10 May 2021

Me and My Hoomans


Dictated by Ernie to Steve Liskow

Dad said I could write his blog if I promised I wouldn't eat the mouse. It doesn't look or smell much like a mouse, anyway.


My sister Jewel and I met Dad and Mom twelve years ago this week. Our first owner lost his home and we had to go to a shelter. Jewel was really shy and it upset her a lot, but I promised I'd find us a new home. When Dad walked in, I purred and played and let him hold me in his lap. Mom petted me too, and they both liked me. I wouldn't go without Sis, though. The people at the shelter said we were a blonde pair, or something like that. I'm kind of blond, but Jewel was a Himalayan. Anyway, Dad and Mom put us in carriers again--I still don't like car rides because, up to then, they'd all ended up us being somewhere we didn't like--but this time was different.

A basement with two litter boxes and lots of furniture. A nice bright kitchen and two food dishes. Two sets of stairs to run up and down, lots of windows and trees so we could watch birds and squirrels. Jewel hid under the coffee table in the basement that first night, but I trotted back and forth between Mom's chair and Dad on the couch, letting them pet me. By the time they went to bed, I knew we'd scored. And when I jumped ino bed and curled up against Mom, she snuggled me. We still do lots of that.


Dad's a writer. He spends lots of time by the computer talking to himself and shaking his head. Jewel used to read his stuff and tell me what it was, but he never had enough action or car chases for me--except that book about roller derby, and that was girls, so Jewel got into it more than I did. She wanted more love scenes and stuff becasue she's...well, you know...a girl. I'm more into sports. That's my favorite section of the newspaper. Except the comics. 


For our first Christmas with Mom and Dad--I was about a year and a half and Jewel was two, Mom got us a new kitty bed. It was nice, but it was even better when she took the cushion out of it. Then we could fit in it together and groom in a sunbeam. Mom took a picture and used it as a Christmas card one year. There was even a big hanging plant in the room at first, but Dad saw a few teeth marks on leaves and took it away. He never saw me chew it, but what are you going to do?


Mom's an actress, and sometimes she'd walk around in the bedroom talking to Jewel in funny voices. Jewel would always talk back, and sometimes I thought Mom actually understaood what she was saying. Hoomans are pretty smart if you encourage them. Dad practices guitar sometimes, too. It's weird, a guitar doesn't smell alive, but it makes noise like you wouldn't believe. Jewel and I usually went upstairs when Dad pulled it out of its bed. That's when Mom would stretch out on the bed and we'd cuddle with her. Sometimes, she stayed downstairs and did a crossword puzzle. Jewel probably knew more answers, but I usually sat on the back of the chair so I could see the clues better.

During basketball season, Jewel liked to watch the UConn Women, even though they're the Huskies. Go figure. Mom thinks she taught Jewel to say "Maya Moore," but she could say it all along. She just finally let Mom hear her.

Jewel died about three years ago, and Mom and Dad and I held each other a lot. I didn't remember being away from her before, and I looked all over the condo for weeks before I figured out she wasn't coming back. That really hurt. But I'm still taking care of Mom and Dad.

Mom and Dad take care of me, too. Mom even gets up to fill my water cup if I'm thirsty in the middle of the night because I don't like my fountain downstairs. And I still like to sleep between Dad's feet except in the summer when it's really hot.


Dad's not writing as much as he used to now, and I keep telling him he needs more car chases. I don't think he gets it. He still plays guitar, too, and I help him and Mom watch baseball and basketball. I'll take care of them as long as I can, because that's what Maine coons do. We love our hoomans.  

09 May 2021

Drugs, rugs, and dogs


I’m now suspicious of my carpets.

First, I should explain that I’m a huge fan of Persian carpets. When I was a poor student, I bought one at a flea market and got hooked. No pun intended.

When I had a bit more money, I bought some more from a lovely local store and became even more enamoured with them. I even gifted them to my children when they moved out.

I was wandering the internet late at night - we are on lockdown, so my late night amusements are limited these days - and I found out that some rugs have drugs.

“Sniffer dogs at the Manchester Airport aroused suspicions for a large import of beautiful carpets, and upon further examination the security personnel found the drugs “hidden inside thread-like sheathes that look like carpet yarn to the naked eye”.

These smugglers literally managed to create little malleable ‘tunnel containers’ for heroin that look like rope, then wove them into the fabric of gorgeous, completely inconspicuous carpets of commercial quality. 46 of these hand-made knotted carpets were in this particular shipment, and they found around 50 kilograms of heroin hidden in them so far.

The sheer size and sophistication of this operation is just mind-blowing. This particular shipment would be worth several millions of dollars, and while this one was miraculously sniffed out by highly trained dogs, there could have been dozens more that went completely unnoticed.”

It’s a marvel, really, that someone would be able to think of, let alone implement, a process where heroine was hidden in carpet strands and then woven into a rug.

Apart from admiring the technical brilliance of the plan, I was worried. When I read that I looked at my sleeping bouvier, Kai. Surely, if our rugs had drugs, Kai would have found them. I came to my senses and realized that Kai is not a trained sniffer dog and unless a rug smelled like meat or cheese, she would ignore it completely.

I then went down the rabbit hole of drugs in rugs. I wondered if rugs with drugs have been found near where I lived?

Apparently so.

“The joint investigation between provincial and Toronto police as well as the Canada Border Services Agency began in June 2010, when border services agents at Pearson airport found 15 kilograms of heroin hidden inside 27 carpets that arrived from Pakistan.

The drug had been put into the main support strands and the carpets were woven around them, likely by people who were paid almost nothing for their labour, police said.”

Who doesn’t love the totally Canadian statement about the poor pay of those who made the heroin laced rugs?

However, I must admit this alarmed me. Did I buy a rug around that time? I might have.

Then I realized that a heroin laden rug would be promptly picked up by whoever organized it and it was unlikely to end up on my floor.

In case you’re wondering - because of course you are - I did ask Kai to sniff our rugs. In the middle of the night.

Kai is a very reasonable dog. She is also inordinately fond of me for no reason I can ascertain, and generally puts up with my odd request. I can be a handful.

After a curious look at the carpet, she simply lay down and promptly went to sleep. She may live with a crazy woman who goes down crime rabbit holes late at night, but she needs her beauty sleep.

I also found out that they have made dinner sets out of compressed cocaine. Is it out of line for me to ask Kai to smell my dishes?

Did I mention we’re in lockdown?

08 May 2021

Devil at the Crossroads Has Got on Wet Socks


Babe the Blue Ox
© Minnesota Public Radio

It was late December 2017, and it must’ve been raining buckets or something weird because I wanted to write a tall tale. Not the Pecos Bill or Stormalong kind with giants striding the earth. Those had their day. More of the big fish kind, with an ordinary situation tweaked, stretched, and rewoven into a yarn outlandishly more satisfying.

I love stories that take a familiar-ish set-up and find something hilarious or poignant or sublime that only a tug at normalcy reveals. In Lorrie Moore’s wonderful “Debarking,” a divorced man can’t get his darn wedding ring off, and that takes him on unexpected paths. In Ron Rash’s “Something Rich and Strange,” a disappeared young woman becomes a supernatural gift to the town. In Ben Fountain’s “Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera”–maybe my favorite story ever written--an over-idealistic grad assistant comes to see his Colombian rebel kidnappers as fellow travelers and a last chance to preserve an ecosystem. These masterpieces twist reality just so, and that gives them richness and a deeper truth.

Those are the masters. Me, my stories bring oddball McGuffins and caper plans of glory, even exaggerated characters. This time, I just wanted a lie. That was it. A simple lie that surprises even the liar and grows and grows until the lie breaks free and exists on its own oxygen.

That was the thought. A whopper story done as crime fiction. I even hoped to pull it off.

December 2017. The post-Christmas lull is a great time to write, being simultaneously tired, sentimental, and well-carbed. I hit the writing desk and got after this tall tale idea. There would be a cop, and the cop would have to investigate something. Hijinks would ensue. Gold.

Okay, I had a little more than that. My goal was to write the thing in four-part structure, one part per day, to land a 4,000-word story. A sprint by my standards.

A sprint needs a framework or else will run smack into a blind alley. I’ve invented a town, Rasping Creek, that sits along the Duck River (also in the March/April 2020 AHMM’s “Lord, Spare the Bottom Feeders”). Nashville sprawl has come knocking, for good and for ill. A town struggling with identity and change felt like fertile ground for hijinks. Rumors, suspicions, low stakes that grow deeply personal. My cop would be Rasping Creek’s police chief and also pretty much the entire force.

A small town suggested a small crime, like a petty theft at a local store. I had this notion that the thief would leave something behind, a sign of honest remorse at living that life. I brainstormed through possibilities and eventually settled on the thief leaving money to pay for a ripped-off lottery scratcher. That word rang: Scratch. Lotto tickets scratched, yearnings scratched, money as scratch, chances blown as a scratch, Old Scratch at the crossroads in many a Blues tale.

I don’t recall how much it actually rained here in late 2017. Don’t tell me, either. Mythologizing a load of rain is a more fun memory than having proof it did or didn’t. I do know that my POV wavelength came faster than most of my first person narrators. The cop had grievances. Overworked, underfunded, an eye cast toward retirement but without enough banked for it. On Sprint Day One, the chief groused, “A man can’t think in wet socks.” Truth, but he shouldn’t have told me that if he wanted to dry off.

Non-stop rain became the absurdity fuel. Seriously, part of why the chief fabricates an archenemy of our lotto scratcher is from being trapped in squishy socks. The chief has been cornered over not solving a random smash-and-grab that no underfunded force will ever solve. A local would just buy the scratcher legit when there for snacks and beer. A local can’t turn around and cash in a stolen ticket or brag much if it’s a winner. Word flies around places like Rasping Creek, and these scratchers have serial numbers.

The chief finds himself building up that dire archenemy--dubbed Scratch--and points to the damp money left as evidence of deeper criminal genius. Rasping Creekers with their waters rising were quick to believe an outsider menace has descended (and just look at what people will believe these days…). The crook is wisely long gone, not that it matters to the chief or soon the townsfolk blaming Scratch for any further petty crime. The two-bit smash-and-grab escalates into a regional sensation. Sure, the chief gets a budget increase, but he’s also exhausted and perma-soaked chasing Scratch “sightings.” Guilt seeps in. Compassion for the real random crook and that strange beat of honesty. Hijinks unravel, as hijinks do.

And that, after much editing, is “Scratch,” in the May/June ’21 AHMM. I hope I pulled off a story about truth and ambition, about dumb luck and wet socks, about how the legendary whopper of a fish inevitably slips away.

07 May 2021

Lost for 43 Years


The Death Mask of Napoleon, presented to the city of New Orleans by Napoleon's personal physician Dr. Francois Antommarchi in 1834, and put on display in the Cabildo on Jackson Square, went missing for 43 years.

I've viewed the death mask many times in the Cabildo. It is one of three bronze effigies cast from a plaster mold made by Antonmmarchi forty hours after Napoleon's death. The mask in the Cabildo was the first cast from the original mold, the other two are in Paris at the Musée Carnavalet (Musée Historique de la Ville de Paris) and in the Musée de l'Armée (Hotel des Invalides which houses the tomb of Napoleon).

The effigy does not resemble the Napoleon we see in paintings and sculptures. The cheeks are sunken showing high cheekbones, the nose has a distinct curve, its end drooping slightly. The lips are further apart on the left than the right as if the emperor is giving us a slight smile. With the head shaved in order to create the plaster mold, the forehead seems narrow and only part of the ears are shown. The lay of the head reveals a prominent Adam's apple. Such was the first Emperor of France at death at the age of 51. (Napoleon referred to himself as Emperor of the French rather than Emperor of France). The face looks more like Julius Caesar than Napoleon.

Napoleon death mask

When I first saw it as a kid, I was amazed. First death mask I'd ever seen. More amazing was the story how we almost lost the mask.

Dr. Antommarchi arrived in New Orleans in November, 1834, to great fanfare. He set up a practice as Napoleon's doctor and prospered until leaving in 1838. He joined a wealthy cousin in Cuba and became adept at removing cataracts. He died in Cuba in 1838, a yellow fever victim.

The celebrated death mask was put on immediate display and moved to the new City Hall on Lafayette Square (now called Gallier Hall after its architect James Gallier, Sr.) in 1852. During the Civil War, the New Orleans City Hall was often in upheaval with Confederates occupying it for a year and US forces for the remainder of the war after the Yankees took the city in 1862.

In 1866, former City Treasurer Dr. Adam Giffen, walking along Canal Street, saw Napoleon's Desk Mask in a junk wagon. He was astonished and followed the wagon and bought the mask from the junk dealer. The mask had been thrown out with other trash when City Hall was going through one of many clean-ups after the war. Giffen took the mask home and put it on the table in his library, showing it to family and friends.

When Dr. Giffen died in 1890, the mask was given to the widow of the doctor's son, Robert Giffen. The widow put the mask on display in her home. No one in city government missed the mask and the widow eventually sold it to Captain William G. Raoul, President of the Mexican National Railroad, who took the mask to his home in Altanta, Georgia. When Raoul learned the city of New Orleans was seraching for the mask, he contacted the city and agreed to return the mask for the price he had paid for it plus interest and an inscription about him placed next to the mask when it went back on display. New Orleans Mayor Martin Behrman eagerly agreed to the arrangement and the mask was returned in 1909 and placed in the custody of the Louisiana State Museum, to which the Cabildo is a part.

On August 13, 1902, an out-of-work traveling salesman from Chicago attempted to steal the mask. The theft was prevented by the quick intervention of E. L. Carrol, a Tulane University medical student working as a night watchman at the Cabildo.

On May 11, 1988, the Cabildo was set ablaze by men working on the roof. I happened to drive past it along Decatur Street, saw the Cabildo on fire and felt certain we'd lost the historic building – seat of the Spanish colonial government and site of the Louisiana Purchase ceremony in 1803. The New Orleans Fire Department saved the old building.


Television crews filmed heroic firefighters battling the blaze and dousing Saint Louis Cathedral next door to keep the oldest cathedral in continuous use in the United States from burning. They also filmed firefighters carrying out art and historical treasures from the Cabildo, including the death mask. As you can see, the fire engulfed the entire roof.

The Cabildo was restored to its original state and the death mask is there on display. Note the three floors. The first floor is of French design, the second Spanish architecture, the third floor and cupola of American architecture.


Much of the information in this posting is from the pamphlet DEATH MASK OF NAPOLEON, a publication of the Louisiana State Museum, New Orleans, issued January 15, 1936. Price 25¢. No copyright listed. No author listed.

That's all for now.

www.oneildenoux.com

06 May 2021

It's the Same Damn Thing Over and Over Again


Homo sapiens is a weird species.  Granted, it's the only species of which we have a few thousand years of recorded history, written by, for, and about homo sapiens.  The amazing thing is how little we learn about ourselves from that.  And yet it's all there:  humans repeat themselves, cross-culturally, cross-chronologically, in certain patterns of behavior that must be rooted in the animal we are. Just as sheep flock together, lie down and get up, chew the cud, and wander around at very specific times, so humans do certain things certain ways, no matter when/where. Here are a few that I've noted (and yes, there are exceptions to all of these): 

(1) Hierarchical societies (oligarchies, monarchies, etc.) are the norm.  Democracies are rare.  We are still living in an on-going experiment.  Best wishes, and lots of luck.  

(2) Military cultures emerge regularly, whether (a) to an internal threat (from incompetence to criminal behavior to lack of heirs to natural disasters or anything else that can be blamed on the dynasty) as a way of distracting everyone from the truth or (b) to a genuine external threat (rarer than you might think) or (c) a surplus population of young unmarried men who are highly unlikely to ever get a wife (generally because of polygyny and/or female infanticide).  Oh, and they've also been generated and used against their own large slave population, as in Sparta and the Antebellum South.  Always remember Chris Hedges' "War Is A Force that Gives Us Meaning".  

NOTE:  Throughout history, every time someone invents a new weapon, someone throws a war to try it out.  Long bows and the Hundred Years' War!  Gunpowder and Renaissance Italy!  Tanks, submarines, airplanes, chemical weapons, and machine guns and WWI!  The "military-industrial complex" was around long before Eisenhower's day.

NOTE 2:  Interesting patterns of military cultures: 

a. Military cultures have what they consider a formal code of conduct, however, this is often disorganized, and often unwritten. It is also violated regularly. 

b. Military cultures are generally extremely machismo; and also historically very homosexual.  From Sparta,  Roman legions, Samurai Japan, Ottoman Empire Janissaries, the Knights Templar, Frederick the Great and his Prussian war machine, and on down the historical line, many military cultures have assumed that soldiers fought better and braver when they were on the battlefield with their lover(s).  

d. Military cultures usually educate their elite females (including physical/military training) more than in concurrent non-military cultures, primarily because someone has to keep things running while the men are off fighting. 

e. Military cultures have had little respect for civilians, especially peasants/farmers. In ancient and medieval times, the military elite often had the right to kill peasants at will.  

SUBNOTE:  A common motif in comic literature is the griping of retired military about how lazy, entitled, incompetent, disrespectful and generally poor civilian society is compared to the military.  Examples are Foggy in Last in the Summer Wine and Major Benjy in the Mapp & Lucia novels of E. F. Benson. 

f. Military cultures generally begin as military innovators, but become hidebound by traditional modes of war, often avoiding even technological advances. In the long run, this often proves to be their downfall.  A number of British & French generals in WWI were still fighting with cavalry tactics against machine guns.  In the same way, 

g. Military cultures also often begin as societal innovators (especially when it comes to integration of former foes, slaves, inferiors, others), but eventually become extremely conservative, worshipping the past (especially dead leaders and heroes), fearing change in cultural and intellectual matters.  There's a reason Sparta banned all philosophy (which included science back in ancient times), as well as "modern" art.  

(3) When societies perceive themselves to be in crisis, the first thing they generally do is look for a strong leader to tell them what to do; and that strong leader (from Pericles to Augustus Caesar to Napoleon to Stalin and on and on and on) often urges that (a) something needs to be conquered and (b)  a number of people need to be purged from society and (c) women have to have more babies.  Specifically, more of the right kind of babies.  

(4) Almost all humans have addictive personalities, and all societies DO have addictive personalities.  That's why they use up resources at a higher-than-replaceable rate and expect more to be always available, either by buying them or going to war to take them from someone else.  This doesn't work forever:  As Jared Diamond once said, what was in the mind of the Rapa Nui who cut down the last tree on Easter Island?  

(5) Technology scares people, at least at first.  Then, as it gains acceptance, it makes people believe that they have control over their environment (from weather to their own bodies), thus increasing the desire (see addiction above) for more technology, no matter what the cost.  What's interesting is that after a while, people develop both increased expectations of technology (to the point that some people today take it for granted that Covid vaccines were developed in record time), and a contempt for technology (hello, anti-vaxxers who tell us all about it via cell phone).  

(6) As hierarchical cultures grow in size, most resources end up going to the least productive people (i.e., the farmers, teachers, artisans, etc. get screwed, while the real money goes to politicians, athletes, the ruling class, criminals, etc.). 

(7) Most societies see "traditional values" as whatever it is that they have been practicing for the last couple of generations.  

Example:  A person online said that his understanding of traditional values were "the importance of nuclear family, the primacy of parental decision-making re:child well-being (versus the state), the value of marriage and unease with divorce, concern over hypersexuality and pornography, etc." 

Meanwhile, the truth is the nuclear family isn't traditional, it's modern, and really begins around the late 1940s with the post WW2 housing / suburban boom. The "traditional" family has always been a multi-generational tribe that lives together, either in one or multiple dwellings in a farm, or (in the city) certain buildings within a certain area, more or less communally. The traditional marriage used to be, of course, polygyny (for those who could afford it). Divorce was perfectly traditional according to the Bible and everyone else, as long as the man instigated it. Parental decision making was the norm - including the parental decision to kill a baby that was unacceptably weak, deformed, disabled or female.  And concern over hypersexuality, pornography, etc. (which have always been around), has always been honored more in the breach than the observance (men's parties frequently had musicians, dancers, and acrobats who were suggestive onstage and available off). 

(8) Speaking of which, all societies are obsessed with sexuality and reproduction.  But what's considered "decent" or "moral" is various.  Polygyny, polyandry, monogamy, swapping partners,  homosexuality, bisexuality, sharing partners, birth control, infanticide, divorce, adoption at all ages, etc., have been around from the beginning of recorded history.  

NOTE:  In-law jokes are as old as time.

(9) There has never been a society without (a) a belief system in something greater than themselves; (b) a cheap addictive drug available to the masses; and (c) art (visual, kinetic, musical).  There have been many attempts to wipe out any and/or all of these - John Calvin's Geneva, the French Revolution, the Puritans in America, Prohibition, Stalinism, Khmer Rouge, Mao's Cultural Revolution, the Nazis, etc. - but the attempt has always, always, always failed.  We're gonna believe, we're gonna get high, and we're gonna paint, draw, write about it all.  

(10) Humans have always liked pets. 




BSP: My story "Collateral Damage" is in Murderous Ink Press' Crimeucopia: We're All Animals Under the Skin. 

Linda Thompson is stunned when someone transforms her joke about a drive-by shooting at an AA meeting into reality. Drugs and exes, bikers and beatings, neighbors and old memories all put Linda on a twisted search that may solve the mystery, or get her killed.

Available at Amazon.

05 May 2021

Today in Mystery History: May 5


This is the eighth in my occasional series about the history of our beloved field.  I haven't run out of days yet. 

May 5, 1902.  Bret Harte died on this day.  He  was best known for his short stories about the California gold rush but in our field he is remembered for "The Stolen Cigar-Case."  No less an authority than Ellery Queen called this story "probably the best parody of Sherlock Holmes ever written." In the field of true crime, he wrote about the Wiyot Massacre, in which more than 100 Indians were slaughtered by White settlers.  Death threats followed and he had to leave the region.

May 5, 1950. This is the birthday of Susan Grafton's great character, P.I. Kinsey Milhone.  I'll bet you didn't send her a card.

May 5, 1961.  Today saw the publication of Ross Macdonald's ninth Lew Archer novel, The Wycherly Woman.

May 5, 1973.  Peter Falk was the cover boy at TV Guide today, playing a certain L.A. police lieutenant. 

May 5, 1980. The issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine with this date included Edward D. Hoch's very clever "The Most Dangerous Man Alive," which was an Edgar nominee.  I still remember it.

May 5, 1992.  Kinsey Milhone celebrated her birthday with the publication of I is for Innocent.  Exactly a year later came J is for Judgment.

May 5, 2014.  Trace Evidence, the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine blog, posted "Shanks Holds The Line," which I offered to them for free as a sort of public service announcement.

May 5, 2015. Craig Faustus Buck's novel Go Down Hard was published on this day.  It's about an ex-cop trying to solve the decades old murder of a rock singer.

04 May 2021

Family Bond


    Whether you're a fan of Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum or Dog the Bounty Hunter, bail occupies a central place in criminal law as entertainment. Through literature, we can take discussions about bail back to Robin Hood. During my day job as a magistrate for the criminal courts of my county, I spend a fair amount of my day thinking about bail for particular defendants. Today, however, I'd like to widen the lens and, largely through the writings of bail reform advocate, Tim Schnacke, look at the history of bail development. 

    Let's jump way back to the Anglo-Saxon days of England. Those Germanic tribes were family-linked league of clans. Among clans, blood feuds and tribal warfare were the means to settle disputes. Kinsmen resolved the wrongs of kinsmen. This adjudication technique, however, proved brutal and inefficient. Eventually as system emerged establishing payment of a wergeld or man-price for a wrongful life-taking, the price dependent on a person's social standing. Over time, a tiered system emerged of valuations for death as well as a measure for injury and other wrongs. A complex restitution system replaced the frequent clash of clans. 

    Tribes lived close to one another. Justice was local and the resolution of these cases could be expected to be swift. In this familial, land-bound society, pre-trial detention was little needed. 

    Family members pledged to guarantee both the defendant's appearance in "court" and to pay the penalty should he default. The amount of the pledge was set at the amount of the debt which would be owed. The promise served to allay an Anglo-Saxon's concern that someone may flee to avoid paying the penalty. The familial willingness to bear the burden also fit within the collective worldview of a tribal culture. 

    This Anglo-Saxon system should not be confused with contemporary bail. As noted, the family members were largely pledging to pay the debt upon default rather than posting money to secure the accused's release from custody. The germ of the modern idea of a surety, a third-party, obligating himself on behalf of an accused, however, was becoming established in the forerunner to the English common law. The word "bail" stems from a Latin word baiulare, to carry a burden. 

    With the Norman conquest, however, the nature of English law changed. Justice gradually became more an affair of the state and less an individual settling of accounts. Capital punishment and other sanctions replaced the restitution schedule of the wergeld. Along with changing punishments, notions about who should remain free pending adjudication also transformed. The first to lose a right to liberty included those accused of homicide and those charged with violating the royal forest (We did make it back to Robin Hood.) Norman judges rode a circuit from shire to shire handling cases. Outlying jurisdictions may wait months between judicial calls. The shire-reeve "sheriff" became charged with guaranteeing a defendant's appearance upon the judge's arrival. Jails were miserable and costly. The delay from arrest to trial necessitated some form of pretrial release. 

    People were still land bound. Personal recognizance guaranteed by the pledge of family became the key to the jail door for most people accused of wrong doings. 

Sheriffs, however, as the bail setters were ripe for corruption. In 1274, Edward I sent commissioners throughout the realm to ask questions of knights and freemen. The commissioners recorded the answers. Although most questions dealt with landholdings and related to taxation, the commissioners also delved into criminal justice. Edward I learned of two abuses by many sheriffs: some defendants who should be released were required to pay money; and some defendants who, because of the offense, should not be freed were released upon payment of large sums of money. 

    Bail law developed to extend royal control over shire-reeves' discretion and potential corruption. Culminating in 1689, the English Bill of Rights stated that "excessive bail ought not to be required." The phrase used is similar to the language of the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

    This shouldn't be surprising as English law sailed to America with the establishment of the colonies. Although the ideas of recognizance and community responsibility traveled to the new world, the changing times brought the necessity for a new system to emerge. 

    As punishments changed from the Anglo-Saxon notion of restitution to death, mutilation or imprisonment, the possibility of flight to avoid the consequences grew. Similarly, as society moved away from the pledge equaling the amount of the debt, it became harder to quantify, with accuracy, the exact amount of money to require as bail. The accused in America found it easier to flee troubles and escape to the western frontier. Finally, as people became more itinerant, finding kinsmen and neighbors willing to pledge also became more challenging. 

    Out of necessity grew a commercial opportunity. Businessman willing to pledge money to guarantee a defendant's appearance at court emerged. They, of course, charged a fee for their service. The first commercial bondsman in the United States was reported to be Pete McDonough who in 1896 established his bond business out of his San Francisco saloon near the Hall of Justice. 

    In 1274, Edward I wrangled with right-sizing the jail population. He sought a just mechanism for determining who gets out and who stays in custody. Bail reform advocates still grapple with these issues. Lawsuits and legislative fixes abound. We are still trying to get it right. 

    Until next time. 



03 May 2021

Sources of Historical Fiction: Trivia and Iconia vs Writing What You Lived


In a December 2020 post titled "Historical Fiction (Or Not)," SleuthSayer Steve Liskow made the case for Not by revealing he's a "trivia junkie" who must avoid research because for him it's "the best way to avoid actually writing." He then described the historical fiction he's written, all set in periods he lived through and drawing on powerful, even traumatic experiences of his own.

I was going to write a comment on Steve's post when it occurred to me that it provided several jumping off points for an essay of my own. For one thing, when I do research, I don't stray far afield of my topic, though I love collecting relevant information. I came to my Mendoza Family Saga after a lifetime of hating research. I was charmed by what I learned about my subject matter—the Jews of the Sephardic Diaspora, the Taino of the Caribbean, and the Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire. And I was astonished at how much I enjoyed learning it. For example, my mystery short story protagonist Rachel Mendoza is a kira in Istanbul. The kiras were Jewish women who served as purveyors or personal shoppers to the ladies of the Sultan's harem in the 16th and 17th centuries. I learned about them in a footnote in a book I found a reference to in another book I found in a bibliography I was given by a professor at my alma mater whom I contacted. Academics respond nicely to emails saying, "I'm an alumna; may I pick your brains?"

I googled "1950s trivia." In one multiple choice test, I had no trouble remembering that M&Ms "melt in your mouth, not in your hand"; Animal Farm was written by George Orwell; Audrey Hepburn played the princess in Roman Holiday; Dr Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine; Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus; and Roger Bannister first broke the four-minute mile. But I was stumped by the questions about the history of cars and credit cars and have no idea what year Disneyland opened. In another, I knew that JD Salinger wrote Catcher in the Rye; that Nixon's "Checkers" speech referred to his cocker spaniel; that Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Mt Everest; that Watson and Crick discovered the double helix of DNA; that Brown vs Board of Education prohibited school segregation; and that Congress added "In God We Trust" to American currency in (if they say so) 1953. I flunked the ones on cars, TV, where the Brinks Robbery took place, which general said, "Old soldiers never die," and the ad for Burger King. I wouldn't use any of these in a novel or short story.

Rosa Parks, the only name on both lists, was and is not trivial.

I don't necessarily think historical writers who look for their background material in books are looking for trivia. For a long time between the era of ancient Rome and that of modern quiz nights, the term connoted information of little value. That's not the same as detail. But besides detail, writers outside their own period and setting are looking for iconia (my own word—I googled it, and it's not there, except as a formerly inhabited planet in the Beta Quadrant). If you set your novel in ancient Greece, you'll look up the Parthenon and the Oracle at Delphi. If your period is 19th century San Francisco, you'll focus on the Goldrush, Chinatown, and Nob Hill.

But when you write what you know—the past as it occurred within your own lifetime—you can supply a unique perspective that can't be found in books.

I've reached an age when I'm willing to let others consider my high school years, the late 1950s, "historical" and enjoy writing about them. What it was like for me is similar to and different from what they say the 1950s was like. I googled "1950s fashion." I found plenty of poodle skirts. I didn't have one. There were plenty of saddle shoes. I didn't have those either, though I know they were hell to polish, white fore and aft and black in the middle. How a girl felt about her mother buying her brown oxfords instead of saddle shoes like the other girls– now that starts to get into territory that might interest a writer. Or let's consider Elvis and rock 'n roll. In my house, it was folk and union songs. My short story, "The Man in the Dick Tracy Hat," drew on an event that affected many and had haunted me for decades—the execution of the Rosenbergs in 1953. I couldn't write it until I was old enough to write about the 1950s as a historical period; mature enough to put it into the context of the Queens I grew up in; and skilled enough as a writer to weave it into a story that added a memorable protagonist and themes of domestic violence and betrayal.

02 May 2021

Certifiable — Florida-Arizona News


Popcorn time. I’ve been following the ersatz election audit in Phoenix. Viewing it from a computer wizardry background, I bring to the table a few observations and opinions.

not a genuine ballot
possibly not a genuine Arizona ballot

Recounting the Recounted Recount

After recounts and audits, people ask why yet another? The political goal isn’t to overturn the election, but to cast doubt upon it in a tantrum by politicians who didn’t get their own way.

Thus it has come to pass, a minuscule Florida computer assistance company has carved an outsized rôle for itself in a vain (either meaning of the adjective) attempt to smear the Arizona election. Cyber Ninjas, which sounds disturbingly like a Saturday morning cartoon show, claims to have between “2 and 10” employees. I’d hazard if it employed anywhere near six or eight, or even four or five, it would say so.

Nothing is wrong with small computer consulting companies. I headed one. Our client base comprised Fortune 500 firms, governments, and large foreign concerns. Previous to May’s events, Cyber Ninjas largely seems to advise customers to take backups, install anti-virus software, and don’t click on random download buttons, a ‘Geek Squad’ without Best Buy.

Who?

Douglas Jay Logan, the owner of Cyber Ninjas (I’m learning that’s a damn awkward company name to type), involves himself in Q•Anon-inspired politics, even devising a ‘Stop the Steal’ white paper of discredited talking points.

He’s probably a nice guy, indeed, he supports charitable ministries in Haiti. We share that much in common, helping Haitians.

But I don’t know Doug Logan. No one I’ve asked professionally seems to know his company, not Florida election people, not security experts, and certainly not within my sphere, computer forensics and fraud. It simply means he’s not a household name outside of vocal conspiracy theorists. Until now.

What?

The pubic face of a company is its opening web page. It shapes the impression it wants the public to have. Sometimes it reveals more than it intends. They make a big deal about web security and design. And they do it confusedly… their ‘about’ page is their home page.

I can say with certainty computer experts Cyber Ninjas aren’t very computer experty. Set aside the peculiar stock photos and peer at paragraphs 1 and 3 of their home page. Notice those odd characters? “we’ve” and “Ninjaâ„¢”?

Paragraph 1 with errors

Although their page HTML has been improved since I first viewed it, they still haven’t sorted out UniCode encoding. Best guess for the first error– they meant “we’ve”. I have no clue what they meant for the second unless it was “Ninja©” or “Ninja™”. Simple, junior-level errors like that don’t give me warm, secure feelings. But, let’s move on.

Paragraph 3 with errors

Man versus Machine

To be clear, I too have criticized voting machines, but with diametrically opposed conclusions. Logan’s approach is all about secrecy and sorcery. He’s refused in court to reveal his ‘trade secrets’, which computer people likely agree means he doesn’t know what he’s doing.

When it comes to the public, transparency counts. I advocate voting machines should employ ‘open source’ programming. Open Source means it’s open to anyone to be viewed and studied. Nothing in it is proprietary or secret. That’s the only way citizens can feel assured their votes are fairly counted.

hacker in winter ninja gear
genuine Cyber Ninja™
complete with winter gloves,
woollies, and balaclava toque

Mr. Logan… not so concerned. He wants a closed shop, closed source, and, if he had his way, a closed audit. As it is, he and his backers have fought to keep the recount out of the public eye. That’s understandable if, as many surmise, he doesn’t know how to run a recount. He apparently hadn’t read the Elections Procedures Manual.

In Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the Queen of Hearts decrees, “Sentence first, verdict afterwards.” Most would have deemed it wise not to advertise the results of the recount before you’re hired. Sure, it helped win the no-bid contract, but it doesn’t make fair-minded people feel secure.

Capitol Stormer? Daily Stormer? No Problem

This attitude trickled down amongst the tabulators, which include Q•Anon conspiracists, Oath Keepers, and Anthony Kern, the latter who participated in the January 6 Washington DC insurrection. When a reporter noticed Kern’s presence, the reporter– not the Washington rioter– was ejected.

That has been a big theme of the recount– ban journalists. The initial reporter allowed in– because she registered as an observer and not a journalist– was banned for noticing workers on the floor were using black and blue pens, a huge verboten no-no around ballots.

Inspection at 365 nanometres

Another questionable bit of gear has been ultra-violet lamps. I speculated they might attempt to prove ballots were chemically altered, but mystified election experts point out UV light damages ballots. Others speculate the alternative light might be used to dazzle the public with ☆woo-woo☆ science.

Besides pens and far spectrum lamps, recounters are given something else– discretion. They are authorized to gauge intent, to interpret ambiguity, and personally judge whether or not ballots are illegal. Those, says the Secretary of State, would be discarded.

According to election officials, this should never be allowed. Ballots should be held to standards and not guessed at. Divination is not an option.

And yet…

Have you been following the recount? What is your opinion?

01 May 2021

Stagecoaches and Starships


  

We talk a lot at this blog about mystery/crime markets and which kinds of stores might fit which publications. I especially enjoyed Joseph D'Agnese's column the other day about using well-known figures from history in his mysteries, and I think it's cool that one of those stories of his is in the May/June issue of Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. Also, I liked Barb Goffman's recent post about a story based on a favorite song of hers, for Josh Patchter's new anthology Only the Good Die Young: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Billy Joel. The truth is, knowing which magazines/anthologies to aim for with stories of certain content can be a task in itself.

That was one of the things that worried me a bit when I submitted a Western story, "The Donovan Gang," to AHMM eleven months ago. I'd read several Westerns published there over the years, but not many, so I remember thinking that I was taking a chance in sending them one. Be aware, this isn't a contemporary story set in the West, like Hud or No Country for Old Men or Hell or High Water. This is a story set in southeast Arizona in the spring of 1907, with bandits and saloons and stagecoaches and rattlesnakes and ambushes, much like the kind of 1870s story I published last month in the March/April 2021 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. But (also like the Post story) I had researched it quite a bit, and it included enough real people and towns and other locations that I thought it might be able to sneak its way into the more respectable category of historical fiction, which does seem to be acceptable at most mystery markets. You say tomayto, I say tomahto.  Even so, I figured it was a long shot.

That's why I was all the more pleased to find out, a few days ago, that AHMM has accepted that story for publication. It probably won't be until 2022 that it finally sees the light of day, since I have three others queued up there also, in their accepted-but-awaiting-publication bin. Still, it's something to look forward to. 

There's another short story I have out to AHMM at the moment that I'm concerned about also, because it's a crime story with a science fiction element. Like Westerns, that kind of cross-genre story seldom shows up in AH--although one of my fantasy stories did appear there several years ago. Once again, if you rely at all on Otto Penzler's oft-quoted definition of mystery fiction, any story that has a crime central to its plot can be considered a mystery regardless of what other genres might be stirred into the mix. At least in terms of qualifying for publication in mystery markets. So I couldn't resist giving it a try.

 

In case anyone's interested, the following is my fairly unimpressive track record, with regard to cross-genre stories at some of the current mystery publications:

AHMM: one fantasy and one Western (upcoming)

EQMM: no cross-genre stories

Strand Magazine: no cross-genre stories

Black Cat Mystery Magazine: two Westerns

Mystery Weekly: one Western, one SF, one fantasy

Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine: no cross-genre stories

And several others--Tough, Shotgun Honey, Mysterical-E, etc.--also have not accepted any cross-genre stories. At least from me.


Four things I should note, here:

1. The above unscientific study should not be taken as an indicator of what kinds of stories these magazines will publish. It's just an indicator of what they've published that I've written.

2. I haven't considered humor or romance in this market list or in the overall cross-genre discussion, only because regular mystery/crime stories often include humor and/or romance elements anyway. You know what I mean.

3. My two mystery/Westerns at BCMM were before Michael Bracken took over as editor. I'm not saying Michael wouldn't consider one--but I am saying the Westerns I published there were before his reign.

4. If ever in doubt about this kind of thing, it never hurts to ask the editor beforehand whether he/she would be receptive to cross-genre elements in a submission.

So far I haven't mentioned anthologies, but it's probably worth saying that mystery/crime anthologies are indeed sometimes open to cross-genre submissions. One of my stories chosen for Best American Mystery Stories a few years ago was a Western, about a private investigator in the Old West (which first appeared in Paul Marks' and Andy McAleer's anthology Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea).


What are your views on trying cross-genre stories at the usual mystery markets? Have any of you done that? Any successes? Which publications have you found to be most receptive to stories with Western/SF/fantasy/horror elements?


Okay, time to sign off. I see that Holmes has put on his cowboy boots and is strapping himself into his jetpack, so he'll need my help.

A writer's work is never done.


P.S. (or maybe BSP.S.): April was a good month, publicationwise. I had a story in Strand Magazine (Spring issue, #63), a story in Woman's World (May 3 issue, released on April 22), a story in Only the Good Die Young (Untreed Reads), a story in Jukes & Tonks (Down & Out Books), a story in Behind Closed Doors (Red Penguin Books), a story in Black Cat Mystery & SF Ebook Club (Wildside Press), two poems in the anthology Moving Images: Poetry Inspired by Film (Bowker Publishing), and six of my WW stories in the new Mini-Mysteries Digest (Bauer Media Group). All except the poems were mysteries. 

 

P.P.S. I've not seen the list yet, but congratulations to all the 2021 Derringer winners!



30 April 2021

Paging David Simon and Ed Burns...


 We all loved The Wire, the gritty, realistic crime series based in a Baltimore whose underside is all too familiar to anyone living in a city with over 50,000 people. What made it so real was that many of the writing staff and some of the actors were the same cops, criminals, and bystanders who inspired the characters. The show featured not one (rotund Homicide sergeant Jay Landsman), not two (Sgt./Lt. Mello, played by the real-life Jay Landsman), but THREE Landsmans. (Richard Belzer appears in the finale as Baltimore/NYPD Detective Munch from Homicide/Law & Order, a fictionalized version of Landsman in David Simon's book Homicide.)

While the show devoted its third season to the corruption in politics in Baltimore, that thread started in Episode 1 and keeps rolling along in the final season-ending montage.

What if I told you just by watching Fox 19 and WCPO News here in Cincinnati, I've been watching a reboot of The Wire playing out for the past several years?

In a city that had its riots over police shootings in 2001, the most drama coming from that corner in more recent times stemmed from the ouster of Police Chief Jeffrey Blackwell over mismanagement and poor morale among the officers. He was the second of two "outside" chiefs, chiefs hired from outside the police department after a referendum broke the local FOP's hold on promotions to the highest ranks. However, current chief Elliot Isaac is a longtime veteran of the CPD. His approach to last summers protests that followed George Floyd's murder was to announce the curfew at 9 PM, ask everyone to get to their cars by 9:30, and the force would see everyone the next day. That's not to say we don't have our own problems between police and the black community here, but we seem to handle it better than most.

Then we have Cinicnnati City Council. Four members of council have been indicted on corruption charges since 2019. Three of them - PG Sittenfeld, Jeff Pastor, and Tamaya Dennard - were all suspended by the Ohio Attorney General and booted from Council in 2020 and early 2021. A fourth, Wendell Young, found himself in hot water in the past month. Cincinnati City Council has nine members, which means now, nearly half of Council has been appointed by either their party or a judge.

I grew up in Cleveland back when La Cosa Nostra and the Irish mob were a thing there. Granted, Cleveland has a bigger, ward-based council, so what Cincinnati currently calls a crisis in leadership, my old city used to call Tuesday. And yet I'm reminded of the shenanigans that went on in Mayor Royce's office on The Wire, the backroom deals made to move one corrupt police commander after another into the commissioner's office, of Tommy Carcetti selling his soul piece by piece over three seasons until he bore more than a passing resemblance to Aiden GIllen's next major role, that of Littlefinger on Game of Thrones. No wonder Martin O'Malley hates that show. (Though I think O'Malley might have made a decent run for president if he'd learn to stop taking himself so seriously.)

But to have nearly half the people entrusted with running the city indicted on bribery charges? Three of these people had already declared  for this year's mayoral campaign. One is still running and insisting his innocence. Not very credible when you realize how tone-deaf that makes one seem. See Weiner, Anthony; Gaetz, Mark. 

Throw into the mix a local judge who was accused of mismanagement of her officer, a scandal complete with political intrigue, racial overtones, and a main figure every bit as colorful as the fictional Clay Davis, and Simon and Burns could easily squeeze at least two seasons out of the Queen City.

Is it life imitates art? Or the other way around? Growing up, I knew some older characters claim to be in the bar mobster Danny Green left before he was blown all over Cuyahoga County, a hit that would land anyone involved on Homeland Security's counter-terrorism radar today. I chatted with a former county commissioner at a coffee shop as he dished dirt on a few notables in Cleveland and other local governments. I played little league with a future local police chief who lost his job after a rape conviction. And I've known local politicians who just wanted to do the right thing, including a mayor who was my den mother in Cub Scouts and son is now mayor of the suburb where we grew up. Here in Cincinnati, the mayor of my current suburb used to be my bartender while a coworker sits on another town's council. While there's not much dirt to dish on those four, as characters, they could give a fly-on-wall view of what does go on behind closed doors. Not all of it is pretty, or Cincinnati would have more than five elected council members right now.


29 April 2021

Writing Pain


He felt the rib go, knew it would be a problem. Then the guy in front of him snap-kicked him directly above his bent right knee. He bit back a cry of pain as he rebalanced on his left foot. 

                     —Recently published thriller—title and author name withheld to protect the egregious 

How it Started
The quote above is inexact and from memory, but I do recall it pretty clearly. This was the point at which I stopped reading,

I had occasion to revisit this scene just yesterday morning—as I sat waiting be seen by a doctor at the emergency room. I'll relate in a minute why this particular passage sprang to mind at the time, but it ought to come as no surprise that, while sitting there in considerable pain, I began thinking about how we—as crime writers—deal with pain.

Before we start, I'll concede that I understand full well that what many of us in the industry strive for is realism, rather than reality in our fiction. "Realism" being a false-front building of a story, giving the appearance of reality rather than the actuality of it.

Not everyone in crime fiction strives for realism. Many crime writers work an absurdist or escapist vein. And that's okay. I'm not actually talking about these writers or their work here. For the purposes of this blog post, I am dealing solely with writers striving for realism in their crime fiction.

Back to how I got here. Yesterday morning I walked out to my new truck, unlocked it, and started to climb in. I slipped. I fell over backwards. As I was falling I managed to come down first on the ball of my left foot, with my backward momentum unchecked. Turned out this was a problem for both my left quadriceps muscle and a tendon that runs from my hip, through my knee, down to my ankle.

The Culprit


I am not sure whether I only felt the *POP* that followed, or whether I actually heard it as well. I know that I definitely felt it.

What came next? Agony. Sheer, crushing, all-consuming agony. I've felt pain like that before, but it's been rare. I did my best to straighten my leg, and I dimly remember the "Agggggghhhhh" sound I made as I did so. It HURT. Once I succeeded in straightening my leg, the pain lessened enough for me to be able to actually draw a breath. I realized at that moment that I had been holding it since the *POP* several heartbeats before.

I'd like to say that I struggled manfully to get to my feet, got into my truck, and toughed my way through the pain, worked my full shift, and came home with the barest of limps. But of course none of it happened that way. My wife and son came out in response to my frantic phone call (not cursing the advent of cellphones this week!), and helped me get up. Once I was standing, with my leg straight, the pain began to recede, and I actually said, "I think I'm okay. Scared me, but it already hurts less. I think I can go into work—"

That was as far as I got, because at that point I took a step, slightly bent my knee, and nearly collapsed again as a fresh wave of searing pain coursed through my lower left thigh. At this point my wife (the smart one in the marriage) shut down any notion that I would be able to shake this injury off and go to work.

And that was how I found myself waiting to see an orthopedist in a curtained-off room in the ER. I've heard it said that humans are conditioned by evolution to both be instructed by, and to forget the intensity of, pain. (This gets batted around a lot in relation to women and the remembered pain of childbirth. Turns out, neuroscience has pretty handily demolished that wives' tale.). 

If it's the case that we as a species are hard-wired to remember pain as part of a "burned child fears the fire" evolutionary prompt, then that begs the question: why are some otherwise decent writers so lousy at communicating pain and its effects on the nervous system in particular and the human body in general?

I pondered this question in the ER while I waited for the orthopedist and tried hard not to move my injured leg. The slightest shift the wrong way practically knocked the wind out of me. The first doctor to see me initially thought I might have completely torn the tendon. There were certain ways I simply could not move my leg when he prompted me to do so.

Reflecting on the passage quoted at the top of this post, and not even addressing the notion of being able "feel the rib go" and noting it with all the flair of marking down what time the mail carrier dropped a package on your neighbor's doorstep, I confess to being floored at the notion that someone could take a hard kick to the knee as described above and remain standing (all while nursing a freshly broken/separated/cracked rib?). This line of thought took me back to one of the other times I had taken a hard blow to the knee.

The summer after I turned eighteen I took a glancing shot on my right knee from a 600 lb. cement block. A coworker on the construction site where I was working had talked naive teen-aged me into steadying it on the blade of a forklift. The aforementioned coworker then proceeded to pop the clutch on the lift, and I lost hold of the cement block we were attempting to move. 

In retrospect I was lucky that my knee only swelled to the size of a watermelon. It hurt, but there was no structural damage to the joint, and the swelling went down after a while. My coworker got fired on the spot. My boss had to wait to fire me until I came back from a workman's comp-funded recovery period.

I still recall everything about that moment except for my coworker's name. I remember that he smelled bad- a combination of body odor and the unmistakable sickly sweet smell a body processing alcohol out of its system gives off. I remember I didn't like him very much even before he pushed me to "steady that block" while he lifted it. Heck, I even recall the the make and model of the forklift in question.

Ladies and gentlemen: I give you the Pettibone Mulliken Super 6 All Terrain Forklift

I remember the pain when that block glanced off my knee and knocked me on my back. It was bad, but what I felt yesterday morning in the flowerbed beside my truck was worse. And  I shudder to think what might have happened had that block landed squarely on my knee, instead of bouncing down the side.

"Go on without me!" vs. "I've been shoooot!"
Maybe what I'm trying to get at is the point that comedian Eddie Murphy so effectively made in one of his stand-up specials years and years ago. Click here to hear him talk about the reality of getting shot versus how it's portrayed in the movies. Yeah, it's funny (and profane), but there's a grain of truth in that clip. The notion that someone would say, "Go on without me!" as opposed to the real world notion of someone responding to getting shot with a drawn-out "I've been shooooooooooooooot!!!!!" makes for great comedy because we can all relate (Not to getting shot—I make no assumptions about our readership here at Sleuthsayers—but to having that "Awww that would never happen!" reaction to something so patently ridiculous.). Who was it that said that all great comedy arises from pain? There might just be something to that. Admit it, you laughed when you listened to the portion of Murphy's stand-up linked above.

And yet this sort of twaddle gets unfunnily, unironically purchased and published over and over again in fiction that purports to be "realistic." And again, yes, a lot of fiction is "escapist" (some might even say "wish-fullfillment"): a double conceit played to full effect in the Tom Selleck movie Her Alibi (1988), where Selleck, playing a a popular author of unrealistic wish-fulfillment thrillers, actually gets shot in the buttcheek with an arrow. The scene is played realistically (and hilariously) , and the laughs pile up when Selleck, like so many writers, mines the experience for a scene in his current work-in-progress. It's all the funnier when Selleck's literary hero avatar nonchalantly pulls the arrow out his *bicep* all by himself, before going about the business of methodically taking out bad guys.

Check it out. It's hilarious. Maybe all great comedy does arise from pain? Or maybe I enjoy it more than some people because I'm also a writer of the sort of fiction Selleck's character so successfully peddles bad pastiches of? Maybe it is just one big inside joke. You be the judge. I still find that bit really funny, over thirty years later.

All I can say is that if someone managed to put the sort of hurt on me that the combination of my truck and a wet patch of ground after a rainy night did yesterday, I wouldn't be saying, "Go on without me!" Once I could talk again, I'd be focused solely on trying to get the pain to stop.

And speaking of the fall I took yesterday, as it turns out, I got lucky. The muscle and ligament damage turned out to be partial as opposed to total. The difference between these two states of damage is the difference between recuperation/a hip-to-ankle brace/eventual physical therapy, and a surgical reattachment/reconstruction of the injured area.

So it looks like I have a lot of THIS in my near future:

How It's Going (That's my son watching Jackson Browne with me—the day ending on a much better note!)

See you in two weeks—and in the meantime, be careful out there!

28 April 2021

A Narrow Margin


  

One of the side effects of a year in suspended animation is a lot of bingeing.  We indulged ourselves.  We fashioned a cocoon.  There was cooking.  A fair amount of cheese was involved, and root vegetables.  But we spent a lot of time under the covers, too.  Books, movies, and TV, revisiting old favorites and auditioning new ones, trying on stuff we might not have given an ear to previously, but often enough falling into a familiar comfort zone.

Which isn’t to say you don’t discover something fresh or unexpected in the tried and true.  I ran across a couple of tight little noirs directed by Richard Fleischer that were new to me, The Narrow Margin and Violent Saturday.  Fleischer’s the son of animator Max Fleischer, who’s probably best known for Betty Boop, just as the younger Fleischer is probably most famous for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Vikings, two terrific Kirk Douglas vehicles.  Later, he did Soylent Green, but although his career lasted forty years, it’s pretty much littered with dogs.  He hit the sweet spot with those earlier B-pictures, and never matched their feral energy afterwards.

The Narrow Margin is as brutal as any Anthony Mann from that postwar period, and stars Charles McGraw, a guy Mann almost always used as a heavy.  Here, he’s the lead, a tough cop with a face like a cinderblock.  But he meets his match in the eye-popping Marie Windsor. 


 










It’s not, I don’t think, dismissive to call Marie Windsor a dame.  She’s all that, and more.  She has a hundred and seventy-two credits on IMDb, between 1941 and 1991, a lot of them in television, from the 1950’s on, but she made her bones in Poverty Row, the bottom half of double-features.  She did a couple of dozen walk-ons before she paints on the radar as a ganglord’s wife in Force of Evil, trying to get Garfield on the wrong side of temptation.  In a picture with a lot of great lines, she has some doozies.  “A man could spend the rest of his life trying to remember what he shouldn’t have said,” she tells Garfield.

She was typecast, more often than not the whore with a heart of stone, but she never lacked for work, nor did she seem to mind.  She was in fact a lifelong Mormon, but she got a kick out of playing bad girls.  She’s a certain kind of character actress.  Somebody like Dorothy Malone or Ann Sheridan can start out in supporting parts and turn themselves into stars.  Somebody else might get a shot at it, Gail Russell, Frances Farmer, but something happens, nerves, alcohol, a manipulative relationship, and they flame out.  Marie keeps her head above water.  She reminds me of Fay Spain, younger but with a similar career arc, sultry and splashy, always the bridesmaid, never the bride.  (Fay’s biggest part is Al Capone, opposite Rod Steiger, still the gold standard.)  You recognize the actress, but you remember the character she’s reliably established.  How could Marie Windsor not be devious?

Narrow Margin has a neat and convincing twist, which I won’t give away here, other than to say Marie is it.  She and McGraw trade loaded barbs, Earl Felton’s script a crash course in hard-boiled. 

Him: “You make me sick.” 

Her: “Well, use your own sink.”

The tension is moral, and the sexual undercurrent isn’t animal magnetism, but contempt.  There’s no subtext.  Narrow Margin wears its heart on its sleeve, which makes it all the more sudden, savage, and claustrophobic.