13 June 2021

Dr. Josh Trebach and his Tox Murder Mysteries


I usually interview people and write articles, but not today.

First, let me introduce you to Dr. Josh Trebach, an emergency physician and toxicology fellow at NYC. You can follow him @jtrebach on twitter and following him is a treat for anyone interested in the lovely combination of medicine and mystery.

Second, let me explain why I didn’t interview Dr. Trebach. He writes murder mystery threads. They are so perfectly written, that I asked him for permission to put them, largely unedited, in an article.

So, here’s how he introduces his mysteries: Buckle up - it’s tox murder mystery thread.

Without further ado, here are two of his mysteries. 

Tox murder mystery #1.

A 45 year old man is found dead in the orthopedic room of an emergency department. He has no signs of trauma and no past medical history.

What do you think happened?

Clues

  1. The man was hired by the hospital to clean drain pipes blocked by plaster washed down the sink by silly residents. (Stop washing your plaster down the sink! I see you!! STOP DOING IT! It's nasty and gross)
  2. The material used to make the splints was Plaster of Paris. This product is still used today.
  3. The man was using sulfuric acid to clean the drain and dissolve the clogged up Plaster of Paris. I'm a toxicology fellow, not a drain declogging expert, what do you want from me? I don't know why they used that.
  4. What happens to Plaster of Paris when its gunked up in the pipes?  It gets chewed up by bacteria. Under anaerobic conditions, the bacteria can make a nasty, thick (thicc?) calcium sulfide sludge.
  5. Sulfuric acid + Calcium Sulfide = ??? UGHHHHH chemistry.

Yet, the answer is in here. These two combine in the following chemical reaction, giving us our answer.

  CaS + H2SO4 → CaSO4 + H2S  

The culprit: Hydrogen Sulfide gas was formed by the chemical reaction above and it caused the man to die pretty quickly. Perhaps the only thing abnormal on the patient's skin exam was his silver wedding ring that had tarnished after reacting with the gas.

Hydrogen sulfide is a colorless gas that classically smells like rotten eggs . It gets inhaled into the body and interferes with oxidative phosphorylation and causes cellular hypoxia. What does this translate into? Rapid unconsciousness and cardiopulmonary arrest.

Hydrogen sulfide is scary. People will die in groups because whenever someone (not wearing PPE) goes to rescue the victim, they become exposed to the gas and then pass out/die… and the cycle continues.In fact, at ~1000ppm, breathing will STOP after just 1-2 breaths.

Treatment: Moving the victim to fresh air and giving oxygen, in addition to good supportive care and respiratory/ventilatory support, is key. Antidotes such as sodium nitrite work by inducing methemoglobinemia which scavenges the hydrogen sulfide.

Tox murder mystery #2.

A 33 year old woman is found dead in a bank vault. She has no signs of trauma and no past medical history.

What do you think happened?

Clues

  1. The woman was a bank employee doing normal bank employee things. Unfortunately, when she went into the bank vault, it locked behind her. Whoopsies.
  2. She waved at the camera. She banged on the doors. She pulled the fire alarm (but nothing happened?). She tried her phone but had no service and couldn't even tweet. Imagine the horror.
  3. She figured she would wait an hour or so until someone else opened the vault… yet, over the course of 30 minutes, the woman slowly dropped to the ground and suffocated to death. What happened? Why did she die so quickly? Let’s learn about asphyxiants!
  4. Asphyxiants cause harm by suffocation. There are two categories of asphyxiants– chemical and simple. Chemical asphyxiants (like hydrogen sulfide) interrupt the body's ability to deliver or utilize oxygen.
  5. Simple asphyxiants displace the oxygen in the air, making it so there's less oxygen around for you and your body. Thus, when you take a deep breath, you get a mouthful of NOT OXYGEN. Your body/mitochondria are like "ew seriously?"… and then you suffocate.
  6. But what does any of this have to do with our case? Well, ask yourself--why is there a fire alarm in a bank vault? Most times when you pull a fire alarm, you trigger a water sprinkler system...but then that would cause the money to get nasty and wet. Gross.
  7. So the fire alarm doesn't trigger the release of water. But how else can you put out a fire? By using a CARBON DIOXIDE-BASED FIRE EXTINGUISHER SYSTEM! By releasing carbon dioxide and displacing the oxygen, the combustion reaction cannot occur and fire is put out!

Unfortunately, this woman sealed her fate the moment the fire alarm was pulled. Carbon dioxide filled the bank vault and she suffocated from this simple asphyxiant. Education about the risks with these extinguishers is key– these are preventable deaths.

Simple asphyxiants are everywhere. Virtually every gas (except oxygen) can act as a simple asphyxiant– the dose makes the poison. There are even cases of people dying after being in a room with a bunch of dry ice (sublimation reaction leads to lots of carbon dioxide).

Treatment: Get away from the simple asphyxiant. Get to oxygen. This seems remarkably simple, but unfortunately, can be very challenging in some situations (like when you are trapped in a bank vault).

12 June 2021

Walk It Off


A few years ago, a semi-prominent literary journal rejected a story I'd submitted. Nothing unusual there, either my rejection by semi-prominent literary journals or my wince when the email arrived. Rejection stings. You walk it off. Several months later, the journal apologetically emailed again and, citing submission manager software issues, wanted to be very clear that my story had been rejected. Right, as if the first rejection and subsequent non-appearance of my piece hadn't dialed me in.

You walk off a two-fer the hard way. 

The journal meant well, of course. And actually, I don't remember which story wears this badge. This spring, I was restoring backup files onto a new laptop after its predecessor met a laminate floor at speed. A cat was involved. This cat. She knows what she did. Anyway, I was restoring my Outlook file, and here was a rejection letter folder, an entire archive of every submission gone down in flames. Why the hell was I holding onto that mojo? What if Marie Kondo found this out? 

Delete.

I've been writing short stories for ten-ish years. I'm not a prolific submitter because I'm not a prolific writer, but ten years is sample size enough. I've been form-rejected and non-responsed. I've gotten emphatically fast rejections and rare gems with improvement feedback. Every one needs that moment where you grit past it. The skin thickens. The savvy grows. There are tons of great writers submitting, way more than elite market slots. I learn that intellectually, but writing isn't purely intellectual. I walk things off.

It's how this world spins. Look, I'm currently open for acceptances, but a certain submission onus is on me. Rejections, then, have a major silver lining, once understood as part of the process. Processes not involving cats can be influenced. On some level, controlled. As in, rejection letters--and even better, rejections avoided through honest pre-assessment--are growth checkpoints. 

Wikipedia
Question 1: Was the story in fact ready to submit? 

Once, after a rejection from a darn competitive anthology, I discovered what I'd submitted had editing notes still in the manuscript. Yikes. If ever a piece deserved to get rejected and then re-rejected by surprise attack, here it was. 

Root cause: I'd somehow screwed up final version file names. The clean version, as formatted precisely to specs, shot me its j'accuse from the hard drive. Only time this has ever happened, but the process gap had wasted my time and worse, an editor's. You can bet I added checks to my elaborate submission ritual.

Question 2: Is the story any good? 

Okay, a reject. It's been walked off. But it's just possible, isn't it, that what I submitted wasn't a stroke of literary brilliance soon awash in laurels? Yes. Yes, it is. 

From Kenner!
(by way of Pinterest) 

It's also possible I did my job. That I put a strong effort together which simply got outmuscled by something better. Tip of the hat. Or my piece didn't gel with a particular editor. Maybe the story needed more time before it should've gone out. Deadlines happen. Maybe I would change a minor this or that, but time waits for no writer. If I'm proud enough of where a version stands, off it goes before a window closes. If back comes the rejection, I walk that off, more and more happily. I mean, it's not like Catzilla demolished my laptop, right? Here are fine story bones free to find a better form. I'll have at those manuscripts again and with fresh perspective. Since 2013, I've gotten 10 stories into AHMM (1 forthcoming) and 5 into Mystery Weekly (counting their upcoming anthology). Earlier, easy-baked versions of these stories racked up 29 rejections elsewhere. 

Question 3: How Sure Am I About Question 3?

I'm a trained finance guy. I keep spreadsheets. With numbers on them. One number is what I used to call a hit rate. That is, of the stuff I write, how many pieces have legs enough that I'll sweat the sweat and bleed the blood necessary for publication quality. 

In those ten-ish years, there are 81 short stories that I admit to writing (a handful of unpublished wrecks have been disowned). 35 have been published or are awaiting publication. Another 6 are new prospects for tidying up. That leaves the other 40 having a sit-in on my hard drive. 

A troublesome 40. Some feel as strong and stronger than the published stuff. Some, well, I don't want to talk about it. But most are tweeners, a possible salvage job with effort. Maybe, but how realistic is that salvage? How much effort would it take versus, I don't know, writing another story? Ten years of rejects is teaching me cruel honesty in my true hit rate, as time-delimited. 


Example: I wrote a flash piece last summer. Started it around 9am. Around noon I understood this thing had flaws. By early afternoon, those flaws were better described as a dumpster fire. Even Ann Lamott would've cringed and said this was no first draft to chase. By dinner, I finished it and filed it away forever in some subfolder oubliette. Hopefully, the cat got it.

Second example: In 2018, I wrote a piece that, to this damned day, I think might be the most darkly funny thing I've done. Its rejection history suggests otherwise. One editor thought it was a traditional horror piece. I've got nothing against horror, mind you, but it's not a genre I reach much, let alone understand the story markets. I'd already misread my own piece and its real fit. 

Sorry, story. Trap door time.

Hey, at least it won't make me walk off another double rejection.

11 June 2021

Writing Soundtrack


 I wrote a few weeks back about being on a jazz kick. It's what I listen to while I work in the morning, when I drive Uber, and sometimes when I write. In fact, on Sunday mornings, I have the Morning Jazz playlist on while everyone else is asleep. Yes, I'm that guy, the one who gets up early even on Sundays.

But what is good music for writing?

In all honesty, it depends on the writer. This came up on the Liminal Fiction scifi group about a week ago. What do we listen to when we write? The answers were all over the place. Some want absolutely no sound whatsoever. Others want ambient or classical, something unobtrusive. Jazz fits that bill when I also want something quiet and in the background. (And then my curated jazz playlist includes Herbie Hancock's "RockIt" and a couple of selections from Frank Zappa's Jazz from Hell. Not exactly quiet jazz.)

This being a primarily science fiction and fantasy group, it did not surprise me that many of those responding liked soundtracks. Not playlists of classic and obscure tunes like Cruella. More like Marvel, Star Trek, or Apollo 13. This is definitely mood music, a concept I truly understand. I wrote Second Hand Goods and Bad Religion with a lot of Metallica and Alice in Chains as Nick was a very angry man in those stories.

But when I wrote Northcoast Shakedown all those years ago, I channeled a lot of blues and blues rock. Some of this came from an author friend giving me two Rory Gallagher CD's. It was also a time when most of us in the crime community, even some cozy writers, fell head over heels for the music of Tom Waits. So, Northcoast and a lot of the short stories I wrote in the 2000 had an earthy feel to them, like someone was in the background playing wailing blues solos or wooden acoustic. 

These days, I write first thing in the morning. I have about two hours before I have to help my wife start her day and make my way downstairs to the office. I work at home. During breaks I give myself to write, I play jazz in the morning and vinyl in the afternoon. The vinyl ranges from Sinatra to the Beatles to AC/DC. 

For me, music is brain juice. I write well enough in silence, but a lot of that has to do with the two hours I spend at the beginning of the day. I also read then. But when full time in the office was a thing, I would go to Starbucks on my lunch break. It had music, coffee, and best of all, no coworkers. (Sorry, coworkers, I love ya, but I really need to put our shared day job aside and reboot.)

So what do you listen to when you write? Do you listen to anything? Anyone listening to the sounds of cicadas as they get words in? (Spoiler alert: I'm not. My ears hurt.)

10 June 2021

Edward Bancroft: Scientist, Speculator, Spy...Murderer?


Edward Bancroft
[The natives of the South American mainland prepare poisons] which, given in the smallest quantities, produce a very slow, but inevitable death, particularly a composition which resembles wheat-flour, which they sometimes use to revenge past injuries, that have been long neglected, and are thought forgotten. On these occasions they always feign an insensibility of the injury which they intend to revenge, and even repay it with services and acts of friendship, until they have destroyed all distrust and apprehension of danger in the victim of the vengeance. When this is effected, they meet at some festival, and engage him to drink with them, drinking first themselves to obviate suspicion, and afterwards secretly dropping the poison, ready concealed under their nails, which are usually long, into the drink.


—Edward Bancroft, An Essay on the Natural History of Guiana in South America

Two weeks ago I discussed the strange circumstances surrounding the career and sudden death of American diplomat and merchant Silas Deane. This time around I delve into the backstory of the man who may well have murdered him.

As I mentioned previously, Connecticut-born Edward Bancroft was briefly a student of Deane's a number of years before the American Revolution. Apprenticed by his step-father to a doctor, Bancroft rebelled by running away to sea. He wound up in Surinam (known at the time as "Dutch Guiana."), where he worked as a surgeon on the plantation of a British subject named Paul Wentworth (more on him later).


Bancroft quickly established himself as an expert on the local flora and fauna, and after a brief return to Connecticut to square things with his family, moved on to London where, at the age of twenty-five he published the above referenced book-length "essay," which dealt, among other things, with South American curiosities such as a completely new method of dyeing wool/cloth, and poisons such as curare, and in which he offered proof that the shock generated by a local variety of eel really was a result of a type of bioelectricity they generated.

Benjamin Franklin in London
This work quickly established Bancroft as a man of letters, and with his background studying electric eels, he soon made the acquaintance of, and became friends with, another American-born intellectual who was conducting experiments with electricity: Benjamin Franklin. Franklin had been living in London for nearly twenty years, ostensibly serving as the colonial agent of the Pennsylvania Assembly. It was Franklin who eventually recommended Bancroft to Deane as a possibly useful personal secretary when the Continental Congress sent Deane to France to negotiate a treaty of alliance with the French crown.

To Franklin Bancroft was the ideal choice: still living in London, he would be able to come and go between England and France without attracting the attention someone like the firebrand Thomas Paine (who was English-born) would. And he could likely be enticed to pass on what he could learn of British war plans to his employer, Silas Deane.

So that's what Deane did, asking Bancroft, whom he knew, but not especially well (not having seen him since 1758, the year Bancroft ran away to sea), to cross the Channel and meet him in the French port of Calais, ostensibly to reminisce over old times. When Bancroft returned to England, he had agreed to work for Deane, and, in turn, to spy for the Americans.

And once back in London, Bancroft then wasted no time getting in touch with his old friend and mentor Paul Wentworth, who had returned to England from South America, and was now working in some capacity for Britain's intelligence apparatus. And Wentworth, in turn, introduced Bancroft a couple of government department secretaries, who quickly struck a deal with Bancroft.

Bancroft would spy on Deane and the American delegation in Paris, and in return he would received an annual pension of £200 per year.

For life.

Bancroft and Lord Stormont, the British ambassador in Paris, quickly worked out a system whereby he would pass information about the American negotiations with the French over the question of a potential French entry into the war with Britain on the American side. Every Tuesday morning Bancroft would take a walk in Paris's famed Tuileries Gardens, and place a bottle containing information about the aforementioned negotiations in the hollow of a tree. One of the ambassador's aides would retrieve the bottle, while in turn passing along useless information that Bancroft could in turn pass along to the Americans.

And this went on for over a year. Although there were those among the American delegation who suspected Bancroft of being less than honest (and they included John Adams, who once wrote of Bancroft that he was, among a host of other sins, "a meddler in stocks as well as reviews, and frequently went into the alley, and into the deepest and darkest retirements and recesses of the brokers and jobbers...and found amusement as well, perhaps, as profit, by listening to all the news and anecdotes, true or false, that were then whispered or more boldly pronounced."), none of them apparently suspected him of selling them out to the British.

Silas Deane when he still just a wealthy merchant
As I mentioned in our previous installment on Deane's death, Bancroft had a profound interest in this relationship with the British intelligence services not being found out, especially after the war, around the time that Deane intended sailing to America to rehabilitate his own reputation. Bancroft was still receiving his secret pension (which had subsequently been raised to £1,000 per year), and had applied for a potenially lucrative patent for dyeing wool and cloth using the techniques he'd learned in Surinam.

But, as laid out by historians James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle in their 1992 book After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection, Bancroft and Deane also shared some unsavory secrets about Bancroft's time in Deane's employ:

It turned out Deane's arrangement worked well—perhaps a little too well. Legally, Deane was permitted to collect a commission on all the supplies he purchased for Congress, but he went beyond that. He and Bancroft used their official connections in France to conduct a highly profitable private trade of their own. Deane, for instance, sometimes sent ships from France without declaring whether they were loaded with private or public goods. This if the ships arrived safely, he would declare that the cargo was private, his own. But if the English navy captured the goods on the high seas, he labeled it government merchandise and the public absorbed the loss.

Deane used Bancroft to take advantage of his official position in other ways. Both men speculated in the London insurance markets, which were the eighteenth-century equivalent of gambling parlors. Anyone who wished could take out "insurance" against a particular event which might happen in the future. An insurer, for example, might quote odds on the chances of France going to war with England within the year. The insured would pay whatever premium he wished, say £1,000, and if France did go to war, and the odds had been five to one against it, the insured would receive £5,000. Wagers were made on almost any public event: which armies would win which battles, which politicians would fall from power, and even on whether a particular lord would die before the year was out.

Obviously, someone who had access to inside information—someone who knew in advance, for instance, that France was going to war with England could win a fortune. That was exactly what Bancroft and Deane decided to do. Deane was in charge of concluding the French alliance, and he knew that if he succeeded Britain would be forced to declare war on France. Bancroft hurried across to London as soon as the treaty had been concluded and took out the proper insurance before the news went public. The profits shared by the two men from this and other similar ventures amounted to approximately £10,000. Like most gamblers, however, Deane also lost wagers. In the end he netted little for his troubles.

So Bancroft, angling for a patent that could well be the foundation of a fortune, had to be worried that his speculation on "sure things" alongside Deane would come to light at precisely the right time to sink his patent application. Such behavior was ungentlemanly, and Bancroft, as Adams had said, carried the stench of someone who hung out with unsavory back-alley money men.

On top of this, Bancroft had already been forced to flee to France once before to escape hanging in the years since he'd worked for Deane. Many in the British government did not trust him, with his having publicly worked for one of the Americans negotiating with France, and this included King George III himself. 

So while Bancroft was outwardly prosperous and seemingly headed for more wealth and fame at the time of Deane's return to London en route to America in September of 1789, he had plenty to lose, should Deane open his mouth about their adventures in insider trading in the run-up to the Franco-American alliance of 1777. 

And Bancroft knew how to use curare.

While we'll never know for sure whether Bancroft had a hand in Deane's sudden death, there is plenty to consider in the case that can be made against him.

See you in two weeks!

09 June 2021

Ronnie the Rocket


 

The Hustler came out in 1961, with Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson and Jackie Gleason, memorably, as Minnesota Fats.  For those of us who’d been denied a misspent youth – “You’ve got trouble, right here in River City, with a capital T, and that rhymes with P, and that stands for pool” – the movie was a crash course.  I didn’t actually start playing pool myself until a couple of years later, in college, but I tried hard to make up for lost time.

One of my closest pals at Columbia, John Davis, was as rabid a movie buff as I was.  We could quote entire chunks of Lawrence of Arabia to each other; we went to revival houses in Alphabet City to see Seven Samurai and Look Back in Anger, or Paths of Glory; and the time when Albert Finney showed up at the Hagen-Berghof studio where John was taking classes was something akin to the Annunciation (Tom Jones had just been released; Finney was doing Luther on Broadway).  But the biggest solid John did me that fall was to take me down to Times Sq. one early evening, and on a short walk up 7th to the corner of 44th, and then, parting the curtain, so to speak, up the narrow flight of stairs to Ames.

 Ames Billiards is where The Hustler was shot.  It was a second-floor loft space, low and smoky, although in fact they dressed the place down for the picture.  Ames had good lighting and clean restrooms, and people were there to shoot pool, that’s what it was about.  You could get hustled there, yes, but if you were smart, you minded your own business.  Ames wasn’t the place to get into a money game, you’d lose your shirt.  I had my hands full trying to take the boys in the frat houses on Riverside Drive. 

I got my comeuppance a year or so later, when I was in the service.  I met guys in the Air Force who could have put themselves through college playing pool.  Andy Gonzales was one of them.  He had enormous concentration and grace.  It was like watching a big cat.  The languor, and then the sudden application of force.  There was a pool table in the Day Room, so we’d play after lunch, before afternoon classes.  There was also a snooker table, the first time I’d tried one.  The difference is, the pockets on a snooker table are a lot tighter than they are on a pool table.  They’re unforgiving.  If you’re used to the sloppiness of eight-ball, and the sized-down pay tables in a bar, snooker ain’t the game for you.  It requires discipline.

There are a couple of places here in Santa Fe where I used to shoot pool occasionally.  One of them was Garrett’s Desert Inn, which was not quite a dive bar, too well-lit, but very local.  The people who worked across the street in the State Land Office came in for Happy Hour.  Garrett’s fell victim to the If-It-Ain’t-Broke-Don’t-Fix-It syndrome.  The owners decided to go upscale, and stepped on their dicks.  They remodeled, and went through half-a-dozen tenant restaurants, and none of them have had legs.  The other place was the Catamount, on Water St.  Dollar wings, wide-screen TV’s, a sports bar.  But upstairs, they had full-size pool tables.  Not the kind you feed quarters into, real tables.  They went out of business, but I see construction permits posted, so maybe there’s hope, and they’ll reopen.  Pool table slates are heavy.  You’d have to close off the street and bring in a rigging crew, with a crane, to lift those suckers out. 

I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve been getting my fix on YouTube.  Snooker is big business in the UK and the former Crown colonies.  Guys like Ronnie O’Sullivan (the Rocket) and Neil Robertson (an Aussie, the Wonder from Down Under), and Ding Junhui (Enter the Dragon), make real money.  Ronnie the Rocket has a net worth of 14 million bucks and counting.  (He’s also lent his name to a couple of ghostwritten thrillers, but I don’t hold that against him.)

You should watch this guy shoot.

 


Snooker turns out to have arcane rules.  You need to see a couple of games before you begin to figure it out.  And like baseball, it takes as long as it takes.  There aren’t predetermined limits, like hockey or football.  Everything is about position.  You don’t just make the impossible shot, you have to leave yourself with a better one.  It’s about building your score, and the perfect score in snooker is 147.  Fifteen reds, at a point apiece, fifteen blacks, at seven points, and then all six colors, for twenty-seven.  Trust me, you just have to watch, and you’ll pick it up. 


The reason they call Ronnie O’Sullivan the Rocket is that his best time for a perfect game is five minutes and eight seconds.  This is jaw-dropping.  It means you’ve sunk thirty-six balls.  (When you sink a color, it’s re-spotted on the table.)  This means Ronnie is pocketing a ball every eight-and-a-half seconds. 


 
As far as I’m concerned, these guys are like gunfighters.  “I’ll count to three, you can draw on two,” Wyatt Earp tells Andy Warshaw, but Andy says he doesn’t want such a chance.  Snooker is much the same.  Once you slip, and leave the table unprotected, O’Sullivan or John Higgins or Ding are going to clean your clock.  Maybe it’s not as exciting as a gunfight, but it sure as hell is final.  When you get beat, you lose to the faster draw. 


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.