08 August 2021

Chasing Healthcare Workers Off Twitter: Who are these people?


Those of us advocating for vaccines and masks on Twitter during this pandemic have had some rather interesting replies.

Here is one:


As you can imagine, many of my colleagues are asking- who are these people?

Certainly not the kind people you would meet at a dinner party - for those of us old enough to remember these much loved pre-pandemic events.

CSIS, the Canadian organization responsible for protecting us against security threats, has given one answer about who some of these people might be and by whom they may be influenced.

CSIS has accused “Russia, China and Iran of spreading COVID-19 disinformation to promote their strategic ambitions…COVID-19 misinformation has flourished since the start of the pandemic, fuelling what has been called an “infodemic” of conspiracy theories and falsehoods amid efforts to contain the coronavirus.

“Declassified documents obtained by Global News under the Access to Information Act show that CSIS has been monitoring the national security implications of the phenomenon.

“Threat actors have used the pandemic as an opportunity to spread disinformation online,” CSIS spokesman John Townsend said, “It is important to note that disinformation, originating from anywhere in the world, can have serious consequences including threats to the safety and security of Canadians, erosion of trust in our democratic institutions, and confusion about government policies and notices including information on the COVID-19 pandemic.”

It makes sense that undermining democratic institutions during a deadly pandemic includes undermining any health department both provincially and federally and their attempts to administer vaccines and make mask mandates. To be clear, this is about diminishing our government and nothing diminishes a government like portraying them as responsible for worsening deaths, providing inadequate solutions and flat out lying to the public. 

It would be wise to assume some of the social media misinformation comes from these foreign actors. It would also be wise to assume that discrediting healthcare professionals is one of their aims.

Some accounts on Twitter are influenced by this misinformation - created by foreign actors or concocted by people from our own country who genuinely believe it.

On Twitter, I have watched colleagues deal with anti-vaccine and anti-mask accounts, most of them anonymous. Some appear benign at first. An anonymous account will start with simple questions or tweet things that are incorrect but relatively innocuous. When you respond, it starts a long back and forth and at the end they accuse you of vile things - like killing patients.  This experience is like following a little bunny and getting your foot caught in a trap. 


Personally, I like to answer them with sassiness and I also block these accounts quickly now. Blocking is an important weapon against misinformation - these accounts can’t appear on your tweets and don’t have access to your followers. If more people blocked them, we would diminish their reach substantially. There have been days where even my sassiness fails me and I’m not amused at all. These unpleasant experiences have exhausted and chased many healthcare professionals off Twitter. There is only so much abuse one can take.

There are accounts that are also dangerous in many ways. I worry about my colleagues because of them. Some people behind these accounts spend a great deal of time reporting doctors, nurses and other professionals to their licensing bodies and filling rating sites pretending to be disgruntled patients. Also, some colleagues have had threats against them and their families.

There is nothing that enhances the spread of misinformation like chasing healthcare professionals with accurate information off Twitter, by bothering them, damaging their professional reputations and forcing them to defend themselves to their colleges.

Perhaps we should return to why this is happening. It’s simply healthcare professionals asking people to get vaccinated and wear a mask. If these healthcare professionals get chased off Twitter, who remains to educate and help? During a pandemic the most precious commodity is scientific information - this is what keeps people safe. Distributing false information endangers people’s health and may even kill them.

Everyone tries to figure out, for themselves, how to keep advocating during this pandemic. Personally, my Twitter account - you guessed it - is largely about stories. Not just stories about the pandemic, but stories about many aspects of peoples' lives - I try to highlight the stories others tell and, occasionally, tell my own. 

For the pandemic advocacy that I do, I try to keep my sense of humour, lift up colleagues by highlighting their work, and use my block button. Who knows if any of us individually makes a difference, but I do know that chasing reasonable, science based voices off Twitter is a bad thing during a pandemic.

07 August 2021

What the Characters Do


  

Some writers have told me they don't give much thought to the plot of a story. They say they just come up with great characters and then give them something to do. Well, here's the thing: What they do is the plot.

Building Blocks

Putting together a story always starts with an idea. As mentioned before at this blog, these ideas can come from anywhere and can be anything from a beacon that lights up the entire story in your head, all at once, to a tiny spark that you use as kindling to build on. And most writers say those ideas, big or small, begin with either a character, a plot, a setting, or a theme.

My writing process always starts with a plot. The first thing I picture is what's happening, and once I have that firmly in my head I start thinking about characters, locations, etc. I don't do it that way because it's the best way--it might not be the best way. I do it because that's the way my mind works. As I said in the first paragraph, a lot of writers seem to start with interesting characters and only then come up with what the characters do. I start with something that has to be done, and only then plug in the characters that I need to make it happen. That's probably the reason I write genre stories instead of literary stories. Stephen King once said that literary fiction is about extraordinary people doing ordinary things, and genre fiction is about ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I relate better to ordinary people and I like imagining wild situations to put them in. 


Story vs. Plot

Years ago, I read a good discussion about the difference between story and plot--I think it was by Ronald Tobias, in his book 20 Master Plots. If I'm right about who said it, he said something to this effect: A story is a series of related events. His example: The king died and the queen died. (Not a great story, but it's still a story because it meets the requirements.) Then he said a plot is a sequence of related events that introduces an element of tension or anticipation or suspense. Example: The king died, and the queen died of grief. Or the king died and the queen spit on his grave. Or the king died and the queen rushed to Lancelot's quarters. (I'm not only paraphrasing, here, I'm inventing my own examples--but you get the drift.) 

Another example of a story: Susan drove to Walmart, bought a wheelbarrow, and drove home. A plot: Susan drove to Walmart, bought a wheelbarrow, drove home, and buried Jack's body in the back pasture. A plot needs to be something that grabs the reader's interest. 

And yes, I know: short stories don't have to have plots. A vignette, a slice-of-life, a character sketch--none of those have plots, but they still qualify as short stories. An often-used example of a plotless story is Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River." Beautiful description and interesting symbolism, but mostly it's an account of a sportsman going through the motions of camping, fishing, cooking what he's caught, etc., and nothing really happens. It's still a story, and a famous one at that, but I think the best stories do have strong plots. Even when I'm reading and not writing, I find myself focusing mainly on the plot. I understand that the characters have to be good and effective and interesting in order to have a quality story, yes, but what I often seem to remember most is the plot.

Closer to home . . .

What are these plots that pop into my own head? As examples, here are mini-synopses for some of my stories published so far this year. If you've read any of my recent creations, some of these might ring a bell. Or not.


A man fleeing from loan sharks gets help from a female alligator-hunter

Two friends attempt to steal from a small-town business that's secretly connected to the mob

A fortune-teller in a New Orleans voodoo shop discovers a customer planning a robbery

A woman's scheme to murder her husband takes a wrong (and explosive) turn

A pool hall in Alaska is the scene of a showdown between townspeople and a trio of killers

In a raging storm, an outlaw happens upon a family in the high plains of west Texas

A new employee at an accounting firm meets a mysterious stranger in the elevator

A farmer wakes up to dreams of terrifying creatures in his cornfield

A veteran con-man's efforts to trick a young lady have unexpected results

A Mississippi sheriff helps his ex-lawyer girlfriend reclaim a stolen inheritance

A legendary gunfighter sides with a prospector and his sister against evil claimjumpers

Two amateur thieves in southern Italy battle an unexpected enemy

The maid for a recently deceased elderly lady becomes the prime suspect in her murder

A hitman walks into a local honky-tonk and hits the wrong man

A small-town sheriff tries to find the prankster who poisoned the mayor's punch

An inmate being transported to a new prison escapes--and interrupts a robbery in progress

A man on the run from the mafia is trapped in the restroom of a neighborhood bar

Members of a movie club help catch a thief at a local soup kitchen

Mob bosses and hitmen show up in a small southern town

A visiting police chief assists D.C. cops in solving an art-theft case

the search for a killer leads a sheriff and his former schoolteacher to a roadside cafe

An anonymous riddler provides the only clue to the robbery of a local Homeowner's Association

A police chief and her sister track two scammers who've emptied a woman's bank accounts

A Bigfoot hoaxster winds up in the middle of a crooked and deadly real-estate scheme

A politician and a gambler in southern Texas find themselves in a desperate situation

A boy receives otherworldly messages in a suburban mailbox

Two strangers who met on a plane flight meet again under far different circumstances

The kidnapping of a prominent businesswoman goes wrong, in almost every way

A wealthy rancher and his mistress plan to bomb a train in the Arizona desert

A year after a nuclear attack, a peaceful settlement must fight an army of armed scavengers

A unknown assistant helps the law solve a case of boat theft

An Old West private eye faces his past when hired to find a cattleman's missing daughter


I'm not saying these are great or ideal plots, but they worked, in terms of getting sold--and if any of them happen to serve as a prompt or catalyst for your own plot ideas, so much the better. (What does their subject matter say about me and my mental health? Let's not go into that.)

Most of these plots are mysteries, and when I listed them in this post I was a little surprised by how many of the mystery/crime stories involve a theft, a kidnapping, etc., instead of a murder. Also, relatively few of the mysteries were whodunits--they were more howdunits or whydunits or howcatchems.


Questions

What's your storytelling process, with regard to first ideas? Do you usually start with a character? A plot? A scene or setting? A theme? Are your plots usually short? Long? Simple? Complex? Twisty? Lighthearted? Violent? What are some of your recent plots?

Whatever they are and however you create them, I think plots are all-important. To me, they're what makes stories fun to read . . . and fun to write.

Let me know what you think.



06 August 2021

The Birth of a Hard-Boiled Detective


My friend Terry Roberts has a new book out that’s set in 1920, but as I was reading it on the beach a few weeks ago I felt like I was reliving our national drama of the past few years. Toward the end of the novel, his detective delivers a line that has stuck with me since: “There’s something inside all of us that loves to hate.” Terry is the winner of numerous awards for Southern literary fiction, and I’m pleased to share his guest column with you today. Welcome, Terry! —Joseph D’Agnese



Is a true detective born … or made? Some of each, I imagine—both in life and in fiction. For me, one of the most fascinating transformations in all of crime writing is when a character realizes that he or she has a gift. And that the gift has to do with seeing behind the surface of things, reading the depths of people, finding the truth when it’s badly obscured. In other words, when a man or woman discovers they possess a hidden talent for detection.

As a reader, one of the most enjoyable transformations of this kind is the one that takes place in Walter Mosley’s 1990 novel, Devil in a Blue Dress, when Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins realizes that he can make a living—a good living—in the detective business. Which apparently, he can, because Blood Grove, published in 2021, is the 15th Easy Rawlins mystery, each as rich and thought-provoking as the first. I, for one, would follow Easy Rawlins almost anywhere, as long as Mouse is along for the ride. Even so, Easy wasn’t born a detective; Walter Mosley made him one.

On a much smaller scale, something similar happened to me when I began to imagine the book that became My Mistress’ Eyes Are Raven Black, a mystery set on Ellis Island in 1920. I knew that the book was about xenophobia, the disease that haunts our species, causing us to hate and fear the other. I knew that the story was a murder mystery in which the murderers were killing off those whom they would deny entry into the country as a way of protecting the Nordic purity of the American population. In fact, I knew a lot about the setting and plot of the story I wanted to tell, but I needed a detective.

As history and fiction would have it, the narrator of my first novel, A Short Time to Stay Here, was alive and well in 1920, living in Manhattan, where he’d sought out a woman, Anna Ulmann, with whom he was in love. This character’s name is Stephen Robbins, and quite unexpectedly, he stepped forward and offered his services in the detecting line. At least in my imagination, he did.

At first, I didn’t buy it.

Stephen’s origins were about as alien to New York as they could possibly be. He was born in an extremely isolated community in the Southern Appalachians. He ran away from home when he was ten years old and made his way in the world by working at a famous resort hotel in the tiny hamlet of Hot Springs, North Carolina. He was largely self-educated, quiet, watchful, considerate. Full of humorous cynicism and stubbornness. Loyal to a fault. Drank too much. Violent streak. All of this and, as his relationship with Anna showed, capable of real tenderness.

Fair enough, I told Stephen in my mind. Alcohol and gunplay, seeing without being seen. Sounded like the makings of a hard-boiled detective to me. But there was a problem; he had no real experience, no procedural expertise. He was a native of the Southern mountains, and his dialect was so thick that he could barely make himself understood when he first came to New York. As for Ellis Island, he was as much a foreigner as the immigrants themselves.


Terry Roberts

Despite all my initial reservations, the Stephen Robbins of my imagination convinced me that he had the makings of a sleuth. A shamus, a dick, an operative. And not only could he operate at home in the isolated coves of the Southern mountains, but he might be an equally good bad man in that fraught whirlpool of humanity … Ellis Island.

Under the pressure of the moment, Stephen Robbins evolved.

By the time we see him in the opening pages of My Mistress’ Eyes Are Raven Black, he and Anna have grown apart, his job as manager of the fabled Algonquin Hotel has grown stale, and he worries about his “slowly falling-apart life.” When offered an opportunity by the Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI) to go to Ellis Island to search for a missing Irish immigrant girl, he leaps at the opportunity.

I wrote earlier that Walter Mosley made Easy Rawlins a detective, or at least gave him the realization that he had talent. The same could be said of Stephen Robbins. Out of his personality and life experiences, I created the stubbornness, the toughness, the instincts of a truly gifted hunter. Early in the novel, he sees his beloved Anna in the passionate embrace of another man and the resulting trauma sends him spiraling into a series of self-examinations that parallel his increasing awareness of what is truly going on at Ellis Island. We are, he realizes, each of us mongrels, each of us immigrants.

Along the way, he forms a personal and professional partnership with Nurse Lucy Paul, a tough cookie in her own right, who is equally determined to put an end to the murders and disappearances on the island. Together, they make a pair straight out of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, Dorothy B. Hughes or … Walter Mosley. Their life and love are sometimes harsh, sometimes fearful, sometimes soaked in pre-prohibition Scotch. But while saving each other from despair, they also save the Ellis Island from the monsters who haunt it.

And so it was that out of Stephen Robbins, the hard-headed romantic from A Short Time To Stay Here, was born Stephen Robbins, the federal op who could find any lost thing or missing person. Late in the novel, after a formal inquiry into the deaths of two of the secret “congregation” who have been killing unwanted immigrants, Stephen’s contact in the Bureau of Investigation threatens to pull him out of the dangerous situation on Ellis Island. “You were never trained for this type of work,” he says.

“Maybe I’m just a goddamned natural,” Stephen replies.

In retrospect, maybe he was. Maybe I just needed to realize it.


(From Turner Publishing, $16.99 paperback.)



I hope you enjoyed this visit from a possibly new-to-you author. You can check out the book at Bookshop.org, visit Terry’s website, or read the Publishers Weekly or Washington Independent Review of Books reviews here. Terry recently did a post for Crime Reads on hard-boiled detectives, which you might also enjoy.

Unfortunately I won’t be at Bouchercon, but I will be back here in three weeks. See you then!
— Joe

05 August 2021

Five Tips on Getting Back into the Pensieve


 Two weeks ago I wrote about burnout, and the importance of being good to oneself as a way of combatting it. You can read that post here..

Today's post will be a short one. After all, I'm on a deadline. But it's in no way an unimportant subject, for all of its brevity.

As I mentioned in my previous turn at the blogging wheel a couple of weeks back, I've been using this Summer to clear up a whole slew of unfinished projects, and meet requests for submissions. Plus, in the past couple of years I have collected and edited two themed anthologies and expanded three previously sold and published historical mystery short stories into longer form (novella) pieces, and had them published last November.

It feels really good to get all of these projects wrapped and out there. But it does leave my most challenging partially finished project: a half-written, long-delayed historical novel that I have GOT to get to my agent THIS YEAR.

And it's been a while since I had my head deep enough into this novel that I feel comfortable moving around in it, let alone remodeling it any further. So that got me thinking:

How do you get your head "back into the narrative" after a fair amount of time away from it?

With apologies to Harry Potter fans, I call it "getting your head back into the pensieve."

So...this.

We've all been there. You get going on something, and 20k words in, you get pulled away by real life, by your day gig, by the fact the house needs painting, the dog needs walking, the fact that you're busy and you've always got stuff you need to get done. 

And you mean to get it done, but then there's that other thing and that other thing and that other thing, and so on and so forth...

And the next thing you know, it's been months, and you really need to get this piece wrapped. Don't want 20k solid words to go to waste!

What to do to get your head back into this particular pensieve?

Here's what I came up with.

Five Tips to Get You Back into the Pensieve:

1. Read what you've already written. Notice I didn't say "re-read." Make of this dilemma an opportunity to read your own work with fresh eyes. Also note I didn't say "read and takes notes." First time through, just read it. Let the impressions wash over you as they come one at a time.

2.Now Re-read it. And Take Notes. This will go slower than the first read, but it's absolutely essential if you want your finished product to make a lick of sense.

3. Consult your outline and amend it, using your notes. If you didn't outline it, outline it as you re-read it. There's no substitute for this.

4. As you're re-reading, also consider writing out dialogue between your characters, just stream of consciousness stuff. Character monologues (interior is fine) work well too. It doesn't matter whether any of what you write here gets into your final draft. The point is to get your head back into the story, and this is a powerful way to do it. Carry a notebook with you (if you don't already), and if you start hearing your characters' voices in your head while you're out and about, jot something down. And not to show your therapist. This is one time when "voices in my head" is a GOOD thing!

5. Lastly and most importantly: Be Open To Change! This might be an old story, one where you were going in a definite direction, with the ending all worked out. But you re-entering the narrative is the first step toward re-working it. You're not gonna write the story you would have written months ago. Maybe you'll do something close, but you're not that person anymore, and the novel you would have finished then is likely to have been very different from what you're writing now.

BE.

OKAY.

WITH.

THAT.

Take it from a guy who's cleared six long-term projects from his desk over the past few months. No matter how good the novel you might have written back then could have been, the reality is you didn't write it then. You're writing it now. Because you're finishing.

And that's the difference between "starting a novel," and "writing a novel."

Hope this helps! Let me know what you think in the comments, and if you have your own methods for getting your head back in the story, feel free to share those there as well!

See you in two weeks!

04 August 2021

Down the Memory Hole



  Today I am feeling great sympathy for Arthur Conan Doyle and Rex Stout.  You may feel that that is like a Little Leaguer saying he empathizes with the World Series winners, but hear me out.

Neither of those authors made a habit of rereading their old works before starting a new one.

As a result Doyle once had Dr. John Watson's wife refer to him as "James."  The good doctor also suffered from a "wandering wound" since his war injury was in his shoulder according to one tale, and in his leg in the other.

Rex Stout's great detective Nero Wolfe told the FBI he was born in the United States but in many other books claimed to be born in Montenegro.  And don't get me started on Wolfe's brilliant operative Saul Panzer, who managed to misplace his wife and kids between books...

That is why I am feeling sympathetic to them.  

I am currently editing the third story in a series, and preparing to write what I hope will be the fourth.  I wasn't sure of a few details so I reread the first story, and holy moly.  I had the last name of an important character wrong.  Another character was apparently so shocked by his adventures that he went bald between tales.  And a detail that my hero suddenly discovered in Story Three, oops, he had already learned in Story One. 

I suppose I should feel blessed if I can get enough stories published in a series and have enough readers to be caught out in inconsistencies.  Meanwhile, back to my notes...

03 August 2021

My American Project—How to Write Like an American


Anne van Doorn is a regular reader and back blogger here at SleuthSayers. He's also an author (with a charming way with words) and a friend of mine. I'm pleased to share his guest column with you today. Welcome, Anne. 

                                                                                                            -- Barb Goffman

My American Project—How to Write Like an American

Avid readers of SleuthSayers may have seen my name appear in the comments section here. I came across this blog through Google and instantly liked how professional writers shared their experiences. It's an honest, entertaining, and informative bloga tempting combination. Now I have also been invited to write an article too, which I consider a great honor.

My name is Anne van Doorn. It's one of my two pen names; the other is M.P.O. Books. I'm a professional writer from the Netherlands, where I earn a modest but sufficient income. In my spare time, I work on a book on 600 years of my family's history.

None other than Josh Pachter introduced me to an international readership. He translated from Dutch my story "The Poet Who Locked Himself In." It was published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine's Sept/Oct 2019 issue. I feel very grateful to Josh and the staff at EQMM for giving me this opportunity. Editor Janet Hutchings even gave me the chance to write a guest post for her blog Something is Going to Happen.

In case you're starting to think I'm writing this post to BSP myself—no, I'm here to enlist your assistance, dear SleuthSayers. 

I like a challenge. My introduction to an international audience made me wonder if I would be able to write an American detective novel. I'm sure I can—but to what level of performance? How convincing will it be? Your help is direly needed!

Dutch Writers Crossing Borders

Other writers from the Netherlands have tried this before—writing in English. Maarten Maartens (1858-1915), who lived the last years of his life in my hometown of Doorn, is said to be the first Dutchman to have written a detective novel for adults. It was titled The Black Box Murder (Remington & Co, London, 1889), and he wrote it in English. In fact, the novel has never been translated into Dutch. Maartens, who lived in England from 1864-1870, wrote almost exclusively in English. Regrettably, The Black Box Murder is his only detective novel. 

Other glowing examples are Robert van Gulik (1910-1967), who is famed for his wonderful Judge Dee stories, set in ancient China, and Janwillem van de Wetering (1931-2008), noted for his characters Grijpstra and De Gier, two Amsterdam police detectives. By the way, Josh Pachter translated two short stories by Janwillem van de Wetering for EQMM. One of them, "There Goes Ravelaar!," was nominated for the Edgar Award for Best Short Story of 1986 by Mystery Writers of America. 

It was also Josh Pachter who encouraged me to translate my short stories and gave me solid advice. Last year, I took on the challenge of translating "The Doctor Who Fell Into Sin" and submitted it to EQMM. I inked their contract in November. It was all the encouragement I needed. Apparently, my English is good enoughat least in short form.

The American Project

At the moment, my full-length so-called "American Project" is in the preliminary stages. I'm improving my understanding of the language and creating what I call my "palette."

I learned British English in school, so now I need to know how it differs from American English. I've made a list of idioms. I also study from the Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation. Furthermore, I've created an extensive list of words I don't use and write down their meanings and synonyms to discover their connotations. This should allow me to use them. I also list police jargon, slang, abbreviations, and terms of abuse. As a Christian, I don't like expletives, so I'm selective in this regard. 

And I'm making my palette. It's a document full of all kinds of expressions for motions and positions. Take for instance the way you move through a room. There are many variations for it. You can walk, run, stroll, tiptoe, lumber, and so on. Some of these words are new to me, so I need to write them down. While writing a novel, I can consult my palette document, choose the best option, adapt it to the situation, and use it. 

And by positions, I mean variations like these:

    "The statuette rested on a shelf."

    "The statuette was displayed on a shelf."

The same applies to non-verbal communicationthe way we express our emotions and thoughts. I'm talking about shrugs, frowns, blushes, looks, and so on. You probably know them all, but I have to write them down to choose the best option for a given situation. And, of course, I also need to know all the ways of speaking: saying, whispering, screaming, stammering, and all other variants. 

Eventually, my palette will be a helpful tool.

Learn by Reading Others

I read a lot of American English. Besides a daily visit to SleuthSayers, I read a short story every day. To cater to my needs, I subscribed to EQMM. Recently, I purchased Black Cat Mystery Magazine #8, Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine #13, and Shanks on Crime by Robert Lopresti in ebook format. Crime novels by Lou Manfredo (Rizzo's War), Anthony Boucher (The Case of the Baker Street Irregulars), and Steven Torres (Precinct Puerto Rico) are at the top of my TBR pile. I'm sure all these books will help me in one way or another.

Even then, I'm well aware that I will make mistakes. I'm not a flawless writer. But thank God there are copy editors who can save me from my follies! Dis article, for a sample, was copi-editit by Barb Goffmanaccept vor dis sentins. (Yeah, copy editing is hard labor!) I hope she's willing to help me on my American Project too, but I'm not sure she can, as this brave lady is learning to say no.

Now, my dear SleuthSayers, I turn to you. Over the years, this blog has published countless articles on the use of language, grammar, punctuation, and related topics. You've spotted my gravest mistakes in my comments on your posts. What particular article would you recommend to get me started?

02 August 2021

If Once Is Good...


Early in my teaching career, a student handed in a composition that blew my socks off. It was by far the best work she produced all year, and the next day, I read it to the rest of the class. The day after that, three different female classmates all showed up with the same essay...copied from Judith Viorst in Redbook. I gave the writer the choice of writing another paper and taking a low grade for its lateness, or taking an outright zero. She wrote another paper, nowhere near as brilliant.

Years later, when I was more in touch with the student grapevine, I taught two senior English classes of "Low-level" students. That's EdSpeak for "Seriously challenged." Most of those 18-year-olds read at about sixth-grade level. Occasionally, someone would hand in a paper with brilliant imagery or a sophisticated extended metaphor. By then, the Internet existed, so I would type a particularly vivid line into the search field and find a rap lyric or hip-hop song on the first hit. After several months of calling kids out, I found fewer and fewer offenses. The word got around that the old guy in Room 240 had phat street cred, yo. 

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but it can come back to bite you. Copiers abound, some of the cases blatant to the verge of slapstick, but some more subtle.

We all know about Melania Trump's stealing from Michelle Obama's speech to nominate her husband (Because Barrack Obama and Donald Trump have so much in common, I guess).


Bob Dylan--long accused of recycling any lyric or lick that wasn't nailed down--allegedly stole part of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech from the SparkNotes summary of Moby Dick. Joni Mitchell is only one of many who say Bob is the embodiment of the old dictum that if you steal from one person, it's plagiarism, but if you steal from everyone, it's research.

Dan Brown faced charges of stealing ideas from another novel for The Da Vinci Code, and J.K. Rowling encountered similar charges for elements in the Harry Potter series. J.R.R. Tolkien was accused of stealing elements of the Lord of the Rings from Wagner's Ring Cycle. This one strikes me as frivolous because, if you can't use the template for the Hero's Journey, most myths are off the table and Hollywood would be even more bereft of ideas than it seems already. So would novelists who use the same template. 

Emma Cline published The Girls in 2017, and her ex-boyfriend claimed she stole his emails for material. She denied it, but did admit to selling him a computer on which she had installed spyware, but only to find out if he was cheating on her. Really. 

In the spirit of full disclosure, I used Literary Hub and Powered by Orange for lots of the information I'm passing on here...

Bob Dylan isn't the only musician to recycle, of course. Many early rock and roll acts used riffs or lyrics from earlier songs and even from each other. Some lines appear in many blues songs, and some rock riffs are part of the vocabulary because everyone uses them. Chuck Berry modified figures from Robert Johnson, Elmore James and several other blues poineers, and they were picked up by the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, the Beatles, and almost anyone who has plugged in since then.

Some borrowing is too blatant, though. Led Zeppelin shares writing credit with Chester Burnett ("Howlin' Wolf") for "The Lemon Song," which Burnett recorded years earlier with similar lyrics as "Killin' Floor."


In one of the most astonishing verdicts ever, Led Zepp was acquitted of stealing the introduction of "Stairway to Heaven" from Spirit's earlier "Taurus." The two bands toured together, and the members of Spirit claimed that Jimmy Page copied Randy California's guitar part note-for-note. In Page's defense, I've heard that he couldn't read music, which meant he had to have a fantastic memory. He might have remembered the notes and not realized he was copying.

No, I don't buy it either. Listen to Spirit's song on YouTube, beginning about 45 seconds in, and decide for yourself. Zepp also now shares writing credit with Memphis Minnie for "When the Levee Breaks." "Dazed and Confused" appears on Led Zeppelin II, but first surfaced on a late Yardbirds album as a reworking of a song written and performed by Jake Holmes.

The Rolling Stones usually gave credit to the people whose songs they covered: Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, et al. The Let It Bleed LP correctly credits Robert Johson with writing "Love In Vain," but a two-volume collection of Rolling Stones songs published in 1980 gives the byline to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

Oops. "Gaucho" bears the byline Donald Fagen, Walter Becker and Keith Jarrett because the first two used a Jarrett piano line for their Steely Dan recording. 

My favorite music story concerns George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord." He paid $400,000 for "unintentionally" copying the three-note figure from "He's So Fine" by the Chiffons. I don't think three notes is enough to call it copying, but maybe that's just me. I don't hear the copying, either. In any case, years later, Harrison purchased the publishing company that held the rights to "He's So Fine." Not long after that, the Chiffons recored a cover version of "My Sweet Lord."

What goes around, comes around...

01 August 2021

Sports Build Character


women's soccer

Why yes, I watch women’s soccer. No, I don’t watch men’s. Why do you ask?

I started watching women’s soccer (‘futbol’ in other parts of the world) three or four years ago. Women’s bodies in motion… What’s not to like? it’s wonderful. Except for Sweden in the Olympics opening game.

Lord Jesus

If you’ve seen international men’s soccer, you’ve met the drama queens, that star player from Italy or India or Indonesia who collapses on the field (the pitch), gasping, groaning, giving a grand performance as he prays to Saint Sebastian he may walk again. Once the referee flashes a yellow or red card, suddenly he hops to his feet, all fit and well once again. Lord Jesus, it’s a miracle.

When one of the women is knocked down, she gets up, perhaps given a hand by an opponent, and keeps  on playing. Not to say it couldn’t happen, but I’ve never yet seen a drama play.

US-UK soccer

Meanwhile on ESPN…

Yes, I know the rumors (definitely exaggerated) that the majority audience ‘plays for the other team’, but it doesn’t matter. When buying season tickets for the Orlando Magic, my friend Thrush also bought season tickets for the Orlando Miracles, the women’s counterpart of the Magic. At some WNBA games, we were about the only guys present, but no one cared. We weren’t looking for dates.

Ted Lasso
Ted Lasso

Now, Back to the Game

I have a reason for bringing up soccer. Apple TV offers an original comedy series that improbably grew out of adverts for NBC Sports.

Check out Ted Lasso. Two Americans are hired to coach a British football club, a sport they know nothing about. We’ve seen the fish-out-of-water premise before– mix-ups, screw-ups, bust-ups, dust-ups, and usually happy fix-ups. This show delivers more than you expect.

Ted Lasso is not about the sport, but about the people. It’s funny– Melodie Campbell funny– but the best aspect is the characterization. Several cast members carve out three-dimensional spaces for themselves. It keeps heart, a big heart. And characterization… Did I mention characterization?

It doesn’t matter if you’re not a soccer/football fan or don't like sports at all. Athletics doesn’t matter because the action occurs in the boss’s office, in the locker room, in the showers, in restaurants, and especially the local pub. A few moments happen in bed. The first season took ten episodes before we saw a play on the pitch (field). That was simply a build-up for an easy-to-miss key moment between egotistical player Jamie Tartt and…

You had to be there. It’s about characterization. We can learn from it.

Apple TV. Season 2 commences now.

Coaches Beard and Lasso
Coach Beard — Coach Lasso

31 July 2021

Stories, Slightly Used


  

While trying to come up with a topic for today, I re-read Michael Bracken's post earlier this month about reprints, and was reminded what a big part those recycled stories have played in both his and my short-fiction marketing in recent years. So (this isn't the first time I've looked to Michael for writing ideas) I thought I'd post a few memories of my own experiences with regard to previously published stories. NOTE: I think "previously published stories" is to "reprints" what "pre-owned vehicles" is to "used cars." It's probably just supposed to sound better. (I still prefer to say "reprints.")

I didn't realize, when I first started writing for publication in 1994, that you could resell stories that had already been published. But the more I wrote and published and the more how-to-write books I read, I came to discover what an important thing reselling stories was, to the writers of short fiction--and that it's one of the big advantages short stories have over novels. I actually did a SleuthSayers post on the whys and wherefores of reprints last year, but it was more instructional than anything else, and I didn't use any examples. So, today, I'll point out some real experiences.


The Same Old Story

The first short story I re-sold was called "A Thousand Words"--and its length was, coincidentally, about 1000 words. It was a mystery story about a bank robbery, one I'd first published in a literary magazine called Pleiades in January 1995. The reprint appeared in the March/April 1996 issue of Dogwood Tales Magazine, a truly interesting and kind-to-their-writers publication. Like so many, DTM put all four feet in the air after a few years, but I wound up selling them three more stories before that happened. I can't remember how much I was paid for the reprinted story, but I'm sure it was less than I'd earned from the original at Pleiades. Still, reselling it got an older and idle story out of its hammock and out into the world again, and I recall receiving some positive feedback about it from readers. (Not that it matters, but I later sold "A Thousand Words" six more times, here and there.)

More reprints followed, because many of those first stories I sold were now past the "rights-revert-to-the-authors" date and also because I learned to start actively seeking out reprint markets. Over the next several years I sold dozens of them, to both anthologies and magazines. I'm not certain how many stories went to each, but I would suspect a larger percentage ended up in anthologies--especially in recent years. Generally speaking, anthologies seem more likely than magazines to consider previously published work. Then again, some anthos demand only original stories, so always read the guidelines before submitting.

By the way, I am no minor thief: I'm stealing not only Michael's idea but also a couple of his bullet items, as follows:


Most Often-Reprinted Story

The short story I've sold the most times is a 1200-word humorous Western called "Saving Mrs. Hapwell." I'm not sure why it's the one that landed in the most places, but I suspect it might be because it's (1) very short, (2) it's funny, and (3) it's almost all dialogue--three things that can sometimes add to a story's marketability. That story has been published in:

Dogwood Tales Magazine, March/April 1997 issue

Mystery Time, Spring/Summer 2000

Desert Voices, December 2004

Taj Mahal Review, December 2005

Crime & Suspense E-zine, February 2006

Rainbow's End and Other Stories (collection), October 2006

Crime & Suspense I anthology April 2007 

Kings River Life, May 2020

and will appear a ninth time in the Crimeucopia anthology As in Funny Ha-Ha in August 2021.


Most Prestigious Reprints

The reprints I suppose I'm most proud of weren't sales at all; they were out-of-the-blue selections for annual anthologies:

"Molly's Plan" from Strand Magazine, reprinted in Best American Mystery Stories 2015

"Gun Work," from the Coast to Coast: Private Eyes anthology, in BAMS 2018

"Rhonda and Clyde" from Black Cat Mystery Magazine, in BAMS 2020

"Biloxi Bound" from Strand Magazine, upcoming in Best Mystery Stories of the Year 2021


Another Target for "Used Stories"

The three primary markets for short-story reprints are the same as the three primary markets for short stories: magazines, anthologies, and collections of your own work. I've now had seven collections published of my mystery stories--the first seven were by Dogwood Press, a small, traditional publisher that has no connection to the old Dogwood Tales Magazine. Those books of my own stories are:

Rainbow's End -- 30 stories, all of which were reprints

Midnight -- 30 stories, all reprints

Clockwork -- 40 stories, all reprints

Deception -- 30 stories, 93% reprints, 7% original stories

Fifty Mysteries -- 50 stories, 46% reprints, 54% new stories

Dreamland -- 30 stories, 93% reprints

The Barrens -- 30 stories, 93% reprints

An eighth collection is upcoming, from VKN Publishing in Moscow. They're creating a bilingual book containing five of the ten stories I've published in the print edition of The Saturday Evening Post, with those stories featured in English side-by-side with their Russian translations. As stated, all five of those stories will be reprints. 


Bottom Line

As Michael said in his column, the main thing to keep in mind regarding future reprints is: retain the rights to your stories whenever possible. If you've granted "all rights" to whoever publishes a story, that story is no longer yours and cannot be resold. The other thing to remember is to then be on the constant lookout for markets where you might take published stories that are gathering dust and put them to work again. 

Question to my fellow writers: What are some of your experiences, both positive and negative, regarding the marketing of your previously pubbed stories? I would suspect your adventures would be more interesting than mine.


Now . . . I wonder how long I'll need to wait before I reprint this column . . .



30 July 2021

Pulphouse: A FIction Magazine


Pulphouse: A Fiction Magazine published my first private eye short story, "Women Are Like Streetcars" in July 1992. The story has been reprinted five times (in the U.S., Denmark, and France/UK), and is included in the newly released volume. Stories from the Original Pulphouse: A Fiction Magazine (July 2021).

With this volume, editor Dean Wesley Smith has selected some of his favorite twisted stories from the first incarnation of Pulphouse's fiction magazine, stories he describes as "Sort of half-beat off kilter, yet still high-quality fiction and great stories." So happy to see my story including with cool stories by Jerry Oltion, Kent Patterson, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Ray Vukcevich, and J. Steven York.

The story of Pulphouse Publishing is too big to be condensed in this blog but Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch and the others at the publishing house created a specialty house of limited, signed editions and moved into paperbacks. 

Worked there in 1992 as an assistant editor, which is where I met my wife Debra Gray De Noux who was art director and associate publisher at Pulphouse. I learned so much about writing and editing and publishing in my time there.

The small, specialty Pulphouse Publishing was founded in 1988 by Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch and was active until 1996, publishing 244 different titles. Beginning with Pulphouse: The Hardback Magazine, it also published ground-breaking print runs of Author's Choice Monthly Collections, Axolotyl Press novels, Short Story Paperbacks, and Mystery Scene Press. Books came out in limited edition leather bound and hardback, each numbered and autographed by the author, as well as trade paperbacks.

Partial list of famous authors published by Pulphouse Publishing includes
List of authors published by Pulphouse includes well known mystery writers

Kevin J. Anderson
Michael Bishop
Alan Brennert
Ed Bryant
Mark Budz
Adam-Troy Castro
Charles de Lint
O'Neil De Noux
George Alec Effinger
Harlan Ellison
Marina Fitch
Ester Friesner
Ron Goulart
David H. Hendrickson
Nina Kiriki Hoffman
Damon Knight
Joe Lansdale
George R.R. Martin
Judith Moffet
Andre Norton
Jerry Oltion
Mike Resnick
Spider & Jeanne Robinson
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Robert Sheckley
Robert Silverberg
Dean Wesley Smith
Michael Swanwick
Jeff VanderMeer
Karl Edward Wagner
Lawrence Watt-Evans
Kate Wilhelm
Jack Williamson
F. Paul Wilson
Roger Zelazny


Max Allen Collins

Bill Crider

O'Neil De Noux

Lauren Estleman

Brian Garfield

Joe Gores

Ed Gorman

Edward D. Hoch

Stuart M. Kaminsky

John Lutz

Margaret Maron

Marcia Muller

Bill Pronzini

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

Teri White

The new incarnation of Pulphouse Fiction Magazine continues through WMG Publishing, Inc. Issue 13 was just released. Available as magazines and eBooks. Can't talk up Pulphouse/WMG Publishing enough.

Their covers are the coolest.


That's all for now.

www.oneildenoux.com

29 July 2021

Pro Tips


Luck has a lot more to do with success in life than most people want to admit.  Which is exactly why most trust fund babies are "born on third base and think s/he hit a triple."

But even luck has its limits:  If you never write anything, you'll never get published, because last I heard the "Secret Arts Patrons Society" (a/k/a SAPS) have quit going around door to door paying random strangers for ideas.

See above if you never submit anything.  

Sometimes it takes all day to write one decent sentence.  That's all right.  There's always tomorrow, when you can rewrite it and make it better.  Or make it worse.  You never know.  

BTW, read all the really good literature you can get your hands on, but also keep some really bad books* around, so that when you're really depressed, you can remind yourself how bad writing can get and still get published.  You may not be Stephen King or John LeCarre, but you can do better than this.  Hope!

*No, I'm not providing a list - I don't need that kind of hate mail. 

BTW, when you do hit the writing zone, and the words flow out like water, it helps to keep the following items handy:

  • Something to eat
  • Something to drink
  • A squirt gun full of water so that if anyone tries to interrupt, you have something with which to drive them away.  Sort of works on cats, too.

If someone is keeping two sets of books, they're doing something illegal.  They're also probably keeping that 2nd set as insurance against their boss.   

Speaking of insurance, the more ads you see for an insurance company, the less likely you'll ever get a claim paid, because those ads are all paid for with your premium checks.

This probably also works with all those pharmaceutical, bank, and investment firm ads.  

If everyone is "deep state", there is no deep state, and the person telling you that is probably themselves bat-s*** crazy, with a side of fries.

This works with anything else where it's said, "Everyone is… i.e., "Everyone is crooked" means, "I'm a corkscrew."

If someone offers you a bribe, they're doing something illegal.  They're also making a comment on your morals and your intelligence that I personally believe deserves defenestration.  

Any scheme that soaks the ultra-wealthy in the name of riding out the apocalypse / doomsday in style is fine with me, but it takes great panache to continue the grift for 14 years and still not have built anything but an extra-large barn with a lot of guns.  (Hell, I knew a guy who had a bunker with land mines in his property and all from his own funds. And he was picky about who he'd allow in when The Day came.)  Meanwhile, Barrett Moore is still raising money for his Haven.  (See Here)  Of course, Jim Bakker is still selling survival gear (HERE).  I have been assured by those who have watched his ads that Bakker tells his customers that they can take the 60 meal bucket (600 calories per meal, which is a hell of a lot less than McDonalds - you're gonna get svelte!) and when it's empty, turn it into a personal toilet. Pro tip:  There is a lot of money to be made from the Doomsday business.  

Although I still want to know how many true Doomsday preppers would be satisfied with a 600 calorie meal?  That's one Big Mac, no fries.  

It's never a good idea to hold an exorcism in a public place, but Home Depot?  

"Police in Lackawanna County announced they broke up a reported 'exorcism' that happened inside a Home Depot, in Dickson City Tuesday." The group was performing an exorcism for the dead trees in the aisle, i.e., the lumber. I want names, church affiliation, and how many beers went into this decision. (News

It's never a good idea to spread a pandemic among your own constituents, but as we all know, the GOP and various media outlets have been ignoring that pro tip for quite a while.  Recently, however, Fox News "It's all a hoax!" pundit Sean Hannity, Senator Tommy Tuberville, Newsmax CEO Christopher Ruddy and others have been begging people to get the vaccine.  My personal theory is that (1) lawsuits are coming and (2) they've begun to realize that, in the immortal words of Barry Hughart, "Corpses cannot pay taxes!" (Bridge of Birds) Nor can they be signed up for monthly or even weekly payments to the politicians or PACs or media outlets. Well, you can sign them up, but they won't pay.  Keep your customers alive.

Speaking of keeping customers alive, the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally is August 5-14, with of course a few days on either side of that to get "ahead of the crowds".  Projected attendance this year is over 700,000.  Meanwhile, South Dakota Covid cases are rising fast:  the Delta Variant, of course.  Since for some reason I doubt that all 700,000 rallygoers will be fully vaccinated, masked, and socially distanced, the pro tip is either get a lot of health insurance or STF home.

Finally, if you happen to be driving late at night and looking at your cell phone and hit a man and kill him and the sheriff doesn't give you an alcohol test and instead loans you his personal car to drive yourself home and the alcohol test is given the next day and no charges are filed for months and when they are they're three misdemeanors and you can pay $1,500.00 and make it all go away and you have the money because you're the State Attorney General, the pro tip is DO IT.  And quit blaming the victim.

BSP:  "The Sweet Life" is in the current issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine.


And because you know that you've always wanted to read a mystery where Mrs. Elton of Emma is the detective, determined to catch the killer, especially if it's Harriet Smith, my "Truth and Turpitude:  Murder at Abbey-Mill Farm" is in the current issue of Crimeucopia: The Cosy Nostra, now available at Amazon.com.

28 July 2021

Vikings


One of my embarrassing favorites is The Vikings, a Kirk Douglas picture from 1958, directed by Richard Fleischer. Fleischer had done 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea a couple of years before, with Douglas and James Mason, for Disney. 20,000 Leagues still gives me nightmares, that giant squid. The Vikings sticks to my ribs for different reasons.

Clearly, a lot of it is bogus. The wife accused of adultery, with her pigtails pinned to the wood stocks, and her husband throwing the axe. The guy loses his nerve, and Kirk steps in. (We know, and so does everybody else, that Kirk himself has been schtupping her.) But he saves her bacon. Then there’s the stuff that you figure was probably made up, but rings true. Kirk, again, dancing on the oars as the long boats make their way up the fjord. The story Dick Fleischer tells is that the stunt guys started walking the oars, and Douglas said he could do it, too. Fleischer is, Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, if you break your balls, the picture shuts down. Douglas goes ahead, and you can see it’s him, not a stunt double. And then the moment when Tony Curtis throws his hawk at Kirk, and the bird takes his eye out. These are guys who can inhabit a mutual hatred.

So, when The Vikings comes on TV, the TV Guide listing calls it “Incredible, but rousing, Norse mayhem.” I could cotton to that description. Borgnine is worth the price of admission. He’s about to be pushed into a pit of wolves. He turns to Tony Curtis and asks for a sword. Curtis gives him one, and Borgnine jumps into the pit, calling, “ODIN!” Is this remotely genuine? Who cares? The immediate result is that Curtis then gets his hand cut off. Fair is fair.

I thought I’d give Vikings a shot. It’s supposed to be significantly more authentic. The hair is certainly scary. But it’s all mayhem, all the time. I admit, when Ragnar takes Gabe Byrne down (spoiler alert, but you knew it was coming), it was thoroughly satisfying, but these people are portrayed, essentially, as brute psychopaths.

Excuse me. These are the guys who sailed out into the cold, dark Atlantic and discovered Iceland, and Greenland, and then the Canadian Maritimes, for European fisheries. They established Baltic trading posts. They raided England and Ireland, and the coast of France. Over time, they became not Vikings, a word that means pirates, but Normans. And they changed Europe.

Of the half-dozen books on history my grandfather wrote, two are still in print, and still taught in courses on the Middle Ages. The Renaissance of the 12th Century is the better-known, but The Normans in European History runs a close second. His thesis is that the Norsemen, who began as ravaging predators, turned into settlers, and governors. Normandy, the Kingdom of Sicily, the Crusader states.

The longest-lasting and most influential Norman adventure is of course the Conquest, in 1066, the defeat of the Saxon king Harold by the bastard duke William of Normandy.

There’s a straight line, leading to the Bayeux Tapestry and the Domesday Book. A legacy of those sea-raiders in their long boats, with their devotion to the Norse gods of war. Their striving, their fury in battle, their thirst for spoils, their fierce clan loyalties, and at the last, their hunger for Valhalla and an ever-lasting fame.

Incredible, yes, but rousing.


27 July 2021

An Appealing Short Story


     Following a conviction in a criminal trial, the defendant has a right to appeal. He or she
argues that errors the judge made during the original trial affected the outcome of the case to such a degree that the defendant should be entitled to a "do-over." The appellate judges do not retry the case, but rather read the court reporter's statement of facts and evaluate the defendant's claims. Appellate courts issue written opinions weighing the merits of those raised issues. 

    A common claim on appeal is the sufficiency of the evidence. The jury, the argument goes, succumbed to the passion of the moment. In a sufficiency challenge, the appellate court is asked to rule that the admitted evidence could not support a finding of guilt by a rational trier of fact. When the claim is raised, appellate courts spell out the facts. They articulate why a sufficiency claim is not supported by the evidence (or conversely why it is). Appellate opinions are often technical. They are organized around the defendant's claims of error and hash out the arguments regarding those claims. The reading is not necessarily dry, but rather it is purposeful. A sufficiency claim lets the reader get involved in the story of the case, to read what the evidence showed to have happened. 

    I came across a local case recently, Andrews v. The State of Texas. The defendant, Mark Andrews, and his wife, Doris, shared a house with another couple, Don and Amy. Andrews and Don had worked together at a local trucking company until Don quit because of health problems. Mark Andrews later left as well. He became a professional gambler. This career choice routinely had him out of the house from 3:00 am until 8:00 am. The Andrews owned three dogs, Diesel, Sparky, and Tanker. Diesel and Sparky slept with Doris. All three dogs barked at strangers. Don and Amy called them burglar alarms. 

    On January 8th, 2016, at 4:30 am, Mark Andrews burst into Don and Amy's bedroom. He screamed for them to get help. While Don called 911, Amy followed Andrews into his bedroom. She saw him beside the bed, screaming Doris's name. Doris was lying on the bed in a blood pool. Andrews asserted that someone was in the house. He searched from room to room. Then he returned and began chest compressions on Doris. Amy recognized immediately that Doris was beyond saving. Centered on a rug in the bedroom, as if on display, she saw a hammer. While her husband stayed on the line with the emergency operator,  Amy observed that the door to a safe concealed in the living room stood open. Andrews, she testified, looked overly dramatic and announced that the safe had been burglarized. 

    When the police arrived, Diesel, Sparky, and Tanker barked wildly and had to be put outside. The police found no sign of a forced entry. Further investigation revealed that Andrews had recently researched funeral costs, had finances in disarray due to gambling losses, and that Doris owned life insurance. The murder weapon, the hammer, belonged to Andrews and was normally stored in a secured shed. The police discovered the shed unlocked and the door showed no evidence of damage. 

    There were other threads of evidence in the case as well. I am skipping over them for our purposes. The jury convicted Andrews of murder and sentenced him to life imprisonment. He appealed. The court of appeals found the evidence sufficient to sustain the conviction, writing that whoever murdered Doris had: 

        -The physical strength to commit the offense (Don did not. Andrews did).

        -Access to the shed to retrieve the hammer without using force (Andrews did). 

        -Not aroused the alarm of Tinker, Diesel or, Sparky (Andrews would meet this criterion). 

    It is this last point I want to focus upon in a blog for crime fiction enthusiasts.  Sherlock Holmes readers will remember "Silver Blaze," from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Holmes deduces that the thief of a famous racehorse was someone well-known to the stable dog. 

        "Is there any point to which you would wish to draw my attention?"

        "To the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime."

        "The dog did nothing in the nighttime." 

        "That was the curious incident," remarked Sherlock Holmes. 

    Holmes grasped that the nighttime visitor was someone the dog knew. The government's evidence in the Andrews trial made clear to the jury that Diesel, Sparky, and Tanker had barks that were "high-pitched" and "yippee [sic]." They did not like strangers and had to be put outside to enable the police to conduct their investigation. Yet, on the fateful evening, they sounded no alarm. The prosecutors raised the point, and the appellate judge went so far as to drop a footnote citing Sherlock Holmes.

    I worked with the prosecutor who handled the case. I called Kevin and asked him if he knew about the Arthur Conan Doyle story. He did not, but he will. We concluded our conversation by finding a PDF of "Silver Blaze" online. 

    After I hung up, I thought about all of this. As mystery fans, we have the best of both worlds on display. Seasoned trial attorneys independently found significance in the same absence of facts as Sherlock Holmes. The contemporary example of life imitating art should make the story continue to feel real and viable. Conversely, the appellate judge knew about "Silver Blaze." He recognized the parallel between the case he was deliberating upon and this hallmark of the literary canon. He purposely incorporated Arthur Conan Doyle's story into his opinion and in so doing, gave names to the anonymous stable dog: Tanker, Diesel, and Sparky. 

    Is it over the top to say that Doris got some justice because of the "dogged" work of the police and prosecution? I think it probably is. 

    Until next time.  



26 July 2021

The Impeccable Poirot


I've been treating myself to a leisurely nostalgia trip through the Art Deco settings of the early seasons of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot on Britbox. David Suchet is the embodiment of the dapper little detective with his perfectly waxed mustache, spotless spats, and compassion for the emotions of others, even though for himself he prefers to rely on the "little gray cells" of his exceptional brain.

The fact that Poirot never changes makes him tiresome to some readers. Christie herself hinted she eventually found him tedious by giving her fictional alter ego, Mrs Ariadne Oliver, similar feelings toward her own protagonist. And Poirot on the page is a flat, even cartoonish character, especially compared to the fully realized characters we write and read about today. But as Suchet inhabits this character, he brings the finicky, precise, keen-witted little Belgian to life. An émigré and an outsider in English society, sometimes lionized and sometimes dismissed, he is sensitive to slights but manages to keep his temper, his sense of humor, and a sense of irony. And in the end, he solves the case without fear or favor.

Like most mystery writers who've been dabbling in deceit and death for a while, I can usually spot a few more tricks of the crime fiction trade than I'm supposed to, whether they show up in a novel, a short story, a movie, or a TV show. Furthermore, binge watching the series is giving me a further advantage, in that neither the prolific Dame Agatha nor the producers (ITV et al), with their ambitious goal of filming the entire Poirot canon, could help repeating some of their techniques.

We know the sweet damsel in distress whom Poirot unmasks at the end as the contemptuous murderess...the disregarded maidservant...the pair who detest each other most convincingly yet turn out to be lovers in cahoots...the victim who comes back to life. We've seen them before, these most unlikely villains, as we have the cluster of murders to conceal the motive for a single death. We may even have used them ourselves.

What we mustn't forget is that these classic devices—the least likely suspect, the unreliable narrator—are familiar to us because Agatha Christie thought of them first and sprang them on a vast audience who were as truly baffled as the witnesses and suspects Poirot gathers together for the revelatory dénouement of each episode.

Fashions in crime fiction have changed. Readers no longer care about the clock set forward or back, the scrap of fabric caught in a latch, the second spoon in the saucer of a coffee cup. But in the Poirot TV series, these details still give us pleasure, because they form part of the vanished world of "society" between the two World Wars when details of dress, manners, and decor still mattered to a lot of people. Such details become clues that help Poirot solve the crime at hand.

In Suchet's interpretation, Poirot is not merely observant. He has a touch of OCD, constantly straightening table settings laid awry or ornaments on a mantelpiece. I particularly loved the moment when he realized the missing will, or was it a compromising letter, had been torn up into "spills," twisted strips of paper meant for lighting the fire, in a jar on the mantel. They caught his eye because the other objects on the mantel were out of order—and he had straightened them the day before.