13 May 2021

What's in a Name—Ancient Egyptian Edition: Ptolemy


The following is adapted from material published in my book The Book of Ancient Bastards (Adams Media 2011). Although there were fourteen (or depending on whom you believe, fifteen) Macedonian Greek kings of Egypt named Ptolemy, here below are featured the three most interesting. And by "interesting," I mean they lived up to the title of the book in which I featured them: three truly "ancient bastards."

Read on!

Ptolemy I Soter (ca. 367 B.C.-ca. 283 B.C.)

“And thus Aridaeus, who had spent two years in preparations, brought the king’s [Alexander’s] body from Babylon to Egypt.  Ptolemy, in honour of the king, met the corpse with his army as far as Syria, where he received it, and accompanied it with great care and observance: for he had not resolved as yet to accompany it to the temple of Ammon, but to keep the body in the city [Alexandria] which Alexander himself had built, the most famous almost of any city in the world.  To this end [Ptolemy] built a temple in honour of Alexander, in greatness and stateliness of structure becoming the glory and majesty of that king; and in this repository he laid the body, and honoured the exequies of the dead with sacrifices and magnificent shows, agreeable to the dignity of a demigod.  Upon which account [Ptolemy] was deservedly honoured, not only by men, but by the gods themselves: for by his bounty and generosity he so gained upon men, that they flocked from all parts to Alexandria, and cheerfully enlisted themselves into his service, notwithstanding the king’s army was then preparing for war against him: and though he was in imminent danger, yet all readily ventured their lives to preserve him.  And the gods themselves, for his virtue, and kind obliging temper towards all, rescued him out of all his hazards and difficulties, which seemed insuperable.'

                                                                            — Ancient Greek Geographer Diodorus Siculus

The Guy Who Gave His Name To The Greek Pharaonic Dynasty In Egypt

Bust of Ptolemy I in the Louvre Museum
The most successful of Alexander the Great’s successor-generals, Ptolemy I Soter (“Father,” also more than that: "Savior," as in "Father of His Country.") succeeded because he was shrewd, calculating, and able to control the political narrative in an age when spin-doctoring was first coming into its own.  We’re talking, of course, about the Hellenistic Age, that period in the historical narrative of the ancient Mediterranean that began with the death of Alexander the Great in Babylon (323 BC) and ended with the suicide of the last Hellenistic ruler, Queen Cleopatra VII of Egypt in 30 BC.  

During the intervening three hundred years a whole lot of ambitious and unscrupulous people (all of them related by blood in one way or another, frequently several times over) did a whole lot of awful things to each other, and all in the name of furthering their own political aims.  The seemingly inevitable wars that followed Alexander’s death are known collectively as the Wars of the Diadochoi (“Successors”).  In dizzying succession this ruthless pack of scoundrels began to pick each other off, the survivors of each round of violence circling each other looking for an advantage, making alliances and breaking alliances as it suited them.

This sort of bad behavior became so widespread that the phrase “Hellenistic monarch” tends to be near interchangeable with the word “bastard” for scholars who study the period.

General, Courtier, Governor, Cadaver Thief?

But for all that, Ptolemy, childhood companion and advisor to the young Alexander, seems different: when offered a command as a royal governor in the aftermath of Alexander’s death, Ptolemy chose Egypt: rich, fertile, both a breadbasket and a gold mine, easily defended because the deserts that surrounded it made travel across them by large military forces nearly impossible.  And from there he ventured out to steal Alexander’s body (as laid out in the lengthy quotation of Diodorus Siculus excerpted above) from the caravan taking it home to Macedonia.  This was a real political coup: control of Alexander’s body, to which he publicly paid every possible honor, gave Ptolemy the opportunity to set himself up as Alexander’s most legitimate successor.  And this is what he did, for the most part settling back and allowing the successors to pick each other off for the next four decades.

The Victor Who Wrote The History

Ptolemy’s greatest accomplishments weren’t founding a dynasty that lasted for three centuries in Egypt, though.  They were two-fold: first, he wrote a history of his famous king, which was used by countless historians during the next millennium (thereby allowing Ptolemy to by and large set the narrative of not just Alexander’s life story, but his own).  Second, he did what no other Diadochus (including the incredibly successful Seleucus) managed to do: he died in bed, of old age.

Truly a coup for a bastard in an age reknowned for its bastardry!

Bastard Son, Bastard Brother?

Ptolemy is listed all over the historical narrative of the period as “Ptolemy, Son of Lagus.”  No further mention is made of Lagus anywhere except his brief mention as Ptolemy’s father.  His mother was a distant relative of the Macedonian royal house and the rumored one-time mistress of Philip, father of Alexander the Great.  It is possible (perhaps even likely) that Ptolemy’s actual father was Philip himself, making Ptolemy Alexander’s bastard half-brother.  This would help explain why a boy eleven years older than the young prince was listed as one of his “childhood companions,” even going into exile with Alexander when the prince fled to Epirus shortly before the murder of his (their?) father.

A silver tetradrachm coin depicting Philip II, father of Alexander, and perhaps, of Ptolemy as well?

Ptolemy Keraunos: the Guy Who Made Oedipus Look Like a Boy Scout

“(T)hat violent, dangerous, and intensely ambitious man, Ptolemy Keraunos, the aptly named Thunderbolt.”

— Modern Historian of Ancient History, Peter Green

In an age where the phrase “Hellenistic monarch” and “bastard” were interchangeable, one of the most notorious bastards on the scene was a prince who rebelled against his father, married his sister, murdered her children, and stole her kingdom.  And all this after stabbing a 77 year-old ally to death in a fit of rage.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Ptolemy Keraunos (“Thunderbolt.”)

Bastard Out of Time

The Thunderbolt’s father and namesake Ptolemy I carried the honorific "Soter" (Again, Greek for "Savior.") for a reason.  In his own way the elder Ptolemy was as much as bastard as his hot-tempered son.  But where the father was wily, the son was aggressive.  Where the father plotted, the son preferred movement.  Putting it kindly, the Thunderbolt was the prototypical “man of action” born into an age where intrigue ruled.  He was literally a man out of step with his own time.

In his eightieth year, with the question of succession pressing upon him, Ptolemy I gave up on his impulsive, hot-headed offspring.  Instead he chose a more sober half-brother (also confusingly bearing the name of “Ptolemy”) as his co-ruler and eventual successor.

Furious, Ptolemy Keraunos fled to Thrace, and the court of one of his father’s rivals, Lysimachus.  Ptolemy hoped to have Lysimachus’ backing in a war with his father for the throne of Egypt.  Lysimachus put him off with vague promises, but did allow the younger man to stay at his court (possibly so he could keep an eye on him).

Bastard Marriages

Since the time of the pharaohs dynastic marriage has been a political tool used by rulers to cement alliances and found dynasties.  At no time was this practice more in fashion than during the Hellenistic period, when Alexander’s generals married the much younger daughters of their rivals, and married off their own children to yet others of their rivals’ offspring.  Such was the case at Lysimachus’ court: the old man himself was married to one of Ptolemy Keraunos’ sisters, a woman named Arsinoë, and another sister, Lysandra, was married to Lysimachus’ son and heir from a previous marriage, Agathocles.  Confused yet?  Keep reading!

If the Thunderbolt expected things to be different for him in Thrace, he was mistaken.  His sisters were busy plotting against each other.  Arsinoë eventually succeeded in convincing Lysimachus that Agathocles was plotting to overthrow him.  The king responded by having Agathocles executed.  Lysandra and Ptolemy Keraunos fled, traveling to Babylon, to the court of Seleucus, by now the only other one of Alexander’s generals still left standing.  Largely for his own reasons Seleucus assured the two that he would support their bid to take the throne of his old rival Lysimachus.

Betrayal

Seleucus’ forces triumphed in the resulting war.  Ptolemy, who had fought on Seleucus’ side, demanded Lysimachus’ kingdom as Seleucus had agreed.  And just as Lysimachus had, Seleucus stalled, all the while planning his triumphal march into Lysimachus’ capital of Cassandrea.

It was a fatal mistake on his part.

Enraged at having again been denied a throne he considered his by right, the younger Ptolemy stabbed Selecus to death in his tent.  The act earned Ptolemy the nick-name “Thunderbolt.”

Ptolemy then slipped out of Seleucus’ camp and over to Lysimachus’ army.  Upon hearing that Ptolemy had killed the hated Seleucus, the soldiers promptly declared him Lysimachus’ successor and the new king of Macedonia.  The only problem was that Arsinoë still held Cassandrea.  So Ptolemy struck a deal with her.

A Devil's Bargain

Arsinoë agreed to marry her half-brother, help strengthen his claim to the Macedonian throne and share power as his queen.  In return for this Ptolemy agreed to adopt Arsinoë’s eldest son (also named, not surprisingly, “Ptolemy”) as his heir.  

Coin minted by this Ptolemy during his short reign in Macedon: the likeness is of his sister/wife Arsinoë

You can guess what happened next.

The Betrayer Betrayed, and a Further Betrayal

While Ptolemy was off consolidating his new holdings in southern Greece, Arsinoë began plotting against him.  She intended to place her eldest son (the one named “Ptolemy”) on the throne and rule in his name.

Once again furious (it seems to have been his natural state), Ptolemy killed Arsinoë’s two younger sons.  Arsinoë headed home for Egypt and the court of her full brother, Ptolemy-II-King-of-Egypt-not-to-be-confused-with-any-of-the-other-Ptolemies-listed-herein.

But Ptolemy Keraunos did not live to enjoy his throne for very long.  In 280 BC a group of barbarian tribes began raiding Thrace.  The Thunderbolt was captured and killed while fighting them the next year.

Ptolemy VIII Eurgetes: Gluttonous, Murderous, Unspeakable Bastard (ca. 182 B.C.-116 B.C.)

“The Alexandrians owe me one thing; they have seen their king walk!”

                                                                                —Roman General & Politician Scipio Aemilianus

Ptolemy VIII being crowned: apparently stone is slimming!
That’s right, another Ptolemy.  But where the first of our Ptolemaic bastards was ruthless and shrewd, andthe second was brave, intemperate and violent, Ptolemy VIII Eurgetes was an insane, gluttonous monster who celebrated one of his marriages by having his new stepson (also, because of his family’s in-breeding, his nephew twice over, since he was marrying his own sister, who was already the widow of one of his brothers!) assassinated in the middle of the wedding feast, and later murdered his own son by this same sister in a brutal and sadistic fashion.

Turns out all of those generations of in-breeding tends to have crazy results.

What’s in a Bastard’s Name?

When he took the throne of Egypt in 145 B.C. the Ptolemy took the reign name “Eurgetes” (Greek for “Benefactor”).  In truth he was anything but.  Quickly tiring of his lying, his murderous rages, and his rampant gluttony, his subjects began to refer to him as “Physcon” (“Potbelly”) because he was so fat.  The quote that leads off this chapter references that physical characteristic as well as his laziness.  Beholden to the Roman Republic for its support, Ptolemy VIII was forced to actually walk through the city of Alexandria while playing tour guide to a visiting collection of Roman V.I.P.s, including Scipio Aemilianus.

Originally a younger son of Ptolemy VI, this Ptolemy bounced around from Egypt to Cyprus to Cyrenaica (Libya) until his older brother (also a “Ptolemy”) died in 145 B.C.  In short order he manipulated the common people into supporting him for king, in place of his nephew (a boy who was crowned shortly after his father’s death with the reign name of “Ptolemy VII,” with his mother, Cleopatra II- no, not that Cleopatra- as regent/co-ruler), and managed to work out a compromise with his sister-also-brother’s-widow wherein in he married her and the three of them became “co-rulers” of Egypt.

Murderous Bastard

Not only did Ptolemy then promptly have his nephew killed at the aforementioned wedding feast, he seduced and married as his “second wife” the boy’s sister, his niece, his wife’s daughter (confused yet?  It gets better), also named “Cleopatra” (No, still not that Cleopatra, the Ptolemies, like the Romans weren’t very original with names).  This after knocking up his sister/wife/widow of his dead predecessor herself, siring a son named Ptolemy (again) Memphitis.

When the people of Alexandria eventually rebelled and sent Ptolemy VIII, the younger Cleopatra and their children packing off to Cyprus, Cleopatra II (the sister/widow/first wife) set up their son as co-ruler and herself (once more) as regent.  Within a year Ptolemy VIII had the boy, his own son murdered.  Pretty awful, right?  Unspeakable?

No, that’s what came next.

Unspeakable Bastard

Once he’d had the child (no older than 12) killed, Ptolemy VIII had him dismembered and (no lie) sent to his mother as a birthday present!

As if this wasn’t enough, Ptolemy went on to re-take his throne and share power with his first wife until he died of natural causes after a long life in 116 B.C.

*    *    *

And there you have it: saved the best (okay, the WORST) for last! See you in two weeks!


12 May 2021

Maisie & Jackie


I came to Jacqueline Winspear late, and started reading her books back to front.  I reported here last January about her enormously engaging and quietly unsettling memoir, This Time Next Year We’ll Be Laughing, and the first of her fiction I read was The Care and Management of Lies, a WWI standalone.  Lies is a novel of manners, in its breadth of purpose and minute attention to detail, but it’s a suspense story as well, where character collides with necessity.

 

My rule of thumb has come to be, that if I stumble across a writer new to me, I try to go back and start reading them from the beginning.  In this case, Jackie Winspear has a series; book sixteen of the Maisie Dobbs mysteries, The Consequences of Fear, came out this past March.  Girding my loins, I began with the first, Maisie Dobbs. 


 

Spring, 1929.  This is intentionally misleading, because there’s a long flashback, mid-book, to Maisie’s early time in service as an upstairs maid, and then to the war, a dozen years before, when she was triage nurse.  We’re often told that flashbacks are a narrative kill switch, but it’s a device that works for Maisie.  For one thing, the tension between past and present is exactly what gives the story its punch, and both the hook and its resolution depend on looking the unburied past square in the eye.  It’s a story about consequences, even if they aren’t the consequences of our own choices. 

 

Two things of note, both related to period.  The books take place between the wars, and as the shadow of the first war falls across the stories, the coming of the second war is a grim foreboding.  But there’s no feeling of artifice, or metafiction.  Winspear isn’t trying to recreate or reshape the Golden Age – one thinks in particular of Dorothy Sayers, and The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club, very much grounded in the memory of the trenches – and you don’t feel she’s writing pastiche.  Winspear’s treatment of the time is far from nostalgic; it’s quite immediate.  The other thing is that barriers of class and gender are only dealt glancing blows.  They’re present, but they’re part of the fabric.  They don’t call attention to themselves.



It isn’t always the case that knowing something about a writer tells you anything about the writing, or gives us any special insight into the process, or the method, or even a worldview, but having read This Time Next Year, I do in fact think it sheds light on Maisie’s world, and how Jacqueline Winspear inhabits it.  There are influences and intersections, overlaps and dissolves.

 

“Maisie drove down to Kent in early September, when the spicy fragrance of the hops still hung in the warm air of an Indian summer.”  This is, unapologetically, transcribed from Jackie’s own girlhood.  She says, also, that knowing her grandfather’s fragility (from shellshock), but without understanding why, is part of what brought her to the primary matter of the novels, the injury that violence does to our sense of belonging.  It murders trust.

 


I don’t think the Maisie books are dark, but neither are they slight.  Winspear manages a sure balance between the night sweats and the sunny uplands, and gives us the confidence that simple decency is a lasting virtue.  It’s a comforting thought. 

 

11 May 2021

Creating a Believable Character Requires Knowing Their Heart


Writing what you know is advice beginners often get. You want to write something that seems real to the reader, so you need to really know it to write it correctly. Beginners sometimes think the advice means they can only write about something they've experienced personally. Only somewhere they've been. Only a job they've done. There's a funny old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon in which Calvin says he's writing a novel about a guy clicking through TV channels with his remote control; he's writing about what he knows. With time, however, writers usually realize that they can know anything well enough to write about it if they do enough research.

Or can they? Is the answer different when you're talking about voice?

I found myself wondering about this before I wrote my newest story "James." My main character, Nick, is a rock star, and that's something I definitely am not. Sure, I could do research about rock stars, what their lives are like, about touring and writing music and all of that. But could I understand the persona well enough to bring my character to life in an authentic way? The way he'd think. The words he'd use. When I write, I basically become that person in my head. Could I become a big bad rock star? (Those of you who know me in real life, stop snickering!) 

It worried me at first, but eventually I realized that I did know something about who Nick is, something important. Deep down, he's a person with a heart. And I know how to write that.

The big bad rock star
who inspired the story
Sure, there are people--and characters--who have no heart, no soul. But most people do. They care about specific people and specific things. Once you know what a character cares about, you can tap into it, and that enables you to make that character real.

What does Nick care about? His family and his friends. He cares about letting down his grandmother and wanting to make things right. He might be a big bad rock star, but he still has feelings. And these specific ones, I'd think all readers can relate to them. By tapping into them as I wrote the story, it made Nick relatable too.

That was a point I tried to make with the first line: "Even big bad rock stars can feel nostalgic." It's Nick's nostalgia that kicks off the chain of events in the story. It's his heart that drives the plot from there.  

That all said, while knowing a character's heart helps you understand him or her deep down--what pushes his buttons, how she'd react to pressure, for instance--to really bring the character to life, to really get the voice right, you also have to get the words right. And getting Nick's words right, in his thoughts and in his dialogue, wasn't easy. Nick might have been acting believably based on who he is deep down, but in the first draft, he didn't sound right. He didn't sound like a rock star.

He sounded too much like me. 

If you listen to me talk long enough, you'll hear me use whom when it's the correct word to use. A friend told me a year or two ago that no one uses that word, and I replied, "I do." The grammar is ingrained in me. That's not to say I speak properly all the time. But sometimes, perhaps often, I do, and it seeps into my writing.

My friend Tim reads a lot of my work before it goes out in the world. As he said to me after reading an early draft of "James," Nick sounded too grammatically precise. And he didn't use enough idioms. When I revised, I worked on that. I also worked into Nick's vocabulary some words that I would never use, words I find too off-putting, but they're words a man, especially a rock star, might use. So Nick uses them.

Making the right word choices also took due diligence in my next short story coming out, "A Tale of Two Sisters." In that story, my main character, Robin, is a twenty-four-year-old lesbian. I could relate to who she is deep down, and her personality is more like mine than Nick's is. But to ensure my word choices for her (and other characters) were right and that I didn't have the characters do or say anything that seemed off, I not only did research while writing the story, but I also used a subject-matter expert--a sensitivity reader--after I finished it.

Getting a character's voice right isn't always easy, but when you put in the work, you can make that character come alive off the page. That's what I tried to do with Nick in "James" and with Robin in "A Tale of Two Sisters." I hope you'll read these stories and let me know if I succeeded. 

"James" appears in Only the Good Die Young: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of Billy Joel. The anthology came out last month from Untreed Reads Publishing. You can buy it in ebook and trade paperback wherever books are sold, but you can get the best deal at the publisher's website. Just click here

"A Tale of Two Sisters" will appear in Murder on the Beach, which will be published on May 28th in ebook form and in trade paperback sometime this summer. The ebook version is on sale for 99 cents until the publication date. To pre-order the anthology, click here. It will take you to a landing page with links to nine retailers that are selling the book, including the usual suspects.

***

Before I go, a little BSP: I'm so happy that my story "Dear Emily Etiquette" has been nominated for the Anthony Award for best short story published last year, along with stories by Alex Segura, Art Taylor, Gabriel Valjan, and James W. Ziskin. People attending Bouchercon in August will be eligible to vote for the winner. In advance, you can read all five of the nominated stories through the Bouchercon New Orleans website. Just click here. The title of each of the nominated stories is a link.

10 May 2021

Me and My Hoomans


Dictated by Ernie to Steve Liskow

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


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

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


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


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


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

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

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

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


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

09 May 2021

Drugs, rugs, and dogs


I’m now suspicious of my carpets.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Apparently so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did I mention we’re in lockdown?

08 May 2021

Devil at the Crossroads Has Got on Wet Socks


Babe the Blue Ox
© Minnesota Public Radio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

07 May 2021

Lost for 43 Years


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

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

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

Napoleon death mask

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

That's all for now.

www.oneildenoux.com

06 May 2021

It's the Same Damn Thing Over and Over Again


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

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

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

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

NOTE 2:  Interesting patterns of military cultures: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(10) Humans have always liked pets. 




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

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

Available at Amazon.

05 May 2021

Today in Mystery History: May 5


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

04 May 2021

Family Bond


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Until next time. 



03 May 2021

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

02 May 2021

Certifiable — Florida-Arizona News


         Arizona ‘fraudit’ Conspiracy Theories NEXT   Next

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

not a genuine ballot
possibly not a genuine Arizona ballot

Recounting the Recounted Recount

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

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

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

Who?

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

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

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

What?

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

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

Paragraph 1 with errors

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

Paragraph 3 with errors

Man versus Machine

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

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

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

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

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

Capitol Stormer? Daily Stormer? No Problem

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

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

Inspection at 365 nanometres

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

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

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

And yet…

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

01 May 2021

Stagecoaches and Starships


  

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

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

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

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

 

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

AHMM: one fantasy and one Western (upcoming)

EQMM: no cross-genre stories

Strand Magazine: no cross-genre stories

Black Cat Mystery Magazine: two Westerns

Mystery Weekly: one Western, one SF, one fantasy

Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine: no cross-genre stories

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


Four things I should note, here:

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

A writer's work is never done.


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

 

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