08 December 2020

Jan Morris


 

Jan Morris died a couple of weeks ago.  She was an extraordinary writer, in the tradition of adventurers like Robert Byron and Freya Stark, or Patrick Leigh Fermor and Peter Fleming – and she clearly inspired the later guys like Bruce Chatwin and Redmond O’Hanlon, or even an outlier like Jonathan Raban.  


Morris was a travel writer in the sense that M.F.K. Fisher is a food writer.  M.F.K. didn’t write cookbooks, she wrote meditations about vegetables, and pots, and cranky stoves, and feeding cranky kids.  Jan Morris once remarked that she wasn’t writing guidebooks, she was trying to capture what first caught her attention about a place.  And then how that attraction deepened.  Her favorite cities, by report, were Venice and New York, and she revisited them, her books an overlapping portrait.


Oh, by the by, she was at the base camp on Everest when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norkay made the summit, reported on the day of Elizabeth II’s coronation.  


Aside from my delight in her Pax Brittanica trilogy, a history which my friend John Crowley credits (for his novella Great Work of Time), her tight little sliver of a book, Manhattan 1945, proved a huge resource for my period novel Liar’s Dice, and a dozen Mickey Counihan stories that followed.  

Later on, she wrote two fictions herself, Last Letters from Hav and Hav of the Myrmirdons, which I suppose you could characterize as SF, or fantasy.  They’re imaginary travel books, dispatches from a place on the horizon of memory, or our peripheral vision.

Debutants


Getting a new character is an exciting development, even if, I suspect for most of us, he or she appears as a one-off, a gift from the Muses, unlikely to be repeated any time soon. Of the three characters I’ve written multiple works about, only one came with thoughts of continuance. I was thoroughly surprised that my first detective Anna Peters was destined for multiple outings, ditto for Madame Selina, who, perhaps wisely, stayed firmly in the short story format.

Francis Bacon, admittedly, came with thoughts of a trilogy, as clear a sign of author hubris as I can imagine. Although eventually published by Otto Penzler, he was an extremely tough sell and never went into either hardback or foreign rights.

So I was interested lately when two authors I’ve enjoyed, Alexander McCall Smith and Ann Cleeves, debuted new characters: Swedish Detective Varg of The Department of Sensitive Crimes, and Detective Venn, North Devon, UK. I imagine that their thought processes were quite different than mine - or indeed most mid list or aspiring authors.
Detective Varg, of

If neither is in the mega-author world, both McCall Smith and Cleeves are well published, with multiple editions and, in Cleeves case, two successful television franchises. Whether the public warms up to Ulf Varg or Matthew Venn means cash for their publishers, possible TV or film rights, and employment for editors, book designers, illustrators and marketers.

Perhaps that is why Cleeves included an introduction to the “Dear Reader”, confessed a certain nervousness about introducing a new character, and described her childhood in the Devon area where her new detective has his stomping ground. Clearly more is at stake than for most of us.

So how do the new entrants stack up? The Cleeves, at least on the first novel, The Long Call, is the more successful, despite, a not-completely plausible resolution. As always with her novels, the sense of place and the natural world is very strong – a particular delight for this birdwatcher. The supporting characters are good, too, especially Lucy, a sparky young woman who is not by any means defined by her Downs Syndrome. Also good – Cleeves women, I think are a shade better than her men – is Venn’s second in command, Jen, a harried single mom but a very good investigator.

About Venn, himself, I am not so sure, although he is ethical, thoughtful and competent. But like Jimmy Perez, her other male detective, he is a bit of a depressive and almost overly subdued. He dresses like an undertaker, second guesses himself, and has major insecurities despite being married to what sounds like the ideal husband. And there may lie some difficulties for the series. Having personally experienced the obstacles to marketing a gay detective, I can only wish Cleeves and Matthew Venn luck.

Detective Varg is another matter with other ambitions. His publisher is marketing the new series for the prolific McCall Smith as Scandi Blanc, an alternative to the increasingly brutal and grotesque direction of  so much Scandinavian Noir. Varg takes on unusual crimes – someone hacked below the knee, an ambiguous disappearance, and a case of lycanthropy that threatens business at a holiday hotel.

Varg himself, is thoughtful, ethically aware, and prone to mull over human reactions and relationships a la McCall Smith’s beloved Precious Ramotswe of The Ladies Number One Detective Agency of Botswana. And that is perhaps the weakness. Varg comes off as a paler version of the Botswanan detective, and the supporting characters, amusing like the literal minded but highly informed Blomquist or Varg’s second in command and secret passion,  the charming Anna Bengtsdotter, are good but also prone to a good deal of rumination.

At least so far, there is no one as friction-promoting ( in a positive way) as Mma Grace Makutsi, lover of fine shoes and possessor of the highest ever score on the secretarial exam, or the matron of the orphan home, whose machinery always needs the attention of Mr. J.L, B Matekoni of Speedy Motors.

Similar characters may arrive in time, and they are needed to counteract the strain of whimsey that runs through Detective Varg’s cases. McCall Smith periodically indulges such flights his other popular series, 44 Scotland Street, but there the whimsical is usually confined to young Bertie Pollock or to Angus, the dog. On the plus side, McCall Smith is a genius plotter and such a thoroughly genial presence that one hopes this series, like his others, will genuinely take off.


07 December 2020

Historical Fiction (Or Not)


 by Steve Liskow

I've started using open submission calls as writing prompts and it seems to work; I've finished more short stories in the last six months than in any other year since I started writing seriously. I've noticed many of the calls want historical fiction, which I usually avoid. 

Why?

I can do research, but I try to avoid it because I'm a trivia junkie. If I see an interesting factoid, or, even worse, a link, I'll follow it to another link...and another. Three hours later, I might have 25 open links on the monitor, all of them fascinating, and none with any connection to my original quest. I'm the walking embodiment of research as the best way to avoid actually writing.

Besides the trivia distractions, I find that too much historical fiction uses exposition ("Lessons?") instead of story-telling. A few years ago, I heard of a book by another local author, and the premise intrigued me, so I downloaded a sample. The "dialogue" was "As you know, Bob," information dumps that sounded like a seventh-grade history text. Description of the setting and characters was even worse, and even more plentiful. The first 25 pages, the whole sample, had almost no story, but constant scene-setting in turgid prose. The writer was so proud of her research that she gave us all of it. 

Another danger stems from involving a major historical event. If you write about Columbus, Gettysburg, or Prohibition, you'd better get every detail correct or you'll smother in the messages from readers who spotted your mistake.

There are exceptions, of course. Sheri Holman's The Dress Lodger is a terrific novel about an English prostitute in the cholera epidemic of 1831. The setting and exposition stay in the background like good harmony singers and keep the plot and characters in the spotlight. If all historical fiction were this good, I read a lot more of it. 


I've written a little--very little--historical fiction myself. Those works sprang from personal experience so the only research was confirming dates and checking the spelling. 

Run Straight Down isn't really historical; my experience as a teacher inspired it. While I taught at the largest public school in the State of Connecticut during the 1990s, I lost students three consecutive years in gang shootings. A lawyer suggested I change all the details to protect myself from potential lawsuits, so I changed the town, all the names, and the geography. That meant I didn't have to do much research, but I still saw those boys' faces every time I sat down at the keyboard.

In 1967, I attended summer sessions at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, 30 miles north of Detroit. In late July, we crowded around the TV set in the lounge of Fitzgerald House and watched Army tanks rumble down Woodward Avenue.


Two other residents of the dorm lost their houses in fires set by protestors, and one received the news over the house phone while the rest of us watched his face crumble. My kinesthetic memory holds those tiny details because they connect to real people. 

My other exception is Postcards of the Hanging, which I published in 2014. A judge for a contest praised my research and use of details to establish the mood and setting without being forced or obvious. Neat, huh? Now for full disclosure...

The story takes place during the 1964-65 school year, and it wasn't historical at the time. I began the first draft in 1972, and it was inspired by a sex scandal involving a high school teacher during my senior year. I changed all the names and details, but if I needed to check on music or dress styles, I looked at my high school yearbook. 

I remembered the Beatles and Ed Sullivan, Lawrence Welk, the football and baseball games (We had a terrific football team and our weakest basketball team in years), struggling to talk to girls, slang, adolescent angst, local bands and everything else, only seven years earlier. I taught myself to write by producing three distinctly different versions of the book, and the third one became my sixth-year project in 1980. Those three manuscripts gained my first 40 rejections.


When I decided to self-publish the book, I kept all those topical references because they helped me remember that world AND they defined my characters. I actually named minor characters after the streets in my neighborhood. I changed the sequence and used flashbacks to build more tension, but I was amazed how little rewriting I had to do. Someone suggested adding a prologue and epilogue to show the book wasn't really a YA novel, and those two sections, about 25 pages, contain most of the new writing. I added transitions to move in and out of flashbacks, but I think I only did major revisions to one or two existing scenes. 

I don't know if I'll ever try another historical novel or story.

Maybe if I lived a more adventurous life...


06 December 2020

The Skating Mistress Affair, Part I


bank vault

Some people don’t seek trouble, but it finds them. That’s how I viewed fraud cases that came my way. Hired to hunt down computer anomalies, I didn’t enter a contract thinking criminal intent, but occasionally I stumbled upon crimes. This episode outlines my most challenging case, a battle of wits with a very smart adversary.

It started with a phone call.

In a cultured, south-of-Mason-Dixon accent, the man said, “Call me Chase; my daddy’s Mr. Franz. I’m marketing director of a software venture owned by a major Virginia bankshares concern. We own a product, a big one. We need a specialist to figure it out and support it.”

“A banking program?” Visions of Cobol or badly written C++ sprang to mind. “Sorry, I work with operating systems, not applications.”

“No, no, we’re talking systems software, not an app. The bank’s investment division floated the venture capital internally.”

“What’s the name of this product?”

“I can’t reveal that.”

“What does the software do?”

“I can’t tell you that either, not until we have your signature.”

“That’s all you can say? Why the secrecy?”

“Take a bank’s perspective of confidentiality, marketing paranoia, and a technical product we need to get a handle on, you get secrecy.”

“Who developed it? In fact, where is the developer in all this?”

“Well, that’s part of the problem. It was developed by a low-profile dude in North Carolina, really eccentric. He’s difficult to work with and we can’t seem to get his full attention. After selling us the package, he doesn’t want to be bothered with it.”

Only a few dozen independent software designers populated the top of the pyramid and we all knew each other, at least by name and reputation. I didn’t recall anyone in the Carolinas.

“You must not be paying much.”

“We bought the program dirt cheap, figuring he’d gouge us with ongoing support fees, but he’s not done that. He shows no interest in the product.”

“Your startup software group purchases an untried product from an unnamed author? How do you know the product is viable and isn’t trash?”

“Our bank’s systems run this software and no one, not even our lead systems programmer, can comprehend the program– it’s way too advanced. We sold copies to multiple Fortune 1000 companies, companies that use it and like it. But we found bugs. We desperately need enhancements and alterations as systems grow and evolve. We’ve got no one capable of maintaining it.”

“And your bank’s worried someone will wise up and expose your exposure.”

“That’s a huge concern. Spending venture capital is one thing, but discovering critical vulnerabilities implies liability. A number of jobs hang in the balance, mine included.”

“Written in C or what?”

“Assembler. 50,000 lines of machine code for the nucleus. With support utilities maybe hundred thousand lines for the old OS version and double that for the new, plus somewhat more for add-ons and extensions.”

“You’re saying a quarter million lines of code?”

“Uh, not exactly. The old and new versions cover a lot of duplication, so figure maybe one fifty to two hundred thousand unique lines.”

“That no one understands?”

“It’s costing us already. We need to put this right.”

The Plot Thickens

Locally, nothing exciting was happening with current clients. Steady income was nice, but I liked challenges.

Their tech division was named Data Corp. We exchanged non-disclosure agreements, eventually reaching an accord and a paranoia contract that required my cutting ties with other parties.

From Boston Logan, I flew a geriatric jet into Charlotte, Virginia, where I hired a car for a drive deep into the Shenandoah Valley. I passed beautiful horse farms and Mennonites in their buggies before I came to markers of American civilization – McDonald's, KFC, and WalMart.

The bank’s data center dominated a charming downtown in Harrisonburg, Virginia. I gave the receptionist my name and glanced around.

To the left of the lobby extended the glass room where the main computers lived, MICR check readers, networking and transmission units, 6000 square feet, perhaps 550 square metres, nicely laid out. It looked outwardly secure short of a terrorist attack.

From stairs at the right of the lobby descended a man about 5’5 of economical build. My salesman alert Early Warning System sounded. Scientists and engineers regard salesmen barely a step removed from slithering politicians. The two aren’t so much cats and dogs as cobras and mongooses. That mutual distaste would play a key part in the drama about to unfold.

Even so, Chase seemed a decent sort. He cultivated a brooding mien like a mantle of poetic melancholy, the kind that tenderizes feminine hearts and moistens girls’ eyes. Sporting a black, closely trimmed beard, he might have portrayed a weekend Civil War reenactor captain or river boat gambler.

He toured me around the complex, introducing me to bank presidents and vice presidents, those who plump out the top of the pyramid in financial institutions. He chatted up a half dozen girls who seemed in various stages of thrall. His magnetism short-circuited the female EWS.

“The product,” I said. “Let’s take a look.”

Chase offered me a seat in his office. He busied himself sipping coffee, winding his Swiss chronograph, twiddling a pen. I waited. Finally he said, “What we have here is a print spooling subsystem. A good one. Cool, huh!”

I understood why they wanted me. Not only did I work on operating systems, I had contributed code to two competing packages, a key operating system component in the evolution of computers.

Like a priest revealing the Dead Sea Scrolls, Chase reverently set a six-inch thick binder before me. He opened it. “This is our baby.”

My response came out less than reverential. It could be summed up as “WTF?”

No titles. No headings. No comments. No register notation. No meaningful labels. No reference points.

“I told you, Sandman, the developer, doesn’t need all that. He’s an amazing genius. He doesn’t document his work because his eidetic memory remembers everything.”

“Except for those who come after,” I said.

The lack of labels troubled me most of all. Normally programmers use real world identifiers such as Minutes, Seconds, Distance, Height, Weight, Brightness, etc. This had gobbledegook.

“Who does this?” I said.

“I told you, he’s a genius. They mean something to him, but he’s way above our level.”

“This is attempting ancient Egyptian without a Rosetta stone. This is insane,” I said.

Chase beamed. “You confirm what I’ve been saying. Sandman is genius above other geniuses; he’s beyond brilliant, absolutely off the scale. Our own people say his high-level abstract symbolism is far beyond their comprehension.”

“Even Einstein used standard identifiers, e = energy, m = mass. This has, for example, ‘rtgq233x.’”

“Sandman isn’t a merely an Einstein. Your challenge is, are you someone who can come to understand this or are you giving up?”

“Like hell.” Candidly, I wasn’t sure which part of the question I should answer.

Mystification

As a digital detective, I first confirmed the original assembly language matched the binary machine code in the executable module. I looked at a hundred different values scattered throughout the programs. They matched.

I profiled the program, I ran traces. I floated one other idea to Chase.

“Does Sandman speak Arabic or some language that omits vowels? Or Welsh? Polish? Russian? A language with unusual combinations of letters?”

“I imagine not,” said Chase. “He’s short, sandy hair, fair complexion. I doubt he’s visited out of the country. He’s barely travels outside of North Carolina. He’s so fearful of flying, he always takes a train.”

I had seen computer programs written in French and German. The mix of English and other languages looked a little unusual, but they ultimately made sense.

“Perhaps foreign abbreviations…”

“Look, stop going on about labels. Maybe they are in Klingon or Tolkien Elvish. Maybe they’re random or perhaps they’re nothing at all. With an impenetrable genius mind like Sandman’s, the labels themselves appear opaque to us and we simply don’t know.”

I didn’t accept that for a moment, but there was one other avenue to understanding the code– weeks of immersion in it. I packed the programs in my bag and headed back to Boston.


Over the next two weeks, I pored over 150,000 lines of assembly code. Some days I dissected routines line-by-line, noting, studying, analyzing. Other days I propped my feet up on the sofa and absorbed the gestalt.

Reading a program offers a unique peek into the author’s thought process. This mind meld can provide a strangely disquieting experience. A virtual voyeur can determine a precise mind opposed to a sloppy one, bold versus fearful, brilliant versus not so much, and lucid v losing it. This code contained all these elements and more. Although tightly written, it radiated a surreal aura and umbra, a sense of someone hiding in the shadows.

The Rosetta Stone

“The name of the song is called ’Haddocks’ Eyes.’”

“Oh, that’s the name of the song, is it?” Alice said, trying to feel interested.

“No, you don’t understand,” the Knight said, looking a little vexed. “That’s what the name is called. The name really isThe Aged Aged Man.’”

“Then I ought to have said ‘That’s what the song is called?’” Alice corrected herself.

“No, you oughtn’t: that’s quite another thing! The song is called ’Ways And Means’, but that’s only what it’s called, you know!”

“Well, what is the song, then?” said Alice, who was by this time completely bewildered.

“I was coming to that,” the Knight said. “The song really isA-sitting On A Gate’, and the tune’s my own invention.”

Through the Looking-Glass (1871) chapter VIII, Lewis Carroll

I kept coming back to the labels. They held significance, I felt certain. I could sense a pattern as if glimpsing a phantasm from the corner of my eye. Sometimes, I almost grasped a meaning, only to lose it as I shifted to focus on it.

While analyzing the program line by line, I stumbled across the name of a known operating system routine declared in a constant. The name of the routine was $$BEOJ, which stood for ‘Broker End of Job’. Unnecessarily, the program invoked this routine directly. The author had allowed himself a moment of ego. Instead of the standard, run-of-the-mill method available to any programmer, the coder had showed off his knowledge of operating system internals and triggered this segment explicitly.

I understood the inner workings, but the label of the constant, $$XYAU, grabbed my attention. Could this, perhaps, be the name of the name? Could XYAU someway represent BEOJ?

I poked around, trying the David Edgerley Gates’ Sunday Jumble and Crypto-Quote letter swaps on other labels. Sometimes it seemed to work, more often it didn’t. I combed the program in earnest, searching for obvious constants that might zero me in.

The hunt suffered from a paucity of information, but slowly clues accumulated as I harvested two more paired constants and labels, four, and then six out of three thousand six hundred. Patterns, it was all about patterns. I glimpsed the edges of a picture. No label contained more than eight characters, and something peculiar happened to the letters in each label.

Oddly, B often meant X but it also appeared to be F at times. In rare cases, it didn’t seem to be either. I ripped another sheet off a legal pad and tried again.

I phoned and left a message for Chase. He hadn’t called in days. I sensed his dismay.

I sat up that night, the next two nights, devouring Chinese food for nourishment and Coca-Cola caffeine to feed my notorious ADD. I clocked six hours sleep out of seventy-two. My hair matted, my smelly T-shirt could startle bad-tempered water buffalo.

Everything changed. Like a submerged enemy submarine hiding in deep waters, computerdom’s trickiest puzzle broke the surface. I faced the most fascinating computer game of my career.

On the fourth day, I messaged Chase a couple of times in the morning. I made a few more notes, then toppled over and slept until mid-afternoon.

Demystification

“What?” I barked into the phone a bit too sharply. My eyes seemed glued shut.

“Hey, it’s me, Chase. I got your messages. Whatcha got?”

“How much did you pay for this program?”

“Well…” He hesitated.

“You either paid way too much or way too little. Either way, you got screwed.”

Defiance mixed with defensiveness, he mentioned a figure barely larger than a month’s salary, paid for a program that took someone a year or two of 60-90 hour weeks pouring out one’s soul.

“Why do you ask?”

“Like I said, you got screwed. Sabotaged. Someone has encrypted the labels and stripped the meaningful information out of this program.”

“Bullshit. I don’t believe it.”

“Embrace it. You think it’s a coincidence comments are missing? There’s no register notation? Not a single artifact of meaningful evidence?”

“My people asked him about that. He’s one of those super smart guys who never comments his code.”

I grimaced. For that alone, the program should never have been accepted. I no longer believed the legend.

“Look,” I said. “Labels have been encrypted. I’ve got examples of equates in which one is assigned to 5 and five is assigned to 10.”

“It’s his genius level of abstraction. And what do you mean encrypted?”

“’His genius level of abstraction nonsense’ is getting old. I mean encrypted like the cryptogram puzzles in the newspaper, A equals S and B equals M and so on. A substitution cipher they call it, like Sherlock Holmes’ Dancing Men, only a factor far, far more complex. I’m still working it out, extrapolating clue by clue; it appears the bastard’s used at least two translation tables I'm sure of plus a couple of other frills, kind of a mental oubliette.”

“I don’t believe it. Look, we better rethink this contract. This can go one of two ways. Option one, we terminate our relationship. Option two, other than these conspiracy theory labels you go on about, the positive side is you now know more about the software than anyone other than the author. Come on down here, show us what you’ve got, and we’ll move forward.”

Enter Sandman

From DC, again I boarded another deafening jet into Charlotte. Where did USAir salvage these museum pieces? Maybe they explained why Sandman refused to fly.

The girls at the banking complex greeted my return engagement warmly, speculatively. The town librarian had mentioned the region suffered a serious shortage of males.

Chase, a bit aloof, escorted me into his office.

“I phoned Sandman,” he said coolly.

“And?”

“Says your theory– your accusation– is nonsense. Says he never ever uses comments, can’t afford time for them. Says those equates you mentioned, one equates to 5 and so on, just a coding convenience when in a hurry. Told me if we want to make insinuations, his lawyer can tell us to get stuffed. We can’t afford to get on his bad side.”

I snorted. “Coding convenience? How did you approach him? Did you ask if he sabotaged the code?”

“Of course I asked him. What was I supposed to say?”

“When you asked rather than told, he knew he’d bluffed you. I know he sabotaged the code, so I don’t need to ask.”

“He denies your allegations. Look, you’re a guy I hardly know. You make unbelievable accusations about a fellow I’ve known for years who says your notion is ludicrous. You tell me; how am I supposed to believe you?”

“I’ll show you proof.”

At the end of an hour, I’d further confused Chase rather than convinced him. He still believed Sandman. My stacks of tables and colored diagrams decorated with fine-tipped arrows left him unmoved. He couldn’t entertain the slightest possibility he’d been fooled or the other guy committed malfeasance.

I said, “I want to talk to Sandman myself, geek to geek.”

“That’s unwise. If he breaks off contact, we’re done for. He might even sue our asses.”

“You’re already done for– that’s why you hired me. Anyway, I’m not going to ask him if he encrypted the program, I know he did. That gives me an advantage.”

He reluctantly agreed to my calling with the condition he silently listen in. Like me, Sandman worked nights, so Chase and I grabbed dinner at a great restaurant as we waited for Sandman to come alive in the night.

One lichee duck later, we strolled back to the data center. I sat in his office while Chase lounged outside at the secretary’s desk listening in on her phone. He promised not to interrupt no matter what– I made him swear to stay quiet.

I dialed the Greensboro number he gave me. The call connected. Dan Sandman’s voice at the other end sounded pleasantly curious.

He said, “So you’re the guy they hired to develop the app.”

“Yep, I’m the sucker. Brilliant program, by the way.” I kept my voice light, pleasant.

“Thanks. I’ve heard of you by reputation. Boston, right? So how are you making out?”

I chuckled. “Dan, you left me one tricky puzzle. I’m still working it out, but your encryption scheme is brilliant, harder than hell to break.” I shook my head admiringly, not that he could see it. “Thus far I’ve identified two different translation tables. That’s ingenious.”

No hesitation, no prevarication, he broke into laughter. “Three actually.”

Through the window, Chase blanched, then darkened. I put my finger to my lips in case he felt like an outburst.

Danny continued. “You haven’t been working on it long. I’m astounded you got that far.”

“Three translation tables explain why I still have a thousand or so labels to crack.”

He chortled. “God damn, you smart dog. I used the first character of each label as a selector, picking the cryptographic table based upon which third of the alphabet the first character fell in.”

Outside the office, a purplish Chase was working on a serious case of TMJ.

I complimented Sandman. “I’ve never come across that idea before. Man, figuring out those tables can give one fits.”

“I didn’t want anyone to break it. Can’t believe you’re two-thirds of the way there. How did you figure it out?”

“$$BEOJ.”

“What? Oh, yes. I’d debated making a special case for it, but didn’t imagine anyone would ever get that far. What did you think of my equates?”

“Annoying.”

He laughed. “I trust that’s mildly put.”

“Right you are. There’s the obvious question, of course.”

“You mean why? Why screw up my own program?”

“You weren’t seeking job security.”

“I did it because I can’t stand that salesman, Chase. He’s such a bullshitter, all monies for himself, benefit the investors and screw the inventors. Flying around the country like an exec, trying to hustle the package, spending other people’s money, hogging the biggest slice off the top– I got fed up.”

Chase’s blood vessels looked ready to burst in an apoplectic fit. When he opened his mouth, I frantically waved him to silence. I tried to remember what Chase had told me.

Into the phone, I said, “You worked with him before?”

“Yeah, he found out about my package and begged to sell it. He couldn’t bother working the phones, doing sales fundamentals. Figured he was a Steve Jobs executive, jumping on a plane just to give a demo. I sold more copies than he did and I never left Greensboro, never tried to promote it, only word of mouth. Know what Chase did? He took the salesman cut anyway. He spelled that out in the agreement he wrote. Now ask me again why I’m pissed at him.”

Outside the door, Chase turned magenta. He could barely refrain from screaming into the phone.

Sandman continued. “So anyway, Chase was burning through money when he approached that bank in Virginia. He convinced them he had a hot product and urged them to buy out his contract. Chase wouldn’t change his ways, though. He wasn’t going to pay me what it was worth and I knew I’d never see royalties. My girlfriend, she said screw him. So I got this idea and I did. It wasn’t ransom, it was revenge. Sold it for almost nothing, figured he’d do himself in.”

“How much did he pay?”

“I bet you already know that. And he was gleeful at the fire sale price, ecstatic. The greedy bastard couldn’t believe the advantage he’d seized over his so-called partner. The slime-ball acted right proud of himself.”

“Dan, it’s affected other people. Plus other companies depend on the product.”

Sandman sounded almost regretful. “Yeah, I know. That’s why I agreed to partially support it until they found a replacement for me. I didn’t figure they’d bring in you.”

“Thanks, I think.”

He giggled dryly. “It’s tough maintaining it. I made the source code such an abortion, I find it nearly impossible to debug. They send me a trace or a dump and I spend a couple of days pulling my hair out. I provide just the minimum, which hasn’t been good enough, certainly insufficient to support new equipment coming out.”

The full significance of that statement wouldn’t register until much later: By implication, he’d orphaned this program and was developing a parallel version with enhancements.

“Dan, you know I have to tell the investment bank about this.”

“Figured you had already. Did Chase convince them otherwise? I successfully put him off when he called, but I gathered you were on to me. Yeah, talk to them. Maybe we can work something out, something fair and equitable. I’d like that.”

Witness to the Ascension

If Chase wasn’t pleased, the bankers were apoplectic. The vice president called the president. The president called the chairman. The chairman called the board. The board called the holding company and they called a meeting. In the meantime, the president asked me to stand by. “Don’t leave town,” he said.

Chase departed on a trip. He begged me to stay at his house and care for his dog, one with a bad case of separation anxiety. Shenandoah Valley girls were very hospitable. Over the next few days, I accepted kind invitations to luncheons, dinners, a bluegrass festival, a Mennonite market, and a community fair.

On Monday, the chairman called the president who called the vice president who called me. “Go home for a few days while we sort out what to do.”

I departed almost regretfully.


A few days became two weeks. I spent the time picking at the listings, painstakingly peeling the masks off characters in this exquisite puzzle. That’s what I liked best about programming, me against the machine, taking its rules and making it do what I wished, bending the beast to my will, solving abstract puzzles others couldn’t see. Usually it was me versus the computer; now I faced a clever human adversary.

Sandman called once to ask what the bank decided. My guess was gnashing their teeth, but I confessed I didn’t know.

People found it easy to talk to me, sometimes revealing personal things that seemed surprising later. He opened up.

We ended up chatting about nothing but learning about each other. Topics included girls, cars, his fear of flying and his enthusiasm for roller skating. We discussed fueling software with good Asian food. Our liquid Ritalin was cola, Coke for me, Pepsi and Moon Pies for him. He revealed a passion for Shostakovich. In the wee hours of the morning, he confessed frustration at his girlfriend’s lack of libido. He hesitantly admitted she was married.

On Friday, the VP called from his scratchy speaker phone. “Leigh, I got Chase and the president here. We want you to hop down to Greensboro and negotiate for the source code. Just you and Sandman– you’re the only one he has rapport with, the only one he respects.”

“What are the guidelines of the negotiations?”

“Obviously try to ransom our source, pay as little as practical for it, low five digits if possible.”

“Cap it at one-twenty, maybe twenty-five,” someone in the background said, probably the bank president.

“If things turn too unreasonable,” continued the vice president, “just walk out and we’ll haul his tail into court.”

“D’accord,” I said. “Shoot me a letter defining the limits.”

The VP said, “Do you anticipate a need to involve the police? Should we hire a private detective, perhaps a non-threatening girl his age?”

Chase spoke up in derision. “He just a little squirt, a pussy, a…”

The VP must have waved him to silence. “Okay. Buy it if you can, walk out if you can’t.”

No one had any notion of the unreal turn negotiations would take.


Next week: Part II, Skating Follies

05 December 2020

Locked Down and Writing


  

I think everyone would agree that 2020's been a downer of a year, so far. A global virus, hurricanes, wildfires, riots, political crises, murder hornets--and the year's not even done yet. As for Covid, my wife and I have medical folks in our immediate family who have some strict rules about behavior during the pandemic, so we've been staying close to home for nine months now. The only people we see are those on Zoom or FaceTime, tellers at the bank drive-thru window, and neighbors at shouting distance.

I've seen only two advantages to all this. First, we no longer get robocalls asking us to book a cruise. Second, I've had a LOT of time to create stories.


2020 (so far) in review

As of the first week in December, I have written 35 new stories, I've had 38 stories published, and I currently have 42 more stories that have been accepted and not yet published. Five of those TBPs are scheduled to come out later this month, and the rest sometime in 2021. In addition, I had a collection of 300 poems published, I signed a contract with an overseas publisher for a bilingual collection of my Saturday Evening Post stories, and an L.A. production company recently extended a film option they bought last year on one of my AHMM stories. So it's been a pretty good year, writingwise.

These past two months have been especially kind to me: Between October 5 and today (December 5), I've had 21 stories published. Of those, eleven were in magazines like Woman's World, Strand Magazine, Mystery Weekly, and Black Cat Mystery Magazine, and ten were in anthologies (The Beat of Black WingsA Grave Diagnosis; Cozy Villages of DeathPeace, Love, and CrimeThe Best American Mystery Stories 2020; etc.). In fact, within those two months I had two stories in Woman's World and two in Mystery Weekly. (Many thanks to those editors!)


If anyone's interested in this kind of thing, here are some numbers and statistics about my literary output since January 1st:


Year-to-date stats for 2020 . . .

21% of my published stories were less than 1000 words, 45% were between 1000 and 4000, 34% were longer than 4000. The shortest was 50 words, the longest was 8000.

89% were mystery/suspense, 2% westerns, 2% romance, 5% humor, 2% science fiction, and 0% literary. In other words, they were 100% fun to write and 0% work.

58% of my published mystery stories involved robberies of some kind, 55% involved murder, 19% involved both. The rest were about other kinds of crimes.

55% of my published stories this year appeared in the past two months. (This was unusual, as mentioned earlier, and I can offer no reason for it. It's just the way the mop flopped.)

66% of my published stories this year appeared in magazines, the rest in anthologies.

20% of my anthology publications were the result of invitations to contribute, and the rest were via open-call submissions or after-the-fact, best-of selections.

43% of my anthology publications and 75% of my magazine publications involved editors I've worked with before.

82% of my published stories were written in third-person POV, the rest were first-person.

100% were written in past tense. I'm not overly fond of present-tense stories.

16% included otherworldly elements of some kind.

29% had a female protagonist.

78% were submitted via email, the rest via online submission systems. For the first time ever, none of my submissions were snailmailed.

89% were published in U.S. markets.

26% were reprints.

84% were published in paying markets.

82% appeared in print publications, the rest were online.

53% were published in new (to me) markets, the rest in places where I've been published before. 


Takeaways, from these percentages: My stories seem to be getting a little longer, almost all of them are mystery/crime, I still submit occasionally to non-paying markets, I continue to sell a reasonable number of reprints, and I still seem to prefer third-person stories.

NOTE: I have written and submitted half a dozen Covid-related stories but--as of this post--all have been rejected. Maybe editors think we hear enough about that subject in the news. Either that, or those stories just aren't very good.


How about your year, so far?

What are your views, on writing during all this isolation and stress and uncertainty? I've heard some writer friends say it has taken away their inspiration to produce stories (at least fictional stories) and others say writing has been an especially important form of therapy for them this year, and a welcome escape. If you have been writing a lot, has the pandemic changed the subject matter at all (darker/less humorous)? Have any of your stories/novels involved Covid, masks, lockdowns, etc? Have editors/publishers been receptive to that?

Maybe this'll all be behind us soon. Meanwhile, I hope you and yours had a great Thanksgiving. Best to everyone!



04 December 2020

Crime Scene Comix Case 2020-11-011, Paint Job


by Velma

After rummaging through the dust bin of the Future Thought channel of YouTube, I found this little gem. Check it out.

Reintroducing Shifty, a none-too-bright crook who looks like a Minion in zebra stripes. This time poor Shifty finds himself doubly humiliated. The poor felon can’t win.


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

03 December 2020

Lighten the Mood Already


No charges, no grand jury, no nothing in the South Dakota AG Jason Ravnsborg case other than the investigators say he was driving distracted when he hit and killed Mr. Boever. Other than that, crickets. Since November 2. Of course, he is an elector, so maybe they're waiting until after December 14th.

South Dakota's COVID situation is just as bad as you've heard, and probably worse. 82,000 cases, 995 deaths and the population of the state is only 880,000. And Gov. Noem still won't do anything but look good on a horse.

But enough doom and gloom! Here's some of my favorite lighter things in life, so here's something lighter. There will be a [short] quiz at the end.

Exhibit 1: The Big Snit - perhaps my favorite animated feature of all time, outside of Wallace & Grommit.

One of my favorite Oscar moments, Sean Connery & Michael Caine eventually giving an award to Kevin Kline:

And why Kevin Kline won the Oscar: "Apes don't read philosophy." "Yes they do, they just don't understand it!"

Dr. Tongue's Evil House of Wax (from SCTV):

Salvador Dali on What's My Line. 'Nuff said.

Jimmy Stewart's favorite joke:

And my good friend and fellow SleuthSayer, Brian Thornton sent me a copy of his latest book, Suicide Blonde! Folks, it's great: three novellas of historical noir, and the lead off story should have a movie made of it with a Gloria Grahame lookalike as the lead. Maybe both leads. Thanks so much, Brian, and I loved it.

Stay safe, stay well, stay masked!

Which of the above is this a quote from?

QUIT SAWING THE TABLE!!!

02 December 2020

Stepping Down With Jane



 I wrote a few months ago about enjoying Libby, the service provided by some libraries that allows you to listen to books.  Recently I couldn't find any books on Libby I wanted to listen to so I searched their Humor category and was surprised to find Pride and Prejudice listed.

I must admit I have reached the age of mumbly-mumble without reading a Jane Austen book or watching a movie based on one.  But I figured I would give it a shot.

And, what do you know?  I enjoyed it a lot.  Although it was published in 1813 I found it much easier to read than, say, James Fenimore Cooper or Herman Melville who came a bit later.  

Since I came to it from the Humor category I was naturally interested in how well this comedy of  manners worked for me.  I found Mrs. Bennet  and Cousin Collins were not nearly as amusing as I think Austen expected me to find them, but I delighted in the company, and very odd mind,  of Mr. Bennet.  Favorite example: When his wife complained about the entailment which meant she would be forced from her home when he died, Bennet offered the comforting thought that she might die first.  Somehow this failed to console her.

Another point of interest was that everyone seemed to know the exact income of every eligible man.  "He has 2,000 a year," or whatever.  Was there a list posted on a bulletin board someplace?  In our society talking about such things is considered terrible manners.

I was also fascinated by Austin's use of certain words.  Amiable and agreeable appear constantly, and seem to be about the best thing you could say about someone.


But the most fascinating word of all is condescending.  The odious and unctuous Mr. Collins describes his patron Lady de Bourgh as "all affability and condescension."  He means it as a compliment.  It indicated that she was willing to be gracious to her inferiors.

Today, of course, the mere implication that you think you have inferiors is what makes the word an insult.  (And by the way the word comes from "stepping down with," and originally meant compromise.  English is, as they say, a living language.)

The Grammarphobia  blog has an interesting piece on  Austen's use of the word.  


I have also been reading In The Hurricane's Eye, one of Nathaniel Philbrick's excellent books about the Revolutionary War.  In it he quotes George Washington, early in the fight, instructing his new colonels: "Be easy and condescending in your comportment to your officers, but not too familiar."  The same usage as Austen, I believe.

And speaking of presidents...  Not to get political but this reminded me of  something Donald Trump said at a rally in March 2019: "You know, I always hear 'the elite, the elite.' Well, I always said… 'they are the elite, I'm not.' I have a better education than them, I'm smarter than them, I went to the best schools, they didn't.  [I have a] much more beautiful house, much more beautiful apartment, much more beautiful everything. And I'm president and they're not, right? And then they say 'the elite, the elite.'"

He seems to be claiming that some group is bragging of being elite, but in this country elite is generally an insult thrown at intellectuals.  The only person who seems to be hinting that he himself a member of the elite is Trump himself.   

Which seems pretty condescending.  See what I did there?


01 December 2020

Once More, With Feeling


Though writing has gone well this year, I’ve spent a great deal more time on the editorial side of the desk than in any previous year. Editing involves everything from pitching ideas to writing guidelines, reading submissions, editing accepted submissions, formatting files for publication, reviewing publisher copyedits, reviewing covers, assisting in promotional activities, and so much more.

Rereading the full ms. of
Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir
vol. 2. Note the pandemic-
influenced hairdo.
So, this year, in the midst of a pandemic that has shut down or curtailed wide swaths of our economy, I’ve worked (in one way or another) on multiple issues of Black Cat Mystery Magazine, three volumes of Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, two seasons of Guns + Tacos (with Trey R. Barker), Jukes & Tonks (with Gary Phillips), and Groovy Gumshoes. Some of these were or will be published in 2020, some in 2021, and some in 2022.

Additionally, and not mystery related, I edited six issues of Texas Gardener, a bi-monthly non-fiction consumer magazine, and 52 issues of Seeds, a weekly electronic newsletter. Though there are some similarities in the editorial processes between a non-fiction consumer magazine and a mystery anthology, that’s a discussion best saved for another time.

READ IT ONCE, READ IT TWICE, READ IT A THIRD TIME...

The mystery projects I’ve worked on this year have included both invitation-only and open-call, each with unique challenges, but once submissions start rolling in there isn’t much difference in what happens: A great deal of reading.

1. The first read is cursory. When I receive a submission for any project, I give it a quick read to determine if it adheres to the guidelines and is competently written. Some submissions don’t survive this stage and are rejected. Other stories are held for a second reading.

2. The second read is an in-depth examination of the manuscript and the story. At this point I’m looking at several things. Among them: Does the plot hold together? Do the characters engage me? How much work is involved in preparing the story for publication? If it’s a submission to a themed anthology, does it differ in any way from other submissions? 

3. An accepted story gets a third read. This is the editing pass, a combination of developmental editing, copyediting, and formatting, where I examine every element and correct errors (spelling, grammar), confirm factual information (dates, product names), ensure consistency (character names, place names), and look to plug plot holes. Were I editing novels, development editing, copyediting, and formatting would likely be three separate and distinct processes. Because I work with short stories, I tend to do them at the same time.

4. The edited manuscript usually* gets sent to the author with corrections, changes, suggestions, and questions inserted into the document via Microsoft Word’s track changes function. Any extensive comments or revision requests are included in the cover letter, and the fourth read happens when the manuscript is returned. This read is to ensure that the author has addressed every correction, change, suggestion, and question. This read also involves ensuring that the author did not insert new errors and that I did not miss any in my original editing. This stage may be repeated several times depending on the author and the story. 

5. After all the mss. are merged into a single file, the entire anthology gets the fifth read. This time, I’m looking to ensure consistency across all stories. For example, are words with various spellings spelled the same throughout the entire project (barbecue, barbeque, bar-b-cue, bar-b-que, BBQ), and, if not, are the different spellings justified? I also try to ensure that nothing is lost or has lost its formatting during the process of merging all the files into one.

6. The next read happens when proofs come back from the publisher. I read to see what the publisher’s copyeditor changed and why. I’m checking to ensure that everything is formatted consistently. Often, but not always, proofs are shared so that each author has one last chance to review what the publisher’s staff has done to their story.

So, by the time a story appears in an anthology or periodical I edit, I’ve read it at least six times.

And, sadly, I still miss things.

LIVING WITH THE REPETITION

Once of the most important lessons I take away from all this reading is to be judicious in my selection process. Knowing that I will be reading a story at least six times helps ensure that I select stories I will feel as good about on my sixth reading as I did on my first, either because they were great stories or because, through working with the writer through the editing process, they have become great stories.

On the other hand, is it any wonder why I can’t keep up with all the anthologies and periodicals in my to-be-read pile?

*Sometimes a ms. is so clean there’s no reason to return it to the writer for correction or revision. Sometimes the deadline is so tight that there isn’t time to return it to the writer. At the consumer magazine we rarely involve writers in the editing process, and, as a writer, I’ve worked with many editors, both inside and outside the mystery genre, who do not involve writers in the editing process. 


Speaking of projects I’ve read at least six times:

Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir is a crime-fiction cocktail that will knock readers into a literary stupor.

Contributors push hard against the boundaries of crime fiction, driving their work into places short crime fiction doesn’t often go, into a world where the mean streets seem gentrified by comparison and happy endings are the exception rather than the rule. And they do all this in contemporary settings, bringing noir into the 21st century.

Like any good cocktail, Mickey Finn is a heady mix of ingredients that packs a punch, and when you’ve finished reading every story, you’ll know that you’ve been “slipped a Mickey.”

Contributors include: J.L. Abramo, Ann Aptaker, Trey R. Barker, Michael Bracken, Barb Goffman, David Hagerty, James A. Hearn, David H. Hendrickson, Jarrett Kaufman, Mark R. Kehl, Hugh Lessig, Steve Liskow, Alan Orloff, Josh Pachter, Steve Rasnic Tem, Mikal Trimm, Bev Vincent, Joseph S. Walker, Andrew Welsh-Huggins, and Stacy Woodson.

Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, vol. 1 releases December 14 from Down & Out Books.


30 November 2020

Earth's Future?


Back in March when the idea that this Covid-19 was contagious and we all needed to quarantine at home, my thoughts turned to space. Yes, first to Isaac Asimov's robot books, then to thinking about our astronauts. Ever since the space program started the astronauts had to be in quarantine for two weeks before going out into space. They didn't want to take some earth germ to the moon. Then when they came  back from the moon, they once again had to go into quarantine  in case they picked up some germ from space and didn't dare give it to earth and cause a pandemic. They didn't necessarily like it, they wanted to see their families to assure their family they were still the same person. That space had not changed them into some weird "outer space creature." 

As the days and weeks passed people began to learn Zoom meetings for business because many  people were now working from home. Before long folks learned Zoom for personal visits. My side of the family who never have reunions had one by using Zoom and our computers. I have two sisters, we all live in Texas but each of us have grown children and some of those grown children have children. One niece lives in NM, one nephew in MO, my daughter anher sons live in TN so it was great fun to at least see everyone, even if it was just in and out on the computer via Zoom for a few minutes. My daughter had taught me how to Zoom and it was great to see her. Actually on Thanksgiving afternoon she and I visited for a couple of hours and even played a dice game. 

In my little town, I'm on the Parks and Rec committee and we had a couple of  meetings on Zoom. There are eight of us and this was a great way to discuss our  projects and plan what to do next. 


This all brings me to Asimov robot books and he writes about the planets of Aurora and Solara where people NEVER "see" each other in person. They "view" each other on large screens in their home. Even married people. They go for walks "together" but they are holographic images not together in actual physical contact. This has gone on for so long that people have become afraid to actually touch each other. Some people actually can become physically ill to even be in the same room room with a human being. The idea of being in the same room with a human from that nasty germ filed planet Earth can cause such a mental upset can be even as bad if not worse.

If this pandemic can't be controlled will earth ever become like that? Will people who are not afraid of science and technology eventually be the only population left in 2050 or 2075? What about the people who won't take the vaccination? Will they just eventually die off? Could visitation by computer only happen on Earth even sooner than 2050? Say 2035? 

29 November 2020

What Does It Say About You?


Almost every author has at least one of what I'm going to talk about. And, some of what I've seen are better than others. I'm referring to the photo you use on your book cover, or on your blog site and/or submit to the writers conferences so the committee can include that photo of you in their conference booklet.

Unless you are hiding out from say, bill collectors or the drug cartels, you want people to recognize you for several reasons. Readers may want to say hello to their favorite author and perhaps to discuss one of your story characters or maybe ask questions about you latest story which really impressed them. Agents, editors, publishers and booksellers passing by at a conference may decide they'd like a congratulatory business word with you. Other authors, upon recognizing you, may want to meet their competition or discuss aspects of the writing craft. All of these are missed opportunities to network if no one knows what you look like or who you are.

Well, says you, I already have a photo for all those purposes. Good for you is my reply, but not so fast there. Per chance there is a question or more you should ask yourself.

Does it still look like you?

How old is the photo? Have you changed your hair style in the meantime? Do your clothes date you to a certain time period? When you look in the mirror every day, any change in the appearance of the person looking back is probably minimal, but over the passage of time, the change from the photo may become very distinct. We've all seen that conference booklet photo of the author who tried to stay young forever. At those times, it can become jarring to see the reality in person. So, make a more current photo when needed. These days, it's easy to update photos to have a gradual transition in appearance.

What does your photo say about you?

Obviously, if you write Westerns, you'll probably be dressed in cowboy gear. And, if you write Romance, then you'll probably have your hair done, have professional make up and wear a classy dress. Readers have expectations as to what their authors should look like. Do your best with what you've got, but try to fulfill those expectations as best you can You only get one chance to make a first impression and that impressions can make a difference in sales.

With the digital cameras we have these days, you don't need to go to a professional photographer, unless maybe you're a big-name author. The rest of us can keep taking digital photos until we get the look we like, one that says "this is me and I'm a professional at what I'm doing."

It's up to you to decide what goes into your photo. If you have a background in what you're writing, then you may want to reflect that in your photo, whether it's through a prop or a staged backdrop. I've also noticed that some authors will pose with their dog or cat. I assume they are appealing, in a subliminal way, to other dog or cat lovers. Kind of a "We have a common bond here, so you'll like my book" approach to advertising.

For me

My first three appearances in 1990's writers conference booklets showed a profile caricature in trench coat and fedora rather than an actual photo. You see, I had a few felons (one of whom had gone down twice for homicides before he brought me a kilo of coke), who had done their time and were getting released back into society. (The kilo guy was on the streets less that a month before he was revoked for choking someone.) Anyway, I didn't need them finding me from a photo and causing a disruption at the conference.

My first real photo was back when AHMM used to publish photos of their authors when they had a story in the magazine. I also used that same photo for the MWA Board of Directors when I attended my first board meeting in NYC. It showed me in a black cowboy hat during the time I did ranch things on the Front Range of the Black Hills of South Dakota.

The next photo, which I still use, is me in an EDGE ballcap, glasses and a bandido mustache. None of that has changed over the years, except that the real me has acquired some crow's feet around the eyes, but that change wouldn't show up in my photo anyway.


And, lastly, the photo I use for SleuthSayers is one I originally made for a non-fiction book I wrote under an alias. Under the terms of the contract, book signings could be held simultaneously on both the East Coast and on the West Coast and neither one of them would be me. I used a navy watch cap, dark sunglasses and had my wife dye my sideburns and mustache with black shoe polish. I guess you could say this photo reveals one of the many personas I've adopted in my past.

For you

So, tell us what your photo says about you.

Does it reflect your background?

Does it go with your genre?

Does it distinguish you from other authors?


Got any author photo tips or insights for others?

28 November 2020

Cozying Up the Facts


Melodie, here! Are you ready for Hot Crime in a Cold Climate?

In between the usual loopy columns by yours truly, I'll be introducing some of our butt-kicking, snow-loving, positively laugh in the face of Jack Frost, Canadian Crime Writers in this column.

First up is Crime Writers of Canada President, my friend and colleague, Judy Penz Sheluk. Judy has a cottage in the North-north (as opposed to the 'Near-north' as we say in the banana belt) so she is a babe to be reckoned with. Take it away, Judy!

— Melodie

Judy Penz Sheluk
Judy Penz Sheluk

Cozying Up the Facts

by Judy Penz Sheluk

As a former journalist and magazine editor, I’m all about doing the research and getting the facts. As an avid reader of mystery fiction, I also want to learn new things from the books that I read. What might come as a surprise, however, is how much you can learn from a cozy mystery.

Let’s take the example of award winning author Ellen Byron, who includes a “Lagniappe” chapter at the end of each book in her Cajun County cozy mystery series. Included are some of the real inspirations for fictional locations, characters, and moments.

Then there’s award winning author Vicki Delany. Writing as Eva Gates, her Lighthouse Library series is set in the Bodie Island Lighthouse, just outside of Nags Head, N.C. Apart from the interior of the lighthouse, with which liberties were taken (the lighthouse is quite small), all of the geography is correct. History also factors in with Read and Buried, where facts about the Civil War era Freedman’s Colony in Roanoke are important to the story.

And of course, we all wonder how the research gets done for Melodie Campbell's mob caper comedies in The Goddaugher series!

The central theme of my latest Glass Dolphin cozy mystery, Where There’s a Will, revolves around the old Hadley house, rented out for years, rumored to be haunted, and now on the market as an estate sale. Enter protagonist and Glass Dolphin antiques shop owner Arabella Carpenter, who, along with her ex-husband, Levon, has been hired to appraise the contents of the house. Among those contents is a roll-top desk hiding more than one secret.

roll-top desk

Now, I could have left the description as an “antique roll-top desk,” but what fun would that be? Instead I dug around until I discovered the Cutler Desk Company of Buffalo, NY. Not only did the company specialize in roll-top desks, they obtained the patent for the first American-made roll-top desk; in all they were granted seven patents related to the desk’s mechanism.

But wait, there’s more. During my online search, I managed to stumble onto a photograph of a Bill of Sale, yellowed in age, for a desk sold by Cutler on February 19, 1900. You can’t leave a detail like that out of a story, though, like Vicki and her Bodie Island Lighthouse, I’ve taken some liberties with the Bill of Sale that Arabella and Levon discover. Instead of the desk selling to someone in Ohio, I changed that to read T. Eaton & Co.

Now, I'll admit I’m not 100% positive that T. Eaton & Co. sold Cutler desks, but it’s certainly plausible: the store was headquartered in Toronto, just across Lake Ontario from Buffalo, and they do offer roll-top desks, such as the type made by Cutler, in their Fall and Winter Catalogue 1899-1900. And isn’t that a whole lot more interesting than “antique roll-top desk?”

Find more on Judy’s Facts in Fiction web site.




About the Glass Dolphin Mystery Series: A cozy mystery series without cats, crafts, or cookie recipes, the Glass Dolphin mysteries follow the investigations of amateur sleuths Arabella Carpenter and Emily Garland. The books include: The Hanged Man’s Noose (#1), A Hole in One (#2), and Where There’s A Will (#3).

Available from…

Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08KFLQ6KH

B&N: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/where-theres-a-will-judy-penz-sheluk/1137780682?ean=2940162992455

Kobo: https://www.kobo.com/ca/en/ebook/where-there-s-a-will-87

Apple: https://books.apple.com/us/book/where-theres-a-will/id1533844283?ls=1




About the author: A former journalist and magazine editor, Judy Penz Sheluk is the author of two mystery series: the Glass Dolphin Mysteries and the Marketville Mysteries. Her short crime fiction appears in several collections, including The Best Laid Plans and Heartbreaks & Half-truths, which she also edited. Judy is a member of Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and Crime Writers of Canada, where she serves as Chair on the Board of Directors. Find her at
www.JudyPenzSheluk.com

27 November 2020

The Greatest Christmas Mystery, Ever (Part I)


Every year in December, a curious event used to take place at the Church of the Intercession, an Episcopal congregation located in upper Manhattan. Local children would meet for a Christmas musical pageant capped off by a poetry reading. Later, everyone traipses to the cemetery across the street, places a wreath on a grave, and sings carols before returning to the church for some snacks.

Until this, our pandemic year, this tradition has happened virtually unchanged every 24th of December for more than 120 years. The oldest continuing tradition in New York City, they call it. Older than, say, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

The grave that has drawn congregants for more than 100 years belongs to a man named Clement Clarke Moore, who died in 1863.

Moore


In life Moore was a professor, a religious scholar and theologian, an occasional poet, and, curiously, a savvy real-estate developer who founded a Manhattan neighborhood called Chelsea, named after and built on land that once belonged to his family. But that’s not why anyone remembers Moore on this night. No one drags their child to a freezing cemetery to celebrate the life of a man who wrote a 1,000-page scholarly text entitled *The Compendious Lexicon of the Hebrew Language, in Two Volumes*. No. Moore is remembered because when he wasn’t busy cranking out his alefs, bets, and gimels, he apparently found time to write A Visit from Saint Nicholas, also known as ’Twas The Night Before Christmas.

For much of his life, Moore downplayed the poem associated with his name. When he first read those immortal lines to family and friends gathered at his home one Christmas, he strictly admonished them not to share it outside his residence. One of his guests nevertheless snuck out a copy and sent it to a newspaper in Troy, New York, which printed it anonymously, a common practice at the time. Countless other newspapers followed, and reprinting those lines became an annual tradition.

Like many writers, Moore wanted to be remembered for his “serious” work. Later in life, whenever someone cajoled him to tell how he came to write the classic poem, he related the same story. One day in 1822, he went out to buy a Christmas turkey and saw a fat Dutchman sitting in a carriage smoking a long clay pipe. Inspired, Moore rushed home and dashed off the 56-line poem about a plump, “jolly old elf” in a feverish bout of creativity. The poem literally poured from his pen—without a single correction necessary.

Even today it’s hard to quantify how important the poem is. Every culture in Europe has its own tradition of a Christmas “gift-bringer.” The English have Father Christmas, the French Père Noël. Icelandic children are visited by 13 mischievous Yule “lads”—tiny dwarves who leave children sweets or rotting potatoes, depending on their behavior. The Dutch had Sinterklaas, a homegrown version of Saint Nicholas, the kindly, fourth-century Turkish-born Catholic bishop who was regarded as the patron saint of sailors, pawnbrokers, reformed thieves, brewers, and, last but not least, children.

Though centuries had passed between the life of the real Saint Nicholas and the creation of Sinterklaas, the Dutch version was and still is visibly religious: he’s a dour-faced man who wears a bishop’s miter on his head, and carries a bishop’s crook in his hand, the symbol of a shepherd leading his flock.

Every culture’s gift-bringer behaves differently. My mother grew up in Italy believing in La Befana, an old witch who flies her broom into every Italian home on the eve of the Epiphany (January 6th). Every year on December 5, the night before the traditional Feast Day of Saint Nicholas, Dutch children leave carrots in their wooden shoes for Sinterklaas’s white horse. Come morning, they find candy in those shoes if they have been good, a bundle of twigs if they have been bad.

The American Santa observes a totally different protocol, and everything we know about him was sketched out for the very first time in the poem we’re discussing. The poem codifies Santa: how he looks, which night of the year he visits, how he transports himself to your house, how he enters and leaves the dwelling, how he behaves while there, the precise number of his reindeer, and their names. So it’s not too crazy to suggest that the author of A Visit from Saint Nicholas wasn’t just dashing off a delightful little poem that day, he was building American culture.

And none too soon, if you believe the historians. At this time in history American cities were struggling with a very scary Yuletide dilemma. So much so that the upper-crusters who bought plots of land in Moore’s tranquil enclave Chelsea had come to dread Christmas. December in 1820s New York City was like frat-boy central. It wasn’t uncommon for idle, laid-off workers to kick in the doors of wealthy homes and to demand pocket money in exchange for a bawdy song. But then, sometime during that decade in New York City, the weeks of unceasing hooliganism abruptly stopped.

Because Santa.

At least two historians* argue that the city’s fathers conspired with the media machine of the time (newspapers and weekly magazines) and retailers to promote a new sort of tradition. Christmas was no longer about giving pocket change to the less fortunate. It was about a visit from Santa Claus and giving presents—not candy or fruit or homemade sweets but store-bought presents—to children. In doing so, responsible adults were ostensibly reenacting the story of the Christ child receiving gifts in the manger from the three Magi.

Once this powerful tradition took hold, a family man could no longer afford to be idle at the end of the calendar year. He had to stay off the streets and gainfully employed if he was going to be able to afford presents for his children and, as the tradition morphed, for every other member of his family. Societal pressure eradicated one tradition and ushered in another. This New York-style Christmas quickly spread to the rest of the nation, aided by women’s magazines and impossible-to-ignore retail advertisements in every influential American publication.

America needed Santa. Needed his benevolent, calming influence to correct and redirect a societal ill. But it would be wrong of us to say that the Santa of A Visit from Saint Nicholas was nothing but a potent and irritating tool for conspicuous consumption.

The poem should be celebrated on its own merits. If you’ve ever read poetry or essays written by amateur writers from the founding era of the United States till about the era of the Civil War, you’ve probably been bored to tears or scratched your eyes out. The Christmas poem is nothing like that. The writing’s clear, its images crisp. It’s probably the most famous American poem. Amazon currently lists no fewer than 732 versions of this public domain book. It’s the book every Christmas-celebrating kid ever born must receive at some point in their lives, along with The Grinch and The Polar Express.

But so few people know the story of the classic’s origin—or why they should even care. If you want to go “meta” on this, you could say that once upon a time a sweet genius conceived of a way to sidestep the messy Catholic-Protestant rift and get back to the joy of the old pagan Yule. Stripping away the baggage of Old World religions, this nimble writer created a magnanimous secular magician who brings presents to worthy children every year without fail. Sans miter, sans crook, sans religious robes, this Santa is, frankly, the perfect, nondenominational gift-bringer for a nation of immigrants. How lucky we are! How truly blessed, that this magical tale was bequeathed to us by a humble New Yorker whose name we hardly know but whose words still give us all the feels!

There’s just one problem with everything I’ve just told you.

It may all be a bright shining lie.


I'm partial to the Charles Santore edition.

* * * 

* Sources for this article include two wonderful books: The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Our Most Cherished Holiday, by Steven Nissenbaum; and Christmas: A Biography, by Judith Flanders.

I hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving. See you—with the conclusion—in three weeks!