03 March 2021

Digging Shirley Jackson


 


During the last year I have developed the habit of reading humor at bedtime.  I find this better than  perusing the latest volume in The Man Who Chopped Off People's Heads For Brunch series, which  tends to give me nightmares.

I just finished reading a book by Shirley Jackson, who handed out plenty of nightmares with her novels The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, not to mention her classic story "The Lottery."  (Although, as I always say when bringing up this author, I prefer her "The Possibility of Evil.")

Raising Demons (1957), in spite of its title, is not horror.  It is domestic humor, describing the joys and miseries of taking care of a home and raising kids.  See Jean Kerr, Erma Bombeck, etc.  (Two obvious questions: Are there any books like this written by men?  And are any women still writing them?)

I finished the book but I didn't think it was wonderful. (I have heard that her previous memoir, Life Among The Savages, is better.)  I found the parts about the children cloying, but  there were occasional moments of brilliance.  Take this scene at a party given by some  of the students at the girls college where the husband of the nameless narrator is a professor.  A student addresses her:

"Listen, when you were young - I mean before you kind of settled down and all, when you were -- well, younger, that is - did you ever figure you'd end up like this?"  She waved a hand vaguely at the student living room, my "nice" black dress, and my glass of ginger ale.  "Like this?" she said.

"Certainly," I said.  "My only desire was to be a faculty wife. I used to sit at my casement window, half embroidering, half dreaming, and long for Professor Right."

"I suppose," she said, "that you are better off than you would have been.  Not married at all or anything."

"I was a penniless governess in a big house," I said.  "I was ready to take anything that moved...."

"And he's lucky too, of course.  So many men who marry young silly women find themselves always going to parties and things for their wives' sake.  An older woman--"

"He was only a boy," I said.  "How well I remember his eager, youthful charm; 'Lad," I used to say, fondly touching his wonton curls, 'lad, youth calls to youth, and what you need--"

""He's still terribly boyish, don't you think?"

And so on.  There's a lot going on there, and it all cracks me up.

But the reason I am bringing Ms. Jackson up at all is that at one point in the book her oldest child, a boy of perhaps twelve, starts speaking in slang, and gets fined by his father for doing so.  Here are examples of the slang:

Crazy mixed up daddy

Dig her

Dig me

Real cool

Real gone

Tipped (meaning crazy)

Later in the book the father has to fine himself for using the word "cool."  Slang does slip in, doesn't it?   Although the term never appears in the book I would call those examples of beatnik slang.


This is of particular interest to me because of something I'm working on.  Back in 2012 I won the Black Orchid Novella Award for "The Red Envelope," which was set in 1958 and starred a beat poet named Delgardo.  Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine recently purchased the sequel, "Please Pass The Loot."  I am presently editing the third in the series.

Now, Delgardo is definitely beat.  Don't call him a beatnik.  But the language overlaps.  I have found a fascinating glossary of beatnik slang from the time period, some of it so bizarre that I imagine that either the informant or the compiler was pulling our legs.  Here are some definitions that are "wild" and others that are just "graveyard."

Bread: Money

Far out: Weird, exciting

Gooney Roost: Library

Handcuffs: Parents

Mickey Mouse: Watch

Shades: Sunglasses

Squatchel: Lovemaking

Whistleburg: Corner where many girls pass by

You get the idea.  The question for me is: How much slang can I put in Delgardo's mouth to make him sound authentic without making him sound like an idiot?  Because as our own John Floyd noted: "An overdose of dialect can kill your story deader than Billy Bob Shakespeare."

Mostly I have settled for letting Delgardo end sentences with "man," and the occasional "cool" or "groovy."

Unfortunately, Shirley Jackson is not around to help me.


02 March 2021

Entering Modern Publishing with Madame Selina



I entered the modern age of publishing this week when I pushed the publish button and committed ten Madame Selina short mystery stories and her only novella to Amazon Kindle. It was not a terribly difficult process but it would have been easier if I had not decided to simultaneously make an ebook on Apple's Pages, lured by the thought that the Pages file could be easily converted to an ePub file. Not exactly easy was my experience, although I did wind up making the ebook cover for Kindle on Pages.

That was an interesting experience, too. A number of years ago, I sketched Madame Selina, New York City's premier spirit medium in the years after the Civil War. While the many fine illustrators who depicted her have stressed youth or eccentricity – flying hair being a favorite device –  I drew her as she usually saw herself, as Mrs. Hiram Bingham, respectable widow and business woman. However, even someone as poor at promotion as I am realized that this image would be a selling point. 

I tried making her younger and Nip a tad weirder but that didn't suit either, although he does frequently get to carry her baggage. Finally, thanks to my new iPad and Procreate, a fine paint program, I reworked the original sketch, making Madame younger, darker, and more exotic and giving her an elaborate hat and an inky backdrop. I hope she'll do!


Madame Selina is a favorite character of mine, although she was not the focus of the original story which is narrated by Nip Thompkins, formerly resident in upstate New York orphanage. He is sprung from this sad and unhealthy institution when she comes looking for a likely boy, small, smart, and agile. Nip, underfed but otherwise healthy, is declared suitable. Whisked away to the city, he assists in creating Madame's theatrical illusions and narrates what became her many adventures.

It is popular now to have unreliable narrators. I've tried that and it can be fun, but in writing the Madame Selina stories I realized that my real preference is for the innocent eye that, lacking adult preconceptions, appreciates wonders and spots pretension. Nip, clever, practical, and definitely lacking any mystical bent, proved to be ideal for describing Madame, who, as Nip tells us, is 'willing to lie in small things' such as special effects to enhance a seance, but who absolutely and completely believes in Aurelius, late emperor of the Romans, her spirit contact in the other world.

All this was not pure invention on my part. Victoria Woodhull, pioneering feminist, candidate for president, advocate of both free love and votes for women, conducted conversations with Demosthenes, the great orator of Ancient Greece, and, like Madame Selina, advised the bulls and bears of Wall Street. In Woodhull's case, the clientele included Commodore Vanderbilt. Apparently gentlemen who gamble are not averse to spiritual guidance.

The period immediately after the Civil War with its staggering death toll, ghastly injuries, and traumas of all sorts for troops and civilians alike, was the great era of spiritualism and of mediums, as the desperate bereaved sought to know their loved ones' fates. That was the setting for "Madame Selina" and there she would have stayed if Rob Lopresti had not suggested she would make a good series character.

I was skeptical – or maybe Nip was – but I came around to the idea and made use of many years of teaching romantic and Victorian literature to find plots for Madame in inheritance tangles and vulnerable child heirs, the politics of the Irish immigration, the difficulties of Freedmen post war, the new Italian arrivals, and the suffrage movement. 

Madame proved fit for all until changing times and the vulgarity and avarice of the high Gilded Age weakened the public's appetite for spirit communication and led to the final entry in my little book, " A Fine Nest of Rascals", where Nip, grownup and a cub reporter on a paper aiming "not to instruct but to startle," proves to have learned a lot about investigations from assisting Madame Selina. 


Madame Selina, The Complete Stories is available as an ebook on Amazon.


01 March 2021

Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes


by Steve Liskow

Between the ages of about six and fifteen, I spent my Saturday afternoons at the Court Street Theater, five blocks from my house. I watched at least 1000 films. Back then, network prime time featured films both Saturday and Sunday nights, and I saw a lot of them, too.

I discovered fairly early that I seldom liked the film version of a book as much as I liked the book. Later, I became heavily involved in live theater. Over the course of 30 years, I acted, directed, produced, designed, and helped build over 100 productions throughout central Connecticut. On those rare occasions when someone tried to turn a novel into a play, that tended to be a bad idea, too. 

Why?

Because the three art forms rely on different elements. Stories use words, which create images and emotions in the reader's mind and often rely on their style to make their point. Plays use movement or behavior, often in the context of time and space (the stage). Films function through images.

The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite novels, and I've seen five or six film adaptations, none of which satisfied me. Fitzerald's use of biased narrator Nick Carroway doesn't translate well to the screen. I know there is a stage version of the novel, a musical, no less, and I have avoided it. That concise little book, barely more than a novelette, doesn't need heavy-handed jazz production numbers to convey its ideas. There's also an opera, but let's pretend I didn't mention it.

A story with a distinctive or idiosyncratic style doesn't translate to film or the stage (the film version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is a glaring exception, and I loathe the play). I've seen several bad attempts to put Wuthering Heights on film (The famous Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon version clearly does not understand the book). Both Huckleberry Finn and To Kill A Mockingbird have successful film versions, probably because even though they are also 1st-person POV, the characters relate events that happen outside themselves. Horton Foote took liberties with Mockingbird, but they relied on words AND IMAGES. When I showed the video in class, I knew at least one student would tear up when Gregory Peck walked out of the courtoom and a black spectator told Scout, "Miss Jean Louise, rise. Your father is passing."


If that didn't get them, Scout's greeting Robert Duval in his film debut as the shattered Boo Radley always did. "Hey, Boo." Cue the tears. Both  powerful IMAGES supported by words.


When I advised the high school yearbook for several years, I trained myself to be a decent (never more than that) photographer. You can learn composition and cropping. I could never write a screenplay because I'm not visual enough to tell a story through what the audience SEES. I never designed sets back in my theater days because I can't visualize space. Since plays use movement ("Blocking") to help tell the story, you need to translate ideas into motion. By directing 20 plays in as many years, I got better because I figured out how to choreograph movement, but it was a huge weakness in my early work. I learned to move people with the rhythm of the lines and scene, often on a beat change or to emphazise a particular speaker or line. Camera angles do that on film with a good director or editor, but can you connect the visual rhythm to the story's pace? Only if it's mundane writing.

Sometimes, the unreal quality of a play gives it its power, and a film image is too literal. John Pielmeier's play Agnes of God has three characters, one who is both narrator and protagonist. The entire set consists of two chairs and a standing ashtray, and the theatricality makes it all work. My daughter gave me the film version on video years ago, but I never watched it. I'd seen my wife play Agnes on stage and I didn't need to see Hollywood put the bloody wastebasket where the baby was supposedly found in a close-up. 

A theater I worked with for years presented an early STAGE version of High Noon.


Thankfully, I never saw it. Imagine trying to put on stage that series of jump cuts as the film reaches its climax: The clock's pendulum swinging, Grace Kelly waiting for the train, the bartender and other men in the bar, the bad guys waiting for their leader, Gary Cooper writing his will in the Marshal's office, the clock, the bar, the bad guys, Grace Kelly, Katy Jurado, the church congregation, all with that orchestrated version of the title song, the beat synchronized to the pendulum...and then the train whistle that freezes your heart in your chest.

The two final visuals. Grace Kelly embracing Gary Cooper, the wedding ring on her finger. Then Cooper staring at the towsnpeople who refused to help him while he drops his badge in the dust.

The film is based on a story called "The Tin Star." I've never read it.

Cornell Woolrich's short story "Rear Window" has many built-in problems, but Hitchcock figured out how to make it less static with camera angles on film. Alas, a few years ago, a play version was commissioned, or should I say, "committed." My wife played one of the apartment dwellers in the world premiere at Hartford Stage (maybe the only production ever), with Kevin Bacon as the photographer. He was excellent, but he was stuck in a wheelchair on a large stage. The star of the show was the computer-operated back wall that moved up and down so the audience could peer into the neighbors' apartments. It cost $300,000 to build that set, and I don't think anyone has produced the show since...and rented the set so HSC could recoup some of the cost. 


If you want to write a screen play, do it. If you want to write a stage play, do it. If you want to write a novel or short story, absolutely do it. But remember that they're different animals, and mixing species leads to scary mutations. Like the Island of Dr. Moreau. 

28 February 2021

Come Along for the Ride


So, I'm sitting with my buddy Mike(Huey pilot and one-time deputy sheriff) on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, treating ourselves to rum and Cokes while brainstorming storylines for mystery short stories. I know what you're thinking. If I could make more money from writing and selling short stories, then I could try writing some of those cruise expenses off on my income taxes. Unfortunately for me, those deducted figures would probably fall into the category of real fiction. Truth be known, only  a small percentage of  these brainstorming sessions ends up becoming a completed and salable story.

Anyway, if I'm going to write a standalone or what I hope will be the first story in a series, I prefer to pick a setting or an idea that hasn't been done before or at least, to my knowledge, not very often. Because of my two years, nine months and twenty-nine days in the Army, plus more than twenty-eight years in federal law enforcement,  I tend to enjoy the antics of incompetent criminals. Most of these characters seem to be knocking on the prison door screaming, "Let me in," while their screwups generally fall into the category of "What were you possibly thinking?"

So, when the wheels start turning, it's easy to reach into the past and find characters and/or events and put them in a what if situation. It was circumstances like these on that cruise ship brainstorming session that produced "The Clean Car Company," published in the January 2021 issue of Mystery Weekly Magazine.

It went something like this. What if a junior league criminal is sitting in the back booth of a very dark bar waiting for his partner in crime to show up, so they can figure out how to make some money. And, while he is nursing the dregs of his drink, three males slide into his booth and don't realize that someone else is sitting in that booth. These three new arrivals commence to continue planning the heist they have in mind.

Time to give these characters some names in order to avoid confusion with who's doing what. Danny is our protagonist and the alleged brains of his junior league criminal partnership. Leroy is the slim killer sitting beside Danny in the booth. Caps, nicknamed for his penchant for knee-capping people who get sideways with him, is sitting across from Leroy. The Kid, sitting across from Danny and beside Caps, is Caps' teenage nephew and a screwup when it comes to crime.

When Caps suddenly realizes they have an unwanted visitor sitting in the darkest corner of the booth, and that this visitor has just listened in on their heist plans, he becomes noticeably upset. Leroy takes out a switchblade and offers to take care of the problem. 

Faced with a dire situation, Danny must quickly come up with a solution to everyone's problem. Working with the facts available to him:

  1. Danny has just inherited his Aunt Rosie's car
  2. The car's license plates are now registered to a deceased person
  3. He and his partner are trying to figure out how to make some money
  4. The heist gang's 4th member, who was to steal a getaway car and be the getaway driver, is currently in jail on a different charge
  5. The gang can get an other driver, but they still have getaway car
  6. Danny has to think fast else his lifeless body will be left behind in the booth

Danny tells the gang that he is starting a new business and the heist gang can be his first customers. He offers them Aunt Rosie's car as a "rental getaway vehicle." As he explains it, it is a "clean car," much the same as a criminal could obtain a "clean gun" from a clandestine weapons dealer on the street. It's a cash only and no paperwork deal. 

The heist goes forward, but there is no honor amongst criminals. Danny and his partner end up with an unexpected problem when they are double crossed by one of the gang members.

To see the problem and read the outcome, obtain your copy of the January 2021 issue of Mystery Weekly Magazine. There's some good reading in that issue.

27 February 2021

Writing is Hard


 A long time ago, back when video stores were kind of a cool new thing, I was whooping it up in the Toronto Press Club with some eminently more famous Toronto columnists and reporters.  One of them, Scottish he was, asked me this:  "Tell me, lass.  You have a syndicated humour column, you've written comedy, you've had over two dozen short stories published...so why aren't you writing a novel?"

After much deliberation, my exceedingly clever answer was:  

"Because they might want me to write
another one?"

That got a round of applause (actually make that a round of scotch) from the somewhat sozzled guys at the bar.

No really.  Even then, I knew that writing a novel would be a rat-poop load of work.  It wasn't that I was allergic to work.  I had honed the art of writing 650-800 words every week, and making them passably funny.  But writing 80,000 words for one project?

That was 1995, I think.  Since then, I've written 17 novels, and 50 more short stories.  And let me tell you.

Writing is WORK.   Holy hell, is it work.  It is a freaking black hole of work and time and bloodletting.  Time suck, soul suck, give your life over to the keyboard for MONTHS.

I've heard other authors say they can't wait to sit down to write the first page of a new novel.  That they get so excited when they start something new.

That isn't me.  After 17 books, I know what's coming.  Months of hunkering over the keyboard, doubting myself, loving, then hating my characters (Jesus Murphy, WHY is she such a whiny nincompoop?)  Finding the Black Moment.  BECOMING the black moment.

So to illustrate, my starts are more like this:

Me:  "Sob!" (hits head against desk)  "I don't want to.  Don't make me.  I can't do it again..."  (reaches for scotch with head still on desk)

Working-class Muse, possibly from Jersey, the wrong side:  "Listen sister.  Sit your fat bippie down and get a move-on.  These things don't write themselves."

Me:  "But it's so HARD."  (slurping puddle of scotch sideways through a straw.)

Muse:  "You think THIS is hard?  Remember before you were published?  Remember all those rejection letters from publishers?  We insulated the walls of the cottage with them."

Me (sniveling):  "Too bad the place caught fire."

Muse:  "Maybe if you hadn't written BURN IN HELL on all of them..."

At about this time in the ritual, W-C Muse says the magic motivation words:  "Sit up sister.  YOU GOT A CONTRACT."

Me:  "Oh right. Move over, and pass the scotch."

And so it goes.

I'm at that stage right now.  staring the page in the face, knowing I have to start book 2 in a new series, thinking I'd rather jump out this picture window into the lake below (even though I'm 4 stories up and about 50 feet from shore.  So it would be quite a leap.)

I started life as a columnist, so I know I should wrap up on positive note.

Writing is hard.  But it's my life, and I suspect it's yours too.


Melodie Campbell has won ten awards, including the Derringer, the Arthur Ellis, the Hamilton Reads Award, and a city of Toronto award for best children’s book in high school, which is probably as far away from The Goddaughter mob caper series as you can get.  

 

 



 


26 February 2021

All That Jazz


T.S. Hottle aka Jim Winter
T.S. Hottle aka Jim Winter

Hello, yes! I'm back. The Artist Occasionally Known as Jim Winter…

I did the formerly bit, but then Down & Out liked something I wrote, so here I am.

And what have I been up to? Well, I've gotten on a bit of a jazz kick, which is interesting. Because Robert Parker, Lorne Estleman, and to some extent, Michael Connelly all got static for having their primary protags – Spenser, Amos Walker, and Harry Bosch – into jazz the way 15-year-old boys in the 80s knew what the lead singer of Motley Crue had for breakfast.

A little background on how this came to be a topic, aside from Miles Davis blasting off my new turntable as I write this. (Yeah. I'm into vinyl now, too.)

In the beforetime, in the long, long ago,  when I first wrote crime fiction, I needed a way to differentiate my PI character, Nick Kepler, from every other PI character out there. He wasn't a bookstore hound like Tess Monaghan or a loud dresser like Elvis Cole. And he didn't have a minimalist lifestyle like Kinsey Milhonne. And forget the psycho sidekick. That trope needed to die a long time before Northcoast Shakedown saw the light of day in 2005.

The one thing I could do was make his taste in music parallel to my own. So, I put him in a blues band, had him blast Metallica on his way to lay the smack down on someone who killed one of his best friends, and even had him still using cassette as late as… Well, 2004. So, a blues guy. I didn't even bother listening to jazz. Why? I wasn't writing about it.

Fast forward to 2019. For my wife and stepson, our vacation would be the trip of a lifetime. They had wanted to drive Route 66 all the way to Santa Monica since years before I came into the picture. I could only get a week off work, but I hit on an idea. I would fly to San Francisco where we would spend a weekend, then Matt and I would drive back to Cincinnati in a rental.

While I waited for my family to show, I went to see Haight-Ashbury. Never went on two previous trips. This being San Fran, I Ubered everywhere. My very first driver taking me to Haight-Ashbury played jazz. I told him I, too, drove Uber and asked if the jazz was for him or for the passengers. "Oh, the passengers. I've had maybe two complaints since I started. You should play it. Watch your tips go up."

I took his advice, and lo, and behold, the passengers loved it. And I loved it. Why? Because like the 15-year-old boy named Jim Winter (OK, named TS Hottle) in the 1980s, I could tell you what Keith Richards had for breakfast this morning. (Corn flakes and a cup of black coffee.) I knew nothing of jazz but those wonderful sounds coming out of my speakers.

And then the pandemic hit. We are all now working from home, and my commute is down a flight of stairs. My wife bought me a turntable two years ago. Last year, she bought me Miles and Coltrane. And damn, but it sounds good on vinyl.

So, my days are spent now listening to either curated lists on Spotify, CDs of Frank, Tony, and Ella, or even some vinyl I got my hands on. Oh, the classic rock and grunge and even some punk slip in there And my wife has me listening to country, though not as often as she'd like. But the change reminds me of when I made Bouchercon annually. In the mid-2000s, many of the denizens then opened my ears up to Tom Waits, had me rediscover Johnny Cash, and dive into some of those latter-day blues guys like Rory Gallagher. Jazz has so many overlaps it's crazy. I heard it on albums by Kelly Clarkson, the Foo Fighters, and even Tom Petty (whom I'm still mourning.) So, how does that affect my writing?

I'm coming off an 18-month scifi writing binge, and 2/3 of my output was written to playlists that went from Bird Parker to a salsa princess from the 90s named Basia back to Sinatra and forward a bit into Weather Report.

And oh, the stories I could tell about the here and now driving people around the city to the sounds of Herbie Hancock.

It's been like a rejuvenation of my brain these last 18 months.

My ever-growing, very eclectic playlist is called Jazzhole.

Because I'm sometimes still a 15-year-old boy.

25 February 2021

The Greatest Historical Mystery of all Time


A while back I read, among other things, a review of Roberto Calasso's La Folie Baudelaire(1)

"Calasso's book can be seen as a series of spirited improvisations on the theme expressed in Walter Benjamin's essays on Baudelaire: that the poet, though he remained resolutely in the Romantic tradition, was the first to express the dark new reality of what Benjamin called 'the permanent catastrophe of life after the Industrial Revolution.'"

To which my response was: "Maybe, but Genesis is the first work to express the dark new reality of 'permanent catastrophe' of life after the Agricultural Revolution."  

I've suspected for a long time that most of the very ancient myths, including Genesis 2-3 and Gilgamesh, are all really about the the Agricultural Revolution. It actually is one of the great historical mysteries, if not the greatest:  how humanity went from wandering the earth to settling down, from hunter-gatherer to farmer. Because there was nothing inevitable - or even logical - about it. Humans were hunter-gatherers for 90% of human history. Agriculture is only a blip of time, and the urbanized world we live in - with only 1.3% of the US population actually working in agriculture, and only 26.7% world-wide - is barely 100 years old.  

So how did it happen?

MY NOTE:  That's what myths are for, to explain mysteries that no one can explain.  How we got here.  Why we're doing the things we're doing here and now - because we have no idea what the hell happened.  Especially when you realize that you're stuck.  You can't go back.  

So, here's the thing:  Paleolithic and Neolithic hunter-gatherer societies were complex, advanced societies.  They had fire, dogs, tools, woven containers, clothing, religion, art, music, dance, and stories.  They invented rafts, nets, and skis (the oldest skis still in existence date back to 6,000 BC from Russia).  They buried their dead. They had some concept of religious ritual.  They built sanctuaries and raised monoliths, megaliths, astronomical calendars, and passage tombs in abundance.  Look up Gobekli Tepe, Warren Field, Newgrange, etc.  

They had phenomenal memories.  (As I always told my students, oral cultures aren't and weren't stupid.)  Whole genealogies, records of journeys, oral maps, oral encyclopedias of where the plants and animals were, what herbs you used for medicine, what parts of trees and animals were best for what function and endless  - they had it all in their heads, and passed it all down, generation to generation, to [almost] the present day.  

They lived well.  They ate just as many plants as animals, and in some cases and definitely in some seasons, more more.  They returned again and again to sites where specific plants (roots, tubers, nuts, berries, and even grains) grew.  And they often either made sure to leave a certain number of those plants intact (roots in the ground, seeds above ground) and even replanted some things. (Ginseng hunters in China were known to do the same thing.)

It was a fairly egalitarian society: there was a leader, and/or a master of the hunt, but when the hunting and gathering was done, all the food was shared out equally among the tribe. Enlightened self-interest was and is the norm for pre-industrial societies. Radical hospitality was and is mandatory - if a stranger shows up, take him in, feed him, treat him well, because some day it will be your turn.  

It was also a fairly non-materialistic society, in terms of stockpiling stuff.  It had to be, because you can't carry a lot of stuff with you as a hunter-gatherer. 

It was also a surprisingly leisured society.  Hunter/gatherers only spent about 4-6 hours a day hunting for food, and the rest of their time cooking, eating, making tools, decorating themselves, sleeping, talking, etc.(2)   

The main drawbacks were high infant mortality, as well as the occasional death from accident, injury, and murder (yes, people killed each other then as now - see my 2015 blog post, Death Comes at the Beginning).  And, of course, they were extremely vulnerable to natural disasters.  All that kept the population very low. At one point there might have been only 125,000 humans on the planet.  

And then came agriculture and animal husbandry, and everything changed.


By the time of this ancient Egyptian painting, world population is estimated to have increased to 5-10 million people.  The Neolithic Revolution fed a lot more people than hunter-gathering, increasing the population in ways hunter-gathering couldn't.  But it had its downsides as well: 

Disease: hunter-gatherers had much lower disease rates (lice, worms) vs. farmers (measles is rinderpest in cattle; TB and smallpox come from cattle; an excellent source of tetanus is horse manure; rabies, obviously; flu from birds or pigs).  There's also overcrowding; a hunter-gatherer tribe was close, but there weren't 300-3,000 of them packed into stacked dwellings in a small walled town.  

Insecurity:  If your crops fail - well, folks are going to starve to death.  There are too many people to go back to hunting and gathering.  (Especially today.  I hear people say, well, I'm going to go off the grid, up in the wilderness - to which my response is, what wilderness?  Also, just because you've watched Alaska The Last Frontier doesn't mean you know how to survive.)  

Possession / Greed / hoarding.  I grew this, so it's mine:  this is my land, my house, my crops, my animals, my family, etc.  Lock the door, bar the windows.  Apparently, the first use of writing was to record my land, my house, my crops, my animals.  Count 'em up and keep track of what's whose.

Kings, priests, armies, bureaucracy, and war all come with agriculture. Which leads back to the great puzzle of how they learned how to do all of this.  

And we have no records.  All the written records we have come after kings, priests, scribes, armies, bureaucracy, and agriculture are already in place - and practically irreversible.  

So, what happened?

Well, to figure that out, you have to take old myths seriously, but not necessarily how time has made people take them seriously.  Most myths have been transformed over time into what we call fairy-tales, folk-tales, religious texts, or epics.  This makes analyzing them hard.  Some people will even call it blasphemous, if you're analyzing their religious text. But there are certain universals.  There's a blind king in almost every ancient culture, from Oedipus to the Mahabharata.  There's a Cinderella story in Europe, the Middle East, and China.  And battling brothers is the basis of so many epics, so many founding fathers, so many wars - of course, that could simply be human nature.  And the Flood shows up everywhere.  So.  I firmly believe that there was, somewhere, some time, way back in time, a blind king, a Cinderella, and a terrifying flood, all so memorable that each story got carried from place to place and passed on down the ages.  

Which brings me back to Genesis 2-3.  A garden, in which every tree and plant is provided that's good for food.  And a great river flowing through it, with every beast and bird living on its banks.  And human(s) naming those beasts and birds.  There's a sense of infinite nostalgia, for a time when humans were one with their environment, where humans walked on the earth, knowing every tree, bush, plant, and flower, every animal, fish, and bird, and what each and every one of them was for. 

And then comes the serpent, “more subtil than any beast of the field” – and starts talking to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’”  “You will not certainly die,” the serpent said to the woman. “For God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

Now there's been a lot of water under that bridge, as to what kind of fruit, and what the real sin was - most theologians agree that it was a combination of pride and greed, basically disobedience to God. The Epic of Gilgamesh calls it a betrayal of nature (3).  And I agree. Because what really happened during the Neolithic Revolution was a turning away from a life that was based entirely on the existing seasons and habits of nature. Trusting, every morning, that nature would indeed provide food. All humans had to do was go and look for it. 

But discontent came, and the hissing voice - whether of a serpent or in someone's own head (4) - saying, "Aren't you tired of wandering all over the place and never knowing what you'll find? Wouldn't it be nice to be able to eat berries whenever you want, to store up enough food so that you don't have to be out in bad weather?  When winter comes, you'll be sitting tight in a nice warm place with all the food and more that you need? You can provide for yourselves. You can control nature, instead of it controlling you. You will be safe."

And they fell for it. Ever since, it's been a lot of hard work and (until very modern times) extremely little leisure.

NOTE:  There's a hint that God didn't appreciate it:  Genesis also has Cain and Abel, offering their produce to God - Cain gave vegetables, Abel gave a lamb, and God preferred the meat.  So Cain got jealous and killed Abel.

Another reason why I think this interpretation of Genesis might be the right one is that it came from one of the oldest known civilizations on the planet: Sumer. Remember, Abraham was Sumerian, he came from Ur, and he brought his folk-lore with him. And many of the stories in early Genesis are also from Sumer (the Flood, for one thing). Sumer, "the cradle of civilization" "the fertile crescent", one of the places where agriculture began the earliest, so that by the time of Abraham, there would have already been a couple of thousand years of farming.  That makes Sumer a very logical place for farmers to remember, longingly, of a time without kings, bureaucrats, armies, or war. A time when food was everywhere for the taking, and all humans had to do was wander through the earth like a giant garden. And wonder what had happened, why they had been cursed: and what a specific curse! 

“Cursed is the ground because of you;
through painful toil you will eat food from it
all the days of your life.
It will produce thorns and thistles for you,
and you will eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your brow
you will eat your food
until you return to the ground,
since from it you were taken;
for dust you are
and to dust you will return.”

The life of a pre-industrial farmer, and that's a curse, not a blessing.

(1) Primarily because he's the author of The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, and Ka, two very interesting works on mythology, among other things.

(2) See Jared Diamond's The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.  BTW, I love central air/heating, antibiotics, anesthetics, gas stoves and screened windows. But I can wax nostalgic like anyone else...

(3) One last note:  The Sumerian epic Gilgamesh is even more obvious about one of the last meetings between the settler and the wanderer.  King Gilgamesh befriends the wild man Enkidu - "Abundantly hairy and primitive, he lives roaming with the herds and grazing and drinking from rivers with the beasts. One day a hunter watches Enkidu destroying the traps he has prepared for the animals. The hunter informs his father, who sends him to Uruk to ask Gilgamesh for help. The king sends Shamhat, a prostitute, who seduces Enkidu. After two weeks with her, he becomes human, intelligent and understanding words, however the beasts flee when they see him."  (Wikipedia)  Later, Enkidu helps Gilgamesh kill the giant Humbaba, guardian of the Cedar Forest, where the gods lived (and where they plan to cut the trees down). But before that happens, Humbaba accuses Enkidu of betraying the beasts of the wild and, by implication, all of nature by becoming "civilized".

(4)This is why one should always beware of listening too loudly to the voices in one's own head.

24 February 2021

Real Time & POV



I tried to watch 1917, the new Sam Mendes picture, and gave up about halfway through.  It’s about trench warfare in WWI, and if you haven’t heard, its chief claim to fame is that it unrolls in real time – in fact, it gives every appearance of being a single, long tracking shot.  This is, of course, an effect, and an extraordinary one, due in large part to cinematographer Roger Deakins, editor Lee Smith, and director Sam Mendes.  Mendes says the shortest uninterrupted shot they used was 39 seconds, and the longest 8½ minutes.  I normally love this kind of technical sleight of hand, but this time around it left me cold.

 

The famous example of real-time is Hitchcock’s Rope.  The dead guy goes into the chest, and the two killers host a cocktail party.  Out beyond the windows, night settles on the city.  Inside, the noose tightens.  Hitch shot the picture in extended takes, from five to ten minutes apiece, ten minutes being the max a camera magazine could hold. 

 

The question is why.  Hitchcock later said it was a stunt.  But he was always one for showing off.  How not?  The opening titles of The Lady Vanishes, the snow-covered train tracks, the village, the cars, all clearly a model.  The square full of umbrellas in Foreign Correspondent, the windmill turning backwards, the plane crash at sea.  (Huge pipes, from an overhead tank, smashing through the rear projection and a windscreen made of spun sugar: in other words, real water.)  The astonishing crane shot in Indiscreet, when the camera swoops down from high above all the way down to the key in Bergman’s hand.

 

Hitchcock is no stranger to heightened effect.  The point being, how does it further the story?  I give you the Covent Garden sequence in Frenzy.  Anna Massey puts her trust in her boyfriend’s bestie.  We know Barry Foster is the Necktie Murderer.  They walk through the market.  He takes her up to his flat.  The camera pauses in the stairwell as they go inside, and then backs away, down the stairs again, out of the apartment, across the street and through the market, a tracking shot in real time.  We know   what’s happening upstairs, while everybody goes about their business.  A girl is being strangled. 

 

This is how real-time can be used to enormously sinister effect.  I was a big fan of 24, but let’s admit there were some pretty contrived narrative turns.  I also liked Birdman a lot, and it took me a little to catch on, but how did the convention of a single continuous shot contribute? 

 

What narrative purpose does it serve, or is it simply a trick?  I’m not convinced by Rope, any more than I am by 1917, to be honest.  How does this pull you in any further?  I think the technical tricks actually distance you.

 

There’s a self-consciousness in any narration.  We talk about the advantages or disadvantages of First Person vs. Third, for example.  Jay McInerney used Second, Plural, in Bright Lights, Big City, but he used it for distance.  It didn’t bring you closer.  It pushed you away.  A very different example is Robert O’Connor’s Buffalo Soldiers.  He uses Second Person to draw you in, to make you complicit with an unsympathetic and even criminal narrator.

 

The question I’m asking, here, is how you create intimacy.  An uncomfortable intimacy, perhaps.  Which conventions work and which don’t? 

 

I thought Bright Lights was terrifically entertaining, but Second Person a novelty.  The way it’s used in Buffalo Soldiers is more intimate, and scary.  These tricks are useful.  I’ll take any arrow in the quiver, but overuse weakens the conventions.  Maybe there’s a picture that’s strengthened by constant forward motion, but 1917 isn’t it.

Not by this pretense. 

 

There’s a difference between invitation and lurking.  We all probably have predatory instincts, lions waiting at the water hole.  Who, though, is the prey?

 

23 February 2021

Writer’s Block of Ice


Today is Saturday, February 20, 2021. I have not written anything more complex than a trio of Facebook posts and a few brief emails since last Sunday. At approximately 6:30 a.m., Monday, February 15, the power went out in the midst of what has become known as the Texas Snowpocalypse, and it did not return until Thursday morning. Temple and I live in an all-electric house in Hewitt, a suburb of Waco, about halfway between Austin to the south and the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex to the north.

Look at the pretty snow.
It’s trying to kill you.

We live in an area with unstable electric power, where power flickers off and on year-round. For that reason, two of our computers are plugged into uninterruptable power supplies, which shield the computers from surges and can keep them running for up to an hour during a power failure, allowing for safe and systematic shutdowns. As soon as we realized the power might not be returning anytime soon, I charged my phone and Temple’s Kindle using one the UPSes. We should have also charged her phone.

As day stretched into night and day and night and day and night, the house grew increasingly colder (ultimately reaching a low of 48 degrees), we learned many things:

Multiple layers of clothing works. I added a new layer each day. By the end, I wore a sweatshirt over a T-shirt, jeans over sweatpants over underwear, slippers (when inside) or boots (when outside) over two pairs of socks. Over all of this I wore a thick Land’s End robe (when inside) or a winter coat (when outside). Accessories included gloves and a scarf.

We come from families of quilters. We have a few store-bought quilts and many quilts made by our mothers and other family members. I’m uncertain how many quilts we actually own because we did not have to dig them all out, but by the end we slept beneath five quilts—without taking off any of the layers of clothing we already wore.

We could not open the garage door more than one-third of the way. The emergency pull that should have disengaged the door from the electric door opening system’s chain did not function properly and we could not fully open the door. Even if we could have opened the door, there was no place we could have gone because everyone around us, all our family and friends, were in the same situation we were. Unable to get the cars out of the garage, we were not able to safely use them to warm ourselves or charge our phones.

Let’s have a cookout.
Chili and tea on the grill.

It is possible to cook a nutritious meal over charcoal briquettes. We often use our grill during the summer for traditional things such as steak and burgers. I used it to cook chili and heat the kettle for tea. We had enough briquettes that I could have prepared a second hot meal if I had needed to.

When the house is almost as cold as the inside of the refrigerator, there’s no real danger in opening the fridge door and rummaging through the contents. Milk remained cold and drinkable, and other fridge items remained edible throughout.

A cat will learn to appreciate covers. Kiwi often sleeps in our laps when we’re seated in the living room and he often sleeps atop me at night. The first night, despite our efforts to cover him, he resisted. As the house grew colder and he began to shiver, we wrapped him up and held him so he couldn’t escape. By the end, he insisted on being wrapped in a quilt.

A GLIMMER OF HOPE

The power flickered off and on for about an hour and a half on Tuesday afternoon, allowing the HVAC system to warm the house by a few paltry degrees.

Wednesday morning, power was restored to Temple’s father’s home. He lives about seven blocks from us. When it appeared that his power was stable, I made a renewed effort to open the garage door. I am not mechanically inclined, but after scouring the internet, I learned how to completely detach the door from the automatic system and opened the door. Temple escaped to her father’s home.

A few hours later, I took Kiwi to his house and returned home. Mid-evening, with no change in our situation likely, I joined them, and we had a warm dinner (leftover chili!), spent the night in a warm house, and had a warm breakfast.

Let there be light!

I returned home Thursday morning to find that power had been restored and the house was slowly warming. Mid-afternoon Temple and Kiwi returned home, I reassembled the garage door, and I showered for the first time since Sunday morning.

We spent Friday listening to transformers explode throughout our neighborhood. Each time, the power would flicker off and then return.

Friday, our community was placed under mandatory water conservation restrictions. So, while we’ve never been without water, we are avoiding showers, have not washed clothes, nor have we run the dishwasher.

Today, with the midmorning temperature above freezing and the roads reasonably clear, we ventured out. We had bills to pay, medications to pick up, and groceries to buy.

I tried to fill my car’s gas tank, but could not find a service station with working pumps.

The crowded grocery store had limited supplies. But we found milk, cheese, and potatoes as well as some canned items that would supplement the food we already had at home.

Many of our fellow Texans have suffered far more than we have—and some even escaped to Cancun—so I’m not about to complain about our experience. Still, I certainly don’t want to ever repeat it.

It will take a long time to recover from what’s happened. In fact, we may have PTSD—Post Texas Storm Disorder.

READING AND WRITING

I did a lot of reading during daylight hours. (I completed two Peter Lovesey novels and am halfway through a third. I strongly recommend his work even if you’re not caught in a Snowpocalypse.)

What I didn’t do is write. I couldn’t. Survival took precedence.

I don’t believe in writer’s block, and I never have. This week, though, I experienced the ultimate writer’s block.

This week I was beaten by a writer’s block of ice.


On February 12, Down & Out Books released Bullets and Other Hurting Things: A Tribute to Bill Crider, edited by Rick Ollerman. The anthology includes my story “The Ladies of Wednesday Tea.”





My story “Family Films” was published by Close to the Bone on February 14.



The Great Filling Station Holdup: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Jimmy Buffet, edited by Josh Pachter and published by Down & Out Books, was released February 22. Included is my story “Tampico Trauma” and stories by fellow SleuthSayers John M. Floyd and Leigh Lundin.

22 February 2021

Your Tax Dollars at Work


I may have mentioned, once or three hundred times, that until I retired I was a government information librarian. One of my hobbies back then was collecting interesting government titles.  Now you get to benefit from my dedicated time-killing.

All of these are real and I include links to prove it. Some of these titles no doubt made sense when they were published. Some make sense now if you look them from the right point of view. Some – like the terrorism one  – are just a garbled mess. And some are artifacts of one of the most tragic impulses that can occur to a government author – the desire to be clever or “hip.”

Dullness is your friend, Mr. Bureaucrat. Embrace it. If you are putting an exclamation point in a government title, you are on the wrong track.


21 February 2021

A Buffett Buffet


Why get stoned when there’s rock? Stone crabs and rock shrimp, of course, boiling in sea water seasoned with Old Bay, served outside a rusted beach shack. Delicious.

Unless you’ve been living under a conch shell, you probably heard Margaritaville has a new criminal element in town. Disreputable word-slingers have been spotted skulking amongst the happy drunks at beachside bars, gathered around a piratey privateer, Josh Pachter. This disreputable lot call themselves anthologists. Book 'em, I say, in fact, it’s already booked: The Great Filling Station Holdup.

The Great Filling Station Holdup anthology colourful cover

Let’s face it. Jimmy Buffett is a damn good lyricist. If he’d migrated from Nashville to Tin Pan Alley, he’d reside among the best of Broadway songwriters.

While Buffett is known for lighthearted, cheerful tunes, scratch many a surface and you’ll reveal more serious strata. Take as example the lyrics of Margaritaville:

But there’s booze in the blender
And soon it will render
That frozen concoction that helps me hang on.

Wasted away again in Margaritaville,
Searching for my lost shaker of salt.
Some people claim that there's a woman to blame,
And I know it's my own damn fault.

A reviewer at AZLyrics.com opines:

The song is about a man spending an entire season at a beach resort, enjoying carefree Caribbean lifestyle with margarita cocktails. There is some lyric confusion about words ‘Wasted away’ in the chorus of the song.

Whut? Seriously? Are we listening to the same song? You can’t hear the tone of forlorn desperation? Sir, put down the rum and step away from the bar.

While many of Buffett’s songs carry a serious secondary layer, a few like ‘Southern Cross’ will break your heart, and some of his early work is downright dark and dangerous. And I like it. But, when Josh Pachter invited me to sail the Buffett brigantine, I was immensely flattered and simultaneously panicked. What the hell could I possibly come up with? Then parts fell into place.

I find it difficult to write about myself. Talk about my work, okay, fine, but talk about me, not so easy. To deflect scrutiny, I hatched the notion of writing about my SleuthSayers colleagues and their stories appearing in Josh’s latest and greatest anthology. Good excuse. And why not include Pachter’s headlining story as well? Let’s begin.

Spending Money
Beach House on the Moon
[musiclyrics]
John Floyd



John sent me his story first, so we’ll start there. Jimmy’s song, ‘Spending Money’, is a light-hearted, whistling ditty. Part of the chorus subtly hints at skullduggery,

A little spending money, money to burn.
Money that you did not necessarily earn.

John has molded his story into a morality play. Greek playwrights could recognize the plot. Russian authors might embrace such a protagonist.

In John’s story, a hint of a pending train wreck hovers in the air, a force that can’t be stopped. The main character has an issue with honesty, a shortcoming of which a rare friend, a waitress, tries to disabuse him of his wayward ways.

To tell you more would tell you too much. I’ve read many of John’s stories and haven’t encountered one like this. Enjoy it.

Tampico Trauma
Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes
[musiclyrics]
Michael Bracken



I’ve read Michael Bracken over the years, but I hadn’t absorbed what a master of atmosphere he is. From the beginning, you feel like you’ve been dropped into Tamaulipas– no, not a Taco Bell menu item, the Mexican Gulf state. In Michael’s story, you can smell aromatic herbs seasoning the broth, you can hear a touristy guitar.

Buffett’s song is barely 150 words, fewer than twenty lines. In contrast, Michael has fleshed out a complete story, a simmering plot spiced by the kind and compelling Hern├índez hermanas. I can’t help but wonder if he didn’t borrow a refrain from another song:

First you learn the native custom,
Soon a word of Spanish or two.
You know that you cannot trust them,
Cause they know they can’t trust you.

Trust me, Bracken has smuggled a lot in a small packet.

The Great Filling Station Holdup
A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean
[musiclyrics]
Josh Pachter



Josh Pachter shuttles us through the dimensions of space, time, and sound, back to a Jimmy country song. Both artists convey an old-fashioned tone, a feeling when informal policing could accomplish more than modern day school resource officers and zero-tolerance policies.

We got fifteen dollars and a can of STP,
A big ole jar of cashew nuts and a Japanese TV.
Feelin’ we’dd pulled the biggest heist of our career.
We're wanted men– we’ll strike again!
But first let’s have a beer.

Josh delivers a surprisingly gentle story. He pays considerable attention to characterization, so by the time the story wraps, you’re glad to witness a happy ending.

And for enquiring minds who want to know, he’s a damn fine editor. He’s also donating a third of the royalties to two Buffett charities, Singing for Change Charitable Foundation and Save the Manatee Club,

Truckstop Salvation
Down to Earth
[musiclyrics]
Leigh Lundin



After Josh’s invitation, I sweated, coming up with zero ideas. As the acceptance deadline approached, I feared having to decline.

One evening, my scalpel-tongued brother Glen mentioned one of his ironic descriptors– dirty, furrin’ lovin’, commie, pinko, hippie, peace queers (considerably cleaned up for our refined audience). I tossed out, “Long-haired, greasy-looking ape,” and immediately wondered where that came from.

Googling found it in a song on Jimmy Buffett’s first album, Down to Earth. The lyrics of ‘Truckstop Salvation’ hinted at an off-camera not-so-pleasant ending.

A silly ditty floated in my brain to the tune of ‘Harper Valley PTA’ (written here in awkward pentameter):

I want to tell you about a valley in Eastern Tennessee.
Good folks and bad struggle in a place called Suwannachee.
No McDonalds, no mall, no factory, no future, no pay,
Then along comes a notice from the local valley TVA.

Those in Washington know you love your rustic neighborhood,
But Congress tells you to give it up for the greater good.
Though eminent domain puts your family in a jam,
Those vacate orders on your doors mean they don’t give a dam.

Once my brain juxtaposed my brother with his Tom Petty hair and live-by-his-own-rules attitude, a Southern gothic began to sketch itself in dark, dark tones. What if Edgar Allan Poe engaged in a forbidden romance with Bobbie Gentry? You know, Deliverance without all the fun and frolic?


Those rock shrimp and stone crabs are rolling to a boil. Beer tub in the sand, nutcrackers at the ready. Pick up the hammer and tongs, have at them.

Florida’s Broward College is sponsoring the launch party. It’s virtual. It’s Zoom. It’s free. It’s 11 March, 2021 at 07:30p. Sign up here!

And yeah, the Jimmy Buffett anthology has lots of damn good stories. Don’t be a crusty crustacean, pre-order at a discount. Do it quickly– it’s 5 o’clock somewhere.

20 February 2021

As You Wish


  

FYI, I am not a screenwriter. I'm just a short-story writer who loves movies and has always been interested in the way they're written and made. And one of the things I have observed is that any discussion of screenwriters eventually includes the name William Goldman (Butch Cassidy, Misery, Marathon Man, All the President's Men), and anytime you talk long enough about movies that are loved by just about everyone, somebody usually mentions The Princess Bride.

 

Goldman, who wrote the book and then the movie, once said, "I was going to California on a trip and I told my daughters, 'I'll write you a story; what do you want it to be about?' And one of them said, 'Princesses,' and the other said something about 'brides.' And I said, 'Okay, that will be the title.'"

As it turned out, the movie version of The Princess Bride became a classic, one of those rare films loved by viewers of all ages. I've probably watched it a dozen times, and it even has the approval of my wife and kids and grandchildren, who are sometimes bored crosseyed by my movie suggestions. TPB is unlike any other film I can think of, a weird combination of fairy tale ("Have fun storming the castle"), comedy ("Don't rush me, sonny, you rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles"), love story ("Farm Boy, polish my horse's saddle; I want to see my face shining in it by morning"), revenge story ("My name is Inigo Montoya, you killed my father, prepare to die"), and adventure story ("You're trying to kidnap what I have rightfully stolen"). It features pirates, giants, wizards, torture, fire swamps, The Cliffs of Insanity, and R.O.U.S. (Rodents of Unusual Size). And another thing: The Princess Bride is one of those movies--among them The Silence of the Lambs, Jaws, Lonesome Dove, The Godfather, Cuckoo's Nest, No Country for Old Men, and Shawshank Redemption--that turned out to be as good as the novels and novellas from which they were adapted. That doesn't happen often.

A special treat for me was a book I acquired a few years ago called As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, by Cary Elwes, who played Westley in the movie. If you're familiar with the story, you might remember that the phrase "as you wish" was the reply Westley always gave Buttercup anytime she asked him for something (like fetching a pitcher or filling a bucket with water or polishing her saddle). And because of that, in one of those moments that make good stories great, there was this exchange at the very end of the movie, when Peter Falk is about to leave after reading the story to ten-year-old Fred Savage:

The Grandson: "Grandpa? Maybe you could come over and read it again to me tomorrow."

The Grandfather: "As you wish." 

Anyhow, it's a delightful and educational book about the filming of the movie and about the actors and their roles. In case you don't know, or in case you've forgotten, here's the cast:


Robin Wright as Buttercup/The Princess Bride

Cary Elwes as Westley/Farm Boy/The Man in Black/The Dread Pirate Roberts

Mandy Patinkin as Inigo Montoya

Andre the Giant as Fezzik

Wallace Shawn as Vizzini

Chris Sarandon as Prince Humperdinck

Christopher Guest as Count Rugen/The Six-Fingered Man

Billy Crystal as Miracle Max

Carol Kane as Valerie

Peter Cook as The Impressive Clergyman

Peter Falk as The Grandfather

Fred Savage as The Grandson

 

There's also plenty of interesting inside info about director Rob Reiner, screenwriter William Goldman, and the many ups and downs of trying to put the movie together. Here are a few excerpts from the book:


Rob Reiner: "So I went with Andy [co-producer Andy Scheinman] to Bill's [Goldman's] apartment in New York, and he opened the door and said, 'This is my favorite thing that I've ever written in my life. I want it on my tombstone.' And the subtext was, 'What are you going to do to it?'"

Robin Wright: "My theory is that they were so completely tired of meeting girls--I think I was the five-hundredth girl they saw--at that point they were like, 'Just cast her. Make her the princess.' . . . That was my lucky fate--they were exhausted."

William Goldman: "I remember turning to Rob and saying, "You're setting fire to Robin on the first day?! What, are you nuts? It's not like we can replace her!"

Mandy Patinkin: "It was 1986. My father died in 1972. I read that script and I wanted to play Inigo because my mind immediately went, If I can get that six-fingered man, then I'll have my father back, in my imaginary world."

Cary Elwes (on meeting Andre the Giant): "I remember Rob introducing us, and watching my fingers disappear when we shook hands, completely engulfed by a palm bigger than a catcher's mitt . . . His shoe size was twenty-four and his wrist was nearly a foot in circumference. Standing next to him, I only came to his belly-button."


You get the idea. The point is, if you like movies, and if you liked The Princess Bride, you'll enjoy this book. 


Meanwhile, have fun storming the castle . . .




19 February 2021

The Day I Hung Up My Fedora Forever


I was about 10 years old when I got my first business cards. I “printed” them up myself, laboriously writing them in longhand with pen on index cards I swiped from my Dad.

D’AGNESE DETECTIVE AGENCY, the first line read. After that came our home address in Jersey. There ended my originality. The rest of the copy is tattooed in the brain of anyone who loved mysteries as a kid: 25 cents per case, plus expenses. No case too small.

I don’t know how many of these cards I wrote up. But it was a lot, because I remember discarding a few of my Dad’s pens along the way. Some cards started in black or blue ink, but finished in red. Then I pressed my younger brothers into service. We dropped those cards into every home mailbox or mail slot in the neighborhood.

I set up my office in the garage. We always had some folding chairs tucked away in a closet; I appropriated a couple for myself and my operatives. My Dad had a very large metal gasoline can in the garage—also perfect, also fortuitous—which became my desk of sorts.

I don’t know how long I had to wait for my first case, but when it materialized, it came in the form of two big kids. I can’t be precise about their ages, or mine, because childhood memories are forever and ageless. One of the kids was the friend of our older, big-kid neighbor, Clint.

Big kids suck.

“Someone stole my bike,” he told me. “I need you to find it.”

As soon as his lips closed, a shocking thought passed through my head: What the hell was I doing? I had no freaking idea how to be a detective. How does one even begin to track a stolen bike?

“Do you have any suspects?” I said.

My client didn’t get a chance to respond, because at this point one of my brothers insisted on seeing the color of the fellow’s money. “It’s 25 cents!”

“Yeah, I know,” the big kid said. “I read those books too.”


Book #1 in the Series. Note the gas can!

The books in question, as you’ve no doubt guessed, were the Encyclopedia Brown mysteries that were written so wonderfully by a man named Donald J. Sobol over the course of 49 years.

Sobol wrote other books in his lifetime, but the Brown mysteries—about Leroy Brown, a kid sleuth who solved cases out of his garage in a small fictional town in Florida—will always be his claim to fame. The Brown books each contained about 10 short mysteries.

I hate dreaming up clues for the stories I write today. I’m terrible at it. Sobol’s genius was boiling every single case down to some abstruse factoid that revealed which person in the story was a liar. Things like which way water flowed in the Amazon basin, or the fact that dogs can’t see color, or the fact that fire never burns downward, only up. (I just made these up. They are not Sobol-approved.) No one in the stories, not even grown-ups, knew this kind of trivia, but Encyclopedia always did. That’s how he always nabbed the perp.

I never did read all the Brown books. My childhood ended before Sobol finished crafting them. But many years later, I had the chance to read the first volume of his Two-Minute Mysteries series, which were wickedly short newspaper puzzlers not unlike the ones in Woman’s World magazine today. Sobol published three books culled from this one syndicated mystery column, which he began writing for newspapers in 1959.

But here’s what blew my mind: In the same way that Raymond Chandler “cannibalized” his short stories and their plots in later novels, or the way Ellery Queen repurposed their old radio scripts for later books, Sobol clearly tapped some of his old Dr. Haledjian newspaper shorts for later Encyclopedia Brown material.

Because clues are just that precious.

None of this helped me, by the way, back in the 1970s. The Case of the Purloined Bike didn’t have a single critical clue to guide me. (I wouldn’t have spotted it if it had.) As I recall, the case fell apart when the client threatened to steal our bikes, mine and my brothers. Isn’t that just like a big kid?!

Terrified, I fled my newly hatched office for the safety of my upstairs bedroom, bolting the door. If the world was not going to challenge my ratiocinative abilities, I would not be a party to its madness.


Book #29 —the last in the series.


My younger brother, who has always been physically bigger than me, fought off the big kids with a stick and locked the garage door. He’s the only hero of this story.

I never had another case. But some months later, a commuter on the bus to the big city plopped down next to my father one morning and innocently asked, “Are you a detective?”

My father spluttered that he was no such thing.

The woman showed him my business card.

“That’s gotta be one of my idiot kids!” he told her.

“I thought so,” she said. “But I thought I would ask. I need someone to find my sweater. I can’t find it anywhere.”

Where was this paragon of clienthood when I needed her?

By rights my story ends there. But many years later, when I was working at the children’s publishing company, Scholastic, I had the chance to interview Sobol, who lived in Florida, by phone.

I found him to be incredibly down to earth. He chuckled when I told him about my detective agency. I was not the only grown-up who’d shared such an anecdote with him over the years. Pulling some questions from old bios of him, I asked if he still fished or golfed. He laughed. He said most days he was lucky if he got up from his desk and made it to the refrigerator.

At the end of the interview, I mentioned in passing that our children’s magazine would be reprinting one of the Brown mysteries to accompany the Q&A I was writing.

In a line that sort of presaged my own future, Sobol replied, “Am I getting paid for this? I mean, if it’s just a few bucks, no big deal. But if it’s $25, send me the check.”

His last Brown title was published a few months after he died in the summer of 2012, at age 87. The best estimate I’ve found says the Brown books have sold more than 50 million copies—and counting. That should keep us in budding detectives until the end of this century, at least.

Count me out.

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See you in three weeks!