24 November 2020

So Many Murder Methods, So Little Time

How can I kill you? Let me count the ways.

Last month, I was on a Bouchercon panel titled What's A Weapon: Choosing Ways to Murder. We had a fun hour-long discussion of inventive ways to commit murder. You can watch it here. Knowing that my memory often isn't great, before the panel I made a list of all the murder methods I've used in my published short stories, as well as how many times I've killed someone that way. I read the list during the panel, omitting guns, knives, and poisons, because we'd been told the panel's focus was supposed to be unusual methods of murder. Guns, knives, and poisons were all been-there-done-that. But I like the usual methods, so here's my list, including guns, knives, and poisons (oh my!).

My preferred ways to kill (or at least go down trying)

Poison: Six times

Causing a fatal allergic reaction: Five times

Shoving/Tripping down the stairs/hill: Four times

Strangulation: Four times (three with your hands, once with twinkle lights)

Shooting: Three times

Hitting with a car: Three times 

Stabbing: Twice

Bashing with a rock: Once

Bashing with a shovel: Once

Carbon monoxide poisoning: Once

Chimney asphyxiation: Once*

Getting eaten by an alligator:  Once

Overdose of medication: Once 

* I would never kill Santa. Well, probably not. But it was a good illustration for chimney asphyxiation.


They say that poison is a woman's game. For me, at least, that seems to be true. It's my go-to method. It doesn't require brute force, just the sneakiness and will to do it and the patience to wait for it to work. I have all of those qualities in abundance. I mean, my characters do.

Trying to get someone to die from an allergic reaction is similar to killing via poison, since for the victim, the food or medicine would have a similar affect to poisoning. But while you could use a particular poison to kill anyone, killing via allergic reaction requires knowledge of the victim's allergy and how that allergic reaction could play out. Therefore, it requires more due diligence on the part of the killer. As such, I put it in its own category. You might categorize your murder methods differently, of course. I welcome your thoughts in the comments. Your local police department does as well.

Killing someone by shoving them down the stairs or accidentally tripping them is a wonderful method because it could be viewed as an accidental death. Of course, in fiction people probably die from falls much more often than happens in real life. In the real world, a person tumbling down a staircase might merely break a few bones and the would-be-murderer has to try again. So if you want to kill this way, make sure you have it in you to be persistent, because you very well may have to be.

Of course, some murders can't be planned. You have to take your opportunities when they come. So if you're lucky enough to have your stalker try to sneak into your house through your chimney and he gets stuck (look it up--people, burglars especially, get stuck in chimneys a lot), you could simply light a fire and wait for karma to play out. "I'm so sorry, officer. I had no idea someone was in the chimney. I was just cold." And sorry, I don't mean to make light of stalking. Funny how making light of murder doesn't bother me, but making light of stalking gives me pause.

Strangulation is another method of the would-be killer who's caught with an unexpected opportunity. You may not have a gun or knife on you when you find your evil mother-in-law alone, and she might not be loitering at the top of a staircase just waiting for you. But you always have your hands on you (I hope). Hands are so handy that way. (I know, that was terrible.) If you get the chance to strangle someone and you have a fun thing to do it with at your disposal--such as twinkle lights--I urge you to make use of it. Readers do want to be entertained.

Some murder methods only happen in Florida. When I was a newspaper reporter back in the '90s, you often would hear about weird news stories that came over the wire. Inevitably, 99 percent of the time, they happened in Florida. It was such a regular occurrence that I bet you could tell any person who's worked in the media about a weird news story, and the automatic response would be, "Florida, right?" So when I wrote a story for the 2018 Bouchercon anthology Florida Happens, I came up with what I thought was a quintessential Florida murder method: a man tries to train an alligator that lives in the lake behind their house to eat his wife. And like murder via twinkle lights, it was fun to write. (Hmmm. That Florida story also involved pushing the wife down the hill toward the alligator. I didn't include that in my list--pushing someone down a hill. It needs updating. ... Done.)

I have some more fun methods of murder coming up in stories not yet published. But I don't want to ruin the surprise, so you'll have to wait. 

In the meanwhile, I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and that you don't murder anyone in your family. As much as you might be tempted, murder really is best left for fiction.

23 November 2020

Fixing The Wheel

 by Steve Liskow

America has a long tradition of belittling teachers and education. Washington Irving may have started with Ichabod Crane in "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow," but it has continued unabated.

The closest I remember to a real depiction was the 80s film Teachers with Nick Nolte, and that featured a brilliant substitute who had escaped from a mental hospital. That message was underlined in the film's closing dialogue.

Now, in Jill Biden, we have a champion of education in the White House instead of Betsy DeVos, who expanded the leaks in a sinking ship. The American public school system began its decline decades ago. It became apparent under Reagan when A Nation At Risk was released, but I'm sure my own teachers despaired about how much dumber their new students were, and I will be the first to admit there are many subjects I should know much more about. I looked at a New York Regent's exam from 1920 recently, and I could answer three questions. That was the high school standard a century ago. 

What can we do about it? I've argued the topic with other teachers and normal people for at least 30 years, changing my ideas as I see problems and shortcomings, and I still get more blowback than hugs. But here is my comprehensive plan. Remember, I am addressing ONLY public education. I know some of it would cause other problems, but that's OK. Government exists because it can handle complex programs and address issues private enterprise can't encompass. 

We wouldn't know if these ideas work for at least a decade, and that's a problem in itself. As a culture, we worship the Quick Fix. Some things take time, though, or we would have found a cure for cancer, solved world hunger, and obviated climate change long ago. Political ideology is a major hindrance, and I have no answer for that, even though it would certainly rear its ugly head in this project. OK, enough disclaimers. Now brace yourself.

ELIMINATE ALL STANDARDIZED TESTS. There are organizations (Tutoring scams and test prep shills) with a huge stake in kids failing, and all the money we spend there could be used for pre-school or reading readiness classes, teacher training and hiring, equipment, and infrastructure. If a million students take the SAT every year, there's 60 or 70 million dollars right there. How many teachers or books or buildings is that? More teachers can mean smaller classes. Besides, a good teacher can tell you if your kid can read, write, count, or handle other material at the appropriate level without those tests anyway. A teacher doesn't have to be a genius, but he or she does need to have common sense and understand the students.

WE NEED A NATIONAL CURRICULUM. I resisted that idea for years, but it's necessary. You'll see why in a minute. We would need teachers from all states and at all levels to cooperate in designing the program. It would make writing the Constitution look like a lunch break, but it's vital. Remember, we only need to get the first two or three years in place right away. We can tweak those and learn from them while we develop the rest, based on the latest knowledge and understanding of learning theory, child development, and the subjects themselves. The content must be factual. No, there was never an effing "War of Northern Aggression." Get over it.

WITH THE NATIONAL CURRICULUM, THERE IS ONLY ONE LEVEL OF DIFFICULTY. Honors, Advanced placement, college prep, general, commercial, etc. go by the wayside. Everyone studies the same material and skills and attains the same degree of proficiency or understanding. This means schools don't need to purchase four sets of books for each grade or subject, saving more money. I recommend a passing grade of 80% and there is no social promotion (Would you like to know that the surgeon operating on you got through med school with extra credit?). The student achieves the grade before advancing. Period. 

THE CURRICULUM. I admit, this is much more rigorous than I encountered, but there are tremendous gaps in my knowledge that I'm still beginning to recognize. There are still people who consider me smart, too.

LANGUAGE ARTS. Composition and literature, multi-cultural and diverse. Students must also be able to speak, read, and write fluently in at least one language besides English. Young children learn easily, so introduce a second language in kindergarten. In the U.S., I suggest Spanish or maybe French. Later, maybe an Asian language and an African language, too (Which mean learning different alphabets), with other languages optional. This also introduces different cultures, value systems, and ways of thinking. A subset of this topic is rhetoric and public speaking (debate?) and maybe journalism. The goal is to instill critical thinking skills and include fact-checking and research.

MATHEMATICS. Start with practical math like making change and advance at least through Trigonometry, preferably Calculus. My math background is a disgrace, and my weakness with algebra forced me to leave my pre-dentistry major for English because I could cope with words, but not numbers.

NATURAL SCIENCE. Biology, chemistry, geology, physics, astronomy, meteorology. Teach the scientific method and lots of lab time.

SOCIAL SCIENCE.  World history and American history from several perspectives (Maybe the expansion of the United States from the Native American and Spanish side?). Psychology, sociology, anthropology, civics, economics. Maybe the history should include popular entertainment in the other cultures. My history background is even worse than my math. And I made National Honors Society.


ART. Maybe a better name would be "Aesthetics." Both appreciation and hands-on, including painting, sculpture, and maybe film/video. Performance wouldn't require proficiency, but it will foster understanding and appreciation. Music (history, appreciation, performance on at least one instrument). Again, proficiency isn't vital, but it helps appreciation. Theater arts and drama.

PHYSICAL EDUCATION. Exercise and nutrition and healthy lifestyle. I assume school sports will exist, but with free college tuition (see below), there may be less emphasis on some kids getting into the "right" college for scholarship and turning professional later. Athletic scholarships will be unnecessary and free more funds for other concerns. 

HOME ECONOMICS. Cooking and nutrition and housekeeping skills for all genders. Maybe also sewing and tailoring? Even a guy should be able to iron and sew a button on his shirts and do laundry.

MANUAL ARTS. Carpentry, drafting, mechanics, etc. I'm not asking for a generation of skilled artisans, but everyone should be able to change a fuse or a flat tire. A woman I know makes extra money changing her neighbors' automotive oil and mounting their snow tires. 

THE STUDENT MUST GRADUATE.  There's nothing magic about the age of 16 or 18. A very gifted and motivated student might master all this material at 15. Someone else may be challenged and not finish until 25. It doesn't matter how long, only how well. A responsible citizen can make contributions to the society, and that means education. 

UNTIL A PERSON CAN PRODUCE A DIPLOMA, HE CAN NOT VOTE, DRIVE A CAR, OR GET WORKING PAPERS.  One of my friends suggested that he shouldn't be able to drink alcohol, either. The car and job are the carrot to keep the student working. There is a big reward at the end. It's called adulthood. The national curriculum means someone can't move to another state or town and get an easier school. Everyone leaves with the same skills and knowledge, but certainly with different strengths, interests, and weaknesses. Life will be easier for future employers, and students have more information to plan the rest of their lives. 

One drawback: There might be a criminal industry in forged diplomas, the equivalent of academic bootlegging. See? I even give you a new plot idea.

A STUDENT WITH A DIPLOMA FROM THIS CURRICULUM ATTENDS COLLEGE FREE. At least through a Baccalaureate degree. Students won't need the remedial work so many colleges are forced to offer today. That frees up more funds, and might mean fellowships or financial aid for graduate degrees or extra training.

Some students with a physical handicap or emotional/mental challenge may not be capable of mastering this curriculum. Their care and special needs should be taken care of until they reach adulthood. What happens next is a question government needs to address. It's beyond the scope of my plan, but it has to be acknowledged. 

If the students are all in school, jobs go to adults. When the students graduate, they are equipped to fill more jobs and have more choices.

Is this perfect? Of course not. It's idealistic and I've overlooked or omitted many issues and problems.  We can finance practical solutions if we really want to. I think it would take two or three years to develop the primary curriculum and to create reading lists. Use this system for 13 years or until a substantial number of people graduate with the new standards to determine how well it works and to shore up problems that we find. 

The definition of the school day and year are open to discussion, but it would be convenient if the entire country followed the same calendar. Remember, we aren't an agrarian society anymore that needs summers off so kids can help tend the crops. I'd like to see more flexible scheduling. Maybe five eleven-week sessions with students attending four of them. That's only one example. 

How badly do we want it?

22 November 2020

100 Words

Leigh Lundin

Both Sharon and ABA happened to send articles about old and little used words. That set off research into other candidates that might prove useful in historical stories and even insert playfulness or elocution (there’s a word not heard anymore) in ordinary writing.

Following is a random selection. A few, such as those beginning with ‘fiddle’, I wouldn’t miss outside an English cosy.

Worry not. I don’t expect you to look up each entry. If you hover your mouse over a word, you should see its meaning.

accouchement cordwainer gallivant pantywaist
affright coxcomb glabriety peregrinate
appetency cutpurse gobsmacked persnickety
avaunt d’accord gyve picaroon
balderdash davenport habiliment poppycock
baloney delate hoodwink ragamuffin
bamboozled discombobulated hotrod rapscallion
barnstormer disport hullabaloo rigmarole
bejeebers doohicky humbug shenanigans
beldam éclaircissement jalopy skedaddle
bijoux egads jargogle skewwhiff
bloomers facinorous kerfuffle sweeting
bodkin fainéant kibosh tenterhooks
brabble farthing knave thingamebob
britches feminal knickknack thingamyjig
bruit fiddle-dee-dee knucklehead thunderation
buttonhook fiddle-faddle lollygag tomfoolery
caterwauling fiddlesticks lurdan trigon
catawampus fizgig magdalen varlet
chesterfield flabbergasted malarkey whatchamacallit
churchkey flibberty-jibbit malapert whatsit
codger flim-flam moxie whosemegadget
concoction flummoxed nimrod willy-nilly
confuzzled frore nincompoop wishywashy
contumely fuddy-duddy numbskull yclept

The word ‘nimrod’ has lost its original Biblical meaning, that of a sharpshooter or an outstanding hunter. It’s now used as an insult. A young acquaintance succinctly explained, “a numnutz.”

Bonus Word: Izzard

You may know the letter Z as ‘zee’ or ‘zed’, but once upon a time as early as 1726, Z was called ‘izzard’.  Samuel Johnson featured the word izzard in his 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. The expression “A to izzard” means “from beginning to end.”

Bonus Word: Trumpery

Trumpery is defined as (adj) showy but worthless, attractive but of little value or use; delusive or shallow; (n) practices or beliefs superficially or visually appealing but of little real value or worth.

21 November 2020

The Same Old Story

How many of you have unfinished or unpublished stories (or novels) stashed away in a drawer or under the bed, or in a folder someplace on your hard drive? Most of us do, if we've been writing fiction for a while. Oddly enough, very few of mine are unfinished--when I think of an idea for a short story I usually go ahead and churn it out–but I certainly have plenty that are unpublished and unsubmitted. Alas, typing THE END doesn't always mean it's ready for prime time.

old manuscript

Most of those abandoned stories are those I wrote many years ago, when I was just getting started. Occasionally I dust them off and look them over, and sometimes I go back in and do a complete rewrite, until that story is what I consider to be submittable and battleworthy. I've done that several times, and so far I've always managed to sell them afterward.

One of those rewrites was on a never-submitted story called "Molly's Plan," written in the early '90s about a New Orleans bank robbery. A few years ago I rediscovered it, changed it in about a dozen ways but kept the same title, and sent it to Strand Magazine. They bought it, and it later wound up in Best American Mystery Stories, was reprinted in Russia's leading literary magazine, was selected for New York City's Subway Library project, etc. All this after sitting idle for more than twenty years as a stack of dot-matrix-printed pages in a box in the corner of my home office. A similar thing happened with another long-ago story originally called "Footprints," about a college student involved in a cheating operation. I rewrote the whole thing, retitled it "Calculus 1," which was the name of one of my first college courses, and sold it to the print edition of The Saturday Evening Post. That story will soon appear again in a bilingual collection of my SEP stories by a Moscow publishing house. Just call me Ivan.

My point here is that some of those early and forgotten manuscripts of mine had some promise and have been worth revisiting, but in their original state none of them were very good. Which was why I never sent them anyplace. Some things about them that were okay from the beginning, I thought, were in areas I've always been pretty comfortable with: premise, dialogue, hooks, endings, structure, etc. Most everything else about them was terrible.

What was it that made these stories so bad? Here are some of the things I found:

  • Too much repetition. Not just of words or phrases but of ideas and thoughts and plot elements. I probably wanted so badly to make everything clear to the reader, I kept saying the same things too often, in different ways.
  • Too many cliches. At the time I don't think I even realized they were cliches.
  • Too many pet words and phrases. My characters were way too fond of sighing, shrugging, turning, staring, nodding, taking deep breaths, etc. This probably belongs under "repetition," and some of it still shows up in my current creations.
  • Too much description. It took me a while to learn there's no need to describe in excruciating detail things like settings, items, or the way people look or dress. Unless it reveals something vital about either the plot or the character, writers should leave most of that to the reader's imagination.
  • Too much exposition. This is just as dangerous and tedious as the overuse of description– I just didn't know it at the time. Overwriting of any kind is bad, and especially when it involves technical details, which I also happily added to the stew now and then. I guess I figured it'd be a shame to waste all that stuff I had to listen to in engineering school.
  • Too many semicolons. All of them were grammatically correct, but I used them far too often. As I've said before at this blog, semicolons can make your writing appear stiff and formal even though that might not be your intention. I still use too many, but I'm cutting back. (Same goes for parentheses, ellipses . . . dashes--and especially exclamation points!)
  • Overuse of dialect. At first I thought anything that makes dialogue sound more "real" is a good thing. The truth is, using too many slang expressions and misspellings is not only lazy writing, it's annoying to the reader. You know what I mean.
  • POV problems. I found that I often made dumb decisions about viewpoint. I didn't know when to use only one, when to switch, how best to use third-person to heighten suspense, how much head-hopping is too much, and so forth. Basic things that I learned later, mostly by paying more attention when I read.

I'm not saying that's everything that was wrong with my early efforts, but those points come first to mind. I still have several stories (several dozen, actually) sitting out there that are unchanged and unsubmitted and gathering dust. On the one hand, I might take another swing at 'em, one of these days. On the other, I might treat them as training exercises and let them rest in peace.

Do you have some of these underachieving stories lying around in your office, or on your computer? Do you ever try to resurrect them? If so, were they later submitted, and published? Do you look back at some of your early published work and see problems there as well? Do you ever update those published stories a bit when you market them as reprints? What are some of the ways you feel you've improved, in your writing?

Before you ask me, No, not everything I publish is old. I've written 32 new stories so far this year, and I typed this column on Wednesday. Whether it's really finished is another matter--but I'm done with it.

Thanks for indulging me, and best to all of you. Keep turning out that good fiction!

20 November 2020

Little Cities of the Dead

When the French colonized New Orleans in 1718, they encountered immediate problems. One was the high water table (about 12 inches), so burying bodies in the ground was not a good idea, so they built above ground cemeteries. Not uncommon in the tropical West Indies and what we call Central and South America.

Won't bore you with details. Here's a good article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historic_Cemeteries_of_New_Orleans

We cherish our cemeteries. They are beautiful and we (and tourists) take thousands of photos of them.

Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1

Saint Louis Cemetery No. 1

Police Mutual Benevolent Association tomb in Greenwood Cemetery

Greenwood Cemetery

Lafayette Cemetery No. 1

Walled or Oven Tombs in Lafayette Cemetery No. 1

Two of the angels of Saint Louis Cemetery No. 3

Cypress Grove Cemetery

Cypress Grove provided a nice book cover

Audio book cover, photo taken at Metairie Cemetery

photo from Saint Louis Cemetery #1

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



19 November 2020

Updates from South Dakota

South Dakota has been in the national news a lot lately, and not just because Governor Kristi Noem has been vigorously defending the reelection of President Donald J. Trump in every venue she can find.  She was very active on Twitter but now she's moved to Parler:  

"It's official, I've joined @parler_app! Find me at @GovernorNoem. We need social media platforms that respect and protect FREE SPEECH. We need a whole lot more respect for Freedom and Personal Responsibilty in this country."

Wait until they hear that she's trying to figure out a way to stop Amendment A - which legalized marijuana in this state - from happening, because "it's just not right for South Dakota".  So much for Freedom and Personal Responsibility, right?  Constitutionally, she can't do anything about it, but I'm not sure she's aware of that.

Meanwhile, I know she doesn't care about the virus.  We are in a fearsome situation up here, complete with long articles in WaPo (here and HERE), USA Today ("The Dakotas are 'as bad as it gets anywhere in the world' for COVID-19"),  Forbes (South Dakota is the most dangerous place to travel in America), dire statistics in the NYTimes, and a Governor and a Sioux Falls Mayor Paul TenHaken who refuse - ABSOLUTELY REFUSE - to impose a mask mandate or a shutdown or anything else, because "freedom and personal responsibility."* 

How's that working?  Not so well:

South Dakota total cases – 68,671; 1 out of every 13 people in this state (pop. 880,000) has/has had the virus
South Dakota active cases – 19,240; 1 out of every 46 is currently active for the virus
South Dakota deaths 674 – 1 out of every 1,360 has died

Sioux Falls total cases – 22,440; 1 out of every 10 people in metro Sioux Falls (pop. 230,000) has/has 
had the virus
Sioux Falls active cases – 6,115; 1 out of every 38 is currently active for the virus
Sioux Falls deaths – 185; 1 out of every 1243 has died

And - from Johns Hopkins itself - a 56.4% positivity rate for testing, the 2nd highest in the nation.**

Heck of a job, Kristi & Paul.  Maybe you can start a noir folk duo and sing about Freedom & Incubation around the nation.

Oh, and on top of everything else, back on November 10th, "South Dakota health officials acknowledged that they include NICU (intensive care unit beds designed for infants) in their total count of hospital beds available in the state — a key metric that the governor has used to defend her handling of the coronavirus pandemic."  (Rapid City Journal)  In case you don't know, adult human beings, no matter how old and frail, cannot fit into baby pods.  

LATEST NEWS: there's the case of Attorney General, Jason Ravnsborg.  If you remember, he had an accident on a dark night on a rural road and "thought he hit a deer."  Instead, it turned out that he killed a local man, Joseph Boever.  But no one discovered that until the next day, and in the meantime Mr. Ravnsborg had been driven home by the local sheriff, etc., etc., etc.  Well, we finally got an update -  November 2nd, which seems so long ago - and it turns out that the results of the investigation so far are that Ravnsborg was distracted at the time of the crash, and Mr. Boever was holding a light in his hand when he was hit and killed. (NOTE: Deer not only have more legs than humans, they don't carry lights.) But the exact time of 911 call, and the victim's autopsy and toxicology report - and any charges - are still pending. Oh, to be white and hold high office... (Argus Leader)  

And then there's our local neighborhood goings on.  I came home from the grocery store the other day to find a white quad pick-up truck parked in front of a rental house across the street.  Big deal, right?  Except as I inched past (it's a narrow street), I noticed that the window on the passenger side had a small "Police" on it.  And, as I pulled into our driveway, I saw 4 guys get out of the truck, all wearing dark bulky blue sweaters with epaulettes, etc., on them, blue jeans or camo pants, and a very large gun strapped to their thigh.  Well, I was planning on taking a walk, but decided it wasn't the right time.  Instead I went on inside, made a cup of tea, and watched the show from my living room window, which is shielded by a large porch and an even larger tree from outside prying eyes.***  Our boys in blue went from room to room - at one point a woman came scurrying out (in 30 degree weather) wearing sweatpants, t-shirt, and flip-flops to get something out of her car (I'm betting ID) - and started taking stuff in (apparently to search a little deeper, shall we say) and bringing stuff out.  They stuck around for over an hour, and then left.  My personal guess is that they already had someone under arrest back at the station, and were searching for drugs and/or weapons.  (Yes, they found some.)  

Meanwhile, you can't get all your entertainment from a 1919 version of a picture window.  My latest favorite entertainment - besides endlessly looping New Tricks - is Victorian Farm on Acorn (via Amazon Prime) - For one thing, I'm an historian, and the reenactors are historian Ruth Goodman, and archaeologists Alex Langlands and Peter Ginn.  (I have a couple of Ms. Goodman's books, BTW.  Great stuff.)  Shire horses!  Sheep!  Cooking with coal!  More sheep!  Victorian Christmas!  Pigs and sheep!  Yes, life was hard, but it's absolutely fascinating, and I could have used a lot more than 6 episodes of it.

Speaking of Victorians, I'm rereading my way through my library of great Victorian mysteries:  I've mentioned these before on SleuthSayers, but I'll bring up a couple again, because they're brilliant.  And they're long and complex, which helps in these days of social isolation.  

Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White. Here two young women's identities are stripped from them as one dies and the other is declared dead and sent to a madhouse for life. What happened? Who died? Who lived? How can the truth be proven? Besides an endlessly twisting and turning plot, there are amazing characters: a magnificent heroine in Marion Halcombe, the ultimate Victorian cold-hearted bitch in Mrs. Catherick, and the worst guardian known to man, Frederick Fairlie, who really should have been shot at birth. And then there's Count Fosco, one of my favorite villains in all of history, with a face like Napoleon's and the heft of Nero Wolfe. Watch him as he plays with his little pet white mice and, at the same time, his irascible "friend" Sir Percival Glyde. Meet his completely subservient wife, who spends her days rolling his cigarettes, watching his face, and doing his bidding. He loves sugar water and pastry and plotting, and he never, ever loses his temper or raises his voice. His only weakness? A passionate admiration for Marion. But can that actually stop him? Don't count on it.

In Mrs. Henry Wood's East Lynne, the ostensible main plot - and a true Victorian corker it is! - revolves around Isabel Vane, an Earl's daughter who, unbelievably, is reduced to poverty and marries attorney Archibald Carlisle (SO much beneath her in birth). Mr. Carlisle is such a miracle of common sense, rectitude, honor, and beauty, that I have to admit after a while I get tired of hearing how wonderful he is. It almost makes you cheer when she is eventually unfaithful to him with a former suitor, who seduces her, impregnates her, and abandons her (the "Lady! Wife! Mother!" scene is worth the read in and of itself). Lost - in every sense of the word - and alone, Lady Isabel is believed killed in a railroad accident. However, she is only disfigured beyond recognition (isn't that always the way?), and comes back to be the governess in her old home, to her own children, and to the children of her husband and his new wife, Barbara Hare. That in itself would keep almost any soap opera running for YEARS. But what really fuels this sensation novel is the second plot, about the murder of a local gamekeeper, whose daughter, Aphrodite Hallijohn, was "involved" with multiple suitors, among them the clerk of courts (I can believe that one), a mysterious Captain, and Richard, the brother of the second Mrs. Carlisle. Richard and Barbara are the children of the local Judge, and Judge Hare does his best throughout the novel to find, convict and hang his own son. Barbara's whole goal in life (other than being the perfect wife to Mr. Carlisle) is to clear Richard's name. Each and every character is involved in the solution to this murder, and the shifting identities of various people - at least three people live in disguise for major parts of the novel - are obstacles, keys, and clues to what really happened in that hut so long ago.

Mrs. Elizabeth Braddon's Lady Audley's Secret curled many a person's hair back in the day, especially once it was revealed that what they thought was the secret - a secret that should be solved by anyone of moderate intelligence early on - is not The Secret at all. Let's just say that Lady Audley is a work of art, and perhaps the source material for all suicide blondes. Once again, a spicy Victorian stew of bigamy, mysterious deaths, hidden identities, even more mysterious (and convenient) arson, betrayal, adultery, heartache, and suspense, all served up at (for a Victorian novel) a fairly rapid clip. 

One of the reasons I read so much Victorian fiction, BTW, and especially now, is because the Victorians were really good at writing morally good characters.  As Janice Law said on Tuesday, "Evil is easy in writing, goodness is tough to do, a fact that might drive the philosophical to notions of original sin." But the Victorians - who definitely believed in original sin - mastered the art.  From Miss Matty in Cranford to Ruth in Ruth, Emma in Emma, Felix and Lance Underwood in The Pillars of the House, Daniel Peggotty, Annie Strong, Miss Mowcher, and Wilkins Micawber in David Copperfield, Marion Halcombe and Walter Hartright in The Woman in White - the Victorians were masters of dishing up characters who were morally good yet unique individuals.  (Notice, I have not mentioned any of the sugary sweet heroines - they're as much stereotypes as Snidely Whiplash.)  

Anyway, from more modern times, also in my personal library, are yards of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe - novels, short stories, novellas.  Just take me to the brownstone and drop me off, okay?  I'll take some Eggs Burgundian, a look at Wolfe's library and orchids, a long discussion / debate about literature with Wolfe, and a long chat on almost anything over drinks with Archie.  

Also Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse books (my favorite is The Wench is Dead); our own Janice Law's Francis Bacon series; Philip Kerr's Bernie Gunther series (personal favorite The Lady from Zagreb); Len Deighton's Harry Palmer novels; and Somerset Maugham's short stories - including  the Ashenden British agent stories.  (Ashenden supposedly influenced Ian Fleming.)  And yards of Agatha Christie.  And Sherlock Holmes.  

Also, non-fiction:  The Death of Woman Wang (how and why a man got away with murder in a poor province in 17th century China), and God's Chinese Son (biography of the founder of the Taiping Rebellion) both by Jonathan Spence; and Memories of Silk and Straw by Junichi Suga, translated by Garry Evans (pre-WW2 small town Japan).  

In case you're wondering, part of the reason I've fallen back heavily on my own library is because the Sioux Falls library hasn't done interlibrary loans since March, and I've read most of what they have.  And I really can't afford tons of new books all the time.  Just a few here and there.  So...  Back to the classics!  

Finally, last Sunday, I gave a sermon based on Hebrews 13:3: "Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering." About what I've seen, done, heard - I also talked about AVP and quoted one of our AVP Facilitators - Sly Sam - poems! Sermon begins around 22:50.

Meanwhile, have a Happy Thanksgiving, and stay safe, stay well, stay masked.  

*We finally imposed a mask mandate in Sioux Falls last night - but with no penalty for noncompliance.  

**Worst in the nation as of today is Wyoming, with 90.6% - whatever's going on there, don't go there.

***I am apparently entering the Miss Marple / Miss Silver phase of my life, but then again, I've always been nosy.  

18 November 2020

You Can't Say That


I seldom review books, but I'm making an exception today.  This little (and I do mean little) volume has nothing to do with crime or writing directly, but it has a lot to do with language.

Adam Smyer's new book is You Can Keep That To Yourself: A Comprehensive List of What Not to Say to Black People, for Well-Intentioned People of Pallor.  I'd describe it as a novelty book, meaning it's small enough to fit in your pocket and probably only takes an hour to read.  But you are likely to think about it for much longer.

It is written from the viewpoint of Daquan, "the black coworker you are referring to when you claim to have black friends."  Daquan lists a lot of words or phrases and explains why a white person should not say them to a person of color.

Take, for example, Conservative.  "Stop describing your Cousin Brett as a 'conservative' to us.  That's normalizing bullshit, and you can keep it to yourself.  Conservative is choosing bonds over stocks, or wearing pantyhose in the summer.  That's conservative.  Your Cousin Brett is a nazi."

As you can see the book is terse, pointed, and (to this Middle Class White boomer) vulgar.  It is also extremely funny.  

For me the words fall into three categories.

* Terms I know enough not to use, like Purple.  "It amazes us how often you still break out the old saw about not caring if someone is green or purple.  You realize, you are likening me to some nonexistent purple alien to show that you recognize my humanity.  You could try to keep that to yourself."

* Terms I know better but still use occasionally.  Articulate.  Ouch.

* Terms that were news to me.  Yowza!  That comes from minstrel shows?  I had no clue.

There is another word that Smyer objects to which I have given a lot of thought to: Dark. As in "Recently the show's humor has turned dark." I understand his complaint but what other word covers the same territory?  Grim?  Serious?  Morbid?  None really handle it.

I suspect I will get complaints about political correctness for writing this.  So be it.  I don't want words to be forbidden or people who use them to be "cancelled."  But people judge us, in part, on the words we use, so it is worth thinking about them.  Someone once asked the folksinger Fred Small if he was ever politically incorrect.  He replied: "Do you mean am I ever intentionally rude?"

The irony, of course,  is that a book whose avowed purpose is to stifle discussion is likely to spark many interesting conversations.

17 November 2020

Deacon King Kong

I am partial to contemporary novels that use some of the conventions of our favorite genre, and I am always pleased when I find a new author who uses them skillfully. National Book Award winner, James McBride, has mean streets, drug deals, even a professional assassin in the mix but Deacon King Kong is certainly not an exercise in noir. Rather it is the sort of skillful, basically comic plot one might come up with if one could mix Walter Mosley and Jane Austen with a dash of either Ralph Ellison or Toni Morrison. 

The novel's dialogue is vigorous and the characters love to talk. They all have a lot to say, but chief among them is the title character, Deacon King Kong, AKA Sportcoat. An alcoholic, Sportcoat is a noted umpire, baseball strategist, deacon of his church, and plantsman. He lives to drink and funds his passion with a series of odd jobs: taking out the trash from the church, stacking boxes for the liquor store, and digging wild plants with an even older eccentric, Mrs. Elephante, one of the last of the Italian residents, whose son, The Elephant, is the last of the resident Italian mobsters.

Sportcoat and the Elephantes are surrounded by other vividly drawn characters: Deems, the local heroin dealer and former baseball standout, Sister Gee, the noble-hearted churchwoman, Sargent Potts, an honest cop on the verge of retirement, and Sportcoat's buddies Hot Sausage and Rufus, not to mention the giant, Soup, and the Haitian Sensation.

The time is the late 60's, early 70's. John Lindsay is mayor, and Robert Moses is bulldozing the old neighborhoods in the name of progress and highways. Heroin has arrived, and even the old mob is getting in on the act. The Cause Houses, a once Italian now Black and Latino housing project, has aged without improving. Its struggling inhabitants are surrounded by crime and violence, both official and freelance, and they waver between the tiny church with the hope of salvation and the plaza drug market with the hope of profit.

McBride supplies two useful McGuffins and a good deal of action. He is as fond of coincidences and plot quirks as Agatha Christie and comes to a neat resolution of the several plot strands. But what makes Deacon King Kong especially interesting to me, is that many of the characters, even some deep in mob activities, are truly in pursuit of the good, of redemption, of genuine love. 

Evil is easy in writing, goodness is tough to do, a fact that might drive the philosophical to notions of original sin. Marilynne Robinson's Gilead, Kent Haruf's Plainsong, very different books from Deacon King Kong, manage it. McBride, with a completely different style of writing and plot, manages it too. His characters are afflicted with uneasy longings. Sportcoat, an unrepentant drunk, talks to his late wife, Hettie, whom he loved and disappointed.The Elephant dreams of marrying a country girl and becoming a good man. Sister Gee, a genuinely kind and good person, struggles with disappointment and thinks about happiness, and even the vicious young drug dealer has moments when he remembers baseball, another activity of strategy, timing and skill and thinks of an alternate life. Though mired in all the sordidness urban poverty can provide, the chief characters in Deacon King Kong would agree with Socrates: our true and most important pursuit must be the Good.

16 November 2020

The Mystique of the British Aristocrat

I grew up loving British novels—not wisely but too well—and one of their most reliable features was the recurring character of the British aristocrat, who could usually be counted on to have highly polished boots—the mirror-like finish applied by a valet—ride to hounds, spend more time in his London club than in his wife’s company, never mention such a vulgar topic as money, and always, always know with which fork to eat the fish. Found in the pages of Georgette Heyer and Dorothy L. Sayers as well as more rarefied company, this character had a mystique. Probably mythical to begin with, he certainly exists no longer. The hereditary peer no longer takes his seat in the House of Lords by right. Today, a limited number of them mingle with the peers given lifetime appointments for a wide array of services to the Crown. Mystery writer Janet Neel, for example, bless her heart, sits in the House of Lords as Baroness Cohen of Pimlico. 

 But let’s not talk about the real-life Baroness Cohen, beyond mentioning that Death’s Bright Angel is one of my all-time favorite mysteries, maybe even in the top three, certainly the top five or ten. I don’t even want to talk about that kind and courteous model of the parfait gentil knyght, the fictional Lord Peter Wimsey. Or the Earl of Grantham from Downton Abbey, who makes a case for landowners like him as responsible for the wellbeing of the land and the people who work it. I want to talk about the meanies. Golden Age and historical mysteries are full of them, as are novels of and TV series about earlier times, when upstairs was upstairs and downstairs was downstairs. 
Look at Lady Catherine de Bourgh, Darcy’s aunt in Pride and Prejudice. She cultivates servility in the
vicar, Mr Collins, and other dependents and takes pleasure in being critical, blunt, and nasty every time she speaks. Furthermore, she couldn’t think more highly of herself. She believes herself a holy terror by right and makes life miserable for everyone around her. Wouldn’t it have been lovely if Elizabeth Bennett could have said to Darcy, “Your aunt is the most obnoxious old bitch I’ve ever met. If you must keep up the connection, you can visit her at Rosings by yourself. She’s never setting foot in my home.” But alas, Jane Austen wouldn’t let her. 

 There is a classic meanie in Downton Abbey: Larry, Lord Merton’s son, who doesn’t want his dad to marry the middle class Mrs. Crawley. Her deceased husband was a doctor, her late son a lawyer before becoming heir to Downton, and that’s the end of it. Being grandmother to the present heir can’t make her anything but hopelessly vulgar in his eyes. He’s also scathing in condemning the Irish socialist chauffeur Tom, who had the temerity to marry the Earl’s daughter. He even slips a mickey in Tom’s drink at the dinner table to make him behave badly. There’s well-bred aristocratic manners for you! 

I’m a veteran of many rants about the British aristocrat, but what set me off this time was watching, not for the first time, Nathaniel Parker play the aristocratic father of the motorcycle-riding vicar Will Davenport in Grantchester, set in the 1950s. Papa Davenport is a piece of work. Keeping up appearances in the entrance hall and dining room while the rest of the stately home—moulders away like a set for Miss Havisham’s decline. “We belong to it, not it to us,” he tells his son, not mentioning he’s about to bequeath him enough debt to bury the estate. His son is “a constant disappointment” because he’s a clergyman instead of out committing adultery, gambling, lying, bullying his wife, beating up the servants, and putting on a show with money he doesn’t have, like dear old Dad. He was terribly rude to Will’s friend Inspector Keating as well. I wanted to cheer when the Inspector didn’t bat an eyelash. His worth is based on integrity, not smoke and mirrors. 

I’m sure you’ve read as many examples as I have of the self-satisfied British aristocrat who despises, not the working class, with whom they believe they have an “understanding” (the working classes work, and the aristocrats take the fruits of their labors for granted), but the middle class, with their “middle class morality,” which usually comes down to making sure they have the money before they spend it, thinking paying the tailor and the grocer is more important than paying excessive gambling debts incurred while drunk, and thinking “thou shalt not commit adultery” is not such a bad idea. The aristos give them a lot of contempt for taking that one seriously. 

 So here’s my core question. What do they have to be so proud of? What are their values and virtues? Let’s assume for sake of this rant that we’re talking of the least admirable of the fictional or mythical British aristocratic class, back in the days before the concept of class began to break down. The Edwardian era was probably the last era in which they flourished, though their lands and great estates were falling prey to death duties and general economic and social modernization. 

 They go to public schools, at which they are introduced to bullying, early sexualization, and a certain amount of physical torture. They’re removed from female influence, so they lack any models for the relational side of psychological growth, ie connecting rather than competing as a way to be with others in the world. 

 For entertainment, their greatest delight is to be taken to see panto every Christmas. If you’ve never seen it, panto is a broad slapstick rendition of classic fairy tales performed in drag. The “principal boy,” ie the hero, is always played by a woman. The female lead, played for comedy, is always played by a man. Panto has been around since the 18th century and is still popular. I imagine generations of confused children thinking they’re supposed to grow up to be cross-dressers, whether they want to or not. The victim of autoerotic asphyxiation in a ballet tutu in P.D. James comes to mind. (I won’t tell you which novel.) Another feature of panto: the audience shouts, “Look behind you! Look behind you!” to the character who is about to be clobbered. Good training for those public schools and later for the Army, you may say. But the hero never listens and always gets clobbered. What’s the takeaway from that? 

 Here’s what classic British aristocrats value. Breeding: the one quality they share with their dogs and their horses. No wonder they value their dogs and their horses more than people, especially, if they’re meanies, their families and the people who work for them. Breeding is supposed to give them good qualities, but if so, where does all that rudeness come from? They value not talking about money and despise people who do. You read about it in almost all of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, some of which are mysteries. They order expensive outfits to wear once to a fashionable ball and don’t pay for them—just order two more to keep the modiste hooked—but are disgraced if they don’t pay their gambling debts. If they go broke, they have to leave the country. Maybe they should talk about money and take in a little common sense. As I said, they despise “middle class morality” and are endlessly proud of screwing around. Doing it is one thing. Being proud of it? Huh? 

 And finally we come to the forks. I can think of a lot of deficits in other people that might tempt me to despise them. But if you tell me there’s a group of people to whom the true measure of worth as a human being is being able to distinguish among perhaps twenty different metal utensils, each to be used to eat a different food, I’d say, “How interesting. Where do they live? Is the tribe extinct yet? And did Margaret Mead ever get to study them before they died out?” 

 Well, they lived in England, some between the pages of a book, some in movies, and some in reality. They’re not extinct yet, but they’re going down fast. And if they want any of them to survive, they’d better get over the forks.

15 November 2020

The 2nd Greatest Con Man in America

Neither Democrat nor Republican, I’m an independent. I’m not happy if I can’t equal-opportunity offend all parties. But damn, these days some of the high-profile players egregiously push their way to the front of the ignoble queue. That old saw “Where there’ smoke…” invariably ends with, “…someone’s fanning flames.”

But I’m not here to talk about partisanship, but to address two major theories enjoying unwarranted attention. They gain traction because rumour mongers depend upon an absence of science and technical knowledge. (For the litigious sort, kindly note this is an opinion piece.)

For example, my friend Sharon forwarded an email acclaiming Chinese-designed dancing robots in Shanghai Disneyland. Although these were clearly not automatons, many, many people willingly suspended disbelief.[1]

Blowing Smoke

Same with politics. As Alice’s Red Queen might say, we’re asked to believe six impossible things before breakfast. Psychologists have noted the biggest lies can be the easiest to accept.

As the above-mentioned smoke about massive voter fraud begins to clear (with a portion of the credit going to the incumbent’s attorneys), conspiracy oriented talk hosts have turned their attention to data manipulation. The first brings to life two decades of concerns about voting machines. The other centers around government computers reassigning millions of votes.

Hypothesis 1, Voting Machines

Grab a coffee. I can’t believe I’m defending Dominion, née Diebold, aka another half dozen company names. I’ve been highly critical of their technology and its lack of transparency. I’ve also proposed a solution, open-source code. That way anyone can peek at its internals searching for flaws.

Twelve to twenty years ago, Democrats worried problematic voting machines at best lost votes and at worst, threw elections. Part of their concern was the company’s Republican CEO, a good friend of George W Bush. According to sources, the CEO ill-advisedly told Bush he’d help win his election. Some stretched that to mean he might use his product, voting machines, to disfavor Democrats.

When Florida’s Secretary of State Glenda Hood ordered error-prone Diebold machines, Senator Bill Nelson questioned the wisdom. She told him to mind his own business… which of course he was. If memory serves, Sarasota County that year lost 20,000 votes. The county’s seemingly baffled Supervisor of Elections said 20,000 people had obviously shown up and chosen not to vote.

Diebold’s reputation was so checkered, they underwent a series of name changes: Diebold ➡︎ Premier Election Solutions ➡︎ Election Systems Services ➡︎ Sequoia Voting Services ➡︎ Dominion Voting Systems.

Over time, they have improved, but one thing is clear. Neither individual machines or networked clusters are capable of diverting anywhere in the range of numbers hinted at: a half million to a suggested two-point-seven million or even seven million votes. Some accusers hinted at machine glitches in Michigan and Georgia, while Q-Anon outright claimed hundreds of thousands of votes were deliberately deleted. Apparently audit trails aren’t widely studied on 4-Chan.

One might wonder the motive of a company board to lose this election, a corporation considered reliably Republican, historically regarded with caution and even suspicion by Democrats. Hey, don’t ask me… I raise the question, but I don’t know. (See? I told you I’d offend both sides.)

Hypothesis 2, The Giant CIA Supercomputer Conspiracy

This is a two-coffee problem, so pour another cup as you’re asked to take an ever bigger leap from the improbable to the nearly impossible.

The short version claims that the CIA (and possibly CISA) deployed a Bush era supercomputer originally used by the despot Obama to surveil and enslave Americans. Called HAMR,[2] affectionately nicknamed The Hammer by techno-savvy, Marvel-reading politicos, it was seized by Biden’s nefarious agents to subvert the election by diverting Trump votes to Biden. A Bannon-Breitbart correctional recount proved Mr Trump won 98% of the popular vote, nearly 140-million total, the largest in history.

(How Mr Trump wrested this antique computer from Hillary’s election hands in 2016 isn’t clear.)

This vote-rigging supercomputer was engineered by a genius superprogrammer, Dennis Montgomery– both this amazing computer and the accompanying conspiracy theory. Already, I see you have questions.

I left my own amazing computer career a few years ago and haven’t consulted for the DoD even longer, but that name, Dennis Montgomery, rings no bell. I checked with colleagues, all with the same answer: Who? Actually that’s a question.

LinkedIn lists a Montgomery Dennis, which may or may not be a hit, but I suspect it is. This entry describes a guy with amazing computer, management, and top secret intelligence skills, who has the Director of the CIA, Secretary of the Air Force, and the US President on speed dial. He claims to have given intelligence briefings to the white house… yup, lower case. We shouldn’t judge him. Maybe he meant something like a white clapboard house in Terre Haute.

If that is his résumé, he’s awfully modest. Certainly he’s much better known in scam and conspiracy theory circles. Since his curriculum vitae is weak and poorly worded, I whipped up a supplement for him. Mr Montgomery may pick and choose as needed, no charge.

Dennis Montgomery (aka Montgomery Dennis?)

Superduper all around computer expert and geopolitical action figure.
($29.95 on AliExpress) Pinocchio nose sold separately.



  • Operated American Report web site specializing in conspiracies of the day.™
  • Investigated tunnels under a Washington daycare pizzeria. Conclusively proved pepperoni contained meat byproducts.
  • Demonstrated, using advanced computer analysis of birther certificate, Ted Cruz not born in USA.
  • Invented catchy names like Scorecard and The Hammer for programs that, uh, don’t actually exist.
  • Scammed Bush administration into paying several million dollars for pretend programs to decode secret al-Qaeda radio messages that, uh, didn’t really exist.
  • Conducted anti-terrorist scam. Fake security alerts caused the US to ground some flights and reportedly caused the Bush administration to nearly shoot down airliners. That was a rush.
  • Falsified emails to implicate gubernatorial candidate and Congressman Jim Gibbons in bribery scandal that, uh, didn’t exist.
  • Conned Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio into forking over more than $100,000 of taxpayer money so he could reveal a conspiracy plot against Sheriff Joe… which, uh, didn’t actually exist.
  • Faked federal wiretapping evidence that, um, didn’t exist.


  • Dabbles in presidential elections for fun and profit. Like the emperor’s clothes, evidence doesn’t exist.

In my personal opinion, I believe Mr Dennis Montgomery enjoys conning important people and, with the 2020 election, he’s hit the jackpot with the coteries of the candidates, and the attention of the two most powerful men in America.


  1. The claim is that the performers are Chinese designed robots, a leap ahead of US, European, and Japanese robotics. As it turns out, Snopes has done the leg work, determining it’s a clip from the British television show “Strictly Come Dancing” that aired on BBC One in 2013
  2. Seagate, the hard drive manufacturer, has coined the acronym HAMR, meaning heat-assisted magnetic recording.

14 November 2020

It's Not Funny to Them

by Robert Mangeot

I should warn you I have a liberal arts education. Now warned, it might not surprise you that I think about classic story structure. Aristotle, for example. The Big A wrote about dramatics, and he didn’t mean my angst after a string of reject letters. He meant dramatic arcs, a series of interesting conflicts and emotions. Whether a dramatic arc plays out as uproarious or weepy or bare-knuckled is up to the author. Humor is style, not form.

Take Romeo and Juliet. Straight-up, star-cross’d tragedy, am I right? Reckless love, swords, poisons. Set aside that Shakespeare both envisioned and delivered this as a tale of woe. He said so in line six. Still, the play needs only minor plot work, like to lose the cousin murders and give Romeo a wacky sidekick, and now here’s next season’s blockbuster romcom. Much Ado About Nothing is essentially a banter vehicle, though Shakespeare had the good sense to work in scheming family, social ruin, and the real prospect of danger. There is even a daughter who fakes a death for true love. Getting to sound like Romeo and Juliet.

This goes to my golden rule for writing humor: It ain’t funny to the characters. The characters can’t be in on the joke. They have to experience a personal hell, if of the funny sort to us safely across the Fourth Wall.

Stephanie Plum is not having a good time--generally--in the Evanovich novels. Elmore Leonard characters spend their novels seeking or avoiding physical harm. Leonard famously said he didn’t write humor, and he didn’t. But he wove humor into crime novels like no one before him or since.
And then there’s Westlake. The Hot Rock was initially meant for his antihero Parker, except the first drafts didn’t click as a dark story. Too comic. Westlake could’ve changed the plot points and tone to noir, or he could’ve run with the lighter idea forming. Westlake embraced the inherent comedy, and we readers gladly met John Dortmunder. What Westlake didn’t do? Make the recurring caper at all easy on poor Dortmunder.

There just isn’t comic fiction without arc and dramatic conflict. We’re not writing stand-up routines. Take Anchorman. Love the movie or despise it, Anchorman scores its hits on well-timed ad libs sprung from Ron’s mounting desperation and lost stature (Loss? Descent into desperate measures? See how this could’ve been spun as a drama?). But Anchorman bogs down precisely when the script overindulges in hijinks that freeze Ron’s arc in place. 

Most of my published stories are comedies. “Handed, on a Gold Plate,” in the November 2020 Mystery Weekly Magazine, is about a CPA-in-training who convinces himself that an on-camera gig certifying pick four lotto drawings is a golden ticket to celebrity auditing. The story puts his prized dream in jeopardy.

I also write the occasional tragedy, like my “On Loan From the Artist” out in the November/December 2020 Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine. That one follows Bench, a small town loan shop guy who borrows too much courage in protecting his turf.

I wrote both stories the same way. Same method, same four-part structure, same tossing the POVs into rising action and a harrowing loss. Same letting them miscalculate along the ride. I only changed the tone and tactics. “Gold Plate” throws our guy whackadoodle complications. It uses more voice and ends on a kind-of up note. “Artist” goes for psychological tension. Things get worse. It ends badly, as tragedies must.

All else equal, a humorous story is harder to pull off. “Gold Plate” must work first as a drama--that also happens to be funny. The struggle is real, folks. Humor is inescapably subjective. I thought Knives Out had wicked fun to it. Friends have said something like, “I guess so.” They liked it as a whodunnit. Melissa McCarthy was her usual genius in Spy, but I thought the movie collapsed under shock violence tried as humor. At some point, edgy becomes cruel. Pulp Fiction managed that balancing act (and via a fractured narrative!), though I don’t even think of it as comedy. A bunch of film critics disagree.

What would’ve Aristotle said? His volume explaining comedy’s secret sauce is lost to the ages, which is itself pretty funny. We do know he thought comedy was the lowest form of dramatics. Maybe he didn’t have a sense of humor. Maybe he tried, but his critique group didn’t quite get his whole shtick. Whatever the reason, I’ll forgive and forget. Such classic theory and its modern evolution help me wrangle the hard work of writing something funny. Otherwise, my daily drama is coping with reject letters. Nobody wants to see that.

13 November 2020

Mitchell and Webb versus Holmes and Watson

We've had some fun here with those great British sketch artists David Mitchell and Robert Webb.  Here they are shedding an unfamiliar light on two well-known detectives.

12 November 2020

Veterans Day

In 2015 a former student reached out to me and asked that I serve as that year's featured speaker for her high school's Veteran's Day assembly. I have posted below the speech I gave on that day. This will post the day after Veterans Day this year. I hope you will join me in thanking all of our veterans, living and dead, for their service to our country, and to the world.

Hello, and thank you for that warm welcome. While I’m at it, I’d like to thank Dr. _______, the staff, and the student body here at __________ High School for inviting me to speak to you today, on this occasion where we take time to honor our country’s veterans. My name is Brian Thornton, and I am a veteran. It has been my privilege to teach Ancient & Medieval World History at _______ Middle School, here in the ______ School District, for the past ________ years.

But before I began my career as a teacher, before my time in college training to be a teacher, before I moved to the Seattle area, before I got married and started a family, I lived a very different life, in very different locales, doing a very different job.

But more on that in a moment.

Now, I’m an historian, so I’d like to start off with a few words about the date on which we celebrate Veterans’ Day. It was only after my time in the military that I understood the significance of November 11th as the date we choose to honor our veterans. Far from being some random date on the calendar, November 11th was chosen for a very specific reason. Originally called “Armistice Day,” it marks the anniversary of the signing of the cease-fire agreement that effectively ended the First World War. Dubbed by turns “The Great War,” and “The War to End All Wars,”- this conflict resulted in the deaths of over 16 million people- only 9 million of them combatants- during its four years (1914-1918).

The First World War redrew national boundaries, toppled empires, wrecked a continent, and wiped an entire generation from the earth as surely as the swipe of an eraser removes ink from a whiteboard. By 1918 society had been so thoroughly rocked by the havoc this conflict wrought, that many people began to believe that they were witnessing the death throes of society itself- that civilization would literally cease to exist.

So the men who negotiated and signed this armistice (and they were all men. Human beings had yet to awaken to the importance of having the wisdom and experience of women at the table during negotiations like these), believed that with their actions, they were literally saving human civilization from eventual collapse and humanity itself from likely extinction.

And so they arranged for the cease-fire to go into effect on a symbolic date: literally at 11 o’clock in the morning, on the 11th day of the 11th month of the year- hence the phrase “at the 11th hour”- a phrase that we use to this very day, in describing disaster being averted at the “last minute.”

I cannot help but find it fitting that we choose such a date to pause and take note of the contributions made to this country by our veterans. After all, it is the most American of traditions to take a painful memory and to substitute a hopeful one for it.

And to speak of the contributions, the sacrifices, of our veterans, is to speak of hope. Hope is an aspirational emotion, born of a desire for something greater, something better. People motivated by hope can achieve incredible things. America itself was founded on hope. Countless millions have flocked to this country from every corner of the planet, motivated by hope- hope for something bigger, greater, deeper. And they hope to find what they’re seeking in America, a place that the great poet Bruce Springsteen has dubbed “The Land of Hope and Dreams.”

And over the past two-plus centuries our citizen soldiers have answered their country’s call time and again out of a sense of dedication to that country, and to that hope. Such loyalty, such patriotism makes of mere countries the greatest of nations.

And as the service of veterans has helped to transform America, so, too has it had a transformational effect on those who served, as well.

I served as a quartermaster in the United States Navy from 1985 to 1989. A quartermaster’s job is to serve as principal navigator onboard ship, and as an expert cartographer (a “map maker”) on land.

During my time in the navy I visited every continent on the planet, with the exception of Antarctica. I lived and worked with thousands of different people, from a wide variety of ethnic, economic, and geographic backgrounds. I experienced places and cultures and sights and smells and tastes that I never knew existed. It was a far cry from my childhood growing up in Eastern Washington.

I cannot overstate the effect that serving my country during those four years had on me. My worldview was radically changed as a result of that experience, and while it was not an easy journey, I cannot stress enough how important my military service has been to me in the years since my discharge in 1989.

The military taught me so much. Patience, mostly. And more patience. And then….still more. Those of you with a veteran in your family, ask them about the phrase “Hurry up, and wait.” See what reaction you get.

In the navy I learned to get along with people with whom I had nothing in common, other than the shared experience of serving our country. The navy brought me into close contact with people I might never otherwise have gotten to know. One of the life skills I value most is the ability to work well with people you may not like very much. Another is the ability to get past initial differences and find things to admire in others, things you might not have noticed on first acquaintance. The navy taught me how to do both of these things, and so much more.

None of this should have come as much of a surprise to me. You see, when it came to the military, I had a reservoir of previously acquired knowledge to rely upon at home while I was growing up. My father flew Huey gunships in Vietnam. Two uncles served in the navy. One retired from the Coast Guard. My grandfather was a tail-gunner in both B-17s and B-29s, flying bombing sorties over both Germany and Japan during World War II. Much of my childhood was spent listening to stories, not only of battle, but of boredom, “unintelligent” leadership, pranks played, and fast friendships formed.

Once I had served my own hitch, I had my own stories to tell. Tales of bad food, long work days, freezing cold watches stood on piers in faraway places with hard-to-pronounce names. And the exploits of “my buddies,” guys I served with. Guys I’ll never forget, like them, love them, or hate them. My younger brother did his own hitch in the army, serving as crew chief onboard Chinook helicopters. And he in turn brought home his own stories.

I have a lot of veterans in my family, including ones like my cousin, Ronald Quigley, who never lived to tell their stories. You see, my cousin Ronnie died while serving as an artilleryman in Vietnam. You can find his name inscribed with those of the other honored dead from that war on the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

I was three years old when he died. All I have left of him are some jumbled memories from his going-away party when he left for Vietnam.

And yet, my cousin, and those others whose lights were snuffed out too early, who never lived to tell their stories, the ones who, in the words of President Abraham Lincoln, gave “the last, full measure of devotion” to this country, they deserve to be remembered. To be celebrated. To be honored.

And we, as a nation, have an obligation to keep their memory alive, to keep them from becoming just another name on just another war memorial. To help the citizens of this great nation remember the terrible cost incurred every time young people answer their country’s call to arms. To serve with honor, and to be transformed utterly by the experience.

And that leads me to the crux of this speech. Because, once you’ve lived it, once you’ve taken the oath, once you’ve stood the watches, and fought to stay awake, and been afraid, and laughed, and argued, and sweated, and ached, and bled, and loved and cried, all in the service of your country, like it or not, you’ve become a part of something larger than yourself. 

A fraternity. 

A family.

A group of women and men who have sworn to protect this nation. Who have made its continued existence their personal responsibility.

And it doesn’t change much once your hitch is up. Once you’ve done your bit, you’re a member for life. And for ever afterward.

That’s what being a veteran is.