14 August 2021

I've Watched The Long Goodbye 3 Times Now


It's a middle distance squint, and I get like that during every watch. Here's how it happened this round.

Recently, Killer Nashville asked me to review Raymond Chandler's The Long Goodbye (1953). The second-to-last Marlowe outing is Chandler's best, for my money. The detective story, truly elevated. No mean feat, given the high standards of his earlier novels. Doing the essay lured me to re-confront Robert Altman's 1973 film version starring Elliott Gould. I'd seen it twice before. I'd been left in that squint both times.

Wikipedia
Full disclosure: I'm no cinema expert. I do, however, understand a few things about the genre and this novel in particular. So, freshly inspired, I ventured again into Altman's film. 

Same squint. 

Advance critics in 1973 seemed to have a similar reaction. They were confused whether they'd just watched a detective movie or not. The hardboiled posters didn't match the semi-noir, semi-satire delivered. The Long Goodbye got pulled ahead of mixed reviews. In came the studio marketing folks, and several months later it was re-packaged more honestly, as a subversive take on Hollywood tropes. These reviews praised a nose-tweaking of the genre. Fifty years later, the film is now well-studied and the critical consensus ever-more favorable. 

Altman's take has much going for it. Casting faded star Sterling Haywood as alcoholic novelist Roger Wade is spot on. In the novel, Wade is Chandler himself stuffed into a part Michener, part Hemingway persona, but the film wisely cranks up the Papa factor. Nina Van Pallandt plays wife Eileen Wade with deftly-concealed femme fatality. The soundtrack is evocative and playful, mostly rearrangements of the same Johnny Mercer song to fit each scene. The cinematography is gorgeous. Altman's L.A. is up all hours but not doing much, a glossy pit of decay and casual violence. Malibu is just higher-end decadence with beach access. It's Chandler's noir SoCal– left twenty years to rot. Altman drops Marlowe smack into the cesspool. Above it, more precisely, observing L.A. from an improbably affordable top-floor apartment at Hollywood Heights' iconic High Tower enclave. 

Your essayist just down the beach, 2016
Which may be the initial squint-maker. 

Altman wants to make a point how L.A. vibe and P.I. stories were outdated. He does this by– beautifully– repainting the '50s Marlowe scene as a neo-noir, only-in-the-'70s moment. The style of it, like Chandler's, helps the work age pretty well (there is a violent moment that either wouldn't happen in a modern film or else would be answered on-screen later). Still, rebinding one tired era with what would surely become another? That message and its disconnect, though, comes off as part of the satire. But a story lost in time doesn't necessarily make for a timeless story.

Or maybe I get stuck on a half-reimagined Marlowe, one foot in both worlds. The task fell to Elliott Gould, attached to the project before Altman and the screenwriters came onboard. Gould is terrific, his characters never quite sure what the hell is going on but muddling through anyway. He does schlubs to perfection and plays Marlowe that way. There is a certain genius to this. Chandler's Marlowe is tough but not the toughest. He's forever outmuscled and often outsmarted. Gould takes this to another level. He's lost in a beyond rumpled state. He loses or avoids every fight. As for women, Gould's Marlowe is oblivious even to Eileen's flirtations. Early in the film, he's trapped in a disassociative mumble about L.A. passing him by. We get it. But Elliott Gould is funny. He can't help it, the schlub. His best Marlowe is when Gould eventually drops the sleepwalk and just does Gould. 

From your
essayist's collection
Next, there's that Edgar-winning masterpiece novel. Altman seizes on aspects of Chandler's world– the backdrop, Marlowe's sense of morality, the outsized characters against the smallness of their crimes– but abandons much of the actual story. Some of this is necessity.

Chandler's The Long Goodbye is intricate, often contemplative, and hefty– almost 400 pages. The inciting murder happens forty pages in, give or take your edition. A hyper-faithful film version is a marathon with too many moving parts. In trimming things, the screenwriters left Chandler's premise– Marlowe wants justice for a friend in a jam--but glossed over the motivations driving that premise. Marlowe doesn't make friends. Allies and lovers, yes. Never true friends.

So when in The Long Goodbye Marlowe and ruined socialite Terry Lennox strike up an odd friendship via drinks and loyalty tests, Marlowe is as surprised as anyone. Resolving this inner confusion is as much what Marlowe is after than justice for Lennox's suspicious death. Lennox never fit right, in any sense.

The film almost immediately finds Marlowe and Lennox chumming it up playing liar's poker. Sure, we've already seen Marlowe living alone but for a finnicky cat. His quick chumminess with Lennox suggests Marlowe has a wider circle of chums. Add in that the film's Lennox is stripped of complications. He's a common crook who married well, and it's pretty clear he committed what inevitably surfaces as the murder. In Chandler's world of rough justice, one murder must lead to a next. Altman doesn't need the same body count. Murders are cut or cleansed as suicides, clues are sparse, the solution a bit easy. The crime elements are, like Marlowe, scaffolding to Altman's larger statement. 

© Wikipedia
Look, no big-name director agrees to get lashed to a novel they can't re-envision. The screenwriter in Chandler would've gotten that better than anyone. Altman made the movie he wanted to make, and he made a sleek one. 

Altman reportedly said that Chandler fans would hate this take. I don't hate-watch a movie three times. There's plenty to admire in this film.

Altman reportedly also never read the novel cover-to-cover. If true, I wish he had. He might've found Chandler's novel had risen above the noir tropes in these crosshairs. With more study of his source material, Altman might've made one hell of a noir update or the best kind of crime comedy. He might've made a great movie, not just a weird one.

And at least I could stop squinting.

13 August 2021

Mystery in the Library


Virus? What virus? It’s a bit like that here in New Zealand. We had a couple of lock downs and our share of mandatory mask wearing, but we’ve gone several months now without any further trouble.

The point is: public gatherings here (sans masks and distancing) are fine, and lately there’s been a bunch of them in libraries around the country, where panels of mystery authors have talked about their books and the craft of writing in front of an audience.

I moderated one recently at the Takapuna Library on Auckland's North Shore. 

The Mystery in the Library events began at the Takapuna library in back in 2015. Conceived by Craig Sisterson (more on him in a moment). The format is your basic author panel: a handful of authors, and a moderator to guide a low-key, coffee shop type of conversation about the craft of crime and mystery writing, with an audience eavesdropping on the chat. Book signing afterward. Refreshments (wine, juice, snacks) provided.

Each year since 2015, more and more libraries around the country have hosted MITL evenings, with this year (April, May, June) seeing more than a dozen scheduled. So many, in fact, that each event has now gotten its own subtitle. Ours was BLOOD BY THE BEACH. Because the Takapuna library is right next to Takapuna Beach.

At our event, we chatted about what makes a mystery compelling, tools of the trade, do you plot or pants, advice for aspiring writers, and so on (with digressions into writing as meditation and how do you 'write what you know' when the know is murder?). I was blessed with four authors who were happy and eager to chat, and a captive audience of about 100 who had lots of questions. We all had a thoroughly pleasant evening. I've said it before, I'll say it again: Mystery writers (and readers) are the nicest of people.

(L-R) Me, Ben Sanders, Patricia Snelling, Madeleine Eskedahl, SL Beaumont

The authors on the panel, in alphabetical order:

SL Beaumont is the bestselling author of eight books, all of which are set in her native England. Shadow of a Doubt won the 2020 Indie Reader Discovery Award for Mystery/Suspense/Thriller, and her latest, Death Count, has been long listed for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel.

Website

Death Count (at Amazon)

Madeleine Eskedahl's recently released debut novel, Blood on Vines, is already a bestseller and is set in the wine growing region of Matakana (about 30 minutes north of Auckland).

Website

Blood on Vines (at Amazon)

Ben Sanders is the bestselling author of eight books (three have been short listed for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel). His first three were set in Auckland and the following five in the US; American Blood was optioned by Warner Bros. His latest book is The Devils You Know.

Website (appears to be under construction)

The Devils You Know (at Amazon)

Patricia Snelling has written nine books, all set here in New Zealand, and her latest,

Last Ferry to Gulf Harbour, has been long listed for the Ngaio Marsh Award for Best Novel.

Website

Last Ferry to Gulf Harbour (at Amazon)

A decade ago (time flies), I wrote an article for Criminal Brief about New Zealand's crime/mystery writing scene, and I had to really scratch around to find any local authors to mention. Now there are lots. The scene is growing. We don't have an MWA type of organization here yet, but the roots for one are in place. The Auckland Crime Writers group (a private group on Facebook) has 60+ active members. We hang out, real time, in coffee shops or on Zoom meetings. The local scene is growing and lively; we even have our own local label for it: Yeah, Noir (a play on the Kiwi slang expression, "yeah, nah").

About Craig Sisterson. Craig is New Zealand mystery writing’s Wizard of OZ; he’s the man behind the curtain. He’s the leading reviewer, blogger, interviewer, and authority in the field. His book, Southern Cross Crime, is the definitive guidebook to NZ and Australian crime fiction. As I mentioned, Craig set up the very first MITL (and every following years' events, including all of this year's). Craig was also the principal instigator and administrator of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, which is New Zealand's highest (and only) award for mystery writing (sadly, gripe, no category for short stories). 


I won't leave it another ten years before I write about New Zealand crime writers again. Promise.

Stephen

www.StephenRoss.net

12 August 2021

Back Inside


I spent the July 31/August 1st, 2021 weekend inside the pen doing an Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshop for the first time since January, 2020.  (Allan couldn't join me, because of his health.  He's doing fine, but the long walkways and those damn stairs would kill him.)  

A lot's happened at the pen since March, 2020, when the pen was locked down:

  • The warden, deputy warden, and a few other officers were "walked out" in July, 2021 after an anonymous complaint about numerous problems at the penitentiary, including nepotism, sexual harassment, shoddy equipment, lack of safety regulations, etc., reached the Governor's desk.  (HERE)  "The investigation is on-going" is what we hear from Pierre.  What we hear on the ground is "no one here knows what the hell is going on, or what the investigators are looking into or for, the place generally has the air of a hornet's nest that was just kicked wide open, and no one knows how/when this is going to end."  I believe the technical term for what's going on is a shitstorm.  
  • But they're hiring.  Send in your application today!
  • On July 27, Governor Noem ended the mask mandate at the pen to "improve staff morale".  Not surprised, not thrilled, but also wish she would remember that the virus came into the pen in the first place through the staff.  And the Delta variant is here and about to be everywhere (see Sturgis, below).  Of course, our Governor doesn't believe in any of that.  
  • On August 5, Sturgis officially began, although the bikers started arriving way before that.  Over 700,000 are expected.  Since our state's population is 880,000, Sturgis almost doubles the entire population of South Dakota for the duration.  Our Governor appeared for a press conference on Monday (Aug. 9) in Sturgis, riding her horse, wearing her cowboy hat and carrying a flag.  Rode that horse up on stage and said, “Welcome to South Dakota.  Welcome to freedom.”  So there's that.  Sigh. 
    • NOTE:  Actually, the last thing you should probably say to 700,000 bikers is "feel free to do anything you damn well please", because some of them are Bandidos, Diablos, Hells Angels, etc., and they will take you up on it, and you probably won't like it.  But of course, I'm sure Noem has a security detail...
    • Anyway, yeah, since we're already in a surge, we're all expecting a Hokusai of a wave coming in, and sooner or later, masks are going to be back at the pen.  

Meanwhile, back at the pen, I'd forgotten how young many new prisoners are.  And I'd almost forgotten how bouncy young meth-heads are.  Somewhere along the line, someone had bought a bunch of "Light Up Silicone Squishy Chicks" to use as giveaways at one of the prison family pow-wows to the little kids.  There were leftovers, and they got stashed in with the AVP supplies, and when they were found - well, they are cute, fun, and hilarious, and they hypnotized at least two of our attendees.  Which might have been the point.  I looked them up on Amazon:



And I quote from the ad:

Balls light up when squeezed, also helps relieve stress and develop child’s motor skills.
☛:A soft stretchy puffer ball that lights up, easy to use and easy to play, good for kids and adults.
☛: Amazing Flashing Puffer Ball Chickens, super fun to play with!
☛: Great stress reliever for adults and children: Release all of your tension at once!
☛:This product can be used as a stress relief toy, it can also be used as samples for display. It's durable and can [be] used for a long time.  [My emphasis.]
 
Depends on who's using it.  One of our participants played so hard with his - Gollum and The Precious had nothing on him - that it deflated, and all its lights went out, and he was known as "chicken killer" for the rest of the day.  However, sweetness and light returned when - lo and behold! - the next morning the chick had re-inflated to light and life and squishiness.  Amazing stuff.   

Seriously, it takes a long time to get a boy's brain back into some semblance of order after meth, and it doesn't help that there's no real treatment at the pen.  They have drug/alcohol classes, but only an hour a day.  And often nothing until they're 6 months away from being released.  Then it's back to the cell-halls where they're bouncing off walls again.  More and earlier would be helpful.

BTW, right now there's no AA / NA at the pen, (1) because Covid disrupted everything, and (2) also partly because you have to be able to pass a background check, and there is a certain percentage of AA / NA attendees who are prison graduates and so unable to host them.  Ironically, they would be the best at it, because they would understand the situation right down to its core.  (Zoom meetings aren't allowed, for security reasons.)  

But the workshop went really well.  There's hope.  A lot of hope.  And many of the graduates came back for the Refresher the next weekend.  

I'm also back doing the Lifer's Group.  We're currently working on trying to get some new legislation written before the next session begins January 11, 2022.  (South Dakota has, I believe, the shortest legislative session in the country - 38 working days - and I'm still making up my mind as to whether that's good or bad.)  Here in South Dakota, all life sentences are life without parole, and you can also get a life sentence for first degree manslaughter.  So the Lifer's Group is working on: 

(1) Ending life sentences for first degree manslaughter - remember, manslaughter is "the unlawful killing of a human being without express or implied malice." (Merriam-Webster)  So why should they get life without parole?  
(2) Changing life sentences so that only certain crimes would get life without parole:  first degree murder, certain criminal sexual conduct, terrorism, etc.  

Wish us luck.  And if you know any good constitutional lawyers who would like to volunteer their time, send me their names. 

On a more fun note, the Lifer's Group has a Religious Enlightenment Conference and a Talent Show to plan.  

Oh, and for those of you who might be in the neighborhood, the Lifer's Group will have a lot of artwork in the Tallgrass Recovery Art Show at the Post Pilgrim Art Gallery, 2121 E 10th St, Sioux Falls, SD.  The Opening is on Friday, August 27th at 7:00 PM.  Come on down and join me!


It's good to be back.

11 August 2021

Shuffle Off


I was invited to submit a story to an anthology, and there were specific requirements for setting and length.  But writing it, I was reminded yet again that you really can accomplish more with less.  There are economies of scale in every endeavor, modest or grand.

An illustration.

If you’ve seen the Russell Crowe version of 3:10 to Yuma, released in 2007, it’s very much opened up to horizons and vistas.  It’s shot in color and widescreen, with an eye for landscape.  The characters have the context of place.  Oh, and it runs two hours.  In contrast, the 1957 picture, with Glenn Ford as the outlaw, tops out at an hour and a half, in crisp and beautiful black-and-white, and it’s more claustrophobic, pulled in tightly to the people, the arid terrain a hostile backdrop.  But thirdly, going back to the source material, a Dutch Leonard story published in Dime Western in 1953, the outside world doesn’t feature much at all; the “action” of the story, if you can even call it that, takes place mostly in the hotel room.  It’s about the shifting dynamic between the two men, in the dialogue. 


The story I wrote, titled “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” is in fact about a couple of guys waiting for a train, and I kept circling back to 3:10 to Yuma, not because I wanted to conjure it up, particularly, but because I was after that economy.  You didn’t need an encyclopedic back story, if you have the odd convincing detail.  I wasn’t even sure you needed to know why they were waiting.  Was it enough that you (and they) understood it was necessary?  I decided that was a little too artful, Vladimir and Estragon.  But the essential rule, per Elmore Leonard, remained: don’t explain when you don’t have to, it simply generates clutter. 

I also used another piece of tried-and-true, courtesy of Raymond Chandler.  If in doubt, have a guy come through the door with a gun.  I wasn’t in doubt or at a loss, by any means, but I needed a catalyst, and the shortest distance between two points was a gunfight.  I was spare with detail here, as well.  It took all of five lines. 

Another thing is that many of the Mickey Counihan stories, of which this is one, have a reverse at the end.  Not necessarily a twist, or an O. Henry, but a deadpan finish, a throwaway line by Mickey that turns the story back on itself.  Mark Billingham – who started out doing stand-up – once remarked that writing suspense has a lot in common with a comedy routine.  There’s a set-up and a punchline, and in both cases, the punchline depends on the reversal of expectations.



Lastly, you simply get a lot of satisfaction from stripping out the inessential.  Not that you shouldn’t drift into eddies and pools, or allow for moments of stillness.  It’s often its own reward, for me, the grace note, the dropped stitch, something caught out of the corner of your eye, but in this instance, there were no DVD extras.

10 August 2021

Pay It Forward


I owe the existence of one of my recurring characters to the kindness of a famous mystery writer.

Dennis Lynds, writing as Michael Collins, received his last Edgar Award nomination for “The Horrible, Senseless Murders of Two Elderly Women,” which I published in my first anthology, Fedora: Private Eyes and Tough Guys (Wildside Press, 2001).

Not long after the release of Fedora, in a letter dated April 17, 2002, Jeff Gelb wrote, “Dennis Lynds suggested I contact you to see if you’d like to submit a story in consideration for the erotic mystery anthology series I co-edit with Max Allan Collins, Flesh & Blood.” (I already knew of Gelb from his work on the Hot Blood horror anthology series he co-edited with Michael Garrett.) Gelb provided some general guidelines as well as the pay rate and deadline. Toward the end of the letter, Gelb notes: “I’m sorry to say I’m unfamiliar with your work, but if Dennis recommends you, that’s a pretty strong nod in your direction!”

This was, shall we say, a big break. A famous mystery writer had recommended me to the co-editor of an anthology series published by a major publishing house.

I submitted “Feel the Pain,” a private eye story featuring Morris Ronald “Moe Ron” Boyette, and, after making minor revisions at the request of Gelb and Collins, the story appeared in the third book in the Flesh & Blood series: Flesh & Blood: Guilty as Sin (Mysterious Press, 2003).

“Feel the Pain” became the first of my stories to be selected for a “best of” anthology when Maxim Jakubowski included it in The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica 4 (published in the UK by Robinson, 2005, and in the US by Carroll & Graf, 2005).

I followed up with “Pumped for Information” (XL Girls, 2004), a sequel to “Feel the Pain” that put more emphasis on erotica and less on investigative work, before writing a string of Boyette stories where the erotic content was significantly reduced in favor of solid private eye work: “My Client’s Wife” (Thrilling Detective Web Site, Summer 2007), “Breaking Routine” (Hardluck Stories, Winter 2007), “News Flash” (Untreed Reads, March 2011), and “Yellow Ribbon” (Needle, 2012).

Then, nothing. I moved on to other characters and other stories...until a Boyette story I’d been toying with since 2003 caught my attention again. “Itsy Bitsy Spider” (Tough, April 2018) was named an “Other Distinguished Mystery Story” in The Best American Mystery Stories 2019, and I followed up with “Dirty Laundry” (Tough, April 2020).

I have notes written in 2003-2004 for three additional Boyette stories, but they don’t catch my attention when I reread them. So, I expected Boyette to again go quiet.

Then Michael Pool contacted me about his new publishing venture. I had previously contributed to his Crime Syndicate Magazine, and he received his first Shamus Award nomination for “Weathering the Storm,” a story in The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods (Down & Out Books, 2019). Pool has started P.I. Tales, a new book publishing venture dedicated to private eye novels and the Double Feature series of paired private eye novellas.

Pool invited me to contribute to the second volume of the Double Feature series, where my novella is paired with Hallmarks of the Job, written by Frank Zafiro, a writer who contributed to and played a key role in the launch of Guns + Tacos, the serial novella anthology series I co-edit with Trey R. Barker.

I considered creating a new private eye and then thought better of it. So, Morris Ronald “Moe Ron” Boyette returns in Aloha Boys, the longest story I’ve ever written about him.

In Aloha Boys, Boyette is still adjusting to his new digs above Millie’s Tattoos and Piercings when a homeless woman hires him to find her missing half-brother. Searching for the young man sends Boyette through the depraved underbelly of the local university, reunites him with a mob boss best left in his past, and leads him to question everything he thought he knew about families.

Hallmarks of the Job/Aloha Boys releases August 17 but can be preordered now.

Is this the end of the road for Boyette? I doubt it, but I don’t know when or where he will next appear.

RELATIONSHIPS

Though I originally intended this post to be about a series character and how I continue to write about him, while researching Boyette’s history I was reminded of something more valuable: The importance of relationships within the writing community.

Boyette exists because Dennis Lynds connected me to Jeff Gelb, and the new Boyette novella exists because Michael Pool and I have worked together on other projects. In between, I’ve worked with editors such as Rusty Barnes of Tough, who once suggested I write a novel about Boyette, and his suggestion was on my mind when Pool approached me about writing a private eye novella for Double Feature.

While I’m loath to conclude that who you know is the key to success, it certainly plays a role in the opportunities that come your way.

Most of us break in the same way: by submitting manuscripts via slush piles, submitting our work on spec, hoping that editors will select our stories from the dozens/hundreds/thousands of other submissions. But once that happens, it’s up to us to act professionally, to develop relationships, and to share opportunities with one another.

And always, always, always, pay it forward.

Morris Ronald Boyette and I are forever grateful that Dennis Lynds did.

09 August 2021

Charlotte Salomon, Her Book, Her Mystery


I have always been fond of people who accomplish things they are not supposed to be able to do. Jacob Lawrence was not a historian but that didn't stop him from painting a history of the Great Migration and along the way, reviving history painting, which, incidentally, was not supposed to be done in water based paints, either.

So I was intrigued by the case of Charlotte Salomon, who was murdered, unknown to the art world, in 1943 at Auschwitz. Hiding in exile in the south of France, she had deposited her major work, Lieben? oder Theater? ( Life? or Theater?) with a supporter a few months before her arrest by the Gestapo. 

The work, comprising 769 gouaches ( \out of a total of around 1000 done between late 1940 and early 1942) and including a number of painted texts and textual overlays on transparent paper, survived. The images are now available at Charlotte.jck.nl, thanks to the Jewish Historical Museum Amsterdam that owns the collection.

I came across this remarkable work via a piece in the New York Times which led me to the immense Charlotte Salomon and the Theatre of Memory by Griselda Pollock, a scholarly work with some heavy theorizing but also many insights and, most important from my point of view, an excellent selection of Salomon's work.

Very nice, you're probably thinking, but how is that even remotely relevant to SleuthSayers. Here's the interesting bit. Just as Jacob Lawrence had to invent or reinvent a form to tell the history of his people, Salomon, or CS as she signed her paintings, used her art to tell what wasn't supposed to be told in a way that wasn't supposed to work.

Lieben? oder Theater? is in part a family history, told as a painted novel with fictionalized characters, including Charlotte Kann, a stand-in for its creator. The family history is grim – and not just because it spans the Great War and the rise of the Nazis. The work opens with the depiction of a young woman, Charlotte Kann's aunt, who flees her home in the middle of the night and drowns herself in one of Berlin's lakes.

Female suicide becomes a leitmotif of the work as the aunt is followed in death by her sister (Charlotte's mother) and later her mother (Charlotte's maternal grandmother). Crime writers with their suspicious minds will no doubt detect the reasons for these deaths ahead of the careful academics. 

The middle section of the work concerns Charlotte, inheritor of suicidal tendencies – or a person reacting to the forces that drove the others to their deaths. She is saved by the philosophy of a traumatized war veteran, who, unfortunately, is really in love with her glamorous opera singer stepmother. The triangular relationship plays out against the rise of the Nazis, whose rallies and pogroms are depicted in vigorous paintings.

The work ends with all safety lost in the previous sanctuary of Nice, France. Her grandmother dead, Charlotte and her grandfather are arrested and released to a precarious temporary freedom, which she paints to quite devastating effect. 

What brings this immense, eccentric, and remarkable work into the mystery orbit, however, has been the recovery of the postscript to the work. Like the texts in Lieben? oder Theater? this was originally done in painted letters. But part of the document only exists now in typescript, the original having been lost or more likely destroyed by her surviving family,  since it appears to be a confession that the writer murdered the grandfather by poison.

Around this there are doubts. The death certificate for Salomon's grandfather lists heart attack as the cause. The postscript claims he was poisoned by Veranol, incidentally the same drug Freud gave his daughter when she was endangered by the Gestapo. Charlotte Salomon's grandfather was a physician, as was her father. The drug was certainly available. 

The fascinating question is what precisely was this postscript. A confession by the historical figure Charlotte Salomon, who I suspect would have had her reasons for homicide? Or a confession by Charlotte Kann, the lead character in the painted novel/memoir? Or a wish in place of act by either the character or her creator?

We are unlikely to know the truth. What we do know is that even the substance of the book, minus the postscript, was explosive. One only has to read Freud's accounts of  'hysterical women' and delusional girls to see how firmly the professional class of the times closed ranks when anything threatened male dominance and bourgeois respectability. Without professional standing or specialized education, Salomon had to use her art for her indictment.

In exile, short of supplies (CS reused the backs of rejected paintings), burdened by a lethal family history, and living in most dangerous times, Salomon created a document of great complexity and sophistication out of a modest medium and such paper as she could acquire. 

Denied training as a painter (unfeminine) she was channeled as a student into the more acceptable illustration. Ironically, this course was perhaps her artistic salvation, because it gave her the tools to incorporate the new ways of looking at narrative available via the movies and comic strips into her work as well as a mastery of the water -based medium. 

The earlier paintings tend to be multi-scene like comics or Renaissance works. The later ones become more expressionistic, simpler and more powerful, under the pressure of intense lived emotion and the terror of the inevitable that arrived when she was 26 and newly married.

Although as Pollock notes Salomon was healthy, blonde, German speaking and a skilled draftsperson, she was killed on arrival because she was pregnant. The young woman haunted by deaths and tempted by suicide died when she had the most reason to live.




My Madame Selina mystery stories about a post Civil War spiritualist medium in New York City have been issued as an ebook on Kindle. Ten mysteries and a novella featuring Madame Selina and her useful young assistant Nip Thompkins are available on Amazon.

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...