14 July 2021

The Sound of Bow Bells

I first saw Michael Caine in Zulu, but he didn’t stick, not like Nigel Green’s stern Color-Sergeant, or James Booth’s cheeky slacker, Pvt. Hook.  Caine had in fact auditioned to play Hook, but the director Cy Enfield cast him as the junior lieutenant, Bromhead.  Caine later said it was lucky Enfield was a Yank; a Brit director would never have cast him as an upper-class officer, not when his accent betrayed him as a Cockney lad.


Then in 1965, The Ipcress File was released.  Alfie, a year later, made him a name, and Shirley MacLaine hired him for Gambit.  Those three pictures essentially established him as a star, and established the character he so often played, insolent, a little below the salt, a striver with an ironic sensibility, and somehow detached from his own self-regard.  Ipcress, though, was the movie that put him front and center, at least for me personally, and he played Harry again in Funeral in Berlin and Billion-Dollar Brain.  Not quite a franchise like the Bond pictures, they seemed a good deal less calculated.


Bob Hoskins remarked that Caine basically opened the door for working-class stiffs.  Before him, you had to mimic the posh.  Roger Moore, who hailed from Lambeth, not far from Southwark, where Caine grew up, had to get rid of his speech patterns, which in Britain are destiny.  (The most famous Cockney to reinvent himself is of course Cary Grant, a character, a disguise, a second skin.)


The trick of Michael Caine is his natural authenticity, his transparency.  He’s not pretending to be anything but what he is, although acting is play.  Caine, like Bob Hoskins, is recognizably not Oxbridge, the Royal Shakespeare, or the soothing tones of the BBC.  His voice identifies him.


He’s got over sixty years in the business, but earlier on, in 1971, he made the movie that for me personifies him.   You can’t imagine anybody but Michael Caine playing Jack in Get Carter.


The movie is more nihilist than the Ted Lewis novel it’s based on, which is going some, because Ted Lewis could be as hardboiled as they come, but Get Carter is a particular kind of Brit noir.  You could cast back to Brighton Rock or Odd Man Out, or the truly odd Never Let Go – Peter Sellers as a psychotic gang boss – or look ahead to The Long Good Friday.  Richard Burton did Villain, a remake of White Heat, the same year Get Carter came out.  More recently, Essex Boys (2000), with Sean Bean, or Tom Hardy’s astonishing double turn as the Kray twins in Legend (2015).

What they have in common isn’t the psycho business, so much, or scorn for convention, but the attitude that conventions are irrelevant.
  The suckers, the punters, play by the rules; apex predators could care less.


Get Carter has a deceptively simple premise.  A legbreaker for the London mob goes back home to Newcastle for his brother’s funeral.  They haven’t actually spoken for years, but when Jack realizes his brother’s death wasn’t an accident, the cover story unravels, and everything that follows has a Greek inevitability.  Caine plays Jack with an icy fury, glacial and retributive.  He says he based the character on the dead-end he might himself have become, a ghost of his own childhood environment.  Jack is utterly existential, shown by his actions, never reflective.  The most startling scene, for my money, after repeated and grueling violence, comes late in the movie, when Jack is watching a pornographic film clip – the contents of which I can’t reveal – and while his face is still and empty of emotion, he’s leaking tears.  The character is clearly, and fatally, compromised. 


Get Carter was the director Mike Hodges’ first feature, and he wrote the screenplay.  The cinematographer was Wolfgang Suschitzky, who says he waited for the light, and set the exposure.  The rest is Hodges.  This is generous of him to say, because the look of Get Carter is very specific.  It begins with a slow zoom in, to the lit upper floor of a dark London highrise, and ends with a slow zoom out, from a deserted Newcastle beach.  In between, most of it seems to be shot in tight zoom.  Not a moving lens, but already cranked in tight, so the perspective is flattened, and any peripheral background is cut off.  This has the effect of squashing the movie in your face, so it’s voyeuristic, and claustrophobic.  And because the violence is seen both at a remove, but intimately, by the camera, it’s pornographic. 


This is a clear esthetic choice.  The shooting method reflects the movie’s objective content.  Pornography is the story hook, and a visual correlative.

We will, in charity, pass over the painful remakes.  The original is the one to see, and in a very real sense, it’s sui generis.  You can’t do better.  This is Michael Caine epitomized; this is visceral, committed movie-making, as if the fate of the human condition depended on it.  

13 July 2021

I Said It: The Rhythm Method Has a Role in Your Writing

There are a lot of mechanical issues involved in writing fiction. Making sure you don't violate point of view. Putting your commas in the right place. And plain old usage issues. (I didn't truly learn when to use lie or lay until grad school. Apologies to my secondary-school teachers. It wasn't you. It was me.)
Another thing I learned in grad school (journalism school) is where in a sentence to use the word said
The rule
Generally, when we speak in English, we usually use a noun, then a verb. That ordering should apply when your verb is said. As one of my grad-school professors said (see what I did there: noun, then verb), "You wouldn't say 'said he,' so you shouldn't say 'said Name.'" It should be "Name said." Seems pretty simple. For instance:
"I'm sorry," Prince Charming said. "I know you claim to be Cinderella, but I can't take you at your word. You'll have to prove it's you by putting on this shoe and showing it fits."
"Of course," Cinderella said. "We only danced together for hours. It's perfectly reasonable not to know me from my face and voice and to use this weird shoe test instead."

See, simple.

Of course whenever something seems simple, along comes an exception. This is also from my grad-school professor. (I'd name him if only I could remember his name. Sorry, whoever you are.)

The exception
You can make an exception if it's needed for clarity. You don't want there to be too many words between the end of a bit of dialogue and the said.
For instance, it could be confusing if you wrote: 
"I wonder if we'll have pudding tonight," Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, said.
Not only is that a mouthful, that's too many words between the end of the quote and the said. The reader could get lost parsing the sentence.
Therefore, it would be okay in this instance to write: 
"I wonder if we'll have pudding tonight," said Her Majesty Elizabeth the Second, by the Grace of God, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.
But unless you qualify for the aforementioned exception, my professor said many years ago, you should always write Name then said when quoting someone, whether you use a quote or are paraphrasing. I've applied this rule to my writing consistently, both when I was a newspaper reporter and since I started writing fiction nearly twenty years ago. I have told this rule to countless editing clients over the years. Some of them have disagreed with me, but I've always stuck to my guns ... until recently.
Another blasted exception?
Here's something else I've told clients: When you're writing, sometimes you can break rules if the rhythm of a sentence calls for it. That's why it's important to read your work aloud. Sometimes you can hear when it would be better to write a sentence in one way or another. But I never thought rhythm would dictate the use of "said Name" instead of "Name said."

Then my friend and fellow SleuthSayer Art Taylor came along. I was reading his story "The Boy Detective & the Summer of '74" and came upon a bit of dialogue, a few quick back-and-forth sentences. At first the section caught my eye because Art wrote said before writing the speaker's name each time. (Is your mouth hanging open too? Not at me for being so persnickety (certainly not) but because Art had committed this faux pas?) I couldn't believe Art had done this either, but then I noticed something else. The way Art wrote these sentences really worked. More than that, the rhythm of the sentences would have been off if said had come after the names. 

Will wonders never cease?

I said recently that I learn something new every time I read, every time I turn a page. My experience from reading Art's story is a good example. So here's my new said-related advice: 
Usually you should write Name then said when you write a character's dialogue or paraphrase what a character says. (It's still good advice.) But you can make an exception if needed for clarity or ... for rhythm. 

Sometimes, it seems, the rhythm method actually works.

12 July 2021

Danger in Paradise

Back in the days when radio was the cutting edge medium, I remember rushing in from school to catch the latest episode of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and my dad's banning a safari themed series during our dinner hour. But the radio play that made the deepest impression (and perhaps foreshadowed my later literary career) was an overheard adult offering about a young couple who are menaced by a vicious escaped convict on a deserted tropical beach. 

I don't remember the name of the play or the denoument, just the set up: The couple are enjoying the beach when the husband is somehow trapped below the tide line under a heavy timber, probably the relic of a pier. The wife is frantic to release him and as she struggles, the convict appears. Ever after, that template of a threat of death in paradise has seemed to me the perfect recipe for suspense.

Maybe that is why I enjoyed Tana French's The Searcher. Granted, rural Ireland's weather is not exactly tropical, but the Republic's scenery is superb. Cal Hooper, unhappily divorced and recently retired from the Chicago police force, sees Ardnakelty as a tranquil rural haven after too many years on mean urban streets. The fishing is good, there will be rabbit shooting (and eating) after his gun permit comes through, the locals are friendly, if eccentric, and he enjoys putting his much-neglected cottage into good repair.

Life in Ardnakelty is pleasant and undemanding until a scruffy, half-feral youngster seeks his help in finding a missing sibling. Cal has all kinds of good reasons, legal, personal, and intellectual for rejecting this plea, but gradually Trey Reddy secures his help in finding out just where nineteen year old Brendan Reddy might be.

Not too tough an assignment for an ex-cop who did a stint in the missing persons division, but there are complications. French, who lives in Dublin and who has written a much-praised series featuring various members of a Garda force, is very good on cultural misunderstandings and on the ways that isolated rural communities both spread and conceal information.

As Cal gets acclimatized, he meets his neighbors and discovers the linchpins and undercurrents of the quaint and individualistic village. The rural area is not crime free, either; the young men being, as Mart, his bachelor farmer neighbor points out, uncertain about what they should do and how they should live now that traditional ways and occupations are obsolete. The results are too frequently recklessness and sometimes violence.

Although Cal starts out thinking that Chicago was complicated and Ardnakelty, simple, he eventually has to recalibrate his thinking, since few of his new friends and neighbors are exactly what they seem. Even after Cal solves his mystery, he still faces the bigger question about his own life. 

Tana French
Tana French

Given that the same old problems and cruelties afflict Ardnakelty as afflict Chicago, is he committed to this new community, to the Reddy child, and to Lena, who offers him a pup and maybe companionship, and to Mart, the farmer, and to folk like the indispensable shopkeeper, Noreen?

It is not just that rural Irish ways are not mid-western USA ways or that their common language is not without mysterious subtleties and pitfalls. Cal also has to decide to stay with full knowledge that human frailty resides everywhere or else sell up and make another attempt at paradise, a paradise that he surely knows will come with its own snake.

11 July 2021

Dr. Kona Williams on Investigating Residential School Gravesites: It's Complicated.

Residential schools in Canada were set up in the 19th century, funded by the government and often run by the Church. Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes and taken to over 130 schools with the, “primary aim of assimilating Indigenous children” 

Stories of abuse at these schools have been told for decades. After another 751 unmarked graves were discovered at the Marieval Indian Residential School site in Saskatchewan, Canada, the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) demanded that charges be laid over the deaths of Indigenous children at residential schools. 

The NWAC asked that, “sites of former Indian residential schools be declared crime scenes and that an investigation into how each child buried there died — as well as into who is responsible for their deaths — be conducted…In Canada, we live under the rule of law. The law does not allow those who are responsible for the deaths of children to walk free with impunity.” This principle of investigating these deaths and charging anyone responsible has been widely discussed among  Canadians.

To address this issue, I had the honour of speaking with Dr. Kona Williams, the only Indigenous Forensic Pathologist in Canada. 

Forensic pathologists are medical doctors who are trained to autopsy bodies and come as close to the truth about the cause of death as is possible.

I asked, naively, why aren’t we investigating to charge people for the murder of these children? 

Dr. Williams explained that she has had many talks with the Indigenous leadership and her colleagues in the forensic world about how to proceed as more gravesites are found. While acknowledging the anger and grief these gravesites are engendering, she explained that it is very complicated. 

“We know that there are stories of children being injured and who died from these injuries, as well as children who died from malnutrition or not receiving medical care.”

“We know that some of these graves may be older than 50 years so we don’t have the legislation for those over 50 years on how to deal with these deaths.” 

Deaths over 50 years ago are considered not ‘forensically relevant’ in Ontario because prosecuting deaths over 50 years ago is - in most circumstances - unlikely to yield convictions. 

Dr. Williams then went on further explain how complicated the process of any investigation would be. “It’s going to be hard for families and communities to decide what to do. Some will want to let them rest, some will want it investigated… It’s up to the families and communities.

“These are difficult discussions. This can’t be forced. it has to be driven by what the communities want. 

“We might not be able to find all the children, or identify all of them or even maybe not even find the cause of death. What do you want us to do then? 

“The investigation is more complicated if we only have bones. If they died of pneumonia - bones aren’t a lot to go on. If it’s malnutrition or blunt trauma, that’s easier. 

“It’s going to be hard for families and communities to decide what to do. Some will want to let them rest, some will want it investigated.

“Also, with my work, generally we have records that we compare to the body, for example, dental records. Here we only have bones so we could get DNA but we would have to go to the community and ask if they would provide DNA samples to compare…the ethics around this are huge. How do we ensure that the information is kept securely and not used for anything else?” 

When I asked how would they even know which body to exhume if some families and communities don’t want an investigation and some do? 

“We need to ask the communities about how to proceed. I’m happy to provide the expertise, but I’m not going to do it without the permission of the people involved” 

When I asked if there were about 150,000 children in these schools, Dr. Williams said, “That’s an estimation, because we really don’t know. The records kept by the government and church aren’t always clear. The Catholic church has never provided the records that they have…do we have the authority by law to get these records? I asked [someone recently] do we have the authority to subpoena the Catholic church?”

Then Dr. Williams added, “There is something I’ve been chewing on. There is a ‘death in custody’ if the person is being held against their will, they may be some responsibility on the part of the people whose care they’re in…legally this is an interesting question. The custodians and institutions can be held responsible…Can this be put under “death in custody”? 

Would this allow these people to be charged past the 50 years?

Dr. Williams replied, “Potentially. The legislation doesn’t exist - it might still be limited by ‘forensically relevant’.

“My colleagues and I have been discussing how to investigate these sites. People will get traumatized and re-traumatized, digging up bones is traumatic, and the proper ceremony, protocol must be followed. 

“Some people have been asking about the cost - how can we put a price on this? We don’t know how many children there are, and we don’t know the cost. When people ask how much is this going to cost to dig up these kids, I say - I don’t know, how much would it cost to dig up yours if they were your kids? Would you not want everything done? Would you not want to know what happened and would you not want someone to pay for this? The last school closed in 1996 - it’s not ancient history.” 

How to proceed, whether to proceed in some cases, in investigating the gravesites at residential schools is indeed complicated. I thank Dr. Williams for giving us a glimpse into the difficulties and how to proceed respecting the Indigenous community because surely, the utmost respect must be given to these children, their families and communities. 

10 July 2021

Have a Neat Summer

I don't know how it's done these days, but when I was a kid, we had that ritual where before school let out in June, the yearbooks got passed around so we could write to each other, no matter what we really thought, best wishes. Often, and also no matter the real truth, we added some level of excitement to see them come Labor Day. Or you played it casual. "Have a neat summer" is what Winnie famously wrote Kevin in The Wonder Years

"See you in the fall," like this wasn't Catholic school and we all didn't live a mile from each other, like we wouldn't see each other at youth group stuff or birthday parties or whatnot. This was Louisville, perhaps America's largest small town. Every family knew every other family in the neighborhood and also every family from all the old neighborhoods. Everyone knew how neat the summers got.

Well, a June ritual must've rubbed off. In January, I write the year's goals and priorities, and I post them where I can't avoid them. Mid-year is the pause and rethink. Is my butt in the chair? How's my process and production? Did I produce anything worthwhile? What's my best next projects? These questions have more weight mid-year than in heady January. By June, I've either done things or haven't. Energizing adjustments get made. The goal might've been too optimistic, or maybe it's not important now. Maybe the problem is me chasing shiny objects again instead of staying on track.

This isn't entirely OCD. It's not overthink, either. Like many of us, my writing time is limited. I can't afford bad process leading to avoidable duds. And no way can I be left to my whimsical devices.

A June re-think has special power in 2021. We're coming off an 18-month grinder. We're de-scrambling, or I am. And if I'm more honest than certain yearbook messages, I'll admit to a productivity drop even before the pandemic. Okay, some of that was an intentional focus on rewrites, and that focus paid off in acceptances. Great. Also, unsustainable. I can't edit what I don't draft. My 2020 goals sought to address this--and did to a minor extent--but 2020 had its own plan.

This year's Goal One: Keep it simple. Then make it simpler. Me in that chair and being intentional about it. Forget markets and pushing out submissions. Just write, kid. And have fun, damn it. When it's fun, it shows in the work (hot tip: editing may be required). As of June 30, I've tied 2018's 5 stories (3 romps, 2 serious). Raw drafts, as is my usual, but some with potential. As to weighted production, the cumulative mid-year word count tops most of my annual marks. With a neat enough summer, I'll outpace 2017's production, which became my most successful acceptance vintage (editing was required).

The mid-year check? Progress!

I mentioned not worrying about markets. This has yearbook note gloss to it. I've baked a certain submission rhythm into my goals and process. Often I'm crafting a story with specific tastes in mind. I'll know, for example, if a given piece might work for AHMM or is written to that very spec. Maintaining this was 2021 Goal Two. I'm a tad behind, but that was an audible to write that new stuff. I called it, so I might as well own it. Did I also chase a few shiny objects? Yes. Yes, I did. But not many, because I keep walking past those posted goals.

Score Goal Two as needing focus.

My last 2021 goal worth mentioning is the Gotta Dos. TCB, to quote a renowned Memphis jumpsuit collector. I'm a chapter officer for both SinC and SEMWA, and I factor in those happy obligations. And this summer, I'm doing short story workshops for the Clarksville Writers Conference and for Killer Nashville. The kind with actual people there. I owe them the same rigor that I bring when my butt is in my own seat. Helpfully, one session is on--wait for it--intentionality.

So. June/July. I'll have a cold drink, a long walk, and a hard stare at my posted goals and progress. Done neatly, the writing gets needed course corrections and an energy boost. I'll have that fun if it kills me, damn it, and I'll chalk up stories to share come fall. 

Or before then, even. I mean, we're here all summer. 

09 July 2021

A little More About Rejections

We've talked about rejections over the years here at SleuthSayers, especially about rejections of well-known works by famous writers. I left out some of the famous rejections already discussed here (F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alex Haley, Stephen King, Louis L'Amour, George Orwell, J. K. Rowling, John Kennedy Toole, and others).

J. D. Salinger's desire to be published in The New Yorker brought many rejections until they finally accepted "A Perfect Day for Bananafish."  After publishing a number of other stories there, Salinger asked if they would publish The Catcher in the Rye in segments and received a big NO from fiction editor William Maxwell.

Salinger submitted the novel to Harcourt Brace and editor Robert Giroux loved it only his boss, Eugene Reynal did not. Giroux called Salinger in to tell him the book needed to be re-written as Holden Caulfield was crazy. Re-write The Catcher in the Rye? It was too ingenious, too ingrown.

Salinger took it to Little Brown who published it without changing a word and the rest is history.

As for these other rejection stories, I don't know if all these are true. The come from multiple sources online but some probably are true:

Kon-Tiki was rejected by a number of publishers, so was Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Who wants to read a book about a seagull?

A rejection of John le Carre's The Spy Who Came In From the Cold came with the notation how Le Carre "hasn't got a future."

James Joyce's Ulysses was judged obscene by a number of publishers. Some of Jack Kerouac's work was rejected for being pornographic.

Lolita was rejected by publishers fearful of being prosecuted for obscenity.

Dune was rejected 20 times.

Usula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness was rejected as being "endlessly complicated."

Pearl S. Buck's first novel East Wind: West Wind was rejected a number of times before publication.

Tony Hillerman was told to "get rid of the Indian stuff."

After a number of rejections, Zane Grey self-published is first book.

Marcel Proust also received so many rejections, he too self-published. So did Beatrix Potter with The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

James Baldwin's second novel, received a rejection describing the book as "hopelessly bad."

Lord of the Flies was rejected 20 times. That's right. Nobel Laurate William Golding's classic study of morality and immorality and human nature had a struggle getting into print.

William Faulkner's first novel was initially rejected as "unpublishable."

Chicken Soup for the Soul received 134 rejections.

Gone with the Wind was rejected 38 times.

The list goes on and on. Richard Adams, Rudyard Kipling, Irving Stone, Judy Blume, Sylvia Plath, D. H. Lawrence. Even Anne Frank whose diary was rejected by 15 publisher.

NOTE: Much of the above came from bio articles of some of the writers mentions as well as Writers Write and Writers Business and the PBS American Masters Documentary Salinger, a film by Shane Salerno (2013).

So, ya'll don't give up.


08 July 2021

I've Got This Great Character In Search Of A Story

(Still on a deadline—in fact I'm behind. So I'm updating and reposting this blog post from 2014 about character, and how it's where you find it! Back in two weeks with all new content!) 

So I know this guy.

70 years old.

Recently retired elementary music teacher for the past two decades.

Married three decades. Father of two.

He is one of the most interesting characters I know.



He is.

Go back and re-read the thumbnail I just gave you.

Now let me elaborate.

All of the above AND...

Thirty years a professional musician (including opening for the Grass Roots at age 15 in 1965!).

So, these guys. And yes, the dude second from the left really is Creed Braxton from "The Office."

So of course I ask him, "What were they like?"

("They" being the aforementioned Grass Roots.)

He smiles and says, "They were dicks."

He doesn't dance. Ever.

When I ask him why not, he says, "I never had to."

"Why not?"

"I'm the drummer. I never needed to dance to get girls."

(Note: the guy's wife is a knockout and they have been happily and faithfully married for the above-referenced THREE DECADES)

He once took a gig in Guam for four weeks that wound up lasting six months.

He knows an uncle of mine who is the amazingly-not-yet-dead black sheep (and then some) of our family. Their paths crossed years before I got to know him, back during his playing days. I'll leave it to your imagination how he knows him.

(And you're RIGHT!)

I once referred to someone we both know as a "hot mess." His response?

"I played in a band called 'Hot Mess'..." followed by reminiscences about same.

(This has happened more than once and is always entertaining.)

He once hid out in Alaska for over a year. This after getting stranded in the Queen Charlotte Islands on the way there. I infer that there was a girl (or several) involved.

I convinced him to go to a Rush concert with me (I'm a HUGE fan). He is the only drummer I've ever known who attended a Rush concert and came away much more interested in what Alex Lifeson (the guitarist) was doing onstage than in what the then-world's greatest living rock drummer (Neal Peart) was doing behind his drum kit.

He's clean and sober now, and has been for years, if not always continuously.

He is one of the most painfully honest, most loyal and gentlest souls I have ever met.

I have seen him with blood in his eye and murder in his heart over the treatment of our society's most vulnerable members. I am hardly a conservative, and yet he makes me look like William F. Buckley.

And yet he lives on a golf course (It's a long story!) and sports a significant handicap.

All of the above is true.

I started this blog posting intending to wrap it up by saying that I had a great idea for a character based on this friend of mine, but no story in which to insert him. And then a funny thing happened.

I remembered a story he told me once about this woman he met, who turned out to be married, and....

...oh, forget it.

Wouldn't want to give away the ending!

Characters can come to us from the strangest of places and by the most indirect of routes sometimes, can't they?

See you in two weeks!

07 July 2021


 I didn't do much writing during May.  I wasn't having a health problem or writer's block.  I just had another project that took up the same time and mental energy.  (I was preparing a speech about my book When Women Didn't Count for the Eastern Tennessee chapter of Sisters in Crime and another about Rex Stout and Nero Wolfe for the Academy for Lifelong Learning.  There; you forced it out of me.)

But this break in the routine had interesting effects.  For one thing I came up with three story ideas. Two are for series I am writing and the third is for an anthology. Whether any of them will be finished, much less published, is yet to be determined, but I have finished a first draft of one and am halfway through a second.  Number three is, so far, just a topic and a motive for murder.  

The finished first draft is the story I am aiming at an anthology.  Therein lies a problem.  You see, the preferred length for the anthology is 3,000 to 5,000 words and my story is running to 7,700.  Oops.  I figure I can cut out every third word and call it experimental fiction, or leave off the ending and claim it's mainstream literature. 

Better yet, I think I will beat it into a more-or-less finished shape and then start trying to pare it down.  But I'll keep that full-length finished piece and send it elsewhere if the anthology rejects it.

Another interesting thing that happened in May: I sold two stories.  One publisher required me to send them an invoice for my services.  That has never happened to me for a short story before.  The other publisher just sent the same generic note to all his accepted authors that said, basically, "I want the story.  Usual rights. Payment is X.  Let me know if that's okay."

Two very different ends of the formality continuum.  And the funny part is: they were both English publishers.  

Anyway, that's how I spent May and June.  How about you?

Oh, one more thing: At 7 PM tonight, Pacific time, the Mystery Writers of American - Northwest chapter has a free event: authors reading some of their works.  I'm on the list.  Join us, won't you?

06 July 2021


     A few weeks back, Barb Goffman wrote a column in which she discussed writing what you know. She widened the lens on that convention and talked about finding core emotions and desires central to humans. She wrote about connecting to characters quite different from herself by finding the truth in human behavior. Focusing on elemental characteristics freed Barb to tell her stories through a wide array of voices. 

    I agree with her. I'm glad that we get to assume the role of other people. That's one of the ways I find joy in writing. I don't really care to write stories about lawyers. Part of the fun of this exercise is to get away from my day job and to learn a little bit about somewhere or something different, to depart from my daily routine. Consequently, I've not written many stories about lawyers. (I have a couple of tales of an attorney set in pre-revolutionary France, but I don't count those. They are far removed from my day job.) Play other people, but find the core that connects to everyone. 

    It is, however, not an inviolable rule. I've written a couple of stories featuring an attorney. The trial lawyer is a good vehicle for thinking about rejection as a part of the human condition. I tell people that my career as a courtroom attorney was a good prologue to writing and to submitting stories. I got used to rejection. Generally, I found juries to be rational bodies earnestly striving to do the right thing. But there is always an element of mystery built into the system; no one can guarantee an outcome. I've won some cases I expected to lose and, conversely, taken acquittals in some trials I thought I'd win. The uncertainty motivates negotiated pleas. Many times, neither side wants to know what a jury might do when certainty of outcome is available.

Flickr-Joe Gratz

    I've tried some cases where at the outset, I knew that my evidence was weak. I didn't think my chances of success were particularly good. Yet during the trial, one finds the slim reed of hope upon which to grasp. My witnesses exceeded expectations or perhaps weren't as disgraced by opposing counsel as imagined. A cancerous optimism began to take hold. We might win this. Despite everything, invariably, I convinced myself, if only myself, that our side would be victorious. When the jury's verdict returned me to reality, it still hurt. I was always disappointed when the outcome didn't go my way. The expected acquittals, however, were easier to lay aside, enabling me to move on to the next case. 

    The ones that lingered were the ones I didn't see coming. The case went smoothly. The testimony delivered as expected. As the prosecutor, I felt confident. More telling, the defense attorney could be heard on his phone lining up his case for the punishment phase of the trial. The judge blocked out time for the additional punishment evidence. Everyone knew the outcome. Unfortunately, no one bothered to tell the jury. Some of the worst professional days I've known were when I had to watch a jury acquit my defendant and then try to explain to child witnesses (usually in sexual abuse cases) why the jury did not believe them sufficiently to convict. The honest truth was, I didn't know. 

    Painful hangovers have occasionally followed those days. Drinking was an immature response to the problem, and I can't condone it, but I've now and again practiced it. We all need to figure out how to handle rejection. (For writers, Michael Bracken and Robert Lopresti among others have SleuthSayer columns devoted to this topic of rejected stories.)

    A prosecutor's courtroom difficulties lay at the heart of "Catch and Release," my story in the most recent Guppy anthology, The Fish That Got Away. 

    Guppies are a chapter of Sisters in Crime. The name is an acronym for "Great Un-Published," although members include those who've been published many times over as well as those who are still waiting to see their name on a printed page. They, like the SleuthSayers and the Short Mystery Fiction Society, are an association of writing comrades. 

    As a prosecutor in a large urban jurisdiction, I had officemates surrounding me to celebrate the successes and to commiserate after the failures. Sometimes they lent an ear while I complained; sometimes they bought the first round. A network is important. It motivates you to press forward and helps you up after a fall. I appreciated my fellow attorneys back in my courtroom days. As writers, we tap away as solo practitioners. The networks are virtual but still real and still valuable. 

    Thank you for your support. 

    Until next time. 

05 July 2021

Back in the Saddle

by Steve Liskow

 I used to conduct several writing workshops during the course of the year. My normal venue was libraries, moving to a couple of local writing retreats after Connecticut cut library budgets. The pandemic killed those workshops, too. Now, as more people get vaccinated, events are opening up again, some live and some remaining online.

I prefer live events because I like connecting with the audience. It's much easier to have a question and answer session live than online because you don't have to mute or unmute several people. It's easier to conduct writing activities and distribute handouts (I like handouts) or write on an easel for everyone to see. I can sell books, too.

In two weeks, I will join another crime writer for an online workshop through a library. We batted ideas around a few days ago and will have another phone session later this week. We want to come up with a coherent handout and some activities the participants can do online instead of merely listening to an hour-long lecture (Shudder...), but it's still going to be less interactive than a live show. I will hold up one of my books and encourage people to order it. So much for promotion.

What concerns me most is that the audience gets its money's worth. Some people may not figure out how to navigate Zoom, and others may show up late. Several may be the passive TV audience my theater friends and I used to carp about at intermission when we hadn't heard a response through the entire first act. 

When I taught drama, I gave my students a handout on theater etiquette, and I'm modifying it only slightly here for people attending a workshop or reading.

1.  Know what you've signed up for. We are crime writers discussing a pre-chosen topic, so don't ask us about poetry, memoir, or how to set up your website.

2. Show up on time. I once conducted a 90-minute workshop where a man arrived 25 minutes late. When I finished, he wanted me to re-cap what he'd missed. I had a 2 1/2 hour drive home ahead of me, so I declined. Ironically, when he reviewed the workshop, he complained that I didn't discuss the very topics he missed by being late.

3. If you're online, mute yourself except to ask questions. If you're live, silence your phone.

4. Feel free to ask questions. Questions show me where I need to be clearer or more specific if I do the same presentation again. Make your question a question and not an editorial. 

5. I like to provide hand-outs at my workshops, but please don't ask for extras. The libary prints up as many copies as there are people who signed up for the event, or I bring that exact number with me. I don't bring extras, and some of them need explanation anyway. If your friend wanted one, he should have joined you so I could answer HIS questions, too.

6. If you're going to comment on my looks or fashion sense, do it out of my earshot.

7. Try to find it in you heart to buy a book. Or, better yet, persuade the librarian to buy one for the library so other people can find out about me. Yes, I DO take credit cards.

8. I distribute bookmarks and business cards. They list my website, and the bookmarks have my novels listed on the back. If you don't want them, give them back or to the librarian so he or she can put them on display. Don't simply drop them under your chair so somebody has to pick them up after you leave.

9. Feel free to come up afterwards to say hello or buy a book. But use a little tact or common sense. Years ago, I was selling my first roller derby novel at a roller derby bout, and a man suggested that I write a book about some other topic. I don't remember what that topic was, but I asked if he'd buy it. He told me he didn't read. I had several responses on the tip of my tongue, but I restrained them. I did kill the guy off in a later book, though.

I love writing. I love doing workshops and meeting people even more. Especially the nice ones.

04 July 2021

Dinner and Death

Last Saturday evening, I dined in a real restaurant for the first time since the coronavirus broke upon our shores. That same evening at the same restaurant in the heart of Orlando’s International Drive tourist center, a man was murdered.

It didn’t particularly surprise anyone. Most attendees expected something of the sort because homicides occur frequently at Sleuths Mystery Dinner Show.

Squire's Inn cast
Our show, not our cast

The occasion was Haboob’s birthday party arranged by her daughter who invited me (thanks, Kathy). I’d never attended a mystery show and looked forward to it.

Murder 1

The first mystery involved parking. The car lot was full. Shops and restaurants surrounding the theatre share a garage with Icon Park, a 20-acre entertainment complex, which includes a Madame Tussaud’s and a London Eye-type ride called The Wheel, approximately 122m (~400ft) in diameter.

Here, developers confused ‘arcade’ and ‘parkade’. The garage is loaded with exit signs, none of them useful. This results in cars milling like microbes, trying to decipher a way out. One unfortunate Hyundai has been circling since 2017. Family members rope up buckets from below and tote gasoline up stairs to refuel it. My friend Geri and I could have happily murdered the garage’s architect, but mayhem was supposed to occur in a dining establishment, not a garage.

a Constable Connie
A constable Connie, not our
scare-your-pants-off Connie

Murder 2

Sleuths operates two theatres and we found ourselves led to slaughter in Theatre II, a surprisingly large hall with a shallow stage along one side. There, a couple of dozen round tables accommodated up to ten guests. Real tablecloths, cloth serviettes, and real butter provided nice touches.

Let it be said, visitors don’t come for the dining experience. Chicken and vegetarian options were available, but our entire party ordered prime rib, a $6 extra disappointment. I could offer two or three smartass comments, but the less said, the better. Our neighbors ordered lasagna and voiced no complaint. Desserts were tasty and the wine was unexpectedly drinkable.

Waitress Nicole supplied us with tea and soda, and as far as I could discern, took no notes when doling out drinks and desserts to the correct parties. While I’m in a complimenting mood, thanks to Miss DeSantis (no relation to our dreadful governor) for help, kindness, and patience making reservations.

Staging a Death

In interactive murder mysteries, guests participate in the experience. They mingle with victims and suspects, and handle and inspect clues. This was not those.

Rather we are presented with one of five abbreviated plays, a comedy where four actors play five rôles. The skit takes place in an English Inn, placing the actors at risk of murdering the mother tongue worse than I. Fortunately, the cast treats dialect with a light touch.

the real Constable Connie
Late update! @ Chris Sowers
The REAL Constable Connie
who owned the rôle

We meet the characters. Murder ensues. The law makes her entrance.

Holy Chautauqua!

The clear star of the show is Constable Connie Crabtree, whose actor also plays the crotchety murder victim. This doesn’t tell half of it and the masculine noun is not an affectation. Although the victim is male, the constable is female and… no, wait. See, the heavily made-up and considerably frightening Constable Connie is played in drag by an actor I wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley.

But funny, hilariously funny. Political correctness has robbed our society of so much humor, it’s refreshing to let down our guard and enjoy witty innuendo and double entendres without clubbing us with correctness. God save the Queen.

On With the Show

The play draws to a close. The cast invites the audience to help solve the mystery by formulating questions– one per table– of the characters, mostly concerning conversational threads left dangling.

The audience was paying attention; several queries were highly pertinent. Despite my great renown as a world famous SleuthSayer, my question about parentage wasn’t chosen by my table, although it turned out to be the heart of the mystery. (So there!) Constable Connie’s acidic tongue kept questions moving, especially when a couple of tables had enjoyed a bit too much of the not-too-bad wine.

mystery worksheets for notes
mystery worksheet


The play is not The Mousetrap. I found two chinks in the mystery itself, both unexplained gaps– or sudden leaps. Actors abruptly drop a comment that the victim fathered another character without us being previously presented with that fact. In the free-wheeling delivery of the play, was it overlooked?

Likewise, the audience had almost universally settled upon one cast member as the murderer, but the constable informed us it was quite another without linking evidence. Unless another clue had been left out, the choice of perpetrator seemed almost random. Perhaps we missed hearing a hint, but if we did, so did our half of the room.

I haven’t seen the script, but possibly a bit or two was inadvertently omitted. Still, we figured out the key to the plot and motive, and besides, the real point was the comedy. You don’t read Janet Evanovich for the plot, you read her stories for the laughter. Same with this play, Squires Inn.

Mouths of Babes

A number of young children sat near the front and loved it. Although one character in the play had paid heavily and labored for years to purchase the inn, the play’s sole woman (not counting Connie) inherited it, leaving the man with nothing. The constable asked the kids if the woman should share the inn with the man and they– almost entirely girls– shouted out a resounding No!

Oh sheesh. They’ve been listening to their mothers.

The theatre awarded birthday gifts and door prizes of a surprisingly useful magnifying glass. That was a superb touch.

At nearly 10:30 that night, I helped Geri find her car in the garage. I am not in the least kidding– cars were still queued snailing on the third level, trying to find their way out.


From the viewpoint of a professional crime reader and writer, Squires Inn didn’t come off as a fair-play mystery with clues that pointed unambiguously to a single perpetrator. But as Hamlet said, “The play’s the thing.” It is a lot of fun and definitely worth the trip. You might not solve a mystery, you could die laughing.

Have a happy and safe 4th of July!

03 July 2021

Hope to Hear from You Soon


If you write and sell short fiction, there are three steps you have to take, over and over again: (1) write the story, (2) send it off, and (3) wait for a reply. That third task is the only one you can't control, and often seems to be the hardest.

No one likes to wait a long time to hear back from a story submission. I mean, you've created a masterpiece and you're ready to share it with the reading world, right NOW, and here you sit, waiting for months for some editor to decide if it's worthy. The final insult is that in some cases the best publications can take the longest time to respond. What's an impatient writer to do?

The simple answer: Don't send stories to those publications. Send only to those that respond promptly.

The problem is, that doesn't work for me. I want some of my stories to be featured occasionally in those long-responding publications. So my answer is, submit to them anyway. Send the stories off and wait, like everyone else. But meanwhile, also send stories to places that don't take so long. As in most things in life, it's a balancing act.

In the case of markets for mystery short stories, which ones take the longest to respond? Which are the quickest? Here are my thoughts on that, based on my own experience, for a few of what I consider to be prime markets in terms of quality and/or compensation.

Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine -- Editor Janet Hutchings usually responds to my submissions fairly quickly. It might be a rejection note and it might be an acceptance (I'll let you guess which I get most often), but either way, I usually know within three months, and sometimes two or less. One of my acceptances came after four months, so maybe longer can be a good sign--has anyone else noticed that, or was this a fluke? FYI, payment for accepted EQMM stories is pleasingly prompt, but it might be months before your story is published.

Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine -- Linda Landrigan makes no secret of the fact that it takes her a long time to respond to story submissions. For me, that's usually been around eleven months, for both rejections and acceptances. A few of my stories have been accepted after a shorter time, and a few have taken a full year--but eleven months seems to be about right. Do I still send stories to AHMM, despite the long wait time? I sure do--and so do a lot of other writers. (The thrill and satisfaction of an AH acceptance is enough to outweigh the delay.) Also, be aware that AHMM, like EQMM, usually has a backlog such that publication might not happen for many months.

Strand Magazine -- Andrew Gulli is not known for responding right away to submissions, and in fact he sometimes never responds unless he wants to buy the story. When he does want a story, he usually tells you right away, within a few weeks. I have to agree with those who say it can be frustrating to never hear back from a submission--but remember, if you don't like that policy, don't submit a story. I choose to submit to them anyway. If a story's accepted, great, and if it's not, I write them a polite withdrawal note after several months and then send the story elsewhere. On the plus side, my accepted stories at the Strand have usually been published right away, in the next issue.

Black Cat Mystery Magazine -- Editor Michael Bracken often makes all this a bit easier by announcing when he'll be open to new submissions. When the window is open, I've found that he's fairly prompt in responding, and payment is prompt as well. It can sometimes take awhile until your accepted story is published--most magazines plan way ahead, on this kind of thing--but it's worth the wait. Something else I should mention: BCMM, like most of the others I've listed here, seems to be a popular source of award-nominated and "best-of-the-year"-selected stories.

Mystery Weekly -- Kerry Carter is another who responds quickly, and there's the added benefit of having a submission status link that can tell you how many stories are ahead of yours in the reading queue. My response time there, for both acceptances and rejections, has usually been less than three weeks, but--once again--publication of accepted stories can take a while.

Woman's World -- Editor Alexandra Pollock still publishes mini-mysteries (they call them Solve-It-Yourself mysteries now), and although I don't submit to WW as much as I used to, I still send them stories from time to time. In my experience, they either respond after a few weeks or they (like the Strand) don't respond at all, and if I haven't heard from them in three months I send a withdrawal note, after which I change the "format" of the story and submit it elsewhere. Again, I don't complain about their no-response policy--that's just the way the mop flops. If you don't like it, don't send them anything. But be aware that when they do accept a story, payment is quick and generous (for a mystery, it's $450 for less than 600 words) and publication comes soon afterward, usually within a couple of months.


Remember, don't take the above observations as fact. I think they're good indicators of recent response times, but they're all based on my own stories to these markets--and besides, I suspect those wait times could change at any point. What are your experiences, with the short stories you've submitted to these and other markets? If you would, let me know in the comments section.


Meanwhile, do what I do. I'm not the most patient person in the world, but when I send a story out, I then try to forget about it and work instead on writing and submitting more stories. That's the best way I know to relieve response-time stress. And when you do get a reply, may your answer be a contract and not a rejection.

That's the best medicine of all.

02 July 2021

Ear Reading

Source: audible.com

Once upon a time, I only consumed books via paperback and hardcover. Ebooks either were not a thing yet. When they were, they were kind of lame in the era before Kindle. Then there were audiobooks. But producers worked a bit too hard to turn them into radio plays. To me, reading was words on paper. End of discussion.

And then, during my waning days as a pizza delivery driver, someone took me to a store down the hill from my apartment at the time. It was the early 2000s, so cassettes still existed. My first audiobook, an unabridged version of Loren Estleman's A Smile on the Face of the Tiger. It came on eight cassettes that, amazingly, my cassette deck didn't eat it. Or any of the other books I rented on cassette. Or borrowed from the library.

About that time, producers of audiobooks had struck the right balance of simply reading the book and having the reader perform. Sometimes, the wrong reader could have hilarious results. For instance, the 80-something William Windom reading a Spenser novel. It was like grandpa hitting on Susan Silverman. On the other hand, Burt Reynolds nailed Spenser by basically reading him as a parody of...

Burt Reynolds.

But for me, it expanded my reading lists. At the time, I didn't need to expand my reading list. I regularly could read a book a week, and this was before speed reading. So, are you really reading a book when you listen?

There are some differences. When I reviewed books, I sometimes had to email authors to get the spelling of a name or a word. Especially if it was science fiction. On the other hand, listening to a book is passive. Load up your book, and someone reads it to you. Reading print or ebooks takes effort. (And really, in terms of content, I no longer differentiate between ebook and print. You still have to scan the text.)

This passivity has become a godsend. For the past two years, I've had to add caregiver to my many hats, as well as working two jobs. Audiobooks let me make up the shortfall as I couldn't read as many print books anymore.  

And the Audible subscription is the absolute last thing that goes when I have to tighten the belt. A credit a month gets me any book I want. But does the reader make a difference?

Well, there's a difference between RC Bray reading The Martian and Wil Wheaton reading it. I bought both versions. Bray can fake an Indian accent without making it sound like a parody. Wheaton just imbues Kapoor with his own world-weary sarcasm.

But while it's listening instead of seeing, I consider it to be the same as reading a book. The delivery does make for a different experience, but I am consuming narrative. For the longest time, I listened mainly to nonfiction on audio and read fiction. Over time, it became audio for scifi and reading everything else. Now both are an eclectic mix. 

Recently, I learned to speed read, which let me get through King's 11/22/63 in just over a week. Contrast that with when I read Under the Dome, which took months.Currently, I'm reading Blacktop Wasteland in hardcover. And frankly, I like the option of slowing down when I read an author with a distinctive voice. Audio might not actually work for me on this one. I need to hear SA Cosby unfiltered. On the other hand, the reader of Iain Banks's Consider Phlebas manages to stay out of the way of the narrative. It's a thin line the readers have to walk.

01 July 2021

A Short Evocation of a Lesser Common Narcissist

(Based on true events, but the names and cities have been changed to protect… you know how it goes.)

Many years ago, a guy named Kirk came to visit us for New Year's in Laskin, SD, bringing with him an Internet friend, Rona. The last time we'd seen Kirk was over ten years before, when we still lived on the East Coast. Since then he and his wife, Anna, had split up. According to Kirk, she went crazy, and I mean literally crazy. This may be true - Anna always seemed a little strange to me - but I can also assure you that living with Kirk didn't help. Kirk was profoundly convinced of his ability to do anything, superbly, without practice or study. And shared his expertise with everyone. The latest iteration was computer: 

"You remember how I used to be into hacking? Made me the expert on security issues. I get messages from people and companies all around the world wanting me to fix their stuff. Make it impervious to scammers. Set up firewalls no hacker can breach. I could make a mint, but I'm picky about who I work for. But they all know what I can do. They all want me." 

Why, then, after Kirk and Anna split up, he went to Arizona, looking for the six figure dot-com job,  I have no idea.  Apparently no one had ever told him about Silicon Valley. He didn't find the job or any other, except some side gigs. I'm not sure he actually looked. After all, his repute was such that sooner or later the perfect job would find him, right? 

Meanwhile, he couch-surfed from friend to friend, apartment to apartment.  And he searched for love on the internet, and found Rona, from Serbia, and headed off to see her in Texas. 

Rona was getting her doctorate in plant cellular microbiology at Southern Methodist University. How she got from Serbia to Dallas is a whole 'nother story, but let's just say Dallas was major culture shock. She ended up retreating into her studio apartment and spent most of her time outside of classes and labs on-line. She told me that meeting people via the Internet was safe in Europe. "You meet normal people." Then came Kirk. Who sounded like every other lad looking for love on-line.

She was lonely and he was lonely, and she invited him to come to Dallas and visit for a few days. Along the way he called us and invited himself and Rona to visit for New Year's. He implied that he had met Rona in Dallas and something about Christmas with her family in Fargo.  We had no idea he had (1) never been to Dallas before, (2) never physically met her at all, and (3) that she had no family in the Americas. 

So we said sure, come on up, and he said, "Well, we should be there in an hour."  

And they were.  

I liked Rona at once. Physically, she looked tired and worn out, not just from the trip, but from her whole life. She grew up and lived in Belgrade throughout the whole breakup and the Kosovo bombings and the subsequent craziness of rebuilding. And now she was in a strange country, and even though American TV is universal, living here is different than watching it on TV. She chain smoked (but then so did we back then), and had a terrible cough.  She was also very intelligent and had goals and the drive to fulfill them.  The plan was to get her doctorate and become a scientist and make a good living. 

Meanwhile, I had forgotten how exhausting Kirk was. He paced and postured and never, ever, ever shut up. Mostly about himself.  Mostly his amazing track record with jobs, knowledge, and women, all of whom always developed a major crush on him.  

But not Rona.  Definitely not.  In fact, she was completely weirded out by him, and wanted to get away from him ASAP.  Per Rona's desperate request to me (almost as soon as she hit the front door), they had separate sleeping arrangements the entire visit.  Kirk was offended, because - as he repeatedly said - they were just friends and that’s all that he had in mind.  He'd never even thought about her "that way".  By the second night of the visit he was obsessed with it.  I know, because he talked to me for 3 hours straight:

"I don't know what I did.  Why is she so upset?  What is her problem?  You know, she's really very domineering and aggressive.  I don't like that in a woman.  Maybe I should have just gone for a one-night stand, maybe that's what she really wants.  I'm not that kind of guy, you know that, everyone knows that, but sometimes you've got to do what they want, whether they know it or not, you know?"

Repeated, over and over and over again on a bitterly escalating loop that was disturbing, and made me afraid for Rona after they left our place.  

But Rona had survived worse things than Kirk.  They left Monday morning, and a couple of hours later Rona walked out on him at a coffee shop in Sioux Falls.  (I had asked her to call me to let me know if she was okay: she did and she was.) She got a taxi to the airport, where she planned to stay until she got a flight. Any flight. She could do that because she had credit cards.  

Kirk did not.  All he had was the rental car. So he called us and said he was broke and that he needed some money, and could we come down to Sioux Falls and give him some? And if not, how about if he turned around and came back and spent some more time with us? Granted, it was a very small-time extortion, but it was neatly done.   

Of course we drove down and gave him $75, and said, "Well, it's been great, but we've got to get back to work, and so do you, and have safe journeys, traveling mercies, and, uh, next time maybe give us a heads up before you come to town."  

Kirk took the money, but his feelings were clearly hurt.  

"Well," he said, right before he drove off, "as I remember it, you invited me."


Read "The Sweet Life" in the July/August Issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.

Also, my story "Collateral Damage" is in Murderous Ink Press' Crimeucopia: We're All Animals Under the Skin. Available at Amazon.

30 June 2021

Lending Library


 Last summer we had a minor household disaster.  The water heater burst and half of our possessions spent several months in a storage unit in our driveway while flooring was removed, new doors installed, etc.  Everything is fine now, better than ever.

But I had an interesting experience when I was reorganizing the fifty or so shelves of books that reside on our lower floor.  Specifically I noticed a certain category of books scattered throughout.

These are the books we have more than one copy of.  There are a few books that I buy an extra copy of whenever I spot it in a used book store.  Why?  So I can give them away, and not worry about getting them back.

As a dedicated reader and a recovering librarian I have a strong desire to proselytize, to tell people "You just HAVE to read this book!"  Not surprisingly they tend to be books I reread every few years.  So let's talk about a few of them, in chronological order.

Don Marquis.  archy and mehitabel.  (
1930)  Marquis wrote a newspaper column which, by God, had to be filled with something every day.  And so one morning he claimed to have found a cockroach jumping up and down on his typewriter keys.  The literary insect was archy (he couldn't reach the capital letters), a free verse poet who had been reincarnated as a bug.  mehitabel was his friend, an alley cat who claimed to have been Cleopatra in another life.  "you want to know / whether  i believe in ghosts / of course i do not believe in them / if you had known / as many of them as i have / you would not / believe in them either"

Walter M. Miller, Jr. A Canticle For Lebowitz.  (1959) One of the great post-apocalyptic novels, and a very Catholic one.  It concerns the bookleggers, an order of monks who salvaged the few remaining books from the anti-intellectual, anti-scientific riots that followed nuclear war.  Canticle consists of three novellas spread over a thousand years  - and one character appears in all three. 

H. Allen Smith. The Great Chili Confrontation.
(1969)  One of the funniest nonfiction books I have ever read.  Smith wrote an article about chili which so offended some Texans that they challenged him to a contest.  And so the Terlingua Chili Cook-off came into existence - and Smith fell in love with the Lone Start State.  Here is a Texan discussing his wife's views on religion: "She believes things a mud turtle would blush to believe."

Donald E. Westlake.  The Hot Rock. (1970)  One of the funniest crime novels ever, it concerns a gang of burglars who have to steal the same emerald over and over.  "I've heard of habitual criminals, but never the habitual crime."  Westlake intended it to be a standalone novel but John Dortmunder was such a great character, the smart but luckless sad sack, that he appeared in a dozen books.

Russell Hoban.  Riddley Walker.
  (1980) Another post-apocalyptic novel.  Thousands of years after a nuclear war progress is just beginning to show its head.  And that ain't necessarily a good thing.  What makes this book unique is the language it uses, a simplified English that is just starting to be written down again.  Take for instance one phrase that appears in the book several times: "the hart of the wud." Depending on context this could mean a deer in the forest, a kiln (hearth of the wood), charcoal (heart of the wood), or the human spirit (heart of the would) - or all of them at once.  It will blow your mind, just as it destroyed Hoban's ability to spell.

Thomas Perry. Island.  (1987) Harry and Emma are conmen who steal a ton of money from a very bad guy and flee to the Caribbean.  Their problem is how to invest their loot.  So they take an unclaimed island, barely high enough out of the water to stand on, and pile junk on it until it's big enough to be a country.  The plan is make a fortune off loose banking regulations and no-extradition laws.  But it turns out you have to think about other things, like: What should be illegal?  Do you accept refugees?  Turns out running a country is complicated.  Who knew?

Terry Pratchett.  Small Gods.
(1992) A British reviewer said Sir Terry is the greatest satirist in English since Chaucer.  His Discworld books consist of at least seven separate (and interconnecting) subseries. I urge people to start with Small Gods because it is one of the best and because it is a standalone.  Brutha is a very minor novice in the Omnian religion so he never expects to meet the great god Om - especially in the form of a tortoise.  Om is having a bad millenium...  “The trouble was that he was talking in philosophy but they were listening in gibberish.”

Harry Turtledove.  Guns of the South.  (1992) The greatest alternative history novel I know.  Some Afrikaners build a time machine and decide to nip Black independence in the bud by selling machine guns to the Confederacy.  A brilliant piece of fiction and a meditation on American history.

So, what are the books you try to talk people into reading?