08 June 2021

Displays of Love



I know I’m lucky. Temple is supportive of, and often takes an active role in, my writing career. Not all writers can say that about their spouses.

Early indicators of Temple’s support include her having a copy of my first professionally published short story framed to hang over my desk and her having the covers of four magazines with my name on their covers printed on mugs so that when I have my morning pick-me-up, I can pick me up.

The latest example involves redecorating decisions precipitated by family tragedy.

The summer before our November 2015 marriage, Temple’s brother Peter unexpectedly died. The two were quite close, and Temple was devastated by the loss of her younger brother.

Peter was a Pearl Jam fan and, after his passing, all nine of his Pearl Jam concert posters—professionally mounted and framed under glass—passed to Temple. So, to honor Peter, the posters became focal points in four rooms: the living room, the dining room, and both of my offices.

My favorite of Peter Walker’s
nine Pearl Jam posters,
this once hung on the wall behind
me when I sat at my writing desk. 
Hanging the Pearl Jam posters not only honored Peter, but their presence reminded Temple of him every day and, because visitors often asked about the posters, allowed Temple to share her memories of Peter. No matter what we did, one of the living room posters was constantly askew, exactly the kind of thing Peter might have done to annoy his sister.

Earlier this year, Peter’s now-teenaged daughter asked for the posters. Though the decision to relinquish them was heartbreaking, Temple gave the posters to her niece, which left large, empty spaces on the walls of four rooms.

The smaller posters in the dining room were replaced with Temple’s mother’s artwork. (Both her mother and my mother were artists, so we have their paintings, watercolors, and drawings decorating nearly every room in the house—but that’s a post for another time.)

One living room wall, which had contained two of the three largest Pearl Jam posters, remained near-barren, as did the wall directly behind me when I’m sitting at my desk, which contained the third of the three largest posters.

Nothing we already owned—and, trust me, we have a great deal of artwork created by our mothers, as well as miscellaneous artwork and posters created by non-family members—seemed appropriate. Temple nixed everything I suggested.

Then one day, as she looked at the covers of the three anthologies I’ve edited for Down & Out Books, she said, “You know....”

She told me that homes should be decorated to reflect their owners and not to reflect the contents of the sale bin at Hobby Lobby. More importantly, replacing Peter’s Pearl Jam posters with my book covers would do exactly that. She would be exchanging something that reflected the essence of her brother, whom she loved dearly, with something that reflected the essence of her spouse. Besides, she said, “They’re really cool covers.”

And a few weeks later, after having the covers enlarged, printed, and framed by CanvasPop.com, the covers for Jukes & Tonks and Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir were hanging in our living room, and the cover of The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods was hanging in my primary office.

Many writers don’t have spouses who take active roles in their writing careers, and fewer still have spouses who decorate the living room with giant reproductions of their book covers.

As I said at the beginning of this, I know I’m lucky.



When the Private Eye Writers of America’s 2021 Shamus Award nominees were announced earlier this month, I was surprised and delighted to see that two short stories from issue 7—the special PI issue—of Black Cat Mystery Magazine were nominated: Gordon Linzner’s “Show and Zeller” and fellow SleuthSayer John M. Floyd’s “Mustang Sally.” As editor of BCMM, I shan’t play favorites, so I’m hoping there’s a tie vote and that both Gordon and John receive a Shamus Award.

07 June 2021

Warren & The Werewolves


 by Steve Liskow

I've been incorporating a few songs by Warren Zevon into my open-mic repertoire. I've played "Mr. Bad Example" and a couple of others off and on for several years, but lately I've been polishing "My Ride's Here." It's the title track from the CD Zevon released soon after he knew he had terminal lung cancer. He always had gallows humor.


If he hadn't been a musician (Mostly piano, but also guitar and harmonica), he might have become a hardboiled crime writer. He co-wrote a song with novelist Thomas McGuane and collaborated on a song and novel with Carl Hiaasen, both called Basket Case ("My baby is a basket case/A bi-polar mama in leather and lace"). He dedicated an early album to Ken Millar, AKA "Ross Macdonald," and was good friends with Hunter S Thompson, whose Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas book cover may have inspired one of his own covers.


Zevon was born in January 1947, two months before me, and died in September 2003, three months after I left teaching and the same month I returned to writing after a 20-year hiatus. His father was once a bookie for gangster Mickey Cohen and had been a prizefighter before moving from Chicago, where Warren was born. 

In his nearly 40-year career, Zevon met Igor Stravinsky and performed, wrote, or drank with half the rock and roll hall of fame, including the Everly Brothers, Jackson Browne, Don Henley, Joe Walsh, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Lindsay Buckingham, Emmylou Harris, and members of R.E.M. Many of them performed on his last CD, The Wind, released less than two weeks before he died. Two songs on that CD posthumously won his only Grammie awards. The CD also features a cover version of Dylan's "Knocking on Heaven's Door" that will give you chills.


Because Zevon's humor was often dark and his stories and imagery jarring or downright disturbing, few of his songs got airplay except "Werewolves of London," but he also wrote songs for the Turtles in the 60s, and Linda Ronstadt covered "Hasten Down the Wind" and "Poor, Poor Pitiful Me" in the 70s.

"Carmelita," a ballad about a junkie, offers the chorus "I'm all strung out on heroin on the outskirts of town." Not quite what they were looking for in Peoria. "Excitable Boy" tells of a young man who murders the girl he takes to the junior prom. Zevon called the victim "Little Susie," a wink at the girl who fell asleep at the movies in the Everly Brothers song. "Werewolves of London" offers this gem of wordplay: "Little old lady got mutilated late last night/Werewolves of London again."

OK, not everyone's bucket of blood...

He played piano behind the Everly Brothers, then worked with each of them individually after their break-up. He co-wrote several songs with Phil (Who may have given him the idea for "Werewolves"). He also filled in for Paul Shaffer as music director for David Letterman, one of his lifelong friends. Letterman had him as his only guest for a one-hour segment after he announced that he was dying.

Zevon told great noir stories, including "Excitable Boy." "Lawyers, Guns and Money" is about a rich screw-up trying to buy his way out of trouble, and one of his most bizarre songs (Which every Zevon fan knows by heart) is "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner." It tells of a mercenary who is killed by another mercenary, and his headless ghost comes back to get revenge. "Boom Boom Mancini" is an homage to the boxer, probably inspired by his own father's early boxing career. "Mr. Bad Example" chronicles the life of a perpetual con man and gives an autobiographical nod to his father's carpet store in Arizona. "I got a part-time job in my father's carpet store/laying tackless stripping and housewives by the score." Zevon's son Jordan hypothesizes that the old building may have been where Dad got the asbestos exposure that caused his cancer years later. Taken as a whole, the song feels like a Donald Westlake caper set to music.

He could be tender and sentimental, too. "Keep Me in Your Heart," one of his posthumous Grammy winners, tells his lover, "If I leave you it doesn't mean I love you any less/ ...You know I'm tied to you like the buttons on you blouse/ ...Hold me in your thoughts, take me to your dreams/Touch me as I fall into view..."

He also wrote one of the great earworms. "Hit Sombody (The Hockey Song)" introduces us to Buddy, who "wasn't that good with a puck."

"Buddy's real talent was beating people up/His heart wasn't in it, but the crowd ate it up.../ A scout from the Flames came down from Saskatoon/ Said, "There's always room on our team for a goon."

The ending is both funny and poignant. Find it on Youtube and accept that it will stick in your head for the rest of the day. I used the title for one of my Roller Derby novels because it captures the raunchy humor of the self-described Bitches on Wheels. If he'd lived longer, Zevon might have written a song about them, too.

My Ride's Here has a cover photo of Zevon peering from the window of a hearse. The title track mentions Jesus, Milton, Shelly, Keats, Lord Byron, and John Wayne (Who also died of lung cancer) and alludes to Elmore Leonard's twice-filmed 3:10 to Yuma


Jordan assembled a songbook of his father's songs that I wish were three times as thick. It gathers most of the cult "hits," but omits a few I've used in my own writing. "Hit Somebody," for example. "Run Straight Down" became the title of my standalone novel about a shooting in a public high school (David Gilmour of Pink Floyd plays guitar). I'd love to find an accurate transcription of "The Hula Hula Boys" about a man with a philandering wife that could be a Raymond Chandler novel. "Ain't That Pretty At All" and "Looking For the Next Best Thing" could be novels or stories, too. And, again, funny...sort of.

I still want to create a story matching the wisdom Zevon shared with David Letterman on that TV segment when Letterman asked him if he'd learned more about life and death since his terminal diagnosis:

Enjoy Every Sandwich.

06 June 2021

Bootstraps


Why do we ‘boot’ computers?

At the risk of breaking toes, we’ve all wanted to boot a computer into the next county, but where did this start-up term ‘boot’ originate?

Boot is half of a compound word ‘bootstrap’, and that in turn derives from a children’s joke at least two centuries old.

2½ Centuries Ago

“Consider the lowly boot,” as the walrus might say, along with ships and sealing wax, and cabbages and kings. (Yes, it’s going to be that kind of article.)

bootjack

Well-fitted boots can be devilishly difficult to pull on and pull off, the latter sometimes a two-person job, as attested by many a cartoon of the era. In the Americas, cabins and houses in frontier times kept a ‘bootjack’ by the door, an angled board with a V-notch where one could wedge in the heel and lever off the boot off the foot, which raises the question of why boot and foot don’t rhyme. (I said it’s going to be that kind of article!)

bootstraps

Riding boots, both Eastern and Western, feature tabs on either side for grasping and tugging them on. Work boots often sport a single strap at the back where one can hook a finger, although on many boots, the strip has shrunk to little more than a decorative spot to show off the shoemaker’s logo.

2 Centuries Ago

Therein lies the joke when a character in children’s stories needs to climb without a ladder or cross the sea without wetting the feet: said character might pull himself up by his bootstraps. This impossibility represents a perfect example of a figure of speech called an adynaton. (Yikes! Wandering off into that kind of article again.)

Steele's Popular Physics
1834, The Workingman's Advocate:
“It is conjectured that Mr. Murphee will now be enabled to hand himself over the Cumberland river or a barn yard fence by the straps of his boots.”
1860, an unsourced comment on philosophy of mind:
“The attempt of the mind to analyze itself [is] an effort analogous to one who would lift himself by his own bootstraps.”
1888, Popular Physics; Steele, Joel Dorman (1836-1886):
“Why can not a man lift himself by pulling up on his boot-straps?”

1 Century Ago

By the early 1900s, the word acquired a Horatio Alger meaning. It referred to improving one’s station in life by their own initiative, that is, starting with nothing to build their fortune in America.

1918-1920, Ulysses, part XIV; Joyce, James (1882-1941):
“Ladies who like distinctive underclothing should, and every well-tailored man must, trying to make the gap wider between them by innuendo and give more of a genuine filip to acts of impropriety between the two, she unbuttoned his and then he untied her, mind the pin, whereas savages in the cannibal islands, say, at ninety degrees in the shade not caring a continental. However, reverting to the original, there were on the other hand others who had forced their way to the top from the lowest rung by the aid of their bootstraps. Sheer force of natural genius, that. With brains, sir.”
(Granted, I could have omitted the first two-thirds, but why miss the good parts for which the American publishers were imprisoned?)

½ Century Ago

What does any of this have to do with computers? The answer, grasshopper, is why your computer takes so long to start up.

When they’re turned on, must computers have less intelligence than planaria. Their sole mission at that point is to gobble up a piece of a program that gobbles up larger segment and perhaps yet another larger gulp until it begins to look and act like the computer we expect.

For many, many decades, most computers have worked pretty much this way:

  1. The computer blindly looks for a strip of code at a specific place in a solid-state drive, a hard disc drive, or at one time a magnetic tape, punched cards, or even paper tape. Earlier in the 1950s, this data was entered by hand.
  2. Those few bytes load a larger chunk of program code, one that knows where the operating system is located, and how to load it.
  3. Finally, the operating system loads, coughs when it’s spanked to life, and becomes the computer you love… or hate.

At one time, IBM called this ‘IPL’ for initial program load. Other terms have co-existed, but ‘bootstrap’ became the term of choice, eventually shortened to simply ‘boot’, where it’s origins have been forgotten.

I can’t explain why at one time you had to click the Start button on a Windows machine to stop it, but now you know why you ‘boot’ it.

Outside the Compound

More than anything else, English betrays Germanic roots with its use of compound words. Ever wonder where hopscotch, cobweb, kidnap, scapegoat, doughnut, wedlock, honeymoon, hodgepodge, earmark, eggplant, hogwash, or piecemeal derived? Bah, humbug, you did wonder! Mental Floss Magazine editor Lucas Reilly can entertainingly tell you all about them.


1 Unexpected Footnote

In researching sources for the article, I came upon an unexpected recent reference from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. I won’t address the divided politics, but she tweeted, “It’s a physical impossibility to lift yourself up by a bootstrap,” and followed up with remarks during a House committee meeting, “This metaphor of a bootstrap started as a joke because it is a physical impossibility.”

2 Acknowledgements

Thanks to Sharon for the Compound Words and AOC additions to the article.

05 June 2021

Going to Work in Shorts



Okay, not that kind of shorts.

I write, and have written, lots of different things. Articles, poems, essays, technical manuals, even some unpublished/unproduced novels and screenplays. But what I most like to write are short stories. Shorts of all lengths, as long as they're under 20,000 words: flash, short, vignette, novelette, novella, whatever. My published stories have run between 26 words and 18K words, so there's a lot of leeway. (And here's one of those for-what-it's-worth newsflashes: I've made far more money from the under-1000 word stories than from the longer ones. What was that song lyric from the '60s? "I like short shorts.")

The thing is, I'm not alone in choosing to write short instead of long. I'm sure I'm missing someone here, but I know that my friends R.T. Lawton, Barb Goffman, Joseph S. Walker, Michael Bracken, Sandra Murphy, Josh Pachter, Herschel Cozine, Art Taylor, Eve Fisher, Robert Lopresti, and Stephen D. Rogers write shorts exclusively, at least for now and for the immediate future. I think I can speak for all of them in saying we don't feel we're missing out on anything by focusing on short stories instead of novels. For me, they're just more fun to write.

Since I know "it's more fun" probably doesn't sound like a good enough reason by itself--though it actually is--here are some other things that I believe are advantages to writing short fiction:


1. A sense of completion. I can usually dream up, write, edit, and finish a short story in a matter of a few days, certainly no more than a couple of weeks. That allows me to concentrate on a single plot and a specific group of characters for a fairly short while, and then I'm done with that plot and those people and that setting. I can write THE END, and the next day I can start working on an entirely different story, maybe even in a different genre. That flexibility gives me a great feeling of freedom and satisfaction.

2. Time savings. Most novels take several months and sometimes several years to finish. Most short stories take several weeks at the most. And although I suppose this isn't exactly positive thinking, if your novel turns out to be a real stinker, you might've just wasted a LOT of time. If your short story turns out smelling like a pig sty, you've only wasted a few days or weeks. Besides, I have a tendency to get bored with my characters if I live with them too long--but for a week or two we get along just fine.

3. Resalability. Yes, I know that's not a real word--but maybe it should be. My point is, short stories, unlike novels, can be sold over and over again, so long as the market is receptive to previously published work. Reprints seldom pay as much as original stories, but sometimes they do, and besides, who's complaining?--these are stories that have already been written and published once, and maybe many times, so the work's already done. (NOTE: One instance where reprints almost always pay well is when they're selected for annual best-of anthologies. If that's not icing on the cake, I don't know what is.)

4. Practice. Writing with the tightness and economy of language required for a short story is great experience and training for other kinds of writing, whether it's fiction or non-. Also, a resume of a lot of short stories published in respected magazines or anthologies can possibly help you to later find, if that's what you want, an agent or a publisher or other writing opportunities.

5. No agent needed. If you already have a literary agent for longer work, he or she can sometimes be handy in finding short-story markets as well, and is especially helpful in the case of foreign or film deals. But if you don't already have an agent, no worries. You don't really need one, for short stories. They probably won't want to sign you anyway, if you're writing shorts exclusively.


Another thing about short stories, though I'm not sure it would qualify as an advantage, is that the middle of a short story is, well, short. Middles, you see, are hard for me. As an outliner, I like beginnings and endings--I think they're fun to plan and write. Middles, not so much. And loooooooong middles, which is always the case with a novel, are even less fun. I guess what I'm trying to say is, I find short stories more manageable and therefore easier and more enjoyable to write, from start to finish. 

NOTE: This probably goes without saying, but I happen to enjoy reading novels, and I suspect that all the short-story folks I listed above do, too. I also admire the talent it takes to write good novels. I've just found shorts to be a better fit for me. 

Now, what's the downside of writing only short stories? I can think of only one: as a short-story writer you will probably not become famous or make a zillion bucks from your writing. But here's another newsflash: neither will most novelists.

The truth is, we write because we want to, or--as I heard someone say once--because we can't not write. I think it's great fun to create these characters and situations out of thin air and to fiddle around with them until they're polished and logical and ready to send out into the world. If I'm then fortunate enough for an editor and eventual readers to like the story also--well, so much the better. And to know that I can repeat that process and that thrill again and again and again . . . yes, that's fun.

Who wouldn't want to go to work every day in shorts? It just feels good.




04 June 2021

Mr. Limpet Reports His Pandemic Reading is WAY Up!


I can’t tell you how many times someone has told me that they are “not a big reader.” Whenever I hear that, my mind conjures images of bigness lifted from children’s literature. I see NC Wyeth’s painting of a fairy-tale giant strolling across a beach while a gaggle of children look on, lost in their own imaginations. Or I start wondering what might happen if Roald Dahl’s BFG decided to break into a library at night.

In fact these people are trying to gently indicate that they don’t read often. And that’s okay. I don’t sky-dive often. I don’t restore cars or motorcycles. I’ve never joined a knitting circle. To each his own.

But what these speakers, if they’re American, probably don’t realize is how close they are to the norm. The typical American reads four books a year. (That average is skewed heavily by the nation’s hard-stop non-readers.)

At a conference of booksellers some years back, I listened as a clever bookseller flashed an image of Amazon’s logo on the screen. “This is what we’re told is ruining our business,” she told her audience. “But what I’d like to suggest is that it’s really this…”

Her finger hit the remote. Up on the screen, Amazon’s logo was suddenly joined by tons of other logos. For Instagram. Facebook. Netflix. Hulu. ESPN Sports. I could go on. But you get the point. Bookstores, booksellers, publishing are all waging an uphill battle for our attention against a bewildering array of seemingly shinier choices. More choices than our book-loving forebears ever had.

Then came 2020. Suddenly, many of us—the most privileged, I’d argue—were spending more time at home. Suddenly, books were cool again. At least, that’s what publishers are telling the world in articles such as this one and this one. I don’t doubt what the publishers’ statistics are showing. In fact, I find these stories fascinating. But I think it’s a mistake to bank on Covid behaviors sticking around for long. We all have a ferocious desire to get back to normal, whatever that means. This other article, discussing how African-American bookstores are faring one year after the protests, is all the evidence I need that 2020 habits are unlikely to be long-lasting.


Safely behind glass—and safe from the prying minds of three-fourths of the reading public...

Earlier this year, on a call with our agent, my wife and I listened as the agent relayed the gist of a post-pandemic Zoom-call debrief she’d attended that was presided over by the CEO of one of the Big 5 publishers. What follows are some of the things the agent heard on that call. I swear I did not make up the publisher statements. They are true to the best of my reporting ability. I cannot vouch for my own off-the-cuff comments.

Publisher: We will no longer spend money advertising our books in print (i.e., newspapers, magazines, etc.) Virtual or digital advertising is more effective. That’s where people are spending their time.
Joe: Or is that where people are more easily tracked, and thus easier to quantify and justify your spending? I don’t buy as many newspapers as I used to. But I still have a lot of magazine subscriptions. And I still read a ton of print books. No one is watching my eyeballs read (or reread) a paperback novel from the eighties. The last time that book was statistically or financially relevant to the industry was when I bought used in 1993. As for self-published books, fuhgeddaboudit. I can’t imagine traditional publishing is seriously interested—or frankly capable—of tracking how many books are read in this growing sector.

Publisher: In 2020, we saw a 33 percent growth in fiction sales. And two times the growth in debut fiction! And a 15 percent growth in nonfiction!
Joe: Homo sapiens has theoretically been roving this planet for 300,000 years. But feel free to base your corporate judgment on a single, highly unusual year that represents 0.000003333333333 of that time.

Publisher: Bestselling authors only got more popular in 2020!
Joe: What the hell did you expect? Their books are the ones we always hear about. Someone who is Not a Big Reader will reach for their books first, natch.

Publisher: We saw a 36 percent growth in children’s books! That’s because parents scrambled to find ways to entertain their kids. Even children’s picture books, considered “dead” in some circles, were hot sellers.
Joe: Slow down, Marshall McLuhan! Let’s hold off on making sweeping generalizations of the behavior of vast swaths of people. Um, did I mention I wrote a picture book? (In fact, as I was writing this piece, a bookseller friend in Florida messaged me to say that an exhausted parent walked into her store and said, “I’m looking for a children’s book called Bonehead, about Fauci.” Turns out, they were looking for my book, Blockhead: The Life of Fibonacci. No, I am not kidding. Folks, I’m huge in St. Pete, but I digress.)


Groovy bookstores we did not visit in 2020.

Publisher: The biggest growth was in so-called “canceled” authors. Dr. Seuss was very big in 2020!
Joe: Cool! So are you guys hoping more authors are canceled?

Publisher: We sold the shite out of backlist titles in 2020! The Very Hungry Caterpillar, first pubbed in 1969, had the biggest sales year of its existence!
Joe: Ahem, yes, this too is logical. Ordinarily, the industry focuses its attention almost exclusively on new, freshly published books—and so does the press. But when you erase foot traffic and browsing, people don’t buy the heavily promoted books they just heard about on the radio or TV, but instead choose to finally get the books that have been on their TBR lists for years, which is apparently anything by James Patterson or Nora Roberts. (Please see Publisher Statement No. 3, above.) Also: RIP Eric Carle, a national treasure.

Publisher: Book sales on Amazon were big in 2020! And so were sales on Bookshop.org!
Joe: No! Stop! Now you are blowing my mind! Is there some kind of Sherlock Holmes brain cereal you geniuses have been eating? Because I need to load up my pandemic pantry with truckloads of it!

Publisher: Two places where we saw a drop in sales: brick-and-mortar Barnes & Noble stores and indie bookstores.
Dr. Watson: Hold my beer, Mr d’Agnese. I do believe I might have deduced this one for myself!

Publisher: Social media is more important to book sales than previously noticed or acknowledged! People buy books they see on Instagram! Even if they don’t intend to read the book themselves, they buy it in order to show their support for a particular social media “influencer.” The actresss Amy Schumer shows a book to her 10.5 million Instagram followers, and everyone buys it!
Joe: Anthropologists pinpoint the decline of western civilization as 2021 CE, the date when major American publishers began actively cheerleading the purchasing of books that no one ever intends to read.

Publisher: People’s reading time grew during the pandemic. People bought more books because they finished their Netflix queue and were looking for things to do!
Joe: How can anyone ever finish their Netflix queue?

Publisher: In 2020 light readers grew their newfound interest, and appear to be maintaining that habit as the nation moves toward normalcy.
Joe (shouting): What’s that? I can’t hear you! The music at this Fully-Vaxxed-to-the-Maxx Party on the beach here in Fort Lauderdale is rocking the bejesus out of my eardrums! Talk to me in 2024, Chachi! Whoo-hoo!

Publisher: In the future, in-person author book tours will be reserved for bestselling authors only. All other authors will be doing Zoom tours.
Joe: Nothing to see here, folks. Move along, move along.


Mr. Limpet: currently reading...so America doesn't have to.

Publisher: It was hard to print books in 2020 because printers had to reduce staff due to Covid precautions. Also unreported in the media was the fact that the industry lost many shipping containers of books prior to or during the blocking of the Suez Canal. The containers were literally lost overboard.
Joe: Ah, but scientists did note an uptick in well-read porpoises and well-fed crustaceans, so all good!

* * *

PS: I’ve been experimenting with crazy new fonts. One example below. More to come.

See you in three weeks!





03 June 2021

What to Do With the Body


One of the major tactical problems with murder is what to do with the body. Any idiot can kill someone (or so it seems), but successfully corpse disposal is rare. Very few murderers have incinerators on hand, or woodchippers (not to mention the stomach for it), or work for a funeral home, meat packing plant, or meat pie production line. Sweeney Todd is famous because he was rare – and even he got caught. (See? Now you can sleep better at night.)

Of course, the main thing that has almost always been done is to dump it. Whether in deep water, with weights (BTW swimming pools are a poor choice: stick with oceans), or in a remote wooded location, or in a ditch, or sometimes at someone else's door, dumping the body followed by running like hell is a time-honored tradition. This is why people keep stumbling over bodies when they go hunting, fishing, hiking, skiing, or walking down dark alleys. And then the police show up, and sometimes the FBI, and, very often, they can track the murderer down.

Burial is also popular. However, a word of advice: don't do it on your own property. And when the police show up asking to search the place, don't tell them "Sure, search away. Just not over there." (Yes, that happened, I believe in the Daybell case.) Another word of advice: dig deep. And then deeper. And then deeper still. And, after filling the grave, plant something quick and spreading. Agatha Christie (in Nemesis) used Polygonum Baldshuanicum, a/k/a MileAMinute. Kudzu would be perfect.

Another very common method of disposal is putting the corpse in the freezer. There was the woman in Japan who kept her mother's body in a freezer for 10 years, because that way she got to stay in the apartment on her mother's senior citizen rent. A man died, and as people were disposing of his estate, they opened his freezer, and found his mother's body in it. Back in April, 2021, a freezer filled with human body parts was found dumped and half-buried in the Alaska woods (interesting combination). (The article goes on to list a number of freezer disposal incidents HERE) And if you google "corpse in freezer", you get an endless list of hits.

My Note: The problem, of course, with the corpse in the freezer is then, what do you do with the freezer? As that google search will tell you, this has stymied a lot of people.

Now you may be asking, what has gotten Eve so interested in body disposal? No, I have not, nor am I planning to kill anybody. No, no, I do but jest, poison in jest; no offence i' the world.

But what sparked my interest was a highly unusual place for a body: Inside a papier-mâché dinosaur statue. Specifically, a stegosaurus, although I'd have been just as intrigued if it had been any kind of dinosaur sculpture.

stegosaurus, Barcelona

It happened in Barcelona, Spain. Apparently a father and son, walking by the sculpture, noticed the smell (this is almost always a give-away). Now, here's the tricky bit:

While police have not confirmed how he got inside, local media reports that the man dropped his phone inside the statue and was trying to retrieve it, BBC News reports. He fell inside, hanging upside down, and was able to call for help. However, police have not confirmed how the man got inside the dinosaur. Police are awaiting the results of the autopsy to find out the cause of death. (CBS News)

Here are the obvious questions:
  • How did he drop the phone?
  • How addicted was this man to his phone?
  • Why did he go diving in after it?
  • How do you fall head down into a dinosaur leg?
  • Okay, if he called for help, who heard him?
  • Or did he fall head down into the dinosaur leg, and then called for help, and then dropped his phone?
  • And whoever he called - in person or by phone - why didn't they save him?
  • Or at least call the police?
Inquiring minds want to know.

Meanwhile, please, don't try any of this at home.

02 June 2021

A Legend on Klickitat Street


It started in Yakima in the 1940s.  A small boy complained to a librarian that there weren't any books about kids like him.  And, of course, he was right.  Most children's books were European fairy tales or stories of upper class English children.

So the librarian decided to write a story about a boy growing up in her hometown of Portland, Oregon.

By the time that librarian, Beverly Cleary, died in March at the age of 104 her books had sold 90 million copies.  Portland has honored her by naming a school and a library children's room after her, and by placing statues of some of her characters in a park near where they (supposedly) lived.


Not bad, huh?

Her first book was Henry Huggins, about a little boy who lived on Klickitat Street.  But she truly found her muse when she started writing about Ramona Quimby, the younger sister of Henry's friend Beezus (Ramona's pronunciation of Beatrice.)

It's hard to explain what makes Ramona so special because she was, well, so ordinary.  No super-powers, no daring adventures.  Just a bright kid trying to cope with everyday dilemmas and injustices.  Did her teacher think she was a nuisance?  Did another kid get credit for for her work?  And (more seriously) will her father find a new job?  Read Ramona the Pest and see how a master can turn the minutiae of a kid's life into literature. 


Cleary won the Newberry Award for Dear Mr. Henshaw, which I highly recommend.  If you wanted to get all high-brow you could say it's a book about writing therapy.  It was inspired by two kids who each  asked Cleary to create a novel about divorce.  In the book sixth-grader Leigh Botts writes a letter to his favorite author full of very standard kid-to-writer questions and Mr. Henshaw responds with a snarky list of questions of his own.  That leads Leigh to begin a diary and he uses it as a way of coping with his family trauma while, at the same time, learning to write.  

Moira MacDonald, who writes for the Seattle Times, decided to read (or re-read) Cleary's books after her death and came up with an interesting insight.  Cleary's young adult novels, she said, seem hopelessly old-fashioned and dated, but her children's books are fresh as springtime.  


Which may mean that there's something universal about being a kid (in spite of what that blessed little boy in Yakima said).     

And that reminds me.  I have been reading the Mystery Writers of America's excellent new manual How To Write A Mystery (full disclosure: I have one page in it), and Chris Grabenstein has an essay about writing for children.  He says: "[D]on't put a chalkboard in your classroom scene.  Nobody uses chalkboards anymore.  They are dusty relics.  Do try to remember how it felt to be in front of a class, unable to solve a math problem because, oops, you didn't do your homework.  The feeling is the same."

Universal.



01 June 2021

Ever been to a Jewish wedding? Here's your chance!


Barb Goffman

I've heard fiction readers say many times over the years that they love learning new things. They don't want lessons like in school, but getting an inside look at a profession or learning what it's like to live in a different part of the world, these are experiences readers seek out.

I had this idea in mind when I was planning to write my newest short story, "A Tale of Two Sisters." It's published in Murder on the Beach, an anthology with eight short stories, most of them novelette length (as mine is), which was published last week. All the stories are set, as you can imagine, on a beach. All different ones. The stories take readers to the shores of Connecticut, Maryland, Florida, Louisiana, Texas, Mexico, California, and Wisconsin. The Wisconsin story is mine, set at a beach resort on Lake Michigan.

Because my story takes place during a wedding, I wouldn't have the opportunity to take readers on a tour of the Wisconsin town. And because my story is written from the perspective of the maid of honor, I couldn't give an inside look at a wedding-related profession, such as a wedding planner or a caterer or a photographer. What kind of inside experience could I give people that they might not know much about?

What if, I thought, I set the story during a Jewish wedding? That's not that exotic to me, since I'm Jewish. My family and a lot of my friends would probably feel the same way. But a lot of people have probably never been to a Jewish wedding. The customs and traditions would be interesting. Readers could experience going to a Jewish wedding without having to get dressed up or buy a gift. And thanks to the power of exposition, it would be like having a Jewish friend sitting with them throughout the event, providing short explanations of the things going on. Jewish readers would probably enjoy the story too, I figured, because they may never have read a story that showcases these traditions. 

Once I decided to write the story, I realized I've only been to three Jewish weddings in the past decade, and I wished I'd taken notes. My memory isn't what it used to be. Thankfully, I have several friends who offered their recollections, and I used some of their last names in the story as a thank you. 

So, if you've ever wondered what the hora is, I've got you covered. The ketubah, that's in there. Ever wondered why you'll see some brides--and sometimes some brides and grooms–circling each other? You'll want to read my story because all will be revealed. 

Lest you think the story is all about culture and tradition, don't worry if that doesn't interest you very much, because while a Jewish wedding is the setting of my story, and while I hope readers will find it interesting, my main goal in writing "A Tale of Two Sisters" was to entertain the reader. More specifically, I wanted to make people laugh. The editors of the anthology said they wanted light funny crime stories, so that is what I set out to write, and I believe I succeeded. Multiple readers have told me in the past week that they found my story "hilarious." That made my heart sing. It wasn't enough to make me break into a hora (since you need multiple people for that), but I did do a Snoopy dance in my chair.

tiara
a tiara might play a role in my story

If you want to learn more about the anthology, especially the stories by my co-authors, you're in luck. We're having a launch party on Facebook on Friday, June 4th. Each of us will talk about our stories for a half hour, and there will be videos and giveaways. The fun will run from 5-9 p.m. ET. Feel free to pop in and out as time allows. I'll be speaking (typing) from 7-7:30 p.m. ET. For the full schedule, and for the event itself, please go to the Destination Murders page on Facebook by clicking here.

Murder on the Beach has stories by Ritter Ames, Karen Cantwell, Lucy Carol, Eleanor Cawood Jones, Shari Randall, Shawn Reilly Simmons, Cathy Wiley, and me. It's out in ebook form from all the usual suspects (at a discounted rate until Friday, I believe), and in another week or so the trade paperback version should be out too. I hope you'll check it out. This is one book that will make you smile while showing you that sharks aren't the only danger near the water.

31 May 2021

Verbal Issues That Go Beyond Pet Peeves


I originally thought I was going to write the usual frivolous rant.

You know the kind of thing—how people say, "just between you and I." Would they say, "just between we?" Why can't they figure this out?

Or, "Let's face it," as a preface to a generalized assumption about what people think, usually one that I don't share. I once heard a highly respected mystery writer say, "Let's face it, you can never have too many handbags." I responded tactlessly because I honestly thought she was kidding.

But mere verbal peccadillos are hardly worth talking about these days. What's really making me bite nails is the way today's extremists insist on making language, beautiful language, political, and try to impose it on us all with extreme prejudice.

My first post-motherhood job in 1977 was an editorial job at McGraw-Hill, a publisher that was proud to have created the first guide to nonsexist language for its editors' use. I felt like Wonder Woman as I changed the likes of "workmen" to "workers" and "every man" to "everyone" in my big project, an accounting textbook. It felt wonderful, and there's no question in my mind that it made a difference to women. What's happening now feels more like an attack on free speech. More than one fellow writer has said to me privately that it's not safe to say what you think. There's a fine line between changes and censorship, between the evolution of language and the imposition of a political party line that uses language to impose its views.

I'm not talking about the use of "they" and "them" as singular subject and object pronouns for a trans, non-binary, or gender fluid individual. That's the usage that's evolved, so let's accept it. The problem starts when self-appointed language police start "correcting" users of traditional pronouns, ie "he, she, him, her," in reference to individual men and women.

We hear a lot lately about the right for groups of people to call themselves what they themselves wish to be called. Most of us take this very seriously. We respect the right of former Hispanics to be called Latinx, of former African-Americans to be called people of color, or former transsexuals to be called trans people. In fact, I was corrected the other day when I referred to someone not present who'd changed their name from Someone-a to Someone-o as a trans person. Apparently, since that person might be gender fluid, gender expansive, or non-binary rather than trans (neither of us knew), I wasn't supposed to use a noun at all, but stick to a pronoun, they, in a sentence in which a noun was called for. I've been fighting for the rights of others my whole life, and I'm not afraid to stand up and say, If this be treason, I'm still gonna use a noun.

I thought an online corporate training module on workplace discrimination, harassment, and retaliation went too far when it counseled employees to avoid the term "pregnant women," substituting "pregnant people." I googled "pregnant men," and it seems trans men do get pregnant. It's a serious issue. A significant number become depressed or suicidal as a result. But if pregnant women become invisible—well, women have been invisible before, and it's not a good thing.

One last beef. We all have the right to be called what we want to be called. Really? All of us? Speaking of invisible, I'm not happy, as a Jewish woman (only two degrees of separation from people who died in Auschwitz), to be labeled a "privileged white." If so, why are white supremacists throwing bombs into synagogues? Evidently they're reading a different set of labels. Finally, I'm a woman with the organs and identity I was born with, and I never asked to be called a cis. I do not give my permission to be called a cis. I am woman, hear me roar.

30 May 2021

The Road to Hana


“The Road to Hana” is one of those stories that took several years from concept to to conclusion and underwent many transformations during the journey. I started out with the right murder weapon in mind and had the correct setting for the story to play out. I just needed to figure out the proper characters for protagonist, antagonist and secondary players.

The setting is an exotic location, a paradise where murder is out of place. It is also a location I am familiar with, having gone back to it many times over the decades.

If you look at the Hawaiian island of Maui as a figure 8, the airport would be located at the waist of the figure. Driving clockwise from the airport on the lower half of the 8 takes you 52 miles to the small villages of Hana on the windy side of the island. Most of this 52 miles of highway clings to volcanic rock cliffs and parallels  the coast. It has 56 bridges and 620 curves with dense jungle on both the uphill and the downhill sides of the road. Most of the bridges are one-way at a time, built of crumbling cement date stamped in the 1920s. The view is beautiful, but don't take your eyes off the road for long. This side of the island is not the side where all the nice, sandy beaches are located, nor the large, fancy resorts. It's where you go on a one-day trip to see what's left of old Hawaii or else to get away from everything.

Wkipedia map

That's setting. So, who would make a good protagonist? How about a big city homicide detective recovering from a bullet wound in the line of duty. He wants someplace warm, quiet and laid back to rest up for a few days. To that end, he rents a tourist bungalow outside Hana and settles in to see a few local sites, find a good restaurant and have a tourist drink or two.

In the beginning, he does not suspect that another visitor's death may actually be a homicide, nor that the antagonist may consider a second murder to cover up the first.

With the above information in place, the antagonist and bit players wrote themselves into the story. Now, I'm not sure what took me so long from start to finish. "The Road to Hana" appears in the AHMM May/Jun 2021 issue. That makes four stories in four straight issues. A good run, but now it will be a long dry spell before any others of mine get published.

Aerial View Hana Highway © Wikipedia

Originally, I wrote this one as a standalone, however I I usually try to keep in mind what it would take for one of my standalones to become a series. In this case, the detective could only make so many trips back to the islands before the concept gets worn out and he needs to retire and move to the islands before he can stumble over more bodies and make it seem credible. Otherwise, the Tourist Board would surly ban him from setting foot in the islands.

If you ever get the chance, I recommend taking a trip to Maui and driving over to the Hana side to enjoy the scenery, if nothing else.  We swam in the Seven Pools, hiked up through bamboo forests on the old volcano to a 100 foot water fall splashing down to a small pool and ate ripe guava off of trees along the way. Also found coconuts on some of the small beaches. Never did make it to aviator Charles Lindbergh's grave in a cemetery behind an old church. Maybe on the next trip.

29 May 2021

I Have a Few Questions


Our guest columnist today is my friend Adam Meyer, a screenwriter and fiction writer. His TV credits include several Lifetime movies and true-crime series for Investigation Discovery; he recently finished his first thriller, Missing Rachel; and he is the author of the YA novel The Last Domino. Adam's short fiction has been nominated for the Shamus Award and has appeared in Crime Travel, The Beat of Black Wings, Malice Domestic: Murder Most Theatrical, and other anthologies. He also has stories upcoming in Malice Domestic: Mystery Most Diabolical, Groovy Gumshoes, Mickey Finn 3, and more. Please join me in welcoming Adam to SleuthSayers!
— John Floyd

I Have a Few Questions

by Adam Meyer

I've often wondered: why am I usually so wiped out after a long day of writing?

I'm just typing words, after all. My father was a construction worker, who spent his days climbing skyscrapers. When he "rested his eyes" during TV show reruns at night, he'd clearly earned the rest. After a long day of work, I haven't done anything more physically taxing than dash to the kitchen for a handful of trail mix. So why am I so wiped out?

Over the years, I've come to realize that while the physical component of writing may be minimal, the mental piece of it can be intense. And what is it that's so tiring, so draining, so utterly exhausting?

Simple--it's the questions.

My daughter is eight now, but I can still remember when she was just a toddler. Back then, everything was a question: Why do we have to pay for the food before we leave the grocery store? Why are there traffic lights? Why can't I have ice cream every single day? (Come to think of it, that last one still comes up.)

As writers, we are perpetually living in this question phase of our lives. I can remember as a teenager, the very first time I started trying to draft a short story. Staring at the screen of my primitive Atari computer, I asked the question: what's the first line going to be?

After several minutes of puzzling this out, I went with the tried and true, "It was a dark and stormy night." Phew. At last, I was on my way!

Alas, more questions lay ahead, ready to ambush me. What was the story going to be about? A man and his cat, I decided. Great, now I was ready. But wait, what was I going to call this man and his cat?

It didn't take long to realize that the questions were not going to stop. In fact, they were built into the process. And experience has not made this go away. In fact, the more I've learned about writing, the more questions I seem to have.

From the very moment a new idea pops into my head, the questions begin: who is this piece going to be about? Why would the character do this or that? What is the conflict they're facing? And how am I going to resolve it?

Another question I find myself asking is how much space I'll need to tell this story. Have I come up with an idea that will sustain six or eight thousand words? In that case, it's a short story. But if the idea feels bigger and more complex, then maybe I have a novel or a screenplay. So which is it?

Over time, if the idea really starts to gather momentum, I have to consider the biggest question of all: is this something that I really want to write?

When I was younger, the answer almost always seemed to be a resounding yes. These days, it can depend on a variety of factors. What's the potential market? How long will it take me? What other deadlines do I have that I need to consider? 

If those answers satisfy me, I find myself asking one more question: have I written something like this before? I hate being bored. Then again, taking on a new challenge makes the writing more fun. But is this project too far out of my comfort zone?

Of course, I've learned that at some point I need to put the pre-writing questions aside and sit at my laptop. But that only invites a new series of questions: What's the first line going to be? That depends. Do I want to start at the beginning of the story, or somewhere in the middle?

Even if I've outlined a piece, the questions continue to come up, because what seems like a better idea always pops up. But is that idea really better? And which choice is most consistent with my characters?

As every writer knows, there's nothing better than finishing a draft. It's not just the sense of accomplishment, but also the feeling of utter relief. It's like dropping your toddler off at pre-school. For a few too-short moments, you actually get a break from the questions. But then … revision.

What is revision if not a series of questions one needs to ask about the manuscript? Yes, I've narrowed the choices considerably by this point. I've decided to focus on this character instead of that one. I've laid down the track of the story and followed it to what I hope is its natural conclusion. 

However, I still go through line by line and scene by scene and make sure that everything adds to the story. I also ask myself (again) if there is a better choice to be made. Sometimes it can be as simple as changing a word, other times it may mean adding a new character to a scene or shifting the point of view.

Of course, that leads to the final question, the one my eight-year-old is still likely to ask on long car rides: are we there yet? In other words, is this project done? At this point, I may bring in writer friends that I trust for feedback. OR I may just decide that I've had enough and move on. 

After all, I've been hard at work. And I'm tired, so very tired, of asking questions.

Adam and daughter Leah, writing away
Adam and daughter Leah, writing away

That said, I have some questions for you--what do you tend to think about most before you write or while you're writing? Which questions are the easiest and hardest for you to answer about your work?

28 May 2021

Stuff about Louisiana


On December 20, 1803, The formal transfer of the Louisiana Purchase was held in the Cabildo building in New Orleans. The oldest city in the land purchased from France was Natchitoches, Louisiana, founded in 1714.

The tallest state capitol building in the U.S. is in Baton Rouge. It stands 450 feet.

State Capitol Building, Baton Rouge, Louisiana

The largest enclosed stadium in the world is the Louisiana Superdome in New Orleans.

The Port of New Orleans has historically imported and exported much of the world's food, coffee and oil.

The term "Uncle Sam" was coined along the New Orleans wharves before Louisiana was a U.S. territory as goods labeled U.S. were said to be from "Uncle Sam."

The dice game of Craps was created in the early 1800s (some say 1805, some say 1813) by New Orleanian Bernard Xavier Philippe de Marigny de Mandeville. A simplification of the European game of Hazard, which dated back to the Crusades. Craps caught on quickly and thrived along the New Orleans riverfront and spread worldwide.

Louisiana is the No. 1 producer of crawfish, shallots and alligators in the U.S.

Do I have to tell you what this is?

Oldest rice mill in the U.S. is Konriko Co. in New Iberia.

24% of the nation's salt is produced in Louisiana.

Two American Revolution battles fought outside the original 13 colonies were fought in Louisiana in 1779. At Baton Rouge, Spanish Colonial Governor Bernardo de Galvez (Spain was allied with the Americans), captured the British fort and forced the British to surrender a second fort at modern Natchez, Mississippi. In a second battle, American and Spanish privateers captured British supply ships and two armed sloops. Galvez cleared the British from the Mississippi River and the sea lakes around New Orleans (Lake Pontchartrain, Lake Borgne and Lake Saint Catherine). Galvez later took Pensacola from the British in 1781.

Louisiana has over 6.5 million acres of wetlands, the most in the U.S.

The staircase in GONE WITH THE WIND was copied from the antebellum plantation house Chretien Point in Sunset, Louisiana, located 14 miles north of Lafayette.

Chretien Point Plantation House, Sunset, Louisiana

Louisiana's Tabasco holds the second oldest food trademark in the U.S. Patent Office.

The largest sugar cane syrup mill is Steen's in Abbeville, Louisiana. (My grandfather Calixte De Noux worked in sugar mills up and down the Mississippi in the early 20th Century).

An early bottler of Coca-Cola (some say the first bottler) Joseph Biedenham of Monroe, Louisiana, was one of the founders of Delta Airlines, initially called Delta Air Service. Also involved in the creation of the Airline was Monroe's C. E. Woolman whose use of an airplane to crop dust for boll weevils became the first crop dusting service in the world.

The Lake Pontchartrain Causeway is the longest over-water bridge in the world at 23.87 miles.

Lake Pontchartrain Causeway Bridge between Metairie and Mandeville, Louisiana

While the International Joke Telling Contest is held annually in Opelousas, Louisiana, the biggest joke in Louisiana has been its legislature since – forever.

After the U.S. military academies, Louisiana State University (LSU, aka: The Ole War Skule) contributed the most officers to the U.S. armed forces in World War II.

The Louisiana Hayride radio show helped Elvis Presley, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash rise to stardom. It was broadcast from KWKH Radio, Shreveport, Louisiana from 1948 into 1960. I was a kid in the 50s and a teenager in the 60s. Never listened to the Hayride. I was (still am) a rock and roller, although I do like Elvis, Hank and Mr. Cash.

The oldest pharmacy in America was claimed to have been located at 514 Chartres Street in the New Orleans French Quarter. Early medicinal mixtures were known as cocktails (good for what ails ya).


New Orleans Pharmacy Museum, 514 Chartres Street

New Orleans is birthplace of Jazz, which gave way to the Blues and Rock and Roll. Some call Jazz the only true American Art form.

Information from a number of books and online source, especially The Real Cajun Deal who copied information from Cajun Works.

That's all for now, folks.

www.oneildenoux.com

27 May 2021

The Strange Death of American Diplomat Silas Deane


Silas Deane
Silas Deane

Silas Deane's career began with one of those rags-to-riches stories so much appreciated in American folklore. In fact, Deane might have made a lasting place for himself in the history texts, except that his career ended with an equally dramatic riches-to-rags story.

— James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle


You know his ambition… his desire of making a Fortune… You also know his Art and Enterprise. Such Characters are often useful, altho always to be carefully watched and contracted, specially in such a government as ours.

— John Adams writing of Silas Deane


The over-achieving son of an ambitious Connecticut blacksmith, Silas Deane was by turns a graduate of Yale, a teacher/law student, merchant, politician, and the first "minister plenipotentiary" from the rebelling British colonies of North America to the Kingdom of France. By the time he died in 1789, aged fifty-one, he had long since experienced a complete reversal of his fortunes: for the final decade of his life Deane remained a discredited pauper, hounded by scandal, plagued by declining health, and eventually forgotten by history. A puzzling turn of events for a man who racked up success after success during the early years of his life.

And yet nothing about Silas Deane is more puzzling than the manner of his death.

After graduating from Yale in 1758, Deane supported himself by teaching school while simultaneously studying law. One of his pupils from this period, a tavern-keeper's son named Edward Bancroft, figures prominently in the final years of his life, first as Deane's secretary during his negotiations with the French over the question of a possible alliance with the rebellious colonies against the British, and later as his benefactor: one of the few people who would advance the penniless Deane money. 

Bancroft was Deane's pupil for only a brief amount of time (he ran away to sea), but the two remained friends, and when Deane needed a private secretary to assist in negotiations with the French, he contacted Bancroft, now a physician and scientist of some note, then living in London, and invited him to come work for the American delegation which by then consisted of three men: Deane, Benjamin Franklin, and the dour William Lee.

But more on Bancroft and the American diplomatic mission to France in a bit.

After being admitted to the bar in 1761, Deane briefly practiced law in Hartford, Connecticut, before eventually moving to the town of Wethersfield, where he married Mehitable Webb, the wealthy widow of a merchant, took over the family business, and built a big new house next door to the one where his wife and her children had lived with her first husband. His wife gave him a son, Jesse, in 1764, and died herself not long afterward, in 1767.

On the left is Deane House, the house Silas Deane had built for his new family. On the right is Webb House, the one his widow had lived in with her children during her marriage to her first husband.

Deane remarried, this time to the wealthy and politically-connected granddaughter of a former governor of Connecticut, and decided to go into politics. When the first Continental Congress was convened, Deane found himself a member of the delegation appointed by the Connecticut legislature to attend. 

However, Deane was not without his enemies, especially those who envied him his wealth and the swift rise in his political fortunes, and he was not selected to return to Congress the following year. Instead, members of Congress approached Deane about acting as minister to France, and securing badly needed military supplies for the Revolutionary cause.

Deane agreed, departed immediately for Paris, and began throwing quite a bit of his own money around trying to raise more money, and secure a treaty of alliance with France. By the time he called on Bancroft to join him from London, Deane had spent a considerable sum of his own private fortune on this mission for which he drew no salary. 

And at this point things began to go south.

Franklin shortly after arriving in France in 1777
While Benjamin Franklin remained a friend to Deane for years, Arthur Lee, the other member of the American delegation in France, seemed far too disagreeable to have much in the way of friends. A member of the wealthy and powerful Lee family, one of his elder brothers—Richard Henry Lee—later served as president of the Continental Congress and senator from Virginia, another brother, Francis Lightfoot Lee, was a signer of both the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation. Along with being accomplished, the Lee brothers had in common the fact that neither of them much cared for their irascible, ill-tempered younger brother Arthur.

Not surprisingly, Arthur Lee took a distinct dislike to ever-on-the-make Deane, who, in addition to working on an alliance with the French, was also attempting to line up investors in a possible canal linking Lake Champlain to the St. Lawrence River, and a scheme to secure steam engines of the type he had seen being used in England a use them in American grist mills.

To complicate matters, negotiations with the French slowed down, likely due in no small part to the fact that Bancroft, whom Deane trusted implicitly, was in fact a British spy. Every Sunday for well over a year Bancroft would drop a parcel containing his weekly reports of the progress of Franco-American relations into a hollow tree in the Tuileries Gardens, whence it was retrieved by another British agent and posted to London.

The Disagreeable Arthur Lee
It wasn't long before Arthur Lee denounced Deane to Congress, claiming he had used his position in Paristo enrich himself to the tune of £50,000. This charge resulted in a heated debate, which in turn resulted in Deane being recalled from France.

When Deane returned to America he had not been apprised of the nature of the recall. He had come back from France on a French warship, accompanied by the first French ambassador to the United States—treaty secured. As a result he had left his account books in Paris, and was left to defend himself without the documentation of his considerable expenses.

Things went downhill from there. After a long, public and ugly back-and-forth, both in congressional session and in the press, Congress rebuffed Deane's requests for reimbursement, and he returned to France a much poorer man than he had been, thoroughly embittered by the experience. 

Shortly before Cornwallis' hugely consequential surrender  to Washington's Continental/French forces at Yorktown in 1781, letters written by Deane to friends back in America—in which he denounced the Congress and suggested the best course of action for Americans might be to patch things up with Britain—fell into the hands of Sir Henry Clinton, the commander of British forces in New York City. Within days they had been published by a Tory newspaper in that city.

Now unwelcome in America, and with France getting too hot for him, Deane moved to Ghent, in Belgium and spent his time drinking and importuning old friends and acquaintances for money. This continued until 1789, when Deane decided enough time had passed that he might be able to restore both his reputation and his fortune at home.

He went to London, where he visited Bancroft (who continued to supply him with money) and the American painter John Trumbull. From there Deane booked passage to America on the Boston Packet in September. The ship departed London, but soon ran into fierce winds and laid to in order to make necessary repairs.

During a stroll around the deck with the ship's captain, Deane suddenly became violently ill. The captain put him to bed, where he soon died.

As recently as 1787 Deane had been bedridden by a protracted bout of ill health, so not much was made of his death by the British authorities who investigated it. He was buried in Kent, and for them that was the end of the matter.

In American circles the rumor ran riot that Deane might have been a suicide, what with his poor fortunes and shattered reputation. Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine both referenced the event and the possibility of suicide in their correspondence.

Deane's fortunes were eventually posthumously restored. in 1841 Congress paid $37,000 to Deane's granddaughter as compensation for his expenses, along with admitting that the process by which his claims had been initially denied was rushed, shoddy and unprofessional.

As for Deane's death: natural causes? Suicide? Absent an exhumation and an autopsy, who can say what really happened here.

However, in 1959 historian Julian Boyd advanced a theory that Deane was, in fact, murdered. The most likely suspect? Deane's old pupil and secretary, Edward Bancroft.

Edward Bancroft
The Duplicitous Edward Bancroft

Because when Bancroft ran away to sea, he washed up in Barbados. While there he took a position as a surgeon for one of the sugar plantations on the island.

During his sojourn there Bancroft learned quite a bit about the science surrounding textile dyes. It was how he would make his name later. The plantation owner took a liking to Bancroft and sent him all over the Caribbean as his representative. During that time Bancroft became an expert in the making of dyes, and set about perfecting the process.

He also became an expert on poisons. While in Surinam he came in contact with native peoples who tipped their arrows with all manner of nasty concoctions. And Bancroft took notes. More than that, he touched on the subject in a book he wrote about his travels in the Caribbean.

As Boyd's theory went, Deane managed to work out the fact that Bancroft was a spy. Bancroft, by now drawing a hefty pension from the British government in exchange for his efforts in its behalf during the Revolution, also hoped to be awarded a lucrative patent for his dyeing process. 

Said patent might not be forthcoming in the event of Bancroft being unmasked as a spy. And Bancroft saw Deane on his final day in London. Oh, and the initial source of all of those rumors about Deane committing suicide? You guessed it. Edward Bancroft. Apparently he spread the word far and wide.

So...natural causes? Suicide? Murder? History is mute on the subject.

What do you think? Let us know in the comments!

See you in two weeks!

26 May 2021

Undone



Kristen Lepionka painted on my radar with a column she wrote for CrimeReads, about women protagonists in crime fiction – more to the point, about queer women.  Woman PI’s and cops aren’t the novelty they were forty years back, when Grafton and Sara Paretsky debuted, and the hard-boiled was getting legs with Tami Hoag and Patsy Cornwell, but Lepionka had something bigger in her sights: an increasing presence of women of color, and the fact that a good number of them are no longer straight.

https://crimereads.com/a-brief-history-of-queer-women-detectives-in-crime-fiction/

It’s been a while since Joseph Hansen premiered his Dave Brandstetter books, and back then it seemed like Hansen had staked a claim on barren ground.  At least, not too many other people followed his lead.  Little by little, though, the goalposts have moved.  Something similar happened in the science fiction community.  Ursula Le Guin, James Tiptree, and Anne McCaffrey blew a hole in the prevailing gender mythology, along with Chip Delany, and the whole Doc Savage/Tarzan heroic construct came tumbling down.

This, naturally, led me to start reading Kristen Lepionka’s own mysteries.  The Last Place You Look came out in 2017, What You Want to See a year later, The Stories You Tell the year after that, and Once You Go This Far in 2020.  Cozy, they ain’t.  They’re tough, and tough-minded.  Roxane Weary, a dead cop’s daughter, has a private license and a buttload of attitude.  She’s in fact something of a trainwreck.  Her issues aren’t incidental, either.  The stories are as much about how she navigates the world as they are about the cases she pursues.  The tangles are both personal and professional.  And there’s a lot of sex.

You may think you’ve visited this side of town before, but Roxane makes it unnervingly intimate.  Her anger and her self-awareness are equally claustrophobic.  It’s a burden.  But it gives her an edge.  She don’t know quit; she just keeps coming.  This isn’t your Travis McGee knight in tarnished armor convention, either.  Roxane keeps pushing because she’s basically so pissed off at her own life, and the way things shake out for people, that she won’t take no for an answer.

I’m making her sound unsympathetic, which isn’t true at all.  Her strength is her transparency, and Roxane’s voice invites confidences – even if you’re not sure exactly how confident you are in her, you’re still pulling for her.  The plots are dense, but there’s also a very specific density to Roxane’s approach to the canvas, her family, her unresolved past, the fabric of her community, hanging by a thread.  I might not be giving you the flavor.  The books have a muscular rhythm, and the asides are snappy and acerbic.  There’s an underlying tension between what Roxane hears and observes, and what’s left unspoken.  There are laugh-out-loud moments, and scary ones, too.  I simply find myself enormously charmed.  I really like this girl.

This is, I guess, the key.  That you can take a complicated person, a character that’s not generic, somebody who doesn’t always make the right choices, and who sometimes can’t even get out of her own way, and reveal her as authentic, but still make her the fulcrum of a credible mystery.  Roxane’s a good detective, and she comes by it honestly.  She seems real to me.  She’s not a collection of tics, or a literary device.  That's a departure.