06 October 2021

Half a FOAF is Better Than None


 

The Folklorist and the Librarian

I assume that last month you, like the rest of the world, heard that rapper Nicki Minaj told her millions of followers that her Trinidadian cousin refused to get the covid vaccine because his friend got it and his testicles swelled up.

I know nothing about Nicki Minaj and less about virology, but my instant reaction was: "I recognize a FOAF when I hear about one."  And that brings up a subject I have been meaning to write about for years: urban legends.

I first learned about them when I read Jan Harold Brunvand's book The Vanishing Hitchhiker.  Dr. Brunvand is a folklorist and he did not invent the study of urban legends but he popularized it in a series of books, starting with TVH.  (By the way, I corresponded with Dr. B. in the early days of email and even coaxed him into speaking at my university.)

"Urban legends" are so named to distinguish them from standard folklore which is assumed to be the product of rural regions and allegedly unsophisticated people.  Like their country cousins, urban legends are told by people who believe them to be true, and often swear that they know people who know the person they happened to (the Friend of a Friend, or FOAF). The stories often reflect whatever issues are running through the zeitgeist, and frequently have a moral, usually in the form of a warning.


An urban legend is a classic example of a story a reporter may consider "too good to check" but Brunvand pointed out at least one example of a reporter eagerly trying to find the origin of a tale -- only to see it constantly receding like the horizon.  After realizing there was no truth to it, he kept following from source to source, just to see how far back it would go.  Of course, he could not identify its beginning.

Let's take an example: the "Choking Doberman."  This version appeared in Woman's World magazine in 1982, as part of an article called "Rumor Madness":

A weird thing happened to a woman at work.  She got home one afternoon and her German shepherd was in convulsions.  So she rushed the dog to the vet, then raced home to get ready for a date.  As she got back in the door her phone rang.  It was the vet, telling her that two human fingers had been lodged in her dog's throat.  The police arrived and they all followed a bloody trail to her bedroom closet, where a young burglar huddled -- moaning over his missing thumb and forefinger.


This legend had appeared in various newspapers a year earlier with reporters contacting local authorities in search of the truth, to no avail of course.  ("Police can't put finger on story.")  An interesting fact is that as the story mutates the burglar's digits often become "black" or "Mexican" fingers.  As I said, you can learn a lot about American obsessions by watching legends grow.   

By the way, years later I read a short story in a mystery magazine which ended with the dog owner getting a call from the vet urging him to "Leave the apartment now!" but the bloody burglar is already coming toward him, seeking revenge.

Brunvand also tells about the "Attempted Abduction," in which a child disappears while shopping with her mother in a department store.  Two women are caught in the bathroom, having cut and dyed the child's hair and changed her clothes.  The moral is clear: Keep a close eye on your kids!


Of course, the story is highly unlikely.  One attorney: "How could you dye a kid's hair in a public restroom?  I'd rather give a cat a bath."  And reporters were (surprise!) unable to trace the source of a story in which the location, store name, and gender of the child kept shifting with each telling.  

Brunvand noted that the story seemed to appear every five years, but it actually popped up again three years after he reported it.  And the next year it showed up in Ann Landers' column.

As far as I can tell the good professor stopped writing his books before social media came along, much less "alternative facts."  I'm sure folklorists are keeping busy following the latest versions.





 

05 October 2021

Some Reasons Short Stories Get Rejected ... Again!


I published the following column three years ago this week. With my time in such a crunch it could be dried leaves underfoot on a cold November day, I've decided to share it again. I hope you find it helpful.

Whether you're a seasoned writer or a first-timer, submitting a short story to any publication probably involves anxiety. You wouldn't have written the story if you didn't enjoy doing it. You wouldn't have submitted the story for publication if you didn't hope it's good enough and want the editor to say yes. Hearing that someone else likes your work is validating. Knowing that strangers will read your work is invigorating. Telling your family that you made a sale is good for the soul.

But not every story sells, especially on first submission. Editors usually try to be kind in their rejection letters, at least in my experience. They might say that they got a lot of submissions, and  many of the stories were wonderful, but they simply couldn't take them all. Or they might say that your story just wasn't a good fit for the publication, but please don't take it personally. Or they might say that they received a very similar story from someone else and simply couldn't publish both in the same book. It's this last type of rejection I'm going to focus on here. It sounds made up, doesn't it? Like an excuse.

There are all kinds of rejection.
And yet ...

I can tell you from personal experience that authors sometimes get very similar ideas. Sometimes this might be expected, especially when anthologies have narrow(ish) themes. For instance, Chesapeake Crimes: They Had It Comin' (which I co-edited) received a bunch of submissions involving revenge. (No big surprise.) A call for stories for a culinary anthology might result in a bunch of submissions involving poisoning. A book that wants weather-related short stories might receive multiple submissions about folks who are snowbound and someone is murdered.

But even when an anthology's call for stories is broad (let's say, the editor wants crime stories with a female protagonist), you can still end up with several similar stories under consideration. One reason could be that authors are subject to the same national news, so it would make sense if several might be inspired by the same news story, especially a big one. For example, I'd bet there are lot more #MeToo-type stories being written and submitted now than three years ago.

Authors also might be inspired by other industry successes. For instance, when vampire novels were all the rage, I knew several short-story authors writing about vampires, too. These authors weren't necessarily following the trend just to be trendy. Instead they were taking advantage of the trend to write about something they were interested in and that they thought they could sell.

I imagine that when novels with unreliable protagonists became big, more than one editor received short stories with unreliable protagonists, too. Perhaps some authors were following the trend, but I bet others simply were inspired and wanted to see if they could pull off an unreliable narrator, as well.

There's nothing wrong with any of these scenarios, but you can see how editors might end up with two similar stories to choose from. Or more. They all might be great, but an editor likely will only take one because he doesn't want the book to be monotonous.

And then, of course, there's the weird scenario, when two authors respond to a very broad call for stories with an oddly similar idea that isn't inspired by the news or trends or, it seems, anything. These two authors were simply on the same wavelength. This scenario is what made me decide to write about this topic today.

When Bouchercon put out its call for stories last autumn for the anthology that came out last month (Florida Happens), they asked for stories "set in, or inspired by, Florida and its eccentricity and complexity. We want diverse voices and characters, tales of darkness and violence, whether they are noir, cozy, hard-boiled or suspense. Push the boundaries of your creativity and the theme! Note: the stories don't have to actually be set in Florida, but can be 'inspired' by itso a character can be from here, it can be built around a piece of music about Florida; etc."

That's a pretty broad theme. With that theme, I wouldn't be surprised if they got a bunch of submissions involving older people, since Florida is where many people retire. And I wouldn't be surprised if they received a lot of submissions involving the beach or the ocean, since Florida is where so many people vacation. But what are the odds that two (or maybe more) authors were going to submit stories about missing cats?

And yet, that is nearly what happened. Hilary Davidson wrote one such story. Her story in the anthology, "Mr. Bones," is about a missing cat. My story in the anthology, "The Case of the Missing Pot Roast," involves a missing pot roast. But as originally planned, that pot roast was going to be  ... yep ... a cat.

If you've read my story, you can imagine how changing the pot roast into a cat would make the story incredibly darker. It was the darkness that got to me. When I was writing and reached page two of the story, I knew I couldn't do it. I couldn't write the story as planned with the object going missing being a cat. (Sorry for being vague, but I don't want to spoil things if you haven't read the story.)

Thank goodness for my unease, because I like the story much better with the pot roast. It makes the story lighter. Funnier. And it turned out that using the roast likely increased my chances of my story being accepted because I wasn't directly competing with Hilary Davidson (who wrote a great story). Indeed, imagine if I had gone through with my story as originally planned. The people who chose the stories would have had two submissions involving missing cats! And they likely would not have taken both stories.

So the next time you get a rejection letter and the editor says, please don't take this personally, take the editor at her word. You never know when someone else has an idea quite similar to yours. The world is funny that way.

04 October 2021

Tony & Anthony


"There is nothing new under the sun," wrote Ecclesiastes, a fellow who knew a thing or two about writing, because he also acknowledged that "the making of many books is a weariness of the flesh." Mystery writers can say amen to both, which is why when something even slightly novel appears on the horizon, the publishing world rejoices.

Anthony Horowitz book cover

UK author Anthony Horowitz has lately devised an interesting variant on the relationship between detective and amanuensis and has kicked his notably intricate and tricky plotting up a couple of notches with two novels featuring Daniel Hawthorne, a former detective inspector who really does appear to be, like Sherlock Holmes, a consulting detective. In this case, his clients are police departments in need of some extra forensic savvy.

In The Word is Murder, Hawthorne approaches Tony, a TV writer and novelist whose extensive credits mirror Anthony Horowitz's own, about writing up one of his cases. The Tony version of Anthony Horowitz initially declines, citing his current immersion in Foyles War, the anticipated displeasure of his agent, and various other book commitments.

Fortunately for fans of traditional mysteries, 'Tony' as Hawthorne always calls him, is intrigued enough to accompany the ex-cop to a real life crime scene and eventually to draft a first chapter that Hawthorne finds thoroughly unsatisfactory. The author has a great deal of fun with the difference between fictional and real crime and with the conflict between Tony's natural desire to write something lively and interesting and Hawthorne's equally natural desire for strict, even pedantic accuracy. He really is a detective for whom no detail is too small to notice.

Initially, the chances of this partnership going the distance seem slim. There will be no cozy suppers of the sort that Mrs. Hudson provides for Holmes and Watson, nor any personal errands such as Archie runs for Nero Wolfe. Hawthorne guards his private life so strictly that it is momentous when Tony discovers his address and a major triumph when he at last enters Hawthorne's flat.

Perhaps this is just as well. Hawthorne's great gifts are observation and analysis combined with a ruthless absorption in a case. Social graces, empathy, and rapport are not really in his skill set, much to Tony's frequent embarrassment and occasional distress. He really does not want to risk his reputation writing up a fellow who can be rude, even bigoted.

Still, faced with a tricky crime, Hawthorne is the man for the job, and if 'Tony' is often stymied, prone to incorrect solutions and, worse, to foolish personal risks, author Anthony Horowitz keeps his wits about him. He is clearly a big fan both of Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie and in the first two Hawthorne books, The Word is Murder and The Sentence is Death, he combines all the misdirection and red herrings of the traditional genre with a pair of thoroughly modern sleuths and some lively insights into contemporary UK publishing and TV.  

Anthony Horowitz book cover

The Hawthorne novels are, to my mind, superior to his other adult series, although it, too, is skillful entertainment. The Susan Ryland series features books within books, as one of  the fictional Alan Conway's Atticus Pund mysteries appears at full length within both The Magpie Murders and The Moonflower Murders.

Besides providing a second helping of traditional detection, the Pund novels serve to entangle editor Ryland in crimes that definitely reflect the same Golden Age of Detective Fiction sensibility. They are marvelous from the point of view of plotting, but I don't find Ryland as engaging a character as either well-meaning and rather harried Tony or sullen, difficult, but eventually surprising, Hawthorne.

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.

03 October 2021

Certifiable – Arizona Elections Corrections 301


Previous   PREV Arizona ‘fraudit’ Conspiracy Theories         

For perhaps the final time, this is OAN’s Blanca Mujer reporting from Memorial Coliseum in Phoenix.

We arrive at this much anticipated juncture wrapped in unfathomable disappointment. We’d hoped to prove massive fraud took place on election day, but instead, to paraphrase Oath-keeper Senator Wendy Rogers, the Deep State has so cleverly hidden their huge deception, it’s become impossible to find. Thus Wendy Rogers and others urge the election be decertified and rerun until they get the results they want.

I apologize for the background noise. What you hear is a great gnashing of teeth on the floor of the Arizona legislature. Senate President Fann is acting all innocent and Karen like she never heard of this and opposed it all along. My, my, my.

How were we to know she’d hired the one election truther who, uh, believed in truth. Cyber Ninja didn’t get the difference between determination and predetermination. Listen, buddy, when we shell out $6-million, we’re not paying to get the same answer as the previous three recounts-slash-audits paid for by Arizona taxpayers.

At least we got free colorful T-shirts.

This has been Blanca Mujer… and seriously, why does everyone in Arizona call me ‘Moo-hair’? Speak English, for heaven’s sake, my name rhymes with huger. This is Blanca Mujer getting the hell out of town, OAN Pseudo-News, Phoenix.

Validation, Verification, Verdict

No one, liberal or conservative, left, right, or center, expected the answer that arrived last week, a finding of no fraud and a judgment that votes tallied, slightly widening the win-lose gap.

During the interminable wait for results, one clue surfaced, almost immediately dismissed, considering the pressure of power and money. That hint: An acquaintance of Doug Logan claimed anyone who knew him would say he’s an honest man.

And so he was… so he is. Doug Logan and apparently his friend Ben Cotton may have fringe notions, but amid death threats, they put the gritty in integrity.

Meanwhile in Idaho, My Pillow’s Mike Lindell instigated an audit by claiming between 4.2 and 30 percent of votes in every county were shifted by computer from one party to the other. Some of Idaho’s precincts are so small, they couldn’t justify electronic tabulators, so votes were counted by hand. Idaho’s partial recount showed the numbers matched almost exactly except for a nine-ballot overcount for Mr Trump.

Loose Ends

The thrust of this series has focused on the numerous election fraud conspiracies. Before abandoning this topic to the trashcan of hysterical, histrionics history, a few more crazy notions cropped up in recent weeks. Two of the wilder ones are worth mentioning.

4.2%

4.2%

Let’s introduce a pretty smart guy named Shiva Ayyadurai. For some reason, petulantly claiming he invented email in 1979 at the age of 14 has become increasingly important to him. Generation X doesn’t believe anything was invented before their own births, so he can’t believe he didn’t invent anything other than the name… maybe. As someone who was using email years earlier and invented encrypted email in the mid-1980s, I take his claim with a huge block of salt.

But he makes other fringe claims such as vitamins offset COVID and election fraud. He’s appeared on fraud felon Steve Bannon’s show to expound upon conspiracy theories. What sets Dr Ayyadurai apart from run-of-the-mill election truthers is a claim that would make Scientologists cringe.

According to Ayyadurai, every voting machine in every state in the US is designed to shift 4.2% of votes from the (R) column to the (D). 4.2%, every machine, every state.

If you’re thinking 4.2% comes from rigorous quantitative regression analysis of election-engineered differential equations… you’d be wrong.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (published the same year Ayyadurai ‘invented’ email), Douglas Adams’ humorous quasi-sci-fi novel, tells us the answer to life, the universe, and everything is 42. And therefore, according to Dr Ayyadurai, precisely .042 of votes were tampered with. Seriously.

𝄞♪♫ And 42’s exactly two dozen and the reverse of 24 and we call it a day and the age of Howard Hill, which rhymes with Bill married to Hillary which rhymes with biliary that takes a lot of damn gall and starts with B, the actress of Maude with rhymes with fraud, and there you have it, proof of election tampering. ♬♩𝄇
— apologies to The Music Man
hypodermic with Russian salad dressing

Salad Days

Help yourself to a palate cleanser and strap yourself in for a fresh election conspiracy from none other than admitted felon and foreign agent for Turkey, Ukraine, and other non-American venues, Michael Flynn.

According to Flynn, former Security Advisor, God help us, pro-vaxers are slipping coronavirus vaccines into salad dressing and plan to genetically alter lettuce to contain mRNA inoculation material.

Honest. I hope it’s iceberg lettuce. It might add flavor.

The Future, or Something Like It

Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are struggling toward full-blown recounts despite assurances from election authorities that all went smoothly and no fraud was detected. Precincts are giving pushback to the state especially against revealing voters’ personal information. As in the Arizona fraudit, a judge may have to rule whether to permit the recount.

Texas Governor Abbott snapped to attention, genuflected, and kissed the ring when the ex-president asked for a recount of four counties. The reason seems to be because they can. Strangely, the office of Supervisor of Elections is presently vacant, so no one is certain who’s calling the shots.

And finally back in Arizona, disbelieving fraudit supporters and ‘democracy skeptics’ now demand a new statewide election recount.

Democracy skeptics… They’re driving America.

02 October 2021

Guest Post: Lines That Won't Let Go


  

My longtime friend Judy Penz Sheluk wears and has worn many literary hats: novelist, short-story author, former journalist, former magazine editor, and--especially appropriate for today's column--anthology publisher and editor. Her three Superior Shores Press mystery athologies are all excellent and have been well received, in spite of my connection to each one: I contributed a cover blurb to the first and short stories to the second and third. The most recent of the three books--Moonlight & Misadventure--is the subject of today's guest post.

So . . . please join me in welcoming Judy to SleuthSayers!

--John Floyd


                                                            Lines That Won't Let Go

                                                                by Judy Penz Sheluk

Much has been written about first and last lines, and both are certainly of the utmost importance. But as the publisher and editor of the Superior Shores Anthologies, they aren't necessarily the ones that "seal the deal" for me when I move a submission into the "Yes" pile. Rather, it's those "lines that won't let go," the ones that catch me off-guard or break the tension with a touch of humor. 

While time and space don't permit me to list them all, each of the 20 stories in Moonlight & Misadventure have at least one such magical moment. Here are a few of my favorites:


"Crown Jewel," Joseph S. Walker

Two years ago, Keenan brought a woman he'd seen a few times home and took her to a spare bedroom converted into an audiophile's dream, the walls lined with racks of records, the turntable hooked up to an exquisitely balanced sound system. He showed her the three bins filled with copies of the White Album, each lovingly sheathed in its protective plastic sleeve. She pulled one out at random, turned it over in her hands, and looked at him in utter confusion.

"Don't they have this on CD?" she'd asked. "It would save a lot of room."

That was the last time he saw her.


"Cereus Thinking," Tracy Falenwolfe

No one ever spent time behind the bathhouse because it smelled awful. My grandparents had started telling the campers the sulfur smell came from decaying grasses along the beach, but I knew it was because the septic system was failing, the same way I knew dryer number four would never be fixed, grass would never get planted, and no one who stayed at Manatee Playground would ever see a manatee.


"The Promotion," Billy Houston

Pete looked around in the drawers of Gavin's desk until he found what he wanted. A half-empty pack of cigarettes. There were some matches in the same drawer, and he took those, too. For a moment, he considered going outside, but then lit a cigarette anyway. He'd just killed a man; smoking indoors didn't seem like a big deal anymore.


"My Night with the Duke of Edinburgh," Susan Daly

I took refuge in my glass of Northern Spirit Rye. Granted, I was two months short of twenty-one, but our little group had no use for such arbitrary, state-imposed nonsense. A person could either hold their liquor, or they couldn't.


"Not a Cruel Man," Buzz Dixon

The agent represented a sparkling young singer who'd just landed a starring role in a Disney movie. The producer's modus operandi was to find young, struggling talent, seduce them, dig them deeper and deeper into his own peculiar kinks, document that progression with Polaroids, then leech off their careers. A lot of what the producer liked would result in serious jail time for all involved. In the case of the agent's client, she'd never again be regarded as sweet and wholesome, much less virginal.


"Reunions," John M. Floyd

Larry's previous misgivings felt silly to him. He suddenly said, without thinking, "I hope things work out. With your friend and his wife, I mean."

Roger nodded, looking sad. "I hope so too. If it doesn't--and if I ever found out for sure she's cheating on him . . ."

The man's tone sent another little ripple up Larry's spine. He cleared his throat and said, "What would you do?"

"I don't know." Roger reached down to pat the bulge of the gun under his jacket. "If I met the guy, and if I had this at the time . . . I'm just not sure."


And sometimes it's just a single sentence:

"Scavenger Hunt," Michael A. Clark

It was a good night to hunt for a lost atomic bomb.


About the book: Whether it's vintage Hollywood, the Florida everglades, the Atlantic City boardwalk, or a farmhouse in Western Canada, the twenty authors represented in this collection of mystery and suspense interpret the overarching theme of "moonlight and misadventure" in their own inimitable style where only one thing is assured: Waxing, waning, gibbous, or full, the moon is always there, illuminating things better left in the dark.

Featuring stories by K.L. Abrahamson, Sharon Hart Addy, C.W. Blackwell, Clark Boyd, M.H. Callway, Michael A. Clark, Susan Daly, Buzz Dixon, Jeanne DuBois, Elizabeth Elwood, Tracy Falenwolfe, Kate Fellowes, John M. Floyd, Billy Houston, Bethany Maines, Judy Penz Sheluk, KM Rockwood, Joseph S. Walker, Robert Weibezahl, and Susan Jane Wright.


About the editor: A former journalist and magazine editor, Judy Penz Sheluk is the author of two mystery series: The Glass Dolphin Mysteries and the Marketville Mysteries. Her short crime fiction appears in several collections, including The Best Laid Plans, Heartbreaks & Half-truths, and Moonlight & Misadventure, which she also edited.

Judy is a member of Sisters in Crime, International Thriller Writers, the South Simcoe Arts Council, the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and Crime Writers of Canada, where she serves as Chair on the Board of Directors.


Find the book here.




01 October 2021

What is a Yogiism?


A Yogiism is something said by Yogi Berra, something less profound than something written by Shakespeare but memorable.

I am old enough to remember Yogi Berra playing catcher for the New York Yankees. Lawrencec Peter 'Yogi' Berra was a great catcher and an even better clutch hitter, excelling at hitting pitches out of the strike zone. Berra had more home runs than strikeouts in five seasons. Hard to imagine.


His achievements and honors are many, including 18 times an American League All-Star, 13 times a World Series Champion, 3 times AL MVP. Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


Yogi and his World Series Rings

There are many Yogiisms. Here are a few examples of his unintentional or intentional wit:

"It's deja vu all over again."

"Ninety percent of the game is half-mental."

"One thing we know for sure: If you can't imitate him, don't copy him."

"If the world was perfect, it wouldn't be."

"Never answer an anonymous letter."

"Baseball is 90% mental and the other half is physical."

"We made too many wrong mistakes."

"You can observe a lot by watching."

"When you come to a fork in the road, take it."

"I always thought the record would stand until it was broken."

"Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded.

"Take it with a grin of salt."

"Always go to other people's funerals; otherwise they won't go to yours."

"You've got to be very careful if you don't know where you are going, because you might not get there."

"If people don't want to come to the ballpark, how the hell are you gonna stop them?"

"A nickel ain't worth a dime anymore."

"We have deep depth."

"Pair up in threes."

"Even Napoleon had his Watergate."

"You better cut the pizza into four pieces because I'm not hungry enough to eat six."

"You wouldn't have won if we'd beaten you."

"He hits from both sides of the plate. He's amphibious."

"It gets late early out here."

"I'm not going to buy my kids an encyclopedia. Let them walk to school like I did."

"Slump? I ain't in no slump. I just ain't hitting."

"It ain't the heat. It's the humility."

"So I'm ugly. I never saw anyone hit with his face."

"Little League is a very good thing. It keeps parents off the streets."

"The future ain't what it used to be."

"I usually take a two hour nap from 1 to 4."

"Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good, too."

"In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is."

Probably his most famous Yogiism:

"It ain't over 'til it's over."

Yogi was incorrectly credited with coining the phrase, "It ain't over 'till the fat lady sings," which was first attributed to Ralph Carpenter, Texas Tech University sport information director. When Yogi was asked about that particular quote, he told a New York Times reporter, "That's one of the things that I said that I never said."

Sources for the quotes come from:

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yogi_Berra#Playing_style
  • https://ftw.usatoday.com/2019/03/the-50-greatest-yogi-berra-quotes
  • https://www.authenticmanhood.com/blog/20-great-yogi-berra-quotes

That's all for now.

www.oneildenoux.com

30 September 2021

Setting As Character


 Happy End-of-September Sleuthsayers! As you may recall, for my last turn in the rotation, I had the honor of writing the Sleuthsayers' Blog Tenth Anniversary post. While working on this post, I did a lot of looking backward at the writing contained on this site: the vast repository of the knowledge and skill tips of  the Sleuthsayers' Roll of Honor. Trolling back through this massive trove of material, I came across one of my earlier posts, dealing specifically with a frequently underused tool in the writer's kit: setting. This particular post is from 2013, and I think it's aged well if I do say some myself, so I'm reposting it here, in hopes it proves helpful to authors out there wrestling with setting. In two weeks, I'll be back in two weeks to expand further on this topic. - Brian

*    *    *  

Setting. Everyone knows about it. Few people actively think about it.

And that's a shame, because for writers, your setting is like a pair of shoes: if it's good, it's a sound foundation for your journey. If it's not, it'll give you and your readers pains that no orthotics will remedy.

Nowhere is this more true than with crime fiction. In fact strong descriptions of settings is such a deeply embedded trope of the genre that it's frequently overdone, used in parodies both intentional and unintentional as often as fedoras and trench coats.

Used correctly a proper setting can transcend even this role–can become a character in its own right, and can help drive your story, making your fiction evocative, engaging, and (most importantly for your readers) compelling.

Think for a moment about your favorite crime fiction writers. No matter who they are, odds are good that one of the reasons, perhaps one you've not considered before, is their compelling settings.

Just a few contemporary ones that come to mind for me: the Los Angeles of Michael Connelly and Robert Crais. The Chicago of  Sara Paretsky, Sean Chercover and Marcus Sakey. Boston seen through the eyes of Robert B. Parker. Ken Bruen's Ireland. Al Guthrie's Scotland. Carl Hiassen's Miami. Bill Cameron's Portland.

And of course there are the long gone settings highlighted in the gems of the old masters. These and others read like lexical snapshots from the past.Who can forget passages like:

The city wasn't pretty. Most of its builders had gone in for gaudiness. Maybe they had been successful at first. Since then the smelters whose brick stacks stuck up tall against a gloomy mountain to the south had yellow-smoked everything into uniform dinginess. The result was an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelters' stacks.

—Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest

Then there was Hammett's most ardent admirer (and in many ways, his successor) Raymond Chandler, a writer of considerable scope and power, was never better than when describing the sun-blasted neighborhoods of 1940s Southern California, the desperation of the region's denizens, and and black tarmac byways both connecting and dividing them in Farewell, My Lovely:

1644 West 54th Place was a dried-out brown house with a dried-out brown lawn in front of it. There was a large bare patch around a tough-looking palm tree. On the porch stood one lonely wooden rocker, and the afternoon breeze made the unpruned shoots of last year's poinsettias tap-tap against the cracked stucco wall. A line of stiff yellowish half-washed clothes jittered on a rusty wire in the side yard.

And no one did it better than Ross Macdonald:

The city of Santa Teresa is built on a slope which begins at the edge of the sea and rises more and moresteeply toward the coastal mountains in a series of ascending ridges. Padre Ridge is the first and lowest of these, and the only one inside the city limits.

It was fairly expensive territory, an established neighborhood of well-maintained older houses, many of them with brilliant hanging gardens. The grounds of 1427 were the only ones in the block that looked unkempt. The privet hedge needed clipping. Crabgrass was running rampant in the steep lawn.

Even the house, pink stucco under red tile, had a disused air about it. The drapes were drawn across the front windows. The only sign of life was a house wren which contested my approach to the veranda.

— Ross Macdonald, Black Money

In each of the passages excerpted above the author has used a description of the setting as a tip-off to the reader as to what manner of characters would inhabit such places. Even hints at what lies ahead for both protagonist and reader.

With Hammett it's the stink of the corruption that always follows on the heels of a rich mineral strike. With Chandler, it's a life worn-out by too much living. And with Macdonald, it's a world and its inhabitants as out of sorts as those hedges that need clipping.

Brilliant thumbnail sketches each. If you haven't read them, you owe it to yourself to do so. And each of them was giving the reader a glimpse of a world they had experienced first-hand, if not a contemporary view, then at least one they could dredge up and flesh out from memory.

With the stuff I write it's not that simple.

In his kind note introducing me to the readers of this blog, our man Lopresti mentioned that when it comes to fiction, my particular bailiwick is historical mystery. In my time mining this particular vein of fiction I've experienced first-hand the challenge of delivering to readers strong settings for stories set in a past well before my time.

How to accomplish this?

It's tricky. Here's what I do.

I try to combine exhaustive research with my own experiences and leaven it all with a hefty dose of the writer's greatest tool: imagination.

"Counting Coup," the first historical mystery story I ever wrote, is about a group of people trapped in a remote southwest Montana railway station by hostile Cheyenne warriors during the Cheyenne Uprising of 1873. I used the three-part formula laid out above.

While pursuing my Master's in history, I'd done a ton of research on the western railroads, their expansion, and its impact on Native American tribes in the region, including the Cheyenne.

I've visited southwestern Montana many times, and the country is largely unchanged, so I had a good visual image to work from.

Imagination!

An example of the end result:

Wash and Chance made it over the rise and and into the valley of the Gallatin just ahead of that storm. It had taken three days of hard riding to get to the railhead, and the horses were all but played out.

The entire last day finished setting their nerves on edge. What with the smoke signals and the tracks of all the unshod ponies they'd seen, there was enough sign to make a body think he was riding right through the heart of the Cheyenne Nation.

Stretching away to north and south below them lay the broad flood plain of the Gallatin. The river itself meandered along the valley floor, with the more slender, silver ribbon of rail line mirroring it, running off forever in either direction. The reds of the tamarack and the golds of the aspen and the greens of the fir created a burst of color on the hills that flanked the river on either side, their hues all the more vivid when set against the white of the previous evening's uncharacteristically early snowfall. 

"Suicide Blonde," another of my historical mystery stories, is set in 1962 Las Vegas. Again, the formula.

I did plenty of research on Vegas up to and including this time when Sinatra and his buddies strutted around like they owned the place.

I lived and worked in Vegas for a couple of years and have been back a few times since. I am here to tell you, Vegas is one of those places that, as much as it changes, doesn't really change.

Imagination!

Which gets you:

Because the Hoover boys had started tapping phones left and right since the big fuss at Apalachin a few years back, Howard and I had a system we used when we needed to see each other outside of the normal routine. If one of us suggested we meet at the Four Queens, we met at Caesar's. If the California, then we'd go to the Aladdin, and so on. We also agreed to double our elapsed time till we met, so when I said twenty minutes, that meant I'd be there in ten. We figured he had a permanent tail anyway, but it was fun messing with the feds, regardless.

The Strip flashed and winked and beckoned to me off in the distance down Desert Inn as I drove to Caesar's. It never ceases to amaze me what a difference the combination of black desert night, millions of lights, and all that wattage from Hoover Dam made, because Las Vegas looked so small and ugly and shabby in the day time. She used the night and all those bright lights like an over-age working girl uses a dimply lit cocktail lounge and a heavy coat of makeup to ply her trade.

Howard liked Caesar's. We didn't do any of the regular business there, and Howard liked that, too. Most of all, Howard liked the way the place was always hopping in the months since Sinatra took that angry walk across the street from the Sands and offered to move his act to Caesar's. Howard didn't really care to run elbows with the Chairman and his pack, he just liked talking in places where the type of noise generated by their mere presence could cover our conversations.

You may have noticed that in both examples used above I've interspersed description of the setting with action, historical references and plot points. That's partly stylistic and partly a necessity. I rarely find straight description engaging when I'm reading fiction (in the hands of a master such as Hemingway, Chandler or Macdonald that's another story, but they tend to be the exception), so I try to seamlessly integrate it into the narrative. Also, since I'm attempting to evoke a setting that is lost to the modern reader in anything but received images, I try to get into a few well-placed historical references that help establish the setting as, say, not just Las Vegas, but early 1960s Las Vegas. Doing so in this manner can save a writer of historical mysteries a whole lot of trying to tease out these sorts of details in dialogue (and boy, can that sort of exposition come across as clunky if not handled exactly right!).

So there you have it: an extended rumination on the importance of one of the most overlooked and powerful tools in your writer's toolbox: setting. The stronger you build it, the more your readers will thank you for it, regardless of genre, regardless of time period.

Because setting is both ubiquitous and timeless. Easy to overdo and certainly easy to get wrong. But when you get it right, your story is all the stronger for it.

And that's it for me. Tune in next time for more on making setting work for you.

See You in Two Weeks!

29 September 2021

I Killed Gummo


I think my first exposure to the Marx Brothers was Groucho's quiz show You Bet Your Life. (In another inversion, I watched Alfred Hitchcock's TV show long before I saw any of his movies.  Growing up in the sixties…)

By the time I graduated college I was a fan of the brothers.  I remember going into New York in 1974 with a gang of friends to see Animal Crackers after it had been re-released after decades in studio-prison. I have seen all the existent Marx Brothers movies, the good ones many times.  (Seriously: has anyone sat through Love Happy more than once?  If so, did they lose a bet?)

Naturally I was delighted when Josh Pachter invited me to write something for Monkey Business: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Films of the Marx Brothers.  (It has just been published this month.)

Since I was the last contributor to join Josh told me there were certain guidelines I had to follow, largely to fill gaps and not duplicate other stories:

  • My story had to be inspired by (and titled) At The Circus.
  • The brothers themselves could not appear.
  • It should preferably be set in the year the film was released or the present day.
  • No jewel heists.
  • Please include a murder.

I hadn't seen At the Circus in decades but even before I viewed it again (and it was better than I remembered) I quickly dreamed up a plan.  You see, I had read Joe Adamson's excellent and funny book Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo.  In it he relates a story Groucho used to tell about the making of that movie. The plot of At The Circus involves a gorilla…

MGM had to hire a man to play a gorilla.   They hired the man, and then they found out he didn't have a gorilla suit.  (They watched him do a gorilla imitation without a gorilla suit.  They weren't convinced.)  They hired a gorilla suit for the man to wear.  The man had an agent who examined the gorilla suit.  Even the gorilla suit had an agent, and he examined the man.  The problem, as Groucho recalls, was that "Mother Nature, with her customary slipshod design, had neglected to equip the gorilla with a window."  After two hours of shooting under bright lamps on one of the warmer days of a Los Angeles summer, the man fainted, right in the middle of his gorilla imitation.  The gorilla imitator's agent said the man had been inside hundreds of gorilla suits before, and he'd NEVER fainted.  The gorilla suit's agent said that hundreds of gorilla imitators had been inside his suit before, and they'd ALWAYS fainted.  [The director] said "Lunch!"

The ape impersonator attempted to solve the problem by puncturing holes in the suit with  an ice pick. This led to the owner marching off with the suit, so that part of the movie features a different man in an orangutan skin.

In my opinion this was a Groucho-invented tall tale, but the fact that he was telling it was all that I needed.

I set the story in 1940 and created a low-rent circus owned by a Marx Brothers fanatic.  Inspired by the recent movie he purchased a gorilla suit.  Alas, the only person who fit in it was Gummo, so-called because he was the least competent of several circus-working brothers.  Suffering from fainting in the hot suit Gummo used the ice pick-perforation trick he had heard about, only to have someone perforate him.

Which gave me a chance to write something very unusual for me: a fair-play murder mystery.

I also had a lot of fun learning and using circus jargon.  For example, the entrance to the circus grounds is the "front door."  The staff's quarters are in the "back yard," which is protected from prying eyes by "sucker netting."  I learned a lot. I hope my research doesn't show!

I look forward to reading the book which includes a killer line-up including SleuthSayers Barb Goffman and Terence Faherty, as well as Donna Andrews, Frankie Y. Bailey, Jeff Cohen, Leslie A. Diehl, Brendan DuBois, Joseph Goodrich,  Sandra Murphy, Josh Pachter, Robert J. Randisi, Marilyn Todd, and Joseph S. Walker.  

28 September 2021

A Mess With Texas


The Texas Legislature received a great deal of publicity this past session. For out-of-staters, by law, the Texas House and Senate may meet for a maximum 140-day regular legislative session once every two years. (It is rumored that some of the state's founders pushed for a two-day legislative session once every 140 years.) Because of the time crunch, once the legislature convenes, the session is a compact, dried-on-hot affair with bills flying around the state capital in Austin. Some of the laws enacted this year drew national ire or acclaim depending upon the politics of the reporting body. In particular,


Texas grabbed the national spotlight for new rules regarding abortion/life protection, and election integrity/voter suppression. 

    The legislature also passed, and the governor signed new gun laws dubbed "Constitutional Carry." Since this is a crime and crime writer's blog, I thought it might be worth a column to review these law changes. Many stories get set within the borders of Texas. Let's look at what your characters can legally do regarding carrying weapons. 

    In short, the new laws allow most people to carry a handgun in a holster most places, either openly or concealed, without first obtaining a license to carry. 

    We can chug through the shorthand focusing on the italicized words. 

Most people: The new laws apply to persons 21 years of age or older. Sorry kids, no guns.  Texas has several exceptions to the above-stated general rule. Adjudged felons may not carry firearms. Defendants convicted of a few misdemeanors (assault, threats, disorderly conduct with a gun) can't carry if the prior offense occurred within five years of the carrying. Family violence and individuals under protective orders are prohibited from carrying firearms by federal and state prohibitions. Criminal street gang members are prohibited from carrying firearms as are most intoxicated people. 

    This last line may be my favorite. You can be intoxicated with your gun on your property, or another's property with their consent, or in your boat or vehicle (or another's with their consent). 

    I'm left to wonder about the scope and nature of my consent. If Michael Bracken invites me to his annual Gathering of Writers is he implicitly authorizing me to bring my gun and get drunk? Or does he have to include that in the invitation? And why wouldn't he? What could possibly go wrong with that scenario? 

   A handgun:  Texas has always been less restrictive regarding long guns, rifles, and shotguns. These weapons may be carried unless the armed individual runs afoul of some other statute like disorderly conduct or trespass. The legislature also relaxed the rules over the last few sessions on clubs, knuckles, and knives. I think the logic is that if everyone else is packing 9mm Glocks, are you really that worried about the Bruce Lee wannabe carrying nunchucks? 

In a holster: Buy stock in holster companies. They are a key piece of Texas' new legislative scheme. Carrying a handgun in plain view in a public place is illegal unless the weapon is in a holster. Carrying in a vehicle in plain view is prohibited unless the weapon is in a holster. In the old days (before September 1st) licensed weapon holders had to carry in a shoulder or belt holster. Those restrictions on holsters have been removed. Any holster is now permissible. Litigation will define holster in the years ahead. 

Most places: The new laws carve out eight places where weapons are impermissible: high school, college, and professional sporting events, amusement parks, hospitals, and bars are among those places where weapons were and remain prohibited. Churches are not on the list. 

Either openly or concealed: Since September 1st, no courses, tests, or proof of proficiency is required to legally carry a handgun. The law mandates the Department of Public Safety to develop a training video for the safe handling of firearms. Two videos may be found on their website. They both run for about 8 minutes each. 

     The license to carry still exists. Having one may avail you of more defenses if you are charged with illegally carrying a weapon. It lowers the number of places from which you are excluded. A licensed carrier may also take advantage of the reciprocity laws in other states. 

    The new legislative package also amended the duties of a peace officer to authorize the temporary disarming of a person carrying a firearm if the officer believes it is necessary to protect the officer or another. This has long been the law, but it is made explicit in the new code. Whether the mere carrying of a weapon is enough to meet the threshold to disarm will have to be decided by the courts. 

    That's an incomplete thumbnail sketch of the law. Two other changes, largely philosophical, are worth noting. The governor signed into law a prohibition on local law enforcement assisting federal authorities in enforcing gun laws passed after January 20th, 2021 (President Biden's inauguration). Although no new federal gun laws have come into being since then, we are now a "sanctuary state" for firearms. New laws also removed firearm silencers from the list of prohibited weapons. The legislature added a section to the Government Code to regulate the intrastate production of silencers (an attempt to get around the federal government enforcement of a prohibition through the Commerce Clause). Texas doesn't have a thriving cottage industry in domestically produced suppressors, but someday we might. 

    There you have it. We've joined 20 other states in having some form of Constitutional Carry enacted. Put your piece in a holster and come on down. 

    Last thought. The new laws make it almost impossible for a hotel to restrict a guest's right to bring a gun into his/her hotel room. If you do come to visit, you might choose an innkeeper offering Kevlar sheets.

(Life requires me to be away from my computer on Tuesday, September 27th. I apologize for not responding to comments.)

    Until next time. 


27 September 2021

Female of the Species



Last week, Rob Lopresti posed an intriguing question on the Short Mystery Fiction Society thread. He wanted the titles of peoples' favorite noir-ish short story with a female protagonist. Many people responded with stories I will check out if I haven't read them already, but it made me think long and hard before I answered. Many of my favorite novelists are women, and I read so many short stories that it's insane to keep track. 


Rob's question made me look at my own work, too, because I prefer strong female characters. According to my spreadsheets, over half of my short stories feature women who do bad things (often very well), even if it's in the name of "justice." Nearly a third of them are the protagonist of their particular tale, but only four are narrators. There's some overlap, of course. I made an arbitrary decision that unless the woman was the 1st-person narrator or the story used detached-3rd person through her, she wasn't technically the protagonist. 

Six of my sixteen novels involve women who resort to violence, sometimes for the home team, but sometimes for personal gain. I suspect that male and female writers might have different percentages on that issue, and mine lean more toward women than some other male writers would. On the other hand, several of my favorite male crime writers introduce women who kick serious ass, too. 

I've been around strong women my entire life. My grandmother still drove at age 86, and my mother kept control of her finances until a stroke incapacitate her at age 83. My sister and I didn't know she was a millionaire until I gained power of attorney only months before she passed away. My sister was the valedictorian (and ace softball pitcher) at her private school--where she won the state Latin prize twice--and graduated from Harvard law School. The family joke when she's out of earshot is that she got the brains and I got the looks.

Those are the role models I grew up with, not to mention several of my teachers.


When I drifted into theater, I met many strong and intteligent actresses (my wife, of course), one of whom I met through her brother, who was a member of Mensa. I directed twenty productions in several theaters, all with a female stage manager and several with a female producer. If you don't do community theater, you should know that the stage manager is the absolute boss in the building while a show is in production, and that the producer oversees finances and all personnel working on a show, although I hand-picked my tech crew.

My favorite lighting designer, lights technician (also a great actress), and sound technician were women. So was our theater photographer for several years. That lights designer started as one of my favorite stage managers and became an excellent director, too. And wrote a couple of short plays.

Women tend to be smarter than me--the men on the blog are an exception, of course--possibly because the last several centuries have forced them to find creative and flexible ways to get around restrictive rules made by men (See me avoid getting political here). The could shop, take care of the house and kids, maybe even balance the household budget and pay the bills, and maybe haold a part-time job, but they couldn't vote. Directly.

These women certainly influenced my writing. I can't take a bimbo character serioulsy, and the helpless damsel makes me squirm. My characters like puppies, kittens, cooking (within reason) and sex, but several of them have concealed-carry permits.


Shoobie Dube, Rasheena Maldonado and Valerie Karpelinski are or were police officers at one time. Valerie stripped to earn her college tuition, and that helped her learn to read people, especially men. She and Rasheena are also bi-lingual. Severa of my favorite characters skate in roller derby under names like Annebelle Lector, Grace Anatomy, Ginger Slap, Denver Mint Julep, Raisin Cain, or Desolation Rose. 

Few of my short stories really qualify as "noir," and two that feature viewpoint female protagonists are still awaiting publication, one not for about another year. But my first seven published short stories all feature a woman who commits a crime. Sometimes, it's not murder...exactly.

I have interesting imaginary friends.

26 September 2021

So I was Thinking


So, anyway, I was thinking that maybe I should expand my field of writing and possibly try some new markets. I could always write some horror short stories and see how that went, but to enter that market, I would need to come up with something fresh and really scary from what's already out there. Nah, better not, I like to sleep at night.

Maybe I could try for the sci-fi market. The problem with that genre is my my knowledge of space technology is minimal, so I'd probably be limited to writing space opera and dodging incoming from those readers and editors questioning what little science I did use in my stories.

Well, there is one subgenre under the mystery umbrella which I haven't tried yet. The Private Investigator story. Guess the main reason I haven't wandered into that market is my need to find a new angle into a PI story. Seems that some angles have been used so many times that they have become a cliche. You know what I mean, the PI who is an alcoholic, is retired from or fired from the local police department, divorced, disgraced, has one buddy still on the force who gives him case details, has a certain hobby, is handicapped in some manner (whether it is physical, mental or a language barrier), etc.

I think the last innovative angle I've read was by Dave Zeltserman when he invented a micro-computer with a personality named Archie. Archie, disguised as a tie tac, researched records by hacking into computer systems, answered the business phone and gave advice to his (protagonist) PI, all while bringing him clues. So, then I'm wondering what's left to be fresh and new.

In an e-mail discussion with John Floyd, in which I mentioned all of the above, John was gracious enough to provide me with a copy of his PI story in Black Cat Mystery Magazine. His "Mustang Sally" had just won the Shamus Award for Best Short Story. In that story, his PI was just an Average Joe trying to get by, but the story did have a great twist to the ending, and that is probably why it won the award. So, maybe the PI didn't have to be someone or something special, if it was a really good story. Point taken.

Next step forward. As luck would have it, a guy (Steve Pease) in our MWA chapter carpool is a licensed Private Investigator in the state of Colorado. Not only that, but he also recently taught a twelve lesson course on PIs to a local chapter of another national writers group. And for a small negotiated fee, somehow involving a quantity of wine, plus me being a fellow carpool member, retired law enforcement agent and current friend, I could take a gander at his lesson plans. Turned out to be very interesting information, plus it came with war stories for examples. Great stuff.

So now I'm thinking, with all this material, I'm gonna brainstorm me a PI short story.

Look out Shamus Awards. Here I come.

25 September 2021

Ditching the Day Job: When Your Hobby Becomes Your Work, What Then?


Like many young writers, I had a dream…

Ditch the day-job and become a pro!  Write fiction novels that make enough money to support my simple lifestyle without needing a second income from another job.

As a dream, it was a big one.  The stats on writers' incomes are scary across the globe: I read that in England, the average fiction novelist with a traditional publisher makes less than 4000 pounds a year, down dramatically from the 1990s.  That translates to approximately $8000 a year Canadian, which might cover the costs of your nosh for a year, if it isn't too posh.  But forget living in your car for shelter, because you won't be able to afford the parking.

It took me twenty years of writing to be able to ditch my day job and live the dream.  That was several years ago now, and as I look forward to the release of my seventeenth novel, I want to talk about a curious issue that never occurred to me when I was yearning for the life of a professional author.

When your hobby becomes your work, what do you do for fun?

It's great to do something you love for your work. But in doing so, you lose that hobby that consumed you for so many years.   

In past decades, I wrote for pleasure.  I wrote when I wanted to, and when I was inspired to.  It was the ultimate escape.

Now, life is very different.  The deadlines loom.  You end up having to write when you don't feel like it, and when you aren't writing particularly well.  Which is what work is all about.   

And I've discovered, no matter what you do for a living, no matter how much you like it, we all need a break from work.  More so, we need something to take our minds off the novel in progress. 

So a colleague suggests to me:  why not relive the excitement of those early writing days?

You could write something else for a hobby.

I loved writing short stories.  And I still write at least one a year.  But that can't be my hobby. 

Like so many people in late middle age (stop laughing,) if I am on the computer eight hours a day writing mystery novels, and responding to all the promotional requirements of being an author, the last thing I want to do is spend more time on computers.  My fingers hurt.  My eyes are dry and achy.

Also important:  this hobby is needed to take my mind off my work.  Doing more of the same (creating fiction) doesn't cut it.  

That's the problem I am facing.  For most of my working life, I had stressful jobs in health care.  For relief from that, I turned to writing.  And writing was a fabulous hobby.  

But now that writing books is my work, I am without a hobby.  And I find it hard to find a new interest to obsess me so late in life.  Yes, I read, knit a bit, bake.  But none of those are obsessions the way writing was.

 The search for a hobby.

My LIL (live in lover) also known as the Emergency Contact, is a fanatic golfer.  He tells me that all the pro golfers work on their game every day like the full time job it is.  But that's their work, and they do other things for fun.  Some fish, for example.

Fellow Canadian Linwood Barclay makes the bestseller lists everywhere.  In his downtime, he has a world-class model railway system in his home that gives him pleasure and satisfaction outside of our frantic author world.

Friend and colleague Vicki Delany does jigsaw puzzles. And I mean billion-piece, gorgeous puzzles that should be framed and displayed as art.  She says: 

"It clears my mind completely. I find that I never think about my books or my writing when I'm working on one."

That's what I'm missing now.  A hobby that will take me out of my work, so that I can return refreshed and invigorated.  Something besides eating (at which, granted, I am simply world-class.)

Trickier than I thought.  It's sort of like when you try to find a new best friend later in life.  Most people have had their best friend for decades, just as they've had their beloved hobbies.

So all you out there who think you'd like to make the move from part-time to full time, think about it carefully before you make the jump.  At the very least, go into it with clearer eyes than I did.

Do I regret it?  Not a whistle!  This is what I was meant to do, and finally, I'm doing it.  

But damn, I'd love to add something fun to my life to take the place of the glorious hobby I once had.

Anybody else facing the same dilemma?  I'd love to hear from other plotters on this!

Melodie's latest book, The Merry Widow Murders, will be out in May 2022.  If you've read the mob caper series starting with The Goddaughter, you'll get a kick out of meeting Gina Gallo's great-grandmother in this new series!

24 September 2021

Hi, This Is Uber...


Uber ride
Source: uber.com

My current side gig is Uber. Not sure how much longer that's going to last as I'm in job transition. By the time you read this, I'm probably in my final week as an employee at my current company, hopefully becoming a contractor as I move on to…

Well, it's the 2020s, so a new place to login to every morning, with a couple of afternoons in the office. But for now, I Uber. I will drive Uber tonight after you read this and tomorrow night.

There's kind of a Bob Ross quality to driving rideshare. This is your car. You make the rules. Not that Uber doesn't have rules. They ding you for declining or canceling rides. Passengers can affect your ratings and your earnings. But we rate the passengers, too. I know some drivers who go out of their way to make passengers earn a five-star rating. I don't. They're my customers. I start them with five stars, and unless they do something spectacularly bad, they end their trip with all five. I have hard, fast rules that can result in someone getting kicked out of my car, but in all the time I've been doing this, I haven't had to. It's probably luck, but every rule has a source.

The last time someone failed to get a five star from me, he objected to my playing jazz on the ride. That, in and of itself, is not bad. Sooner or later, someone's not going to like the music. Unfortunately, his only answer to what genre of music he wanted was "Good music." After flipping to three different radio stations, he could only ask why I couldn't play good music. New rule. If a passenger can't tell me what he or she likes, I pull up King Crimson's entire Larks' Tongues in Aspic suite - All 45 minutes of it recorded over a 30-year period - and declare the subject closed. Like a lot of incidents, I doubt this will be repeated. It wasn't a ride-ending incident, but it added a level of aggravation I hadn't seen since driving the "Zombie Apocalypse." The ride, however, got worse.

The Zombie Apocalypse is what I call the midnight to 3am stretch on Saturday nights. I used to work it most weekends as it's quite lucrative. It also provides the best opportunity for someone to get sick in your car. People are not at their best. They're also fodder for stories since most passengers ask, "Got any stories of rides?" I tell them five percent of passengers are bad apples. They get to be entertainment for the other ninety-five percent.

In one case, I relayed a story to a guy about a drunk two weeks previously. He realized I was talking about him. I don't really see faces, so I didn't know. I picked up the gent from a bar in Clifton, the neighborhood surrounding the University of Cincinnati. When we established he, indeed, was the subject of the story, I said, "Look, tell your friends the Uber guy told you a funny story about a drunk he picked up from your favorite bar. No one has to know you're the drunk, just that the story's funny." He liked that. 

You would think the Zombie Apocalypse would have its share of ride-ending incidents, and most of my rules for staying in the car come from earlier shifts that time of night. But I have learned watching cops over the years to use "the voice" to keep people in line. Because, having been the zombie myself in my younger days, I know that's not easy after five shots of Cuervo and a dozen beers. Most people listen. 

The rides I wish I'd have handled differently actually came earlier in the day. One in particular still bothers me. I got a call to Short Vine, a street near the university. The passenger gave his pickup spot as Bogart's, a well-known concert venue. I pull up in front of Bogart's. No show. I call. Across the street, I see a guy with his girlfriend answer his phone and looking straight at me. "This is Uber. I'm here." Behind me, a cop is yelling for me to move.

This is something you need to understand when you call Uber or Lyft: Police win all arguments. If they say move, you move. Period. End of discussion. My passenger wasn't having it.

"No, you're not," he sneered, still looking right at me.

Meanwhile, the cop is off his motorcycle and has that flashlight out with the strobe on it. Time to go. 

"Sir," I said, thinking something more obscene, "I am looking right at you." I had the window down now so the cop could hear my predicament. "You have thirty seconds to get across the street and get in the car, or the ride's canceled. You can take it up with the officer walking up behind me."

The cop slowed but still approached. The guy dragged his girlfriend behind him and got in the car.

Before he could say word one, I looked at the officer and said, "I'm tempted to let you have this guy."

The cop said nothing as I put the car in gear. 

The girl in the back looked a bit dazed. The boyfriend, who already landed squarely on my bad side, began talking smack about her. Would I want to be with her? Awkward descriptions of her anatomy. At the time, I had no guidance from Uber, but in retrospect, I wish I'd booted him from the car and asked the girl if she wanted to go somewhere. Later, Uber told us some subtle ways to short-circuit those situations: Turn up the music, change the subject, or point-blank ask the woman if she really wants to be there.

For the most part, though, people like jazz. If they don't talk, they ride quietly. And since the pandemic, that job has actually been fun. Except for Mr. Good Music. That guy can walk next time.

23 September 2021

The Neverending Saga


Many of you, and even myself, had thought that the Ravnsborg saga had come to a miserable squibbling end, but the saga continues.  Back in January 27, 2020 at the Aberdeen City Council meeting our Attorney General Jammin' Jason bragged – and I am not joking – "One thing I'm good at, it's driving" (see Here).  This quote has not held up well.  Besides killing Joe Boever on that fateful September 12, 2020 night, JJ has racked up some speeding tickets. His latest was on August 23, 2021, four days before his plea deal:  

Footage from a deputy sheriff’s body camera shows Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg being pulled over for speeding in Pierre last month.

“Good evening,” the Hughes County deputy says.

“Good evening,” Ravnsborg responds.

“The reason I stopped you is because you’re doing 57 in a 35. Any reason for your speed?” the deputy asks.

Ravnsborg, driving his personal vehicle, hands over his insurance and registration but says he’s missing something.

“Yeah, I don’t have my license with me,” he says.  (NPR)


BTW, here in South Dakota, the unwritten rule of speeding is that you can go 5-10 miles above the 55/65 mph speed limit in between towns (there's a lot of fairly empty land in South Dakota), but when you hit town you go the speed limit.  57 in a 35 mph zone means AG JJ was driving almost 60 mph in a city - the capitol city of South Dakota.  And without a license.  This really is straight from the "you can't make this up" files.  We all breathlessly await what kind of fine he'll get.  If any.  

Then again - people are pissed.  

Governor Kristi Noem and the South Dakota Department of Public Safety handed the full investigation file over to to South Dakota Speaker of the House Spencer Gosch. Noem is pressuring the Legislature to impeach Ravnsborg.  (Here)

Secretary of the Department of Public Safety Secretary Craig Price, in a cover letter to Gosch that also was released, summarized the report, and sharply criticized the prosecution:

“In my opinion as a 24-year law enforcement officer, and in the opinion of the highly trained highway patrol officers involved in this investigation, Mr. Ravnsborg should have been charged with 2nd Degree Manslaughter,” Price wrote. “The prosecution team was well aware of that position. The South Dakota Highway Patrol stood ready and willing to provide expert testimony regarding the crash and the facts of this investigation at trial, a position that was also made clear to the prosecutor.”  (Mitchell Republic)

Meanwhile, the South Dakota Fraternal Order of Police and the Police Chiefs' and Sheriffs' associations said in a joint press release on Friday, that "we are unified in requesting Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg resign as South Dakota Attorney General.  Ravnsborg’s involvement in the death of Joe Boever on September 12th have resulted in a lack of confidence in his ability to effectively carry out his duties as the chief law enforcement officer in South Dakota.  We are not commenting on the pending criminal case or impeachment process as we recognize his right to due process."  (RCJ)

And he still might not get impeached:  From The South Dakota Standard: 

A powerful insider told me last week that most of them have no special feelings for Ravnsborg. He is not one of them, and they hold no regard for him. But he is a Republican, and it will produce bad publicity for him, the state and the party.  Frankly, they just want it to go away as quietly as possible. If that means Ravnsborg serves until the end of 2022 — based on the belief that he will not be renominated for a second term, much less elected to one — that is what they would prefer.

Maybe.  But people are really pissed.  

Meanwhile, though, I've been thinking about something else which relates to the death of Joseph Boever and many other mysterious deaths in South Dakota, something that links them all, that seems plausible enough, until you start counting it all up - and that is the accusation or ruling of suicide.

Back on November 1, 2004, Morgan Lewis, German professor at Northern State University in Aberdeen was found dead at the doorway from a gunshot wound to the back of his head. Obvious homicide, right? And the coroner did call it a homicide. "But a year and a half later, it was declared a suicide, After a year and a half of haggling among officials, the police declared it a suicide. This declaration was made after some kind of expert organization was called in to examine the case. The report of that organization on which the decision was based was withheld from the public."  (Northern Valley Beacon)

Pro tip: It's almost impossible to commit suicide by shooting yourself in the back of the head.

Or by shooting yourself with a shotgun to the gut (in a lonely field, btw), as was determined by then  Attorney General Marty Jackley about Richard Benda, who - as soon as he was declared dead by suicide - was blamed for embezzling all the missing money in the EB-5 visas for cash scandal in 2013.  

(NOTE:  EB-5, the only immigrant program in the US that allowed a person to buy citizenship for $500,000, is officially, for now, dead, having not been renewed by Congress in June.  See HERE)

And I still don't buy the "shot his family and himself and set fire to the house while the safe walked out the door like a pet potbellied pig" with regard to the Westerhuis tragedy.  
(see my SleuthSayers posts "A Little Light Corruption" about both the Benda and Westerhuis cases HERE and my "Halloween Ain't Over by a Long Shot" update on the Westerhuis case HERE)

And, of course, Mr. Ravnsborg planned to use the "victim threw himself into my car and through my windshield" suicide defense.  If Ravnsborg hadn't done a plea deal, and he'd gotten away with the suicide defense, that would have been the fourth high-profile death in South Dakota declared a suicide while the rest of us stand around with our mouths open going, "WTF?"  

Which makes me wonder, how many more "suicides" in this state... weren't?  

I might have to do a little research.  If I do, I'll let you know what I find out.