18 January 2021

A Very Good Year


I've heard it said that the music we hear in our teens defines our taste because those are such formative years in our lives, and I won't argue. The Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan in my junior year, but for me the biggie was 1966.

After my freshman year of college, I scored a night shift job at a sheet metal plant. My hours were 6:30 pm to 5 am Monday through Thursday and 3:30 pm to midnight on Friday. There were only nine of us, a 31-year-old foreman, four welders, and four machine operators, three of us college kids. I worked a two-man shear with Al, who was missing an upper incisor and smoked a pack a night.

The 52-hour week meant 12-hours of overtime. I still lived with my parents and drove my mother's car to work, so that summer paid for the remaining three years of my undergraduate degree. It put me on "normal" time for the weekend, which meant I could have a social life...except that my midnight lunch break made it hard to call a girl for a date. It let me play golf almost every day, too, and that was the summer I broke 80 for the first time.

Swell, you say. So what?

Well, we played the radio most of the time, but all the metal around us interfered with reception so we could only pick up one local station, WSGW, which had a trasnmitter two miles away. At midnight, the DJ piled singles on the spindle. After they all played, he'd lift them, read the news headlines, and play that same stack again. And again. Between lunch break at midnight and punch out at five, we'd hear the same songs ten or twelve times. That was the year my first girlfriend dumped me and the year I fell in love for the first time, so those singles trigger a lot of emotional baggage.

Were they all great songs? Not by a long shot, but some were. The Rolling Stones released "Paint It, Black" and the Beatles gave us "Paperback Writer/Rain." The Hollies offered "Bus Stop," The Kinks "Dedicated Follower of Fashion," and Paul Revere and the Raiders were "Hungry." The Mamas and the Papas released "Monday, Monday." But the local DJ promoted home-grown groups selling their new single at the Battle of the Bands at Daniel's Den on Saturday night.

The Rationals at Daniel's Den, Saginaw's teen hot spot


Southern Michigan's music picked up the heavy metal thunder of the automotive plants, where Dad could make enough money to buy his kid an electric guitar and amplifier. Those kids formed bands and practiced in their garages, the DIY movement that became the flagship of garage rock, the grandfathers of Punk. It was democratic music, the kids stealing their licks and lines from the songs they heard on the radio, so simple ANYONE COULD DO IT. And if you got a fuzz-tone for your birthday, even better.

? & The Mysterians



That summer, "96 Tears" was huge. ? & The Mysterians, a Saginaw band, played Daniel's Den and the Blue Light constantly. Terry Knight and the Pack (Later to morph into Grand Funk Railroad) had a cover version of "Lady Jane," but it got pulled because the Rolling Stones hadn't released theirs yet. DJ and the Runaways had "Peter Rabbit," featuring the octave riff they lifted from "Wooly Bully." The Bossmen (Never big, but members went on to play with Lou Reed, Meat Loaf, Aerosmith, and Alice Cooper) released "Thanks to You." The Standells from LA had their biggest hit with "Dirty Water" and the 13th Floor Elevators gave us "You're Gonna Miss Me" with the full-bore reverb and an electric jug. Really.
The 13th Floor Elevators, Tom Hall on Jug...



Bob Seger and the Last Heard scored their first single, "East Side Story," recycling the riff from "Gloria" into flash-fiction noir. Seger wouldn't hit nationally for several more years, but he was probably the biggest act in Detroit behind the Motown groups (Where Stevie Wonder was also from Saginaw). He would have several more hits that don't appear on any of his greatest hits collections, too, maybe because they were on the tiny Lucky Eleven label, swallowed up by Cameo Parkway, which submerged in the late sixties.
Young Bob Seger



The Rationals from Flint had the first version I heard of Otis Redding's "Respect." Contrary to local myth, Glenn Frey was NOT a member of the band, but he did hail from Royal Oak, a Detroit suburb. 

The Syndicate of Sound's "Little Girl" came out then, too, along with the Music Machine's "Talk, Talk," and Love's take on "Little Red Book." Composers Bert Bacharach and Hal David preferred Manfred Mann's version of that song and loathed Love's take on it. The Shadows of Knight put out "Oh Yeah," the follow-up to their cover of "Gloria."

Those were the songs I heard while a two-man shear pounded out the rhythm for my summer. I bought my first guitar a few months later. When I look back at these songs, they evoke a very good year, and I can play pretty much all of them now without even thinking about it. The only surprise is that I've never used any of those songs as story titles. 

17 January 2021

The Bank Job


bank vault

In the waning days of my stint at Data Corp, a bank-owned subsidiary in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, security auditors visited the company. These stern-faced men and women differed from bank and financial auditors. They studied physical facilities, detectors, alarms, and personnel. They reminded employees that banking is serious business.

Thus it came to pass, they paid particular attention to me, rogue hired-gun, expert in multiple languages and knowledgeable in the intricate arts of operating systems and the mysterious software void. I had delved deep into the labyrinth of the sacred OS and lo, I not only survived the puzzles of the Minotaur, but my reputation grew, a mark of my shadowy powers and the peril I represented.

Sandman, Matt… how different could we be? Birds of a feather, cut from the same cloth, tarred with the same brush. The auditors were determined to unmask… Danger Man.

Caught between the security professionals and Data Corp’s need to keep me around, the company assigned their top programmer to watch me, to make certain no Harry Potter magical enchantment passed my fingertips to the detriment of the Eastern Seaboard banking community. My transition from legendary hero to potentially a bad, bad boy had the spectacular effect of enhancing my dark reputation amongst the fair sex of the Shenandoah Valley. That’s a story improper for a scholarly work such as this.

“It’s nothing personal,” said the vice president.

“It seems personal,” I said. After the fiascos with Sandman and then Matt, I felt peeved, petulant and perhaps a little petty, those p-offed adjectives. Later, I would become better known for guarding my tongue, but I childishly couldn’t resist showing off. “The auditors are looking in the wrong place. They shouldn’t be suspicious of talent, but of simple vulnerabilities. I bet I can have money out of the bank and on your desk in 24 hours.”

“I don’t believe in gambling.”

“Neither do I. I prefer certainties. Wanna wager?”

“You’re serious?” He sighed. “We have to tell them.” He started to beep the chief auditor but stopped himself. Cogs visibly turned in his head. On the off chance I was right, why reveal weaknesses to the auditors? “How?” he asked.

“The obvious everyone overlooks.”

“It’s obvious you’re presumptuous.” He didn’t say it unkindly. The vice president leaned forward on the edge of his chair, hands braced on his desk. I could see his mind churning, thinking over the computer rooms, an entire floor of programmers’ offices, the banking terminals scattered around the counties. “It doesn’t mean you can’t be right.”

Neither of us believed in gambling, but for different reasons. The VP was a pious man. He said, “I don’t bet, but I will pay you five bucks if you can pull it off.”

I said, “Fair enough. One thing though– keep things as they are– no extra security just because of this, okay?”

He muttered under his breath. If he hadn’t been a religious man, it would probably have sounded something like, “arrogant sodding bastard.”

 A Draft In The House

A few hours remained before my self-imposed night shift, so I visited the banking center off the lobby. I bought a money order to pay my phone bill, watching every move the teller made. Afterwards, I went back to my rooms to sleep a few hours.

The vice president fibbed about not stacking the deck against me. That evening for the first time, a guard searched my flight case as I entered the computer facility. The VP also ordered the data vault closed, a concrete and steel room with a blast-proof door. If I needed a data cartridge, I’d have to ask Nagle, the watchdog programmer they’d hung around my neck, to fetch it.

Like a personal albatross, he watched every move, my every keystroke. As I rolled my chair between consoles, he followed, straining to see if I attempted anything unusual. I simply did my job, asking him to give me breathing space as I studied program code.

We ordered Chinese food. Nagle consumed his with coffee rather than tea, striving to stay alert. I asked what his instructions were and he said he’d been directed to keep a special eye on me. “They think you’re up to something.”

green-bar, fanfold paper
green-bar, fanfold paper

“I am. I’ve got to debug this by morning.”

From time to time I pulled ‘green-bar’ stacks of paper off the big high-speed printers. I had a well-known propensity for leafing through paper listings, giving my eyes a rest from luminescent computer screens. Nagle had wearied from working all day, but occasional requests for tapes or discs kept him awake.

Taking great precautions but overlooking a small, seemingly insignificant but crucial details is only human. Long ago, I’d remarked upon one of these details to the computer room operators who’d forgotten by the next morning. They had stuffed a box of Christmas Club checks on a panel of the control unit next to the printer, handy if they had to make a quick check run. Nothing sinister about printers, right?

I asked Nagle to fetch a data cartridge from the vault as I gathered a listing from the printer, I simply tore off a sheet of three checks and slipped it among the pages of my printout.

An hour after midnight, I dragged manuals and listings into what tellers called the ‘back room’, and spread them out on work tables. To enter the computer room, operators and officials had to pass through a couple of electronically locked anterooms into the data center.

It was also possible to pass from the lobby into the customer area of the banking center where lexan barriers protected the teller area. Behind the glass, trusted employees could pass through the back room to the computer room itself– and vice versa. The computer room contained a photo lab at the back, which the security auditors didn’t like since it gave non-computer people access to the servers.

MICR cheque imprinter
MICR check imprinter

The back room was of special interest to me because it contained a small machine I needed, a MICR imprinter, a shoebox-size device with a simple keyboard used to encode the special magnetic ink numbers along the bottom of a check.

During the day, the back room was used by clerks to spread out reports and by tellers to imprint deposit slips and checks as needed. During the evening, operations bundled and unbundled stacks of checks and imprinted the occasional ‘carrier’, a glassine envelope for damaged checks. By night, I used the same room when I needed an expanded work area. Nagle stopped paying attention to me when I left the main room because the tellers’ back room contained no computers.

I’d never used the imprinter before, but I’d watched the operators. My plan was to key in the account number the bank used to pay me and that’s when I discovered the bank had made my task easier– and an easier crime for anyone else to carry out. When I filched the checks, my famed 007 powers of observation had been running low because I hadn’t inspected them closely. Rather than print individual account numbers on Christmas Club checks, the bank used one general account thoughtfully pre-printed on the checks along with the routing and serial numbers. The check numbers linked a given check to a customer. I didn’t need the MICR imprinter after all.

cheque numbers

I discovered something else. Next to the MICR machine were open boxes of bank drafts and money orders accessible not only to tellers, but any person who strolled in from the computer room. They were sequentially numbered and I had no idea if anyone took note of the number in the mornings. I took samples out of the middle.

Back in the computer room, Nagle was nodding off. He headed for the coffee machine.

Green-bar program listings from large computers were printed on continuous ‘tractor-feed’ fan-fold paper stock that were packed and stacked in a zig-zag fashion. The printer prints one accordion-pleated side only– the back is almost never used and, when fastened in a binder, the back is never seen. In other words, a page was actually two sheets back-to-back attached at the leading edge and bound at the back. It formed a pocket, perfect for nefarious smuggling.

Visit Bob Lemke's
vintage cheques

Cue Mission Impossible theme.

Uncapping a glue stick, I dabbed the drafts and the Christmas Club checks and tucked them within the multi-fold pages. James Bond had nothing on me.

Binder in hand, I told Nagle, “I’m going upstairs for an hour. I’ll be back.” He gratefully closed his eyes in the operations office. The security guard, mystified by the runes of technology, only cursorily glanced at the listings.

I needed time and privacy to duplicate the same type of printing on the draft and the Christmas Club check. From the tractor feed paper and proximity to the printer, it was easy to deduce the Christmas Club checks were printed on the high speed impact printer, a device the size of a roll-top desk capable of churning out hundreds of pages in seconds. I needed to duplicate its distinctive type face, so on one page of the program I had been working in, I’d printed a sample: my name, ‘FIVE AND ***’, and $5.00. All I needed was a way to emulate the printer’s font.

Beating the Draft

The bank draft presented a different problem. The name on the draft I purchased in the afternoon was printed using a monospace sans-serif font, and it wasn’t similar to any I could find on the PCs commonly used in the office. I was surprised– They had almost everything.

I expanded my search. Nothing. I didn’t have access to Illustrator or Photoshop. I couldn’t log onto the Adobe site for a matching font, and it didn’t seem sensible to pay them more than I was going to collect.

But wait; I was overthinking. The vice president expected me to engineer a hi-tech crime, but I’d gone lo-tech. Where had I seen an IBM Selectric? Chase’s secretary’s desk. The office kept a couple of typewriter balls in a junk drawer. I picked the most computerish style and dropped the font ball into the typewriter.

I tweaked the positioning and ran a test copy on plain paper. When I held it up to the light in front of the blank draft, it looked close. I adjusted the margins until I was satisfied and printed one of the drafts made out to me with several zeros in the amount. I repeated the process with one of the Christmas Club checks made out for five dollars.

Leaving the draft in my desk, I set the Christmas Club checks aside. No sense taking them back into the computer center.

I wrapped up early for which Nagle was grateful. The guard glanced in my briefcase. Seeing no wads of bills or bullion, he let us go.


After sleeping until noon, I drove through a branch drive-thru and cashed the $5 Christmas Club check. Back at the office, the security guards perked up. They gave my briefcase a thorough going over. Finding nothing incriminating, they let me pass.

When I casually strolled toward the vice president’s office, he glanced up and waved me in. “Any luck? You’ve just a couple of hours left.”

“Oh, yes. Here’s a bank draft made out to me, all legitimate looking. I didn’t cash it so I wouldn’t screw up the bank’s accounting.”

His lips thinned when he saw the number of zeroes. Pinching it between two fingers, he looked it over carefully with narrowed eyes. He set it aside as if I had handed him a used tissue. “You said you could get money out which I took to be cash.”

I pulled $5 from my pocket and put it on his desk.

“You’re conceding?” he asked.

“No.”

“What’s special about this?”

I put the receipt on top of it. “It’s from the bank’s Christmas Club account.”

Never before had I witnessed a ‘basilisk stare’. For a moment, I worried I’d crossed the line. However, he prided himself being a fair and rational man, and he went from personal offence to realizing I could help plug a hole or two the auditors hadn’t yet spotted.

“How much?”

“How much what?”

He sighed. “How much is this going to cost me?”

“Lunch.” I reconsidered, thinking about his tightwad reputation. “A good lunch.”

In fairness, he made it a very good lunch.

Loose Ends

Management instructed their tellers to lock away the blank drafts at night. The Christmas Club checks they moved into the vault as they should have from the beginning.

Nagle told me he’d been yelled at, but the shouting was only half-hearted. The vice president had merely instructed him to ensure their in-house Robin Hood didn’t attempt a Mission Impossible hi-tech transfer. Instead I had come in under their radar with an old-school lo-tech crime, which made it worse. They found it sobering, but they took comfort the security auditors hadn’t detected the gaffe and the price of one lunch was right.

16 January 2021

What a Character . . .


  

How hard can it be, nonwriters often say, to name your characters?

Well, I can think of easier tasks. It's one thing to name them, but it's another to do it well.


The other day I started writing a new mystery story, and I'm making good progress--but I've come to the point where I need to start assigning names. So far my characters are S for Sheriff, P for Prisoner, O for Old man, W for Waitress, C for Cook, and V for Villain. I usually substitute letters as placeholders until I come up with names I really like. Even after I choose the names, they might change several times during the course of the story as new brainstorms roll in, in which case I make extensive use of (but don't entirely trust) the "Find and Replace" utility. I dread the day when I'll probably submit a story someplace with the hero saying something like "It's over, V. Drop the gun."

As all of you know, the choice of appropriate names can be vitally important, and at the very least can make any story better. I think The Silence of the Lambs would've been a great novel and movie regardless of the characters' names, but making the bad guys Buffalo Bill and Hannibal Lecter sure didn't hurt. And sometimes "appropriate" can have a wide range. I think part of Stephen King's success is due to the fact that he often writes about ordinary characters that everyone can relate to, and the names of his protagonists usually reflect that: Bill Hodges, Luke Ellis, Fran Goldsmith, Tom Cullen, Larry Underwood, Annie Wilkes, Robert Anderson, Paul Sheldon, Carrie White. One of his main characters (the novel was The Dead Zone) was named John Smith. Having said that, King can also get pretty creative with character-naming when it's needed: Roland Deschain, Gordie Lachance, Randall Flagg, Percy Wetmore, etc.

Looking back on the novels I've read and the movies and TV shows I've seen, I can recall character names that seem absolutely perfect for their stories. We all know some of those--Atticus Finch, James Bond, Ebenezer Scrooge, Luke Skywalker, Ichabod Crane, Indiana Jones, Rocky Balboa, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, and so on. A few have become better known than the stories in which they appeared.


Here are plenty more names, categorized but in no particular order, that I think are wonderful. How many of these can you remember?


Lighthearted:

Barney Fife, Stephanie Plum, Forrest Gump, Hedley Lamarr, Buzz Lightyear, Milo Minderbinder, Jack Sparrow, Ace Ventura, Hawkeye Pierce, Walter Mitty, Holly Golightly, Arthur Fonzarelli, Ron Burgundy, Mary Poppins, Gaylord Focker, Hoss Cartwright, Jack Tripper, Buford T. Justice, Maynard G. Krebs, Marty McFly, Ferris Bueller, Bilbo Baggins


Strong:

Frank Bullitt, Sam Spade, Woodrow Call, Will Kane, Ellen Ripley, Jesse Stone, Rick Deckard, Han Solo, Sansa Stark, Thomas Magnum, Dana Scully, Jack Shepherd, Joe Mannix, Philip Marlowe, Nero Wolfe, Peter Gunn, Dan Roman, Rudi Matt, Remington Steele, Thomas Crown, Miranda Priestly, Judah Ben-Hur, Ethan Hunt, Mike Hammer


Mysterious:

Keyser Soze, Victor Laszlo, Axel Foley, Vito Corleone, Imperator Furiosa, Boo Radley, Tony Soprano, Daenerys Targaryen, Jonathan Hemlock, Inigo Montoya, Thorin Oakenshield, Wednesday Addams, Lando Calrissian, V. I. Warschawski, Optimus Prime, Dave Robischeaux, Tyler Durden, Jay Gatsby, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Arkady Renko, Tyrion Lannister


Evil:

Hans Gruber, Gordon Gekko, Francis Dollarhyde, Darth Vader, Uriah Heep, Lord Voldemort, Nurse Ratched, Joffrey Baratheon, Jason Voorhees, Anton Chigurh, Bellatrix Lestrange, Draco Malfoy, Simon Legree, Freddy Krueger, Hector Barbossa, Gyp Rosetti, Black Jack Randall, Amon Goeth, Hannibal Lecter, Kylo Ren, Biff Tannen, Al Swearengen, Lex Luthor


Some of the most interesting names, I think, came from Ian Fleming--

Auric Goldfinger, Hugo Drax, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, Emilio Largo, Francisco Scaramanga, Julius No, Rosa Klebb, Irma Bunt, Felix Leiter, Vesper Lynd, Honeychile Ryder, Tatiana Romanova, Tiffany Case, Mary Goodnight, Kissy Suzuki, Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo, Pussy Galore, Gala Brand, Solitaire Latrelle, Domino Vitali, Caractacus Potts


--and Quentin Tarantino:

Vincent Vega, Beatrix Kiddo, Marcellus Wallace, Elle Driver, Bridgette von Hammersmark, King Schultz, Hattori Hanzo, Esmeralda Villa Lobos, Perrier LaPadite, Hugo Stiglitz, Broomhilda von Shaft, Drexl Spivey, Santanico Pandemonium


For anyone still with me on this, here are several more, in no particular category. Remember these?

Randle McMurphy, Tom Wingo, Humbert Humbert, Ignatius Reilly, Yuri Zhivago, Sebastian Flyte, Shug Avery, Omar Little, Fast Eddie Felson, Owen Meany, Holden Caulfield, Hester Prynne, Jake Spoon, Lisbeth Salander, Clarice Starling, John Boy Walton, Norman Bates, Chili Palmer


In closing (and in the "I wish I had come up with that one" department), here are my five all-time favorite character names:

Snake Plissken

Apollo Creed

Primrose Everdeen

Cullen Bohannon

Napoleon Solo


For what it's worth, here are some character names from my own stories: Ferguson Quillar, Pinto Bishop, Ward Grummond, Lou Mingo, Spencer E. Spencer, Bitsy Hamilton, Monique LaBont, Jabbo Harris, Gary Ironwood, Karim Valik, Madame Zoufou (Queen of Voodoo), Rufe Dewberry, Delbert Wooten, Ham Grogan, Cole "Shooter" Parrish, Abe Callendar, Solomon Wade, CollieBaby Johnson, Forrest DeWeller, Della Bloodworth, Punk Harris, Jasper Luckett, Panama Joe LaPinto, Woodrow Temple, Twelve Becker, Randolph Goodwynter, "Ducky" Duckworth, Doogie Sistrunk, Ophelia Reardon, Chunky Jones, Henrietta Allgood, Nicodemo Ross, Dexter Holtzhagen. I remember trying to tailor each of these to fit his or her character; whether that was effective or not is another matter.

]
What are some of your favorites, from novels, shorts, movies, TV, etc.? How about character names from your own work?


Now, back to trying to figure out what to call the folks in this latest story of mine.

Any suggestions?



15 January 2021

Crime Scene Comix Case 2021-01-012, Shock Therapy


A new year, and perhaps the world is righting itself. Let’s try a chuckle from Future Thought channel of YouTube. Check it out.

Once again, we visit Shifty, a none-too-bright crook who looks like a Minion in zebra stripes. This time poor Shifty finds himself on the hot seat.


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

14 January 2021

The Real Key to Blackmail and Scams


Scammers never die. Months ago, a friend got the following message (I have deleted the password and the link to send the bitcoin):
𝙸'πš– πšŠπš πšŠπš›πšŽ __________ πš’πšœ πš’πš˜πšžπš› πš™πšŠπšœπšœ πš πš˜πš›πš.𝙸 πš—πšŽπšŽπš πš’πš˜πšžπš› πšπšžπš•πš• πšŠπšπšπšŽπš—πšπš’πš˜πš— πšπš˜πš› πšπš‘πšŽ πšπš‘πšŽ πš—πšŽπš‘πš 𝟸𝟺 πš‘πš˜πšžπš›πšœ, πš˜πš› 𝙸 πš–πšŠπš’ πš–πšŠπš”πšŽ πšœπšžπš›πšŽ 𝚒𝚘𝚞 πšπš‘πšŠπš 𝚒𝚘𝚞 πš•πš’πšŸπšŽ 𝚘𝚞𝚝 𝚘𝚏 πšŽπš–πš‹πšŠπš›πš›πšŠπšœπšœπš–πšŽπš—πš πšπš˜πš› πšπš‘πšŽ πš›πšŽπšœπš 𝚘𝚏 πš’πš˜πšžπš› πšŽπš‘πš’πšœπšπšŽπš—πšŒπšŽ.

π™·πšŽπš•πš•πš˜, 𝚒𝚘𝚞 𝚍𝚘 πš—πš˜πš πš”πš—πš˜πš  πš–πšŽ πš™πšŽπš›πšœπš˜πš—πšŠπš•πš•πš’. π™·πš˜πš πšŽπšŸπšŽπš› 𝙸 πš”πš—πš˜πš  πš™πš›πšŽπšπšπš’ πš–πšžπšŒπš‘ πšŽπšŸπšŽπš›πš’πšπš‘πš’πš—πš πšŠπš‹πš˜πšžπš 𝚒𝚘𝚞. πšˆπš˜πšžπš› πšπš‹ πšŒπš˜πš—πšπšŠπšŒπš πš•πš’πšœπš, πš–πš˜πš‹πš’πš•πšŽ πš™πš‘πš˜πš—πšŽ πšŒπš˜πš—πšπšŠπšŒπšπšœ πšŠπš•πš˜πš—πš πš πš’πšπš‘ πšŠπš•πš• πšπš‘πšŽ πš˜πš—πš•πš’πš—πšŽ πšŠπšŒπšπš’πšŸπš’πšπš’ πš˜πš— πš’πš˜πšžπš› πšŒπš˜πš–πš™πšžπšπšŽπš› πšπš›πš˜πš– πš™πš›πšŽπšŸπš’πš˜πšžπšœ 𝟷𝟸𝟽 𝚍𝚊𝚒𝚜.

πš†πš‘πš’πšŒπš‘ πš’πš—πšŒπš•πšžπšπšŽπšœ, πš’πš˜πšžπš› πšœπšŽπš•πš πš™πš•πšŽπšŠπšœπšžπš›πšŽ πšŸπš’πšπšŽπš˜ 𝚏𝚘𝚘𝚝𝚊𝚐𝚎, πš πš‘πš’πšŒπš‘ πš‹πš›πš’πš—πšπšœ πš–πšŽ 𝚝𝚘 πšπš‘πšŽ πš–πšŠπš’πš— πš›πšŽπšŠπšœπš˜πš— πš πš‘πš’ 𝙸 'πš– πš πš›πš’πšπš’πš—πš πšπš‘πš’πšœ πšœπš™πšŽπšŒπš’πšπš’πšŒ 𝚎-πš–πšŠπš’πš• 𝚝𝚘 𝚒𝚘𝚞.

πš†πšŽπš•πš• πšπš‘πšŽ πš•πšŠπšœπš πšπš’πš–πšŽ 𝚒𝚘𝚞 πšŸπš’πšœπš’πšπšŽπš πšπš‘πšŽ πšœπšŽπš‘πšžπšŠπš•πš•πš’ πšπš›πšŠπš™πš‘πš’πšŒ πš πšŽπš‹πš™πšŠπšπšŽπšœ, πš–πš’ πš–πšŠπš•πš πšŠπš›πšŽ πšŽπš—πšπšŽπš πšžπš™ πš‹πšŽπš’πš—πš πšŠπšŒπšπš’πšŸπšŠπšπšŽπš πš’πš— πš’πš˜πšžπš› πš™πšŽπš›πšœπš˜πš—πšŠπš• πšŒπš˜πš–πš™πšžπšπšŽπš› πš πš‘πš’πšŒπš‘ πšŽπš—πšπšŽπš πšžπš™ πš•πš˜πšπšπš’πš—πš 𝚊 πš‹πšŽπšŠπšžπšπš’πšπšžπš• πšŸπš’πšπšŽπš˜ πšŒπš•πš’πš™ 𝚘𝚏 πš’πš˜πšžπš› πš–πšŠπšœπšπšžπš›πš‹πšŠπšπš’πš˜πš— πš™πš•πšŠπš’ πš‹πš’ πšŠπšŒπšπš’πšŸπšŠπšπš’πš—πš πš’πš˜πšžπš› πš πšŽπš‹πšŒπšŠπš–.
(𝚒𝚘𝚞 𝚐𝚘𝚝 𝚊 πš’πš—πšŒπš›πšŽπšπš’πš‹πš•πš’ 𝚘𝚍𝚍 𝚝𝚊𝚜𝚝𝚎 πš‹πšπš  πš‘πšŠπš‘πšŠ)

𝙸 πš˜πš πš— πšπš‘πšŽ πšŽπš—πšπš’πš›πšŽ πš›πšŽπšŒπš˜πš›πšπš’πš—πš. π™Έπš 𝚒𝚘𝚞 πšπš‘πš’πš—πš” 𝙸 'πš– πš–πšŽπšœπšœπš’πš—πš πšŠπš›πš˜πšžπš—πš, πšœπš’πš–πš™πš•πš’ πš›πšŽπš™πš•πš’ πš™πš›πš˜πš˜πš πšŠπš—πš 𝙸 πš πš’πš•πš• πš‹πšŽ πšπš˜πš›πš πšŠπš›πšπš’πš—πš πšπš‘πšŽ πš™πšŠπš›πšπš’πšŒπšžπš•πšŠπš› πš›πšŽπšŒπš˜πš›πšπš’πš—πš πš›πšŠπš—πšπš˜πš–πš•πš’ 𝚝𝚘 𝟾 πš™πšŽπš˜πš™πš•πšŽ 𝚒𝚘𝚞 πš›πšŽπšŒπš˜πšπš—πš’πš£πšŽ.

π™Έπš πšŒπš˜πšžπš•πš πšŽπš—πš πšžπš™ πš‹πšŽπš’πš—πš πš’πš˜πšžπš› πšπš›πš’πšŽπš—πšπšœ, 𝚌𝚘 πš πš˜πš›πš”πšŽπš›πšœ, πš‹πš˜πšœπšœ, πš™πšŠπš›πšŽπš—πšπšœ (𝙸 πšπš˜πš—'𝚝 πš”πš—πš˜πš ! π™Όπš’ πšœπš’πšœπšπšŽπš– πš πš’πš•πš• πš›πšŠπš—πšπš˜πš–πš•πš’ πšœπšŽπš•πšŽπšŒπš πšπš‘πšŽ πšŒπš˜πš—πšπšŠπšŒπšπšœ).

πš†πš˜πšžπš•πš 𝚒𝚘𝚞 πš‹πšŽ πšŠπš‹πš•πšŽ 𝚝𝚘 𝚐𝚊𝚣𝚎 πš’πš—πšπš˜ πšŠπš—πš’πš˜πš—πšŽ'𝚜 𝚎𝚒𝚎𝚜 πšŠπšπšŠπš’πš— πšŠπšπšπšŽπš› πš’πš? 𝙸 πššπšžπšŽπšœπšπš’πš˜πš— πš’πš…

π™±πšžπš, πš’πš 𝚍𝚘𝚎𝚜 πš—πš˜πš πš‘πšŠπšŸπšŽ 𝚝𝚘 πš‹πšŽ πšπš‘πšŠπš πš›πš˜πšžπšπšŽ.

𝙸'πš– πšπš˜πš’πš—πš 𝚝𝚘 πš–πšŠπš”πšŽ 𝚒𝚘𝚞 𝚊 𝟷 πšπš’πš–πšŽ, πš—πš˜ πš—πšŽπšπš˜πšπš’πšŠπš‹πš•πšŽ πš˜πšπšπšŽπš›.

π™Ώπšžπš›πšŒπš‘πšŠπšœπšŽ $ 𝟸𝟢𝟢𝟢 πš’πš— πš‹πš’πšπšŒπš˜πš’πš— πšŠπš—πš πšœπšŽπš—πš πšπš‘πšŽπš– 𝚝𝚘 πšπš‘πšŽ πšπš˜πš πš— πš‹πšŽπš•πš˜πš  πšŠπšπšπš›πšŽπšœπšœ:

________________
[𝚌𝚊𝚜𝚎-πšœπšŽπš—πšœπš’πšπš’πšŸπšŽ 𝚜𝚘 πšŒπš˜πš™πš’ πšŠπš—πš πš™πšŠπšœπšπšŽ πš’πš, πšŠπš—πš πš›πšŽπš–πš˜πšŸπšŽ * πšπš›πš˜πš– πš’πš]

(π™Έπš 𝚒𝚘𝚞 𝚍𝚘 πš—πš˜πš πš”πš—πš˜πš  πš‘πš˜πš , πšπš˜πš˜πšπš•πšŽ πš‘πš˜πš  𝚝𝚘 πšŠπšŒπššπšžπš’πš›πšŽ πš‹πš’πšπšŒπš˜πš’πš—. π™³πš˜ πš—πš˜πš 𝚠𝚊𝚜𝚝𝚎 πš–πš’ πš™πš›πšŽπšŒπš’πš˜πšžπšœ πšπš’πš–πšŽ)

π™Έπš 𝚒𝚘𝚞 πšœπšŽπš—πš 𝚘𝚞𝚝 πšπš‘πš’πšœ πš™πšŠπš›πšπš’πšŒπšžπš•πšŠπš› 'πšπš˜πš—πšŠπšπš’πš˜πš—' (πš•πšŽπš 𝚞𝚜 πšŒπšŠπš•πš• πš’πš πšπš‘πšŠπš?). π™°πšπšπšŽπš› πšπš‘πšŠπš, 𝙸 πš πš’πš•πš• 𝚐𝚘 𝚊𝚠𝚊𝚒 πšπš˜πš› 𝚐𝚘𝚘𝚍 πšŠπš—πš πš—πšŽπšŸπšŽπš› πš–πšŠπš”πšŽ πšŒπš˜πš—πšπšŠπšŒπš πš πš’πšπš‘ 𝚒𝚘𝚞 πšŠπšπšŠπš’πš—. 𝙸 πš πš’πš•πš• πš›πšŽπš–πš˜πšŸπšŽ πšŽπšŸπšŽπš›πš’πšπš‘πš’πš—πš 𝙸 πš‘πšŠπšŸπšŽ 𝚐𝚘𝚝 πš’πš— πš›πšŽπš•πšŠπšπš’πš˜πš— 𝚝𝚘 𝚒𝚘𝚞. 𝚈𝚘𝚞 πš–πšŠπš’ πšŸπšŽπš›πš’ πš πšŽπš•πš• πš”πšŽπšŽπš™ πš˜πš— πš•πš’πšŸπš’πš—πš πš’πš˜πšžπš› πš—πš˜πš›πš–πšŠπš• 𝚍𝚊𝚒 𝚝𝚘 𝚍𝚊𝚒 πš•πš’πšπšŽπšœπšπš’πš•πšŽ πš πš’πšπš‘ πšŠπš‹πšœπš˜πš•πšžπšπšŽπš•πš’ πš—πš˜ πšπšŽπšŠπš›.

𝚈𝚘𝚞'𝚟𝚎 𝚐𝚘𝚝 𝟸𝟺 πš‘πš˜πšžπš›πšœ πš’πš— πš˜πš›πšπšŽπš› 𝚝𝚘 𝚍𝚘 𝚜𝚘. πšˆπš˜πšžπš› πšπš’πš–πšŽ πšœπšπšŠπš›πšπšœ 𝚘𝚏𝚏 𝚊𝚜 πššπšžπš’πšŒπš”πš•πš’ 𝚒𝚘𝚞 πš›πšŽπšŠπš πšπš‘πš›πš˜πšžπšπš‘ πšπš‘πš’πšœ 𝚎-πš–πšŠπš’πš•. 𝙸 πš‘πšŠπšŸπšŽ 𝚐𝚘𝚝 πšŠπš— πš˜πš—πšŽ 𝚘𝚏 𝚊 πš”πš’πš—πš 𝚌𝚘𝚍𝚎 πšπš‘πšŠπš πš πš’πš•πš• πš’πš—πšπš˜πš›πš– πš–πšŽ πš˜πš—πšŒπšŽ 𝚒𝚘𝚞 𝚜𝚎𝚎 πšπš‘πš’πšœ πšŽπš–πšŠπš’πš• πšπš‘πšŽπš›πšŽπšπš˜πš›πšŽ πšπš˜πš—'𝚝 πšπš›πš’ 𝚝𝚘 πš™πš•πšŠπš’ πšœπš–πšŠπš›πš.

First of all, my friend is 78 years old and knew that she had never done any of this. Secondly, she is not the kind of person who would give in to blackmail, even if she had. I said when she shared it, "Ooooh, I can hardly wait for the pictures!" So we had a good laugh, she ignored it, and no pictures have yet been received.

I've never gotten one of these, but I have gotten messages and e-mails saying, "Is this you in this video?" With a funky internet address to click. I am not enough of a fool to click on them (even if the name they're using apparently is someone I know), because I haven't been out in public for what seems like years, and actually, I don't care. I have gotten over the need to look at myself beyond keeping myself clean and neat. As the Duke of Wellington said, "Publish and be damned."

Blackmail only works if the victim cares.

The Nigerian Prince scam was always one of my favorites, and I kind of miss the e-mails. The blatant misspellings, the extreme amount of money promised, and all for a limited deal, because they heard that I was a kind, loving person who would understand… Little do they know.

bitcoin cryptocurrency
bitcoin cryptocurrency
Back before the internet ruled the world, my husband answered a call that was a live person, who started off saying, "Do you want to be a millionaire?" Allan, bless him, instantly answered, "No," and hung up.

Amway.

Ponzi schemes.

I mean, you know it's too good to be true, but maybe this time for you…

From Somerset Maugham's The Round Dozen, whose central character is an eleven-time bigamist who took all his wives' savings before leaving for the next:

"But there is one thing I should like you to tell me," I said. "I shouldn't like you to think me cynical, but I had a notion that women on the whole take the maxim, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive,' as applicable exclusively to our sex. How did you persuade these respectable, and no doubt thrifty, women to entrust you so confidently with all their savings?"

An amused smile spread over his undistinguished features.

"Well, sir, you know what Shakespeare said about ambition o'erleaping itself. That's the explanation. Tell a woman you'll double her capital in six months if she'll give it you to handle and she won't be able to give you the money quick enough. Greed, that's what it is. Just greed."

Scams generally only work if the mark is greedy. And/or needy.

That's why people fall for cons (generally on-line) who swear they love them with all their hearts and would do anything for them and they're going to be so wonderful together and meantime they need just a little money to:
  • pay for a plane ticket or other travel expenses.
  • pay for surgery or other medical expenses.
  • pay customs fees to retrieve something.
  • pay off gambling debts.
  • pay for a visa or other official travel documents. (FTC)
They must write some sweet texts / emails, because they get sent money. Lots of it.

And think about the endless fundraising that various televangelists do, from Reverend Ike of Atlanta ("Send me your money today") to Joel Osteen with his megachurch (not open during hurricanes) to Ken Copeland, Pat Robertson, and the late, great Oral Roberts. I'll never forget when Oral Roberts announced that God had told him he had to raise a million dollars by next week or He would "take him" - I turned to Allan and said, "I want an autopsy."

bitcoin
bitcoin cryptocurrency
BTW, get on a politician's list for fundraising and you may never get off of it - even if they're no longer in office. After all, a certain soon to be ex-president has had a massive on-line campaign going for years to finance his… well, you tell me. People give and give and give to the guy who says we just need $500 more, even though they know they're clearing out their life's savings.

Most cult members are extremely needy – whether it's for community, love, discipline, punishment, a cult can provide everything the victim needs. For a very long time. And even when the rewards decline to nothing, the true cult member still stays, because they can't imagine leaving anymore. They've sacrificed everything - they can't go back now.

Jerry Seinfeld once said – and you can see it on Comedians in Cars with George Wallace – in a casino, in front of the audience, "When I make money at something, I keep doing it. When I start losing money at something, I quit doing it." And proceeded to explain to them all how they were supporting the luxurious casino with their money, i.e., by losing. Which was absolutely true. And yet they all laughed…

Basically, the key is all in the victim. Cons and blackmailers have to figure out who will pony up the money, and why. And they are very good at it.

And that, my friends, is the explanation. If you know your weakness, you can beat the blackmailer and the scammer. But if they know your weakness and you don't - well, you're screwed.


* So are casinos and advertisers. There's a reason all the casinos went to video lottery – it's designed to be addictive. See Here And why cigarettes were designed the way they are.

13 January 2021

Soundtracks


I was thirteen, if memory serves, when my dad bought me a record player, and bought me some LP’s to go with it. Dave Brubeck’s Jazz Impressions of Eurasia, Benny Goodman with the Boston Symphony (Benny playing classical), and Dvorak’s New World.

I wonder about his choices, but the Brubeck’s stayed with me sixty years. I don’t think I would have appreciated Shelly Manne or the other West Coast guys without it, or Henry Mancini. The theme from Peter Gunn got a lot of airplay, dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-da-DUM-da-dum, but the score I went nuts for was Mr. Lucky. And that organ, backed up with big-band arrangements, led me straight to Jimmy Smith. Walk on the Wide Side, charts by Oliver Nelson, was huge. I’m guessing the biggest R&B hit on AM radio after What’d I Say?



I’m skipping through some of the personal chart-toppers, of course. Coltrane’s My Favorite Things and OlΓ©, with McCoy Tyner’s amazing left hand. I spent a couple of years in Europe, in the military, and there was no shortage of great live jazz, but I’m thinking more of the albums we listened to, and what was on the jukebox. Does anybody else here remember the Electric Prunes, or Mass in F Minor? That was when Dylan released Blonde on Blonde, but the single most evocative song of the era was A Whiter Shade of Pale, which then and now, is an anthem for Berlin.




I spent the 1970’s in a haze of Van Morrison, and I don’t regret it. Tupelo Honey, Saint Dominic’s Preview, Hard Nose the Highway, Veedon Fleece. (I can listen to “Tupelo Honey” or “Snow in San Anselmo,” and conjure up the very place I was. “Linden Arden,” “Streets of Arklow,” and “You Don’t Pull No Punches,” as a suite; it never gets old.)

I don’t know that I’ve quite embraced the more recent. I love Sarah McLachlan. I wonder how much of that is due to Joni Mitchell’s Blue, or Hejira. Bonnie Raitt. Maria Muldaur. It isn’t that the new music isn’t any good, or it’s derivative, but I think a certain template is set. You listen to Ray LaMontagne, and you hear Jackson Browne, or even, God help us, Dave Van Ronk. (Boy, that was an anthem, the summer I was seventeen, driving a load of mattresses from Rochester up to a friend’s family cottage in southern Ontario and getting wired on bathtub benzedrine a lab rat pal of Phill Gleason’s cooked up.)


Probably, a subset of the above. We associate the music very specifically. It’s apparently second only to our sense of smell, as a trigger, of memory, of emotion, and of deeper psychic energies. Is it regret? I can’t listen to James Taylor and “Sweet Baby James” without tearing up. It wrecked me the first time I heard it. So there.


Yes, it’s association. And it conjures up youth. But we suspect something larger. I think the playlist is a lot more than background music. I don’t think it’s accidental, or incidental, however much is left to chance. Something gets our feet tapping. We might not consciously choose the score, but it’s got a good beat, and you can dance to it.

12 January 2021

Rolling With It: 2020 in Review


In “The End is Near,” my year-end wrap-up for 2019, I noted, “I ended my review of 2018 with a note that ‘2019 will be the year I just roll with it. I’ll try to take advantage of every opportunity that comes my way and see what happens.’

Includes my story
Final Reunion”
“That worked out well, so I’m going to approach 2020 the same way. A year from now I’ll let you know how it worked out.”

As it turns out, “rolling with it” was the only way to approach 2020. The pandemic threw a monkey wrench into every plan I had or might have considered making. Though Temple and I fared better than many others, my annual income dropped by several thousand dollars. Luckily, her income remained constant, and the money we saved from the cancellation of Malice Domestic and Bouchercon’s conversion to a virtual conference, combined with some belt-tightening, allowed us to end the year no worse off financially than when it started. So, even though we missed spending time with our friends in the writing community, we survived.

NEW WRITING

I previously wrote about the significant increase in my editing workload during 2020 (“Once More, With Feeling”), so I’ll concentrate on how my writing fared this past year.

I completed 104,196 words of new fiction (up from 67,200 in 2019). That’s 26 new stories (up from 14 the previous year), with an average length of 4,008 words.

The shortest was 136 words; the longest 15,000.

The 15,000-word story was the longest solo project I’ve written in decades.

ACCEPTED, PUBLISHED, AND RECOGNIZED

I received 37 acceptances (25 original stories; 12 reprints), up from 16 in 2019. Being an editor has its advantages because four of the year’s acceptances were for projects I’m editing or co-editing.

I saw 38 stories published (18 originals and 20 reprints).

My story “Love, Or Something Like It,” published the previous year in Barb Goffman’s Anthony Award-nominated anthology Crime Travel (Wildside Press), was short-listed for a Derringer Award and “The Town Where Money Grew On Trees,” published November 5, 2019, in Rusty Barnes’s Tough was selected as an “Other Distinguished Story of 2019” in The Best American Mystery Stories. Additionally, my stories “Dirty Laundry” (Tough, April 20, 2020) and “Woodstock” (Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, November/December 2020) made Robert Lopresti’s “best mystery story [...] read this week” at Little Big Crimes.

REJECTIONS

I once wrote that any year in which acceptances outnumber rejections is a good year, but is a year in which rejections outnumber acceptances necessarily a bad year? It might mean I’m doing a poor job of targeting my submissions or, on the flip side, it might mean I’m stretching myself by targeting new markets or by submitting more to high-end markets.

Regardless, even though it felt as if I received more rejections that I did, I actually received more acceptances than rejections.

I received 23 rejections.

LOOKING AHEAD

I have stories forthcoming in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Bullets and Other Hurting Things, Close to the Bone, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Great Filling Station Holdup, Guns + Tacos (Season 3), Jukes & Tonks, Malice Domestic 16: Mystery Most Diabolical, Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir Vol. 2, Mystery Tribune, Only the Good Die Young, and Unnerving.




There’s a taco truck in Chicago known among a certain segment of the population for its daily specials. Late at night and during the wee hours of the morning, it isn’t the food selection that attracts customers, it's the illegal weapons available with the special order.

Season 2 of Guns + Tacos (released as stand-alone novellas during the last six months of 2020) was released as a pair of paperbacks on January 1, joining the Season 1 paperbacks released at the beginning of 2020. Each novella stands alone, so they can be read in any order, and subscribers to the series get a bonus story at the end of each season.

Vol. 1 features novellas by Gary Phillips, me, and Frank Zafiro

Vol. 2 features novellas by Trey R. Barker, William Dylan Powell, and James A. Hearn (Subscribers get a bonus story I wrote)

Vol. 3 features novellas by Eric Beetner, Trey R. Barker & me, and Alec Cizak

Vol. 4 features novellas by Ann Aptaker, Ryan Sayles, and Mark Troy (Subscribers get a bonus story Trey R. Barker wrote)

Order directly from Down & Out Books or from your favorite book retailer.

11 January 2021

When An Explorer Is Not Equipped With A Vocabulary


 

Quadrant. Check.
Charts. Check.
Quills and ink. Check.

Before setting sail on his voyage of discovery in 1492, Columbus had to make sure he and his ships were well equipped.

EVA suit. Check.
Pistol grip tool. Check.
Safety tethers. Check.

As you can see, the equipment of a 21st-century astronaut differed greatly from that of a 15th- century navigator. But the purpose of explorers across history is always the same: not only to go out and see, but to report back to the rest of us who can't go and see for themselves.

I found a list of the "ten best" real-life adventure books, nominated by a panel of explorers, in esquire.com. The five written by the explorers themselves were:
The Kon-Tiki Expedition (1950) by Thor Heyerdahl
The Worst Journey in the World (1922) by Apsley Cherry-Garrard
Lost In the Jungle (2005) by Yossi Ghinsberg
Touching the Void (1988) by Joe Simpson
Into the Heart of Borneo (1987) by Redmond O'Hanlon

And how about literary figures like the 19th-century explorer Sir Richard Francis Burton? This fascinating man was a soldier, a diplomat, a spy, a translator of the classic Indian and Arabian erotic texts, and more, tarnished only by anti-Semitic beliefs. (Honestly, Sir Richard!) Isabella Bird, the first woman admitted to the Royal Geographical Society? T.E. Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, not an explorer but an articulate participant in a culture not his own? In fact, a vast body of travel literature appeared in the 19th century, when exploring became a fever and publishing one's journals and observations a goal for those who made it back. Since then, we've been able to read all about the world beyond our own experience.

But what about explorers who have no gift for describing what they see? What use are their travels to the rest of us?

This is not merely a modern problem.

Samuel Eliot Morison, the hallowed biographer of Columbus, won a Pulitzer for Admiral of the Ocean Sea. Morison, who replicated all the Admiral's voyages in his own sailboat, raves about Columbus's skill as a navigator and creator of charts a modern sailor could still use. Morison doesn't mind that Columbus was no naturalist nor complain that there was no naturalist aboard to describe the abundance of unfamiliar flora and fauna the Europeans saw.

But Kirkpatrick Sale, in Christopher Columbus and the Conquest of Paradise, complains: "To convey the lush density and stately grandeur of those tropical forests, he had little more than the modifiers 'green' and 'very.'" He goes on to quote from the Admiral's journals and letters back to Spain in late 1492: "'very green trees,' 'trees very green,' 'trees so green and with leaves like those of Castile,' 'large groves very green,' 'trees beautiful and green'..."; as well as his inarticulate expression of diversity: "'trees of a thousand kinds,' 'a thousand sorts of trees,' 'trees different from ours,' 'trees of a thousand kinds'...".

It wasn't only Columbus. Sale quotes Oxford scholar J.H. Elliott as saying that in general, "'the physical appearance of the New World is either totally ignored or else described in the flattest and most conventional phraseology [by 16th-century European explorers].'" Sale says: "This lack of interest was reflected in the lack of vocabulary, the lack of that facility common to nature-based peoples whose cultures are steeped in nature imagery."

It makes perfect sense, right? But it wouldn't happen now, we think. Twenty-first century exploration, whether to the few wild places left on Planet Earth or into space, has or will have all sorts of experts and the equipment to measure minutely and report accurately what they observe.

But who will receive this information? Our spacegoing scientists report the details to NASA, which, depending on the details, usually means the government and/or the military. The rest of us get the media-grabbing highlights. And what are those, these days?

In 1969, when Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, we got a few words to inspire:
"One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind."

On May 12, 2017, the way I heard it, when astronaut Jack Fisher was asked for his impression of space on his first spacewalk, he said, "It was awesomesauce."

When I checked, it turned out what he actually replied to, "What's it like?" was "A ginormous fondue pot, bubbling over with piping hot awesomesauce.” Let that be a lesson to me and all you writers out there. Always check your sources! But that's beside the point.

If all we, the people, learn from our explorers is that what's out there is "green" or "awesomesauce," will exploration eventually be deemed not worth the effort? More likely, our culture will conclude that since pictures do the job and words do not, words have no value whatsoever.

We don't want that, do we?

Liz's Jewish historical adventure novel, Voyage of Strangers, offers an alternative perspective on Columbus's explorations. The sequel is Journey of Strangers, set partly in SΓ£o TomΓ© off the coast of West Africa and partly in the Ottoman Empire.

10 January 2021

B2020 and A2020: How 2020 has influenced what we want to read and what we will write.


As we are bombarded with news of COVID-19 deaths, the rising unemployment and the latest attack on Capital Hill - many of us wonder how this can happen and why do some people not care?

More and more we are hearing stories from the frontline, from the unemployment line, from lines at food-banks and, from homes where seniors live. We are hearing about policies that thoughtlessly harm others and we ask - didn’t they even think about these people’s lives?

After living through 2020 – and face it, 2020 might just be a prologue to the book  “The Horrors of 2021” - we will never be the same and I suspect that what we want to read is forever changed. 

Literature changes because readers change. 

When I was a child, I would often rummage through my father’s extensive library. I remember some old books, where the room would be meticulously described, from the sun dappled curtains to the chair with slightly worn arms. These descriptions would often be a page long. I remember wondering if I was simply less observant than most people or if these descriptions were simply overdone. Being a curious child, I watched my friends and family carefully. I decided that none of them spent enough time observing to be able to write a page of details and that the people in these books had a different life, were different people or the author just made up stuff. I would still read some of those books but with a stern skim over the sun dappled this, the intricate patterns of that and any other such useless info. 

There are many takes on the immense suffering we have seen in 2020, but I suspect many readers will be drawn to different writers. Just as none of us have patience for a page long descriptions as characters enter a room, I believe we will have less patience for characters who wander the world doing things, noticing things but failing to empathize with people. Let’s face it, Sherlock Holmes was delightful, but who is going to write a book today where the characters notice the hair, that came from a rare species of cat, owned by only two families in the city, coupled with a smudge of brown dust from a particular type of stone, found in the statues of lions that sit by the doorway of one of those families? Yep. No one. Most of us read it, but we don’t write like that anymore. 

I think that many readers who have lived through this year - and the worse year that is coming - will demand characters with empathy. Not sympathy, but empathy. 

The definition of empathy is: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

This stands in contrast to sympathy defined as: sympathy implies sharing (or having the capacity to share) the feelings of another, while empathy tends to be used to mean imagining, or having the capacity to imagine, feelings that one does not actually have.

If 2020 has made many of us yearn for anything, it is for people who have empathy and can imagine and feel what someone else is feeling - without having to be explicitly told and without having to have felt it themselves. Why? Because we are not all 90-year-old women, living alone in a care home, unable to see anyone. We are not all a single mother, with children to feed but with no money to feed them after we lost our job. We are not all ICU doctors, struggling to cope with losing patient after patient nor are we those who have to transport body after body to refrigerated trucks. We are not any of these people but we want someone, any one, to care about these people and tell us about them. 

What about sympathy – understanding the feelings that we actually have? This feels a little self-centred and, these days more than ever, the self-centred are at best unpopular and at worst, the villains of 2020: from anti-maskers to those who care only about staying in power.

I suspect many of us, who read voraciously,  and who have lived through this time , will want books with more characters who understand and feel what others are feeling and put us in their shoes. Detective novels highlighting not merely action but also empathy might become much more popular. I suspect this is true for all types of writing, from news stories to medical writing. I suspect we might have had our fill of self-centred characters, and I also suspect that they will often be cast as villains because, goodness knows, it feels ugly now. I have found that news stories, articles and - one could argue - political choices seem to already incorporate empathy more than before this dreadful year.

One could argue that good writing has always put us in the shoes of others, immersing us in their worlds. Somewhat true - but it is about the weight one gives to certain things. Do we devote pages to describe a room when a character enters it? Not anymore. So writing may have many elements in common but weight given differs. Weighting empathy heavily would change what we read. 

This may just be my new perspective but I doubt it. However, from a personal point of view, I am eager to read the new types of articles, books and characters born from 2020. I also look forward to new ways of telling the news, writing medical articles - any type of writing that tries to reach people who have lived this terrible year and await, with some trepidation, the unveiling of 2021. 

Whatever happens with various forms of writing, I believe that there will be fundamental changes in what writers write and readers read because we will never be the same after 2020.

09 January 2021

Nashville Strong


Years from now, when the good movie versions and bad movie versions are made, when the true crime shows have examined witnesses and motives, we’ll have a fuller picture of Nashville’s Christmas Day bombing. As your man in Nashville, I’ll reflect on the incident now. I think I should.

credit: © Forbes.com

No apartment residents died, no cops or other first responders. The injured will heal. That’s a blessing. The bomber died, and I don’t cheer that. I don’t cheer what haunts anyone struggling with behavioral health issues. But I won’t be working up unconditional sympathy for bombers any time soon.

Full disclosure: I live in Franklin, twenty-ish minutes south with no traffic. I was nowhere near the explosion. You’ll hear people say they heard it a county away. They didn’t. I didn’t. Not one friend who lives downtown suffered more than a boom and a scare. No damage to me or mine. Nashville's damage, though, is real. It could’ve been horrific.

Early news reports called the bombing site “a residential block off downtown” or “on the fringe of the entertainment district.” The hell it is. Second Avenue--Market Street before 1904--has always been at Nashville’s core. That Cumberland riverport vibe still hangs in the air. The old warehouses and trader shops are today’s clubs and restaurants and tourist traps stores. At a peak time, hundreds of people would’ve jammed that block. If this stretch is “quiet,” as the national news said, it’s because just to the south begins Lower Broadway’s Nashvegas honky tonks lately of the boom years.

We’ve seen what truck bombs can do, as with Oklahoma City. That was what we locals talked and texted about in those first few days. Why pick a block largely shuttered for the pandemic? On a holiday at the least crowded time possible? Why blare that weird recording to force cop attention and an evacuation? If you really wanted to avoid casualties, why not go another block north? It’s mostly parking.

As I write this, we still have only a sketch what the bomber wanted. Politics, of its warped kind. In letters mailed shortly before his suicide, the bomber raved conspiracy theories and crackpot ideas about lizard people and aliens taking over Earth. He’d even been fingered as big trouble brewing by his then-girlfriend, though the FBI and local law enforcement missed the signals.

His possible target feels a little clearer. That block has a hidden something special. You wouldn’t even notice the telecom hub if you walked past. Its tasteful brick is well-designed camouflage against the nightspots across the street. Nashville tip, y’all: Honky tonks are loud, inside and out.

Wait, you say, Nashville has a major telecom hub smack in your commercial district?

Let’s rewind to those riverport days. Nashville’s importance was real– ask the Union Army and many a railroad baron– but as a regional transport crossroads and state capital. This place was no one’s metropolis. For proof: You don’t find many Nashvillians of a certain age who were actually born in Nashville. In 1950, the MSA notched 322,000 folks. Any day now, Nashville passes 2,000,000 souls. When you boom like that, a lot of things are stuck where they used to be, including infrastructure. Where could you move them when the center city is piling up with gentrified housing?

It was weird in that aftermath. Frustrating. Much cell service was out for days. People couldn’t get a hold of each other. They couldn’t call 911. Air traffic was grounded. Residents for blocks can't get into their homes, maybe ever. These old buildings could collapse. Friends mention bad dreams and psychological impact. That’s more than understandable. It’s natural. Second Avenue is a place many of us fight the bachelorette parties and conventioneers to take in riverfront concerts, or we embrace the throngs and relish some truly spectacular people-watching. We’ve eaten in those bombed-out restaurants. And where there’s one bomber, there could’ve been more bombs and the inevitable lame copycat.

credit: © WKRN.com

Nobody had a great 2020, and COVID-19 initially hit many regions much harder. Still, Nashville had us a year. In the bleak March days of the early shutdown, an EF-3 tornado ripped a swathe just north of downtown. The storm system leveled neighborhoods as it moved east. In May, a derecho made it double the wind damage and left an extended power outage. A few weeks later, those Nashvegas bars self-inflicted a wound by opening up too soon and with token enforcement of social distancing restrictions. A reckless house party of the super-entitled made national news. Then came the case spikes and hospitalizations, and those boot-scootin’ bars ended up with a black eye and deeper money hole. Folks who work or gig in those bars are getting crushed financially.

Then a downtown bomb on Christmas morning.

But Nashville is already stronger for it. That’s been true everywhere a bomb goes off. The fever-dreamed among us get so caught up in their own noise that they lose a simple fact: The world is full of good people. Resilient people. Years from now, that’s what the best movie versions will show: We won what they started. We pushed forward just fine.

08 January 2021

Sherlock Holmes: Brilliant on Paper


Fate or William S. Baring-Gould hath decreed that the January of every year must be devoted to the pursuit of Sherlockiana. So maybe it’s worth sharing that I made the acquaintance of Mr. Sherlock Holmes sometime in the mid-1970s, when he appeared under the tree one Christmas, dolled up in cheap wrapping paper. He resided in a curious boxed set containing six paperback volumes that probably set Santa back $7.50.

To be honest, I had tried to make sense of Holmes when I was even younger, paging through a heavy hardcover I’d found in my school library. I didn’t enjoy my first rodeo with the gentleman from Baker Street. Back then, I was under the sweet impression that one read books by starting at page one, and proceeding thenceforth until you reached the final page. Page 1 of that musty, water-stained hardcover meant starting with A Study in Scarlet, the first Holmes novel. Critical to the canon, to be sure, but probably not the best jumping-off point for a fourth grader. Bored and overwhelmed, I returned the book to the library and promptly forgot about Holmes.

But years later, I was older and had begun consuming Ellery Queen novels like they were bags of potato chips. It helped that the covers of the Holmes paperbacks were enticingly illustrated by an artist identified only as ANDERSON. The Holmes in these images was a pale, hatchet-faced genius. But if I had started at A Study in Scarlet again, I probably would have given that genius a pass for the second time. I was saved by the mostly unlikely component of a book that a kid would ever care about: the introduction.


Each of these books bore a short intro by a famous mystery writer. Ed McBain, for example, introduces A Study in Scarlet by pointing out how often in this maiden adventure Holmes (that is to say, Doyle) mocks policemen and police work. McBain hilariously describes what would happen if the men of the 87th Precinct took Holmes in for questioning, and charged him with defamation.



Joe Gores, who introduces The Memoirs and who spent a dozen years as a real-life private investigator, lovingly pokes holes in Holmes’s skills as a private consulting detective.



P.G. Wodehouse, who made a career out of skewering the British upper crust, theorizes in his introduction to The Sign of the Four that Holmes must have deep pockets since no one ever seems to pay him very much to solve their little problems. Wodehouse riffs on this for a while before revealing his theory about the source of Holme’s filthy lucre: Holmes was in fact Moriarty all along!



All great stuff, by great writers, but it was all lost on me, because in 1975, I had yet to enter the squad room at the 87th precinct. I knew nothing of Jeeves and Bertie. I sure as heck had not read a single adventure of The Executioner (author Don Pendleton intro’d The Hound of the Baskervilles), nor The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (written by Nicholas Meyer, who introduced The Return…).




No. The only introduction that caught my eye was the one opening The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. It was a now-famous essay by Frederic Dannay in which he tells how a loving aunt presented him with a library copy of The Adventures to pass the time when he was a bedridden with an ear infection. I had no idea that I was reading the words of one-half of Ellery Queen. I was utterly clueless about the nature of their authorship. The name on the cover of the book said Ellery Queen, and in my ears I heard the voice of the late actor Jim Hutton:

I opened the book with no realization that I stood—rather, I sat—on the brink of my fate. I had no inkling, no premonition, that in another minute my life’s work would be born…

***

I started on the first page of “A Scandal in Bohemia” and truly the game was afoot. The unbearable pain in my ear…vanished! The abyss of melancholy into with a twelve-year-old can sink…forgotten!
The rest, of course, was history. “Ellery” reads the book in a single night, wakes the next morning, drags himself to the library with a throbbing ear, and begs a librarian to let him have more Holmes, even though he does not yet have a library card. He leaves with The Memoirs, A Study in Scarlet, and The Hound, and devours them each in turn. Well, this was promising, I thought, diving into the very first adventure myself.

I enjoyed that fogbound world a good deal, perhaps not as much as the young Dannay. I just didn’t grasp a lot of the finer plot points. Some of the endings struck me as ambiguous, as if the world’s adults had conspired to leave kids in the dark at every turn. Even today I don’t think the Holmes stories make ideal reading for kids. (A future column on this assertion is in the works.)

But still, I treasured that little boxed set and its colorful covers. It never occurred to me until years later that I had not read every single Holmes adventure. For some reason, probably having to do with cost, Ballantine had omitted three further books—The Valley of Fear, His Last Bow, and The Case-Book—from the set. I didn’t discover them until college, and it was a delight to find that the hansom cab had kindly consented to stop for me one more time. This time around, I understood the nuances of Holmes’s world far better. I loved the prickly old coot.

My childhood boxed set was lost during one of my moves, and I had to wait for the Internet and online bookselling to be invented before I could be reunited with another version of them. This set lives face out on the top of my living room bookshelves. All I have to do is glance up to see Holmes sneering down at me. “You will not abandon me again,” he seems to be saying, and I swear that I shan’t, ever.

* * * 

By the way: Years ago I acquired Baring-Gould's Annotated Holmes and, slavishly, the newer annotation by Leslie S. Klinger—though I have to admit that they are more suitable for bench-pressing workouts than long nights reading in front of the fire, all the while cutting off circulation to your femoral arteries.

However, by far the best ebook version of the Holmes canon I’ve found is the one published by Top-Five Books, which includes all the stories and all the illustrations that appeared when the stories were first published. Check it out here.

See you in three weeks!


In these pandemic times, two of the three volumes in my Annotated Sherlock Holmes (Klinger edition) serve as Denise's laptop stand in her Zoom corner (seen through her ring light).




07 January 2021

A Day We'll Not Soon Forget (Plus New Year's Resolutions)


 Phew. 

A reminder and a marker laid down for our future

Let me take a breath.

What a day.

Lucky me, getting my turn in the rotation on the day after armed insurrectionists mobbed our national capitol.

And here I was going to talk about New Year's resolutions.

Well, if the past few years have taught me anything, it's that flexibility is a big part of a life well-lived. So let's be flexible.

Like many of our readers, I have been eager to put 2020 behind me and embrace a new year, one with the promise of vaccination against this horrendous, never-ending pandemic, a restoration of some semblance of "normality" to our daily lives.

As part of this enthusiasm for a change, I made the New Years' resolutions I intended to share in today's blog post. Mine are pretty basic:

1. Sleep more (at least eight hours per night).

2. Eat better.

3. Cut out diet soda.

4. Exercise more.

(And a week in, so far, so good.)

That's it. No writing resolutions. As I laid out in my Christmas Eve post two weeks ago, I had a host of 2020 writing resolutions, and I knocked them out of the park. Overwhelmingly successful on that front, with the single exception of finishing my current novel. But that's going to get done this year. No resolution, just a statement of fact, because I cleared all of my other existing writing projects and published a three novella collection in November!

And, because I am both a student and a teacher of history, I would like to take a moment and briefly address what took place in the U.S. Capitol today.

Let me begin to saying how utterly horrified I was to serve as a remote witness to the violence visited upon our capitol and our republic today. There is no getting around the facts: a mob, whipped into a frenzy by our current president, marched to the Capitol and interrupted Congress' confirmation count of the 2020 election results. They chased the Congress into lockdown. They took selfies all over the Capitol (and published them on social media. Evidence much?). They smashed. They stole. They burned. They dropped at least two explosive devices in their wake. Four people lost their lives.

For some context, the Capitol has been the scene of violence a number of times before. The British burned it in August of 1814

In May of 1856 a South Carolina congressman named Preston Brooks entered the Senate Chamber, and
broke his cane beating the stuffing out of New England anti-slavery firebrand senator Charles Sumner
. Brooks insisted he was defending the honor of his kinsman, a South Carolina senator Sumner had just insulted in a speech on the Senate floor. Brooks was censured in the House, resigned, and was reelected to his open seat in the House. Members of Congress went to the Capitol heavily armed for months afterward. The incident was just one more step on the road to the Civil War. 

In March of 1954 a group of four Puerto Rican separatists opened fire in the House of Representatives and wounded five congressmen. They languished in jail for years before being paroled in the late 1960s.

If I had to guess, I would say that the thugs who took pictures of themselves sitting in places like Speaker Pelosi's office today, who looted the Capitol, who shattered windows and broke down doors, and left their trash heaped in their wake are far more likely to come suffer a consequence similar to the one suffered by those Puerto Rican separatists (arrest, prosecution and imprisonment) than the lack of them Preston Brooks experienced. They're already being tracked and identified on Twitter.

So while I am disgusted and horrified by the events of today, I remain hopeful for the future. Congress certified the Electoral College results this evening after a five hours delay. We bounce back. And we have gotten through worse.

Like that time at his inauguration afterparty when Andrew Jackson had the Executive Mansion staff set up bowls of (alcoholic) punch on the White House lawn to lure the thousands of trespassers who had just completed trashed the "People's House," celebrating his inauguration.

So finally (Remember this number!): See you in two weeks!