in 5th grade. Boy, do I remember that guy.

I started riding to school with Greg because of Peter. On that day when Peter stole my dad's hat I missed the bus home because I stayed behind looking for it. None of the other kids admitted to seeing who had taken it, and I was afraid to leave school without trying to find it.

Bear in mind, this took place during the mid-1970s. Teachers were around, but it wasn't like it is now, when you can't walk three feet in an elementary school parking lot during morning drop-off or afternoon pick-up without having two or three staff members cross your line of sight. And it didn't even occur to me to ask a teacher for help.

So the bus left without me.

Within fifteen minutes I had given up the search, resigned to walking home and hoping my dad would forget about his stocking cap, and maybe never ask me about it. And all of a sudden, there was Greg, unlocking the combination lock on his bike chain, getting ready to ride up the long, steep hill that made up the first one-quarter of my coming walk home.

We started talking. Him asking me why I missed the bus, me telling him (I didn't yet know it was Peter who took my cap.). Me asking why he was leaving school so late, him telling me (getting help with math.).

Without either of us so much as suggesting it, we went up Stone Road to the top of that long hill together, Greg riding in slow circles around me as I walked. And then we also took the straight-as-a-preacher's-back, mile-and-a-bit stretch of Tieton Drive together until we reached my house.

As he was riding off, he said, "You should ride to school with me tomorrow."

So I did.

And I continued to for most days after that. And this went on for weeks.

And then one day, Greg didn't show up at my house, so I rode to school by myself. Greg wasn't at school either.

It wasn't something I questioned. I didn't find it odd. I didn't even give it too much thought. Like I said, Greg and I weren't really "friends." We rode to school together. And I liked him. He was a part of my day, but I didn't think of him as a "buddy." 

Looking back, Greg was clearly something of a loner. During those rides we rarely talked, and never about his family. He never mentioned his parents. When he did talk about home, it was always about something he was doing, a project he was working on. But mostly we just rode together. Greg seemed pretty comfortable with long stretches of silence.

And that's what set us apart. I was a blabbermouth (there are some who would say that hasn't changed). I wasn't comfortable with silence. I didn't have "projects." In the afternoons before my parents got home (my mom bringing my two-year-old brother from daycare), I read Hardy Boys books and Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert E. Howard, and played in the big empty barn on our acreage and fortified it as if I were the U.S. Cavalry fighting off the Sioux. I rode my horse. I changed sprinklers if it was the right season (and sometimes not even then.).

And I watched a lot of Star Trek. Okay, and Gilligan's Island. It was the '70s. We had three broadcast channels and PBS.

But Greg didn't show up the next day. Or the day after that. I thought it was odd, but wasn't really concerned. After all, I was ten.

And no one said a word about his absence at school. I knew something was up, but like I said, I was ten, and I didn't really know what to say or do about it. I just did what everyone else around me did: went about my day. I even rode the bus again a couple of times.

About a week went by before my mom told me that Greg had died. Now, this was in 1975 or so, and memory is an imperfect thing. I honestly don't recall how my mom found out about Greg's death, whether it was in the paper, or whether she heard about it from a neighbor, or even at work (she worked at a hospital), and I haven't asked her about it before sitting down to write this blog entry, so I can't really say how she knew, she just did.

I asked if she knew how Greg died. She said he'd hanged himself from the banister in his house. He'd used his own belt. I remember thinking at the time, "That's handy." It wouldn't have even occurred to me to use one. Being ten, I kept that part to myself.

I did ask my mother whether it was an accident, maybe he was just goofing around? Nope, she said. He'd climbed up there meaning to kill himself.

I remember wondering why he'd done it. I remember asking my parents why he might have done it. They both supposed there were problems in Greg's home, but no one seemed to know for sure.

Mostly I remember just being baffled.

In my quiet moments (yes, I had them. Not a lot of them, but I did have them.), especially when riding my bike to school, I would occasionally think about riding with Greg. I didn't possess the perspective or vocabulary to ask myself these questions then, but I have often in the forty-five years since: were we actually friends? Was Greg just sad, and kept it bottled up? I didn't really know the word "depression" then, and I certainly wouldn't have understood the concept to the extent to which I've come to comprehend it in the decades since. 

But I did wonder. I still do.

And I'll never know. And neither will Greg's parents, or the rest of his family, or any of the other kids he went to school with, now well into their mid-50s. I wonder how many of them even remember him? Does Ralph? Does Jack? Does Sheri? Does Terri? Does Rhonda? Does Brett? Does Gina?

I moved to Spokane a couple of years later and lost track of the kids I went to elementary school with, so I have no idea.

I'd had encounters with death before this. A cousin died of leukemia when I was six. Various great aunts and uncles passed away in the years before I turned ten.

But these relatives were ill for a long time before passing away. Greg just died. One day he was there, and the next he was gone. Snuffed out. And no one talked about it.

I didn't talk about it at school, and none of the other kids mentioned Greg's passing.  I have no idea why not. Of course that sort of thing would never happen nowadays. Now, the school district would put out a statement about the sad news of a student's passing, and mention that grief counselors were on-hand to help the deceased's classmates cope with his death, should they require the support.

And I don't think that's a bad thing.

We might currently be a society that loves to talk a problem to death, but there are times when being open with kids about what's going on, encouraging them to ask questions and helping them make sense of the senseless isn't some scene out of a Woody Allen movie: it's a kind and humane thing to do.

But there is a line. Had Greg been murdered instead of taking his own life, would he be better remembered? Would his passing be more interesting to the public? If unsolved, would his death be fodder for message boards and true crime podcasts? Would there be a latent profit motive to discussing his last moments? Would speculating about them allow someone who knew him—maybe "rode to school with him, except for that final, fateful day..."—to cash in with the sort of "hybrid true crime memoir" one of my writer friends mentioned in my previous entry in this series?

I don't know. 

I just know that's a book I could never write.

And I damned sure wouldn't read it.

In two weeks: the final installment of my "Why I Don't Read or Write True Crime" series, complete with Russian Roulette, a parking lot drug deal gone horribly wrong, and the goofiest criminal I've ever met.