03 June 2022

Amish Mafia. In COLOR!


Amish Mafia
Source: Discovery Networks

 So about eight or nine years ago, Discovery ran a show supposedly about The Amish Mafia. It centered on a Lancaster, PA man named Levi who never entered the faith but was tasked with "collecting" for an Amish benevolent society. His methods were... um... questionable. Part of the show took place in Holmes County, Ohio and centered on a religious zealot named Merlin, who would declare to the camera that "Amish do not..." whatever it is had his dander up that particular moment.

In interviews, Merlin would boast about how he was a wanted man in Holmes and nearby Stark County. 

Yeah. About that.

I am tangentially related to the sheriff in Holmes County. He was the one who got word back to my family that my dad died. His niece is my first cousin once removed. And her grandmother (my aunt) grew up Amish. So, what did the sheriff of Holmes County think of one of his most dangerous citizens having a reality show?

"Honestly, I never heard of him until this show came on the air."

It gets better. My cousin knows all about the Amish not only from her grandmother but from spending a good chunk of her childhood in Holmes County. You can't not do business with them, nor would you want to try. Fire wood, food, furniture, these are things they excel at and sell to us "English". Plus, they're the neighbors. Usually, good neighbors. So when my cousin tuned into this show listening to Merlin pontificate about what is and isn't Amish (or better still, watching Levi tool around greater Philadelphia in a Cadillac Bruce Wayne would love to retrofit for his fleet of Batmobiles), let's just say her head exploded.

My personal favorite was Merlin declaring, "The Amish do not drink!"

I heard some snickering coming from the direction of a cemetery in nearby Fredericksburg, where my parents are buried. In fact, given that I was in suburban Cincinnati at the time, I'd say it was a hearty guffaw from beyond the grave by my late father. Dad once informed me that the Amish not only drank beer, but they brew their own. And apparently, steeped in German purity laws (for they are German and Swiss), their beer will knock you on your ass. (And they don't sell it, which kind of sucks as I haven't known any Amish on a first-name basis since about 1990.) The Amish do indulge in a lot of things Merlin declares are just not done. But Amish communities are so insular and segregated that guys like Levi and Merlin can make a bullshit show depicting a supposed Mafia (of which both considered themselves dons.) 

In the interest of diversity, some of those on the show were Mennonites, 'cuz Mennonites have cars and electricity. However...

Quite a few have televisions. I assume not that many watched Amish Mafia. And then there are the Brethren. The show has them wearing a lot of flannel, suspenders, driving older cars, and basically being Amish for the twenty-first century.

Uh huh.

Allow me to set the record straight. I grew up Brethren. At the age of four, I discovered Star Trek when my parents subscribed to cable (In a valley. You watched cable or the NFL wasn't happening.) and bought one of those large color TVs that were basically furniture. My dad drove a 1971 Fairlane he bought new. Mom listened to Johnny Cash and Elvis. When I came of age, I blasted KISS and Blondie.

So, how does a Brethren family get away with that if Amish Mafia says their Amish-lite?

If you haven't picked up on it by now, Levi (who is also executive producer of the show. Hmm...) and Merlin are selling a fantasy. I suspect one or both of them read a lot of Elmore Leonard. Too bad we're not getting Justified out of the deal. Now that was a show. The Brethren do, in fact, have their roots in what's called the Anabaptist tradition. Which also gave us the Baptists. Who drive new cars, stream, and listen to a lot of Blake Shelton and Imagine Dragons. The Brethren are more Baptist-lite than Amish-lite. Indeed, my parents walked away because they leaned into the hippie movement more, and they wanted to be more traditional. The pastor when I was in junior high went to Woodstock, argued about the merits of Deep Purple with me (He was more a coffee-house acoustic guy), and was trying to restore a battered Alfa Romeo in his spare time.

In other words, they were no more bizarre than your office coworkers. (Bad example. Some of my coworkers over the years have left me questioning my own sanity.) 

Amish Mafia reached peak absurdity after it was canceled by Discovery. Levi and Merlin decided to appear on Dr. Phil so Phil could mediate their "dispute." They basically took over the show, which is the only time I actually sympathized with Dr. Phil. 

More recently, I sent out a novel for a read before I do final revisions and give it to my publisher. I got the most curious note back. "Is there really an Amish mafia?"

There's probably something like it, but, as the actual Sicilian mafia would say, "Our thing is secret." The Amish struggle with the same things as everyone else, which means someone somewhere in one of the communities is exploiting the culture's rigid customs to their advantage. It's hard to say because they don't call the police until it gets beyond their capacity to deal with it. Plus, with few phones (usually a community phone or an English neighbor's mobile), 911 is not the push of a button it is for most of us. 

But most Amish I've known over the years are honest, hardworking, and shrewd. I'd venture to say that my cousins with the formerly Amish mother got their business sense from them. Two of the brothers run a thriving angus farm that took over for their father's dairy operation while the oldest is a real estate wizard.

And not a Levi in sight. Unfortunately, because Merlin prowls my old stomping grounds in NE Ohio, I'll probably run into him at some point.

Maybe I'll ask him if he can get me Dr. Pimple Popper's autograph. My young cousin will think that's hilarious.


02 June 2022

Let's Talk About the Laws


Evil begins when you begin to treat people as things— (Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight)

In the wake of the tragedy at Uvalde, I am seriously disheartened (and thoroughly pissed, I might add) by the number of people whose first reaction has been some variation of, "YOU'RE NOT TOUCHING MY GUNS!"  Cold dead hands, and all that.  

“It takes a monster to kill children. But to watch monsters kill children again and again and do nothing isn’t just insanity—it’s inhumanity.” — Amanda Gorman

The other major reaction is "We already have the most regulated guns in the world!" which is hogwash, and/or "We have lots of laws, we just need to enforce them!"

But do we really have such strict laws? I thought I'd check into it, and the short answer is "No.  No, we don't."

BACKGROUND CHECKS

Let's start off with background checks.  88% of Americans support enhanced background checks. Our not-so-friendly 2nd Amendment absolutists tell us we already have that. So what kind of background checks do we have right now?  

The 1993 Brady Bill "prohibits certain persons from shipping or transporting any firearm in interstate or foreign commerce, or receiving any firearm which has been shipped or transported in interstate or foreign commerce, or possessing any firearm in or affecting commerce. These prohibitions apply to any person who:

  • Has been convicted in any court of a crime punishable by imprisonment for a term exceeding one year;
  • Is a fugitive from justice;
  • Is an unlawful user of or addicted to any controlled substance;
  • Has been adjudicated as a mental defective or committed to a mental institution;
  • Is an alien illegally or unlawfully in the United States;
  • Has been discharged from the Armed Forces under dishonorable conditions;
  • Having been a citizen of the United States, has renounced U.S. citizenship;
  • Is subject to a court order that restrains the person from harassing, stalking, or threatening an intimate partner or child of such intimate partner, or;
  • Has been convicted in any court of a misdemeanor crime of domestic violence.

(Some people bring up the NICS Improvement Amendments Act of 2007, but it was repealed by the Trump administration in 2017, so I'm not even going to get into that.)

Anyway, the Brady Bill sounds really good, doesn't it?  Except there are loopholes. LOTS of loopholes:

The Reporting Hole:

Some places don't forward the records.  

State and local agencies are not required by law to report criminal records to the FBI.  In most cases, local agencies don’t have a system in place for submitting the names of people with restraining orders or domestic violence convictions to the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS) — so those names simply aren’t entered.  

And, even when reported, well: Just because someone’s name is not entered in NICS doesn’t necessarily mean that a federal gun background check reviewer wouldn’t raise a red flag at the point of sale. That’s because background checkers also check two other databases, the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) and the Interstate Identification Index, which contain more arrest records. But those records aren’t always complete, and may require further investigation by the reviewer. For example, they don’t always indicate whether an arrest was followed by a conviction. Or a court record might not specify the relationship between perpetrator and victim. If tracking down that information takes more than 72 hours, a gun dealer can make the sale anyway.   (The Trace)  (my emphasis added)

And while Federal agencies - like the military - are required by law to report them, in 2014 the Inspector General found that the Defense Department was still not reporting them.  10 years of not reporting. In 2015, they still weren't reporting 30% of them.  And the service branches do not have a dedicated office that handles such notifications (NYTimes).  

NOTE:  Under the military code, there is no such charge as domestic violence.

Also, various city, county, and state law enforcement agencies often do not report convictions for domestic violence, stalking, harrassing, etc., specifically because they would take away the right to carry a firearm, and guess what a lot of law enforcement do every day?  Yep. So they're off the grid, too.

The National Database Loophole:

There is no national database of who's bought what gun(s).  And that's ALWAYS been opposed by the NRA. 

Meanwhile, many of anti-abortion states want to set up a state / national database of women's menstrual periods, via tapping Planned Parenthood information (which Missouri actually has already done LINK), and various smart devices and hospital records (just in case you got a D&C for a miscarriage and not an abortion, you're going to have to prove it).  No national gun registry, but by God, let's register all women's most intimate health cycles. Next thing you know, I'll have to have a doctor's notarized statement that I'm past menopause to cross state lines - oh, yeah, they're working on laws to stop pregnant women from doing exactly that.  

Call me cynical, but I get the feeling that the GOP considers all gunowners as potential heroes, but all women as potential criminals - and legislate accordingly. 

The Gun Show Loophole:

Only gun dealers have to do background checks. Private sellers don't have to do any background checks at all, whether at gun shows, parking lots, neighbors, Internet, private ads, etc. And your relatives can buy you any gun(s) they want. 

The Who You Are Loophole:

The Boyfriend Loophole - Federal domestic violence laws don’t include people who never lived with, or had a child with, the perpetrator. Known as the “boyfriend loophole,” the omission allows many abusers to buy guns even if there’s been a violent assault that leads to a criminal conviction. About a third of states have laws that aim to bridge this gap, but that leaves 2/3rds off the grid.

The Sibling Loophole - Under federal law, the abuse of a sibling doesn’t trigger a gun ban.  

The Stalker Loophole - Stalkers convicted of misdemeanor crimes are not prohibited by federal law from buying or possessing guns. According to a 1999 study, 76 percent of women who were murdered by intimate partners were first stalked by their killer.  (The Trace)  

GHOST GUNS:

"Domestic terrorists and racially motivated extremists are increasingly arming themselves with homemade, untraceable “ghost guns,” a threat that is now a top public safety concern for law enforcement, according to a leaked U.S. government report.

"The six-page report by the Joint Counterterrorism Assessment Team — a coalition of federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies, including the FBI — warns that such extremist groups are gravitating to guns and gun accessories that can be made using do-it-yourself kits or 3D printers. Ghost guns can be acquired without background checks and their lack of serial numbers makes them nearly impossible to trace, complicating criminal investigations."  (The Trace)

73% of Americans support a plan to enforce safety measures on the sale and procurement of ghost guns.

NRA Stance: "The Constitution does not authorize the federal government to prevent you from making your own firearm. This a fact that has been recognized for 200+ years." (Fox)
My Note:  Got news for you, NRA. Our Founding Fathers weren't sitting around making their own muzzle-loaders and dueling pistols. They bought them, like everyone else did.  

AGE LIMITS ON GUNS:

72% of Americans support the idea of raising the legal age to buy a gun from 18 to 21 years old.

BUT:  "Federal law allows people as young as 18 to buy long guns, including rifles and shotguns, and only a handful of states have enacted laws raising the minimum age to 21. There’s no federal minimum age for the possession of long guns, meaning it’s legal to give one to a minor in more than half the country....
"44 states that allow 18-year-olds to buy long guns, including semiautomatic rifles, according to Giffords Law Center, which tracks state and federal gun laws. Only six states have raised their long gun purchasing age to 21: California, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Vermont, and Washington State. Americans are meanwhile not allowed to purchase alcohol or cigarettes until they are 21."  (The Trace)

Informational:  Since Columbine, there have been 244 school shootings, with more than 311,000 students involved. 185 children, educators and other people have been killed in assaults, and another 369 have been injured.  7 in 10 of the shooters were under 18, which means some adult gave them at least one weapon, or access to it.  (Wapo) and (AP)  

Also, there are no federal restrictions on how many guns you can own. Thus, Texas has no restrictions on how many guns you can own, but it does limit ownership of sex toys to six (section 43.23 of Texas’ penal code).  

ASSAULT WEAPONS:

The Federal Assault Weapons Ban was a ten-year ban enacted in 1994, which included a prohibition on the manufacture for civilian use of certain semi-automatic firearms that were defined as assault weapons as well as certain ammunition magazines that were defined as large capacity. When it expired in 2004, attempts were made to renew it, but they all failed. (Wikipedia)

When the assault weapons ban was lifted in 2004, a there were 400,000 AR-15 style rifles in America at that time. Today, there are at least 20 million. 

Banning assault-style weapons: Sixty-seven percent strongly or somewhat support; 25% strongly or somewhat oppose.  (Politico)  

OPEN / CONCEALED CARRY:

25 states allow permitless concealed carry.
39 states allow permitless open carry. 

RED FLAG LAWS:

Red Flag Laws permit police or family members to petition a state court to order the temporary removal of firearms from a person who may present a danger to others or themselves. You would think this would be an obvious gun safety practice - Gov. Abbott (TX) and the entire GOP have been making major speeches about dealing with "the mental health crisis" in this country. 

Meanwhile, Gov. Abbott and the Texas Legislature passed a law eliminating ANY permit requirement for guns — and then slashed $211 million from Texas’s mental health budget.  

So far only 19 states have some kind of Red Flag law in place, but Oklahoma has an anti-red flag law. The law specifically "prohibits the state or any city, county or political subdivision from enacting red flag laws."  And South Dakota's own Governor Kristi Noem proudly announced:

"In 2020, I blocked bills proposing unconstitutional red-flag laws to strip citizens of their right to bear arms. The following year, I signed “stand your ground” legislation, and I further protected your right to purchase guns and ammo during emergency declarations. This year, I repealed all concealed carry permit fees for state residents, which is necessary to remain in good legal standing in other states with stricter gun laws. It won’t cost you a penny to exercise your 2nd Amendment rights." (LINK)  (Emphasis added)

NOTE: BTW, "Stand Your Ground" legislation, as I have said before, specifically denies people prosecutorial immunity under SYG if “[t]he person against whom the defensive force is used or threatened has the right to be in or is a lawful resident of the dwelling, [or] residence . . . such as an owner, lessee, or titleholder, and there is not an injunction for protection from domestic violence or a written pretrial supervision of no contact order against that person.” I.e., a victim of domestic abuse can't claim SYG if it's her husband. Or her father. 

So welcome to a major Catch-22:  Federal Background Check laws don't cover boyfriends or stalkers or siblings, and SYG doesn't cover spouses or fathers.  Ladies, you're screwed.  (Read more at Treason's True Bed.)

AND FINALLY,  A SHORT HISTORY OF THE NRA:

Up until the 1970s the NRA actually opposed private ownership of guns. 

Karl Frederick, NRA president in 1934, during the congressional NFA (National Firearms Act) hearings testified "I have never believed in the general practice of carrying weapons. I seldom carry one. ... I do not believe in the general promiscuous toting of guns. I think it should be sharply restricted and only under licenses." The NRA supported both the National Firearms Act of 1934 and the Gun Control Act of 1968 (enacted after the assassinations of RFK and MLK Jr.), which created a system to federally license gun dealers and established restrictions on particular categories and classes of firearms. 

NOTE:  The 1967 California Mulford Act, which prohibited open carry of loaded firearms, was a direct result of increasing gun ownership among black people, especially members of the Black Panthers. It was supported 100% by the NRA. Governor Ronald Reagan signed the bill, and said he saw "no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons" and that guns were a "ridiculous way to solve problems that have to be solved among people of good will." In a later press conference, Reagan added that the Mulford Act "would work no hardship on the honest citizen."  (HISTORY) and (WIKIPEDIA)

And then in the late 1970s a faction of the NRA decided to go political, heavily backing the GOP and promoting the idea of a personal right to own private weapons. It took a while, but in 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller became the first Supreme Court case to decide whether the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms for self-defense or if the right was intended for state militias. They plumped for self-defense.  (NRA)

There's a long 200+ year stretch between the Founding Fathers and the we must have the right to own every type of firearm and carry it wherever we want to at all times line.

Sigh…

From the Conservative Response Archives:

"As harsh as this sounds—your dead kids don't trump my Constitutional rights … We still have the Right to Bear Arms … Any feelings you have toward my rights being taken away from me, lose those." Joe Wurzelbacher, a/k/a Joe the Plumber, after the 2014 Isla Vista killings (killed 6, injured 14).

I guess he warned us where this was going. But there's no way on God's sweet green earth that I'm going to agree with it.

So, gun bans and confiscation? A disarmed, defenseless, and compliant population, whose security and freedom are simply dependent on the goodwill of others? Is that where you'd like to take us?

(1) See the Reagan quote above and (2) Actually, yes, I would like to see us dependent on the goodwill of others, the way we used to be not that long ago.  And considering this was posted on a conservative Christian website, all I can say is his church is woefully poor at reading the Gospels. 

A pencil can be an assault weapon.

But you can't kill as many with one as you can with an AR-15, can you?

"More than ever, we're held hostage by the pro-life American ethos: Life begins at conception and ends with a Second Amendment execution." — Dick Polman

What the hell has happened to us?

01 June 2022

Today in Mystery History: June 1



Today we have the 11th episode in our continuing celebration of the history of our field.  Enjoy.

June 1, 1879. Freeman Wills Crofts was born this day in Dublin, Ireland. He was a railroad engineer and an interest (or obsession) with railroad timetables showed up in many of his novels.  (Monty Python did a sketch I can't find on Youtube which is clearly a parody of  Crofts.)

June 1, 1923.  An important day indeed!  The issue of Black Mask with this date featured Carroll John Daly's story "Knights of the Open Palm." It is the first appearance by Race Williams, who is recognized as the first hardboiled private eye character.

June 1, 1929.  Thriller Magazine featured "The Judgement of the Joker," apparently the first short story to feature Lesley Charteris' immortal character Simon Templar, alias The Saint.


June 1, 1934.
Dime Detective featured "The Corpse Control" by John Lawrence.  It stars New York private eye Cass Blue.  Kevin Burton Smith said the Blue stories were "all rendered in pulpster Lawrence's trademark first person, over-boiled prose style, full of gunflights and plot holes."

June 1, 1950. Michael McDowell was born in Enterprise, Alabama.  He co-wrote several mystery novels with Dennis Schuetz under the name Nathan Aldyne.  He also wrote a very weird series of detective books about Jack and Susan, who never age.  He is probably best known for a non-mystery screenplay: Beetlejuice.

June 1, 1959. Sax Rohmer died in London.  Born Arthur Henry Ward, he became famous for inventing the ultimate sinister Oriental, Dr. Fu Manchu.  For obvious reasons, his works are not held in high regard today.  Ironically (?) he died of the Asian Flu.

June 1, 1968.  Not really mystery, but maybe mystery adjacent?  On this date Patrick McGoohan's  fascinating, infuriating, spy-science-fiction-sui-generis-none-of-the-above TV series, The Prisoner, made its American debut on CBS.  It looks dated today, but it was a stunning piece of storytelling for its time.


June 1, 1969.
The front page of the New York Times Book Review  was a rhapsodic review of Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer novel The Underground Man, crafted by famous screenwriter William Goldman.  It was supposedly a deliberate attempt by editor John Leonard to promote his favorite mystery writer to bestseller-dom and recognition as a major mainstream writer.  The review achieved at least the first goal. 

June 1, 1991.  The publication date for The Summer of the Danes, Ellis Peters' eighteenth medieval mystery featuring Brother Cadfael.

June 1, 2021.  The Bombay Prince, Sujata Massey's third novel of 1920s India, was published.  It was nominated for the Agatha Award for Best Historical Mystery.


31 May 2022

Where I Write


Even after a half-day spent
cleaning, my desk is still
a mess.

Over the years, I’ve written in many places, most often a room in my home that is (or was) a dedicated office, though when I was single and living in a one-bedroom apartment, the dedicated writing space took up a significant part of the living room and, for a few years when my children were small and my home didn’t have enough rooms, my writing space occupied half of the master bedroom.

Back in the early days of personal computers, I kept a few works-in-progress on a floppy disk that I kept in my briefcase. During my lunch hour, I would slip the floppy into my work computer and bang out a page or two. I still sometimes write away from home (or thumb-type notes into my cell phone), but home has always been, and remains, my primary writing location. Part of the reason is that I’ve been tethered to desktop computers. My first portable computer was far too heavy to tote around. My first laptop computer had a flakey battery life and would never stay connected to my desktop when I tried to work from other rooms in the house.

A month ago, the entire
table was filled with
works-in-progress.

When Temple and I married almost seven years ago, I sold my home and moved into hers, and my office moved, too, from a bedroom in my home to a bedroom in hers, and that room has been my writing center ever since. Unfortunately, try as I might, I can never keep my desk as neat and organized as I would like. Every so often, I clean everything off, filing what’s important, discarding what isn’t, and doing my best to maintain a welcoming writing environment.

This past December I purchased a new laptop computer, hoping to break free of my desktop, and it may have worked too well. During the first few months of this year, I was working on five book-length projects at the same time. I needed space to spread out all my research materials, notes, and so on, and I took over the dining room table. By the end of April, I had delivered all five projects, but my laptop computer and various projects still occupy half the table.

My new outdoor office, easier
to keep neat because a
stiff breeze will blow
everything away.

Earlier this week, Temple purchased a chaise lounge for the back porch, and for a few hours each day since its arrival, I’ve parked myself and my laptop in it. (It’s where I sit right now, Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, drafting this SleuthSayers post.) While sitting out here, I’ve read submissions to current editing projects, and I’ve written part of a novella. The sunlight, fresh air, and minimal distractions are a nice change from the underlit bedroom office with distractions everywhere I turn.

This morning, Temple decided that my outdoor workspace needing sprucing up, so we cleaned off the porch, rearranged the outdoor furniture, and turned this into an inviting environment.

I think she’s hoping I’ll get all my stuff off the dining room table.

Maybe I will, or maybe I now have three writing spaces to choose from.

30 May 2022

Crime Fiction Rules: Rules, Schmules


At the Short Mystery Fiction Society's Watercooler, the group's monthly Zoom gathering, as well as on its lively e-list, members frequently comment about the absurdity of trying to hold short fiction to rigid rules. It's been said that a short story should have only three characters and that it should always have four scenes (I think that one was a joke, a well-known writer's answer to a newbie's earnest question). More seriously, we tend to think a story should have a twist at the end.

The same is true for crime and mystery novels, though those rules have changed drastically between when I started reading them in the 1960s and today. The classic structure of a mystery was crime, investigation, and solution. Its template was a coat hanger on which you could hang anything you wanted—bell ringing, making cupcakes, or hunting the whale. (Isn't Moby Dick a suspense novel? And doesn't it end in death?) The beginning of a mystery novel was devoted to a leisurely setup foreshadowing murders and motives and introducing the characters who would become victims, suspects, and witnesses.

When I started writing mysteries in the early 2000s, things had changed. A modern traditional mystery had to start with a body on the first page or at least the first chapter. If not, we were told, neither agents, editors, nor readers would read on. In other subgenres, the story had to start with "a pie in the face." (I heard this term from Chris Grabenstein, who attributed it to James Patterson.) Suspense had to build constantly. One body was not enough. And even an amateur sleuth had to face personal danger at the climax.

For those who wanted rules, those who make rules are happy to supply them. There must be subplots. There must be an antagonist to give the protagonist a hard time. Third person is better than first. Prologues, alternating points of view, and present tense narratives are to be avoided.

In both short stories and novels, all these rules are constantly broken. We've all read and written successful fiction that ignores them. In particular, alternating or multiple POVs and present tense narrative are ships that have not only sailed, but vanished beyond the horizon. I would say almost half the crime fiction I read these days is written in present tense.

Sure, writers, editors, and readers all have their preferences. One mystery lover on DorothyL has mentioned more than once that when she reads a mystery novel that alternates a narrative set in the present with a narrative set in the past, she skips the chapters set in the past. If I'd carefully constructed a book that way and knew a reader was doing that with it, I'd be tearing my hair.

I've written short stories with alternating POV for a variety of reasons. In one case, I have an ongoing series with a familiar character. In one story, I introduced a new character with a different voice in an entirely different setting and then told a story involving her with my ongoing character. This livened things up for me as a writer and enriched the series as a whole.

In another case, I had a particular story I wanted to tell and couldn't decide how to tell it. I ended up with several beginnings in different voices and decided to use them all. It worked— the characters and stories came together, and the rest almost wrote itself.

The next challenge was placing a 3,500-word story with five different POVs. All my usual markets turned it down over a two-year period. I did blinch a little, as Piglet says. (Do you know Winnie-the-Pooh is now in the public domain?) But I sent it off again and got an immediate acceptance from an editor who said, "I love how you alternated the third-person POVs, finally ending with the first-person POV." You can read "Suds in the Bucket" on the webzine Yellow Mama.

So rules, schmules— if you believe in your story, there's an editor for it out there somewhere.



29 May 2022

The Boyz


The Boyz

The long journey actually started on January 19th when MWA announced the six short stories nominated for the Edgar, but you've already heard about that from various people, so let's start this rendering of events on Tuesday, April 26th. Ready?

The airplane landed at LaGuardia, the wife and I took a $50 taxi ride into Manhattan and arrived at the Marriott near Times Square. Right off, I knew things were gonna be different.

I had never stayed at a hotel where the Lobby was on the 8th floor. The first obstacle to getting registered for a room was the giant revolving door on the ground floor, plus they must've had trouble paying the electric bill because the lights were dim in this particular area. I promptly got lost in the revolving door. In my defense, the door's pivot column had long slender mirrors on it, and with my failing vision, I should have never looked into the mirror. It was like being in the Fun House at the county fair and seeing no way out. With no regard for me or my large roller suitcase, the door marched on. I had no choice but to follow… until my wife reached in and rescued me.

Our room was very nice and there was a restaurant named Junior's right across the street where we ended up eating at least five of our meals while in residence.

On Wednesday afternoon, we attended the matinee performance of a Broadway play, Moulin Rouge. My wife had bought tickets months ago when I lost a bet on January 19th and then I had to agree that yes, since I had been nominated for an Edgar, we could go back to New York City one more time. And, here we were. The music, the cast, the stage settings were excellent. The audience gave a standing ovation at the conclusion.

Even the intermission was entertaining. I fought my way through the mass of bodies crowding into the refreshment lobby as they pursued quantities of popcorn and glasses of wine. At my advancing age, I instead went for the line headed to the Men's Room. A couple of people behind me, this is what I heard.

David, Liz & R.T. at DELL Reception

Attendant: "Ma'am, where are you going?"

Woman: "I am in the line."

Attendant: "But that's the line to the Men's Room."

Woman: "I am in the line."

She must've won the philosophical discussion, because for several minutes afterwards, I could hear her voice behind me, all the way in.

That evening, we dined at Junior's for the second time. As the hostess wound her way through the restaurant to show us to a table, Michael Bracken recognized Kiti and me and called us over to his table. The hostess, not realizing she had lost her cargo, continued all the way to the back of the restaurant.

Edgar Nominees
2022 Edgar Nominees for Best Short Story

Michael graciously introduced us to his wife Temple, his co-author nominee James Andrew Ahearn and his wife Dawn, and to Stacy Woodson. We all conversed until the hostess made her way back to us and asked if we would like a closer table.

Thursday afternoon was the DELL Publishing (AHMM & EQMM) Publishing Cocktail Reception at a nearby library, which Liz has already written about quite well.

At 6PM that evening was the MWA Nominee Cocktail Reception at the Marriott. Here all the nominees got their group photo taken by the category they were in. At 6:30 PM, the Edgar Banquet Cocktail Reception began, and at 7:25, the doors opened for admittance into the room for the Edgar Award Banquet itself.

R.T., Edgar & James

At Table #1 were Linda Landrigan, Kiti, myself, Brendan DuBois, Michael Bracken, Temple, James Andrew Ahearn, Dawn and two ladies from DELL Publishing, Chris Bagley and Abby Browning. Chris bought a $53 bottle of red and a $53 bottle of white wine for the table, and I do thank her for the very good libation.

All too soon, the presenters went to the podium, the nominated stories and the names of their authors and publications were flashed up on the large screens up front, and the name of the winner in each category was then announced. When they called my name, Kiti suddenly had tears running down her cheeks, Brendan pounded me on the back in congratulations and I gradually realized I was supposed to stand up and go somewhere.

Having spent most of the 25 years of my federal law enforcement career operating in the shadows, I have not been comfortable in the spotlight, yet the light had found me. Fortunately for everyone else, I had a typed copy of my acceptance speech, just in case. Be Prepared was the motto in my youth.

Actually, I had two copies in my suit coat pocket, one in 18 point font and one in 20 point font, figuring that depending upon how much light there was at the podium, I would be able to read one of them. The rest of the night was spent in conversation with various attendees, and then it was midnight and back to the room.

Friday was tourist day, Times Square and Central Park in the cold wind and low temperatures. Don't know how Naked Singing Cowboy keeps his teeth from chattering. We saw homeless people in layered clothing who appeared to be colder than he was. Don't know if he is the same Naked Singing Cowboy we saw working Central Park years ago. If he is, then he must really love his job. Since our legs and feet were now tired, we hired one of those three-wheeled-bikes-with-a-cab-for-two-people-on-the-rear for a ride back to the hotel and supper at Junior's for one last time.

Early Saturday morning, Kiti wrapped and packaged Edgar in a MWA canvas bag and hand-carried him to avoid breakage on the flight home. A $50 taxi ride put us back at LaGuardia. When Edgar rode the conveyor belt through the x-ray machine, TSA took us over to a private table. Then the TSA guy removed Edgar from the bag, unwrapped him and swabbed him down for explosives, while Kiti kept trying to explain he was an award. All the TSA guy could say was, "Lady, keep your hands off the bag." I sneaked a peek at the x-ray screen, and yep, Edgar did kinda look like a warped bomb in all that packing. We did make it all the way home and now Edgar sits on the computer desk with his little brother, Bobblehead.

Oh New York, New York, you are an experience, entertaining, but expensive.

I told Kiti we couldn't go back again unless I got nominated for an Edgar.

Of course, you see how that turned out the last time I said the same thing.

Who knew?

28 May 2022

The British are Coming! Great Crime Shows on Britbox and Acorn


Hot off the press!  This photo, taken yesterday at the Maple Leaf Mystery Conference - Honoured to have interview IAN RANKIN!  Why is my mouth so open?


Now back to our regularly scheduled post.

Bugger, but I wish I were British.  I wrote recently that the Brit crime writers have a huge advantage in that so many of their series are made into television shows.  And we all know, that's where the money is!

My dad was English, and I've long been a fan of Brit crime writers.  So it goes to reason that I would seek out the network TV versions of same.  Not long ago, PBS was the site to see most of these. (Masterpiece/Mystery)  Now, I catch most of mine through streaming on Britbox and Acorn.

This post has come about because I am about to interview Ian Rankin for the Maple Leaf Mystery Conference happening this week. (Blog on the career of interviewing A-listers coming soon.) For background, I tuned into Rebus on television, which got me thinking I should write this blog.

Here are three British crime shows I've recently revisited and strongly recommend:

1.  REBUS.  

Ian Rankin is commonly known as Great Britain's greatest current crime writer, and I would agree.  His Rebus character is iconic.  The REBUS series on Acorn is a masterpiece.  Nearly thirty books in now, Rebus is the quintessential hard-drinking (now on the wagon) outsider, solving crimes in spite of the people at the top.  Starting with season 2, John Stott played the lead role, and he IS Rebus, in my mind.  Very complex, with great attention to detail; you will also love the Edinborough setting. 

2. The Inspector Linley Mysteries

When I think of contemporary mystery novelists in Britain, two women come to mind first:  P.D. James, and Elizabeth George. George made it big in Canada.  I'm assuming she's known in the US as well.  Her Inspector Linley series is a treat.  Linley is blue-blood, son of a Viscount.  His DS Barbara Havers is right out of the East End, and in my mind, she is one of the great characters of crime fiction, played to perfection by Sharon Small.  The perfect Odd Couple of police procedurals that spans several seasons.

3.  The Gil Mayo Mysteries.

This sleeper of a series is my favourite.  It was short-lived - just one season and eight episodes, but has become a cult favourite.  

Many readers here know that I make my living writing comedy and comedic fiction.  So it won't be a surprise that I fell in love with this show.  Droll humour in the best of Brit manner defines it.  I think the sophisticated humour may have passed over the heads of some viewers, hence the short run.

But for me, it is gold.  DI Mayo corrects everyone's grammar and diction, thus becoming a hero of mine.  One example from my memory:

Mayo:  "Your sign is wrong.  There shouldn't be an apostrophe before the s in your sign, "Therapist's Available."

Therapist:  "That doesn't matter."

Mayo:  "It does if you don't want to be considered an idiot."

If you watch closely, you might be able to discern elements of Scooby-do in the casting.  Absolutely charming, is the slightly dopey Welsh DC, with the gorgeous accent.  And a very nice past romance between Mayo and his beautiful Detective Sergeant threatens to revive itself with fun complications.

SHOTGUN BONUS:  Brand spanking new is the terrific series, Signora Volpe, which takes place in Italy but in the English language, so no subtitles needed.  The female protagonist is ex-MI6, and the local detective inspector thinks as much of her as I do.  Great scenery, wonderful to have a kick-ass female playing lead again (for those of us who miss Miss Fisher and Prime Suspect.)

 Hope you find and enjoy some of these.  More another day! 

Melodie Campbell holds the title "Queen of Comedy" accorded by the Toronto Sun, and "the Canadian Literary Heir to Donald Westlake" from Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine.  Books available at all the usual suspects...



27 May 2022

The Lambs Will Never Stop Screaming


Conventional wisdom says that books are sold on the basis of word of mouth. This rule of thumb is usually interpreted to mean the spoken word. Your friend tells you about a book that they loved, and you rush out to get it, or at least put it on your to-be-read list. A harried buyer dashes into a bookstore looking for a “good book” that they can take on a beach vacation, and a quick-thinking bookseller presses a book into their hands that does not disappoint. Good booksellers are part-clairvoyant, part-psychologist, but I digress.

Sometimes the sale happens exactly the way that the book industry wishes it would. A prominent critic writes a glowing review in a major newspaper—and people buy it on the strength of those few words alone. There’s even a school of thought that says reviewers must carefully choose the right buzzwords that will tell readers if the reviewed content is right for them. After all, even if the reviewer hates the book or movie, the reader might perceive it to be their cup of tea, if the review is crafted correctly.

In 1988, I was that mark. I read a review in the New York Times then bought the book, even though it was still only available in hardcover. I was 23 years old, working a crappy editorial job out of college, and I didn’t buy many hardcovers. I was all about paperbacks back then, mostly used. But there was something about that review that made the book sound irresistible. For some reason I cannot explain, it’s the only review of a book that has stuck in my mind. The reviewer happened to mention that he liked a specific quality of the author’s skill set. It was only last week that I tracked down the review to nail down the paragraph that spurred me. Here it is:

“[Mr. Harris] knows about strange things, like the life cycle of lepidoptera, the legal spacing of fishhooks on a trotline, moths that live only on the tears of large land animals, and the amount of brain matter it takes to tan a hide. The scene where Clarice Starling explores Dr. Lecter’s tip by forcing her way into a storeroom and investigating the back seat of a vintage Packard is a tour de force of descriptive economy.”

Cover of the first edition.

The book, of course, is The Silence of the Lambs, by Thomas Harris, which was published 34 years ago this month. (I assure you that I too am appalled by the passage of time.) The book spawned an Academy Award winning movie, and a media franchise that has included four books, five films, a TV series, and, horrors, a musical.

I don’t consider myself to be a Hannibal Lecter fan. Nor am I a Thomas Harris fan. Nor do I actively seek out serial killer fare. Cannibals? Yuck. I believe Silence just hit me at a formative time in my career, and I proceeded to read Harris’ first two thrillers, Black Sunday, about a terrorist plot to detonate a bomb at a Super Bowl game, and Red Dragon, the first novel to introduce Lecter. Dragon was made into a 1986 movie by Michael Mann, called Manhunter, which went straight to VHS. 


I’d forgotten that I’d seen that movie on the strength of a recommendation by a college roommate—word of mouth again!—and I loved it, more so than the 2002 remake starring Edward Norton. And I also loved the Foster-Hopkins film.

Lately, I’ve been trying to understand why I like the books and media that I like. Is it the writing? The plot devices? What the hell was I hoping to glean from an author who “knows about strange things”? Why did I bring a notebook to the theater on my second viewing of Silence and take copious notes on its structure?

Well, besides the fact that I’m a kook, I think there are some boxes in my crime fiction interests that those early books and movies ticked.

I’m a sucker for psychological elicitation scenes, where a brilliant (or insane) shrink gets at the heart of the protag’s issues with a couple of quick questions. The Lecter/Starling relationship, which was hinted at in Christopher Lehman-Haupt’s Times review probably hooked me. Besides analyzing Starling, Lecter nutures her career, asking questions that prompt her to crack the case: “How do we begin to covet, Clarice?” Foster and Hopkins make the movie, but their onscreen time together amounts to a mere four scenes. If I dig deeper into my mystery fiction background, I was probably cued to enjoy shrink scenes from my early reading (and re-reading) of Ellery Queen novels, particularly Cat of Many Tails.


Cover of the first edition.

I’m a sucker for the hurting/wounded protagonist who is still remarkably competent. Starling and Will Graham, the Red Dragon protagonist, both fit the bill. Jonathan Demme, the director of Silence, said in interviews that he went out of his way to portray the FBI as competent. Graham’s problem-solving thought process, as portrayed in both the book and film, is fascinating. I still get chills when the Manhunter Graham announces ruefully that he must visit Lecter in prison to “recover the mindset.”

I don’t want to gloss over the franchise’s issues. More than any other author, Harris put serial killers on the map, for better or for worse. I’d argue the reason so many crime writers don’t want to do serial killer POVs is because Harris’s imitators did ’em worse. I too don’t care for those kinds of books, although I did enjoy an early Tony Hillerman novel that brought us inside the mind of a hired assassin, making the guy seem poignant. Silence caught flak for its homophobic/transphobic content, and the later Hannibal books are just…well, don’t get me started.


That all said, I did really admire Harris’s writing in those early books. It’s clear that he is a reporter-turn-novelist, like Michael Connelly, and a lifetime of shoe-leather research ends up on the page. He really did interview FBI profilers, visit their offices, and meet trainees at Quantico. One scene I draw inspiration from is the very opening of Red Dragon.
Will Graham sat Crawford down at a picnic table between the house and the ocean and gave him a glass of iced tea.

Jack Crawford looked at the pleasant old house, salt-silvered wood in the clear light. “I should have caught you in Marathon when you got off work,” he said. “You don’t want to talk about it here.”

“I don’t want to talk about it anywhere, Jack. You’ve got to talk about it, so let’s have it. Just don’t get out any pictures. If you brought pictures, leave them in the briefcase—Molly and Willy will be back soon.”
The “descriptive economy” that Lehman-Haupt praised in that old review is clear. One sentence and we know where the scene is taking place. By the third graf we know that we’re in the presence of two men with a history. We sense Will’s reluctance to return to the work of profiling; his regard for his family is urgent, palpable. The single, mysterious word “it” says what the two men don’t say. It is the horrific darkness at the center of the novel. All told, a simply wonderful scene that I reread from time to time, just to recover the mindset.

* * *

See you in three weeks!

Joe


26 May 2022

Crime Scene Comix Case 2022-05-015, Cleanup


Let’s watch another cartoon from the Future Thought channel of YouTube. Check them out.

In this episode, Shifty, a none-too-bright crook who looks like a Minion in zebra stripes, gets taken to the cleaners and you can bank on it.

That’s today’s crime cinema. Hope you enjoyed the show. Be sure to visit the Future Thought channel on YouTube.

25 May 2022

The Road to Damascus



I went off to summer camp when I was thirteen, and along with canoeing and lanyard weaving and archery, and swimming in the chilly, tidal backwaters of the Sheepscot, I took riflery.  We might honestly understand, that both in my personal history and in America’s, this was a more innocent age.  Camp Chewonki - which still exists, just south of Wiscasset, Maine – had been around for generations.  Two of my uncles, my mom’s older brothers, went there, and Roger Tory Peterson, the much-celebrated author of A Field Guide to the Birds, dedicated his book to Clarence Allen, who was even in my day the benevolent eminence, a little shaky on his pins, but very much present.  Looking back, Chewonki might be said to represent a lost world, where Saltonstalls and Cabots, among the New England elite, were destined to rule the American imperium; salt water and the Episcopalian catechism were brisk and bracing.


But for the purposes of the immediate discussion, we can narrow the field to shooting skills.
  Chewonki had a rifle range.  We used single-shot bolt-actions in .22 rimfire, at fifty feet.  To qualify for awards like Marksman, or Sharpshooter, and graduating up to Expert, you followed a course of fire – a minimum score in each of the four positions, prone, sitting, kneeling, standing - established by the National Rifle Association. 

The NRA offered these programs all over the place, summer camps, the Boy Scouts, schools and social clubs, and nobody found it odd.  They were a sportsmen’s organization, with no political affiliation.  They also published the only national shooting magazine, American Rifleman, which was for hunters and recreational shooters - handguns featured very little, in those days, primarily in competition.  The craze for military-style weapons and combat-related content was some ways off.   

The year it all changed was 1977, at the NRA national convention in Cincinnati.  This isn’t a date or an event that registers much with the general public, but it looms large in NRA lore, and has had a lasting effect on American gun culture, and the ongoing debate over gun control.    

The short version is this.  Historically, from the 1870’s to the 1970’s, the NRA was recreational, environmentally aware, and committed to gun safety and education.  The coup in Cincinnati toppled longstanding leadership policy, and brought the 2nd Amendment absolutists to power.  Their emphasis was on gun ownership, and a rigid interpretation of the right to bear arms.  They moved the goalposts.  More importantly, they caught the Old Guard off-guard.  Nobody organized any effective resistance.  They didn’t recognize how radical a change was in the wind.  And left a vacuum.

Into this empty space stepped an activist and self-selected lobbying group, devoted to a single issue.  What you might describe as more reasonable voices surrendered the stage.  They let the other guys set the terms of the debate.  Which is where we’re at now.

Now, like the Port Huron Statement, for SDS, or the Seneca Falls Declaration, in support of women’s rights, the NRA wanted to cast their position as about fundamentals.  These are rights denied - more to the point, not exercised, or not affirmed.  Allowed to atrophy.  If you argue original intent, the 2nd Amendment is a bulwark against tyranny, the well-regulated militia.  In the context of England’s wars against the French, or for that matter, against the Stuart pretenders in Scotland, this makes perfect sense.  Troops could be billeted in your home, against your will.  They’d steal the eggs, and then kill the chickens.  Not to mention rape the women.  This is a common-sense precaution.

Interestingly, as the argument warms up, we hear even legal scholars on the Left saying, Oop, sorry kids, but the 2nd actually means what it says, commas and all.  You can’t restrict legal ownership of guns.  And the Supremes weigh in.  An overly repressive DC law is voided.  (In that particular case, a security guard, licensed to carry on the job, wanted to know why he couldn’t protect his home.  The court, quite sensibly, ruled in his favor.)  The problem is not the 2nd Amendment.

Wayne LaPierre, and the direction the NRA has taken in the last fifty years, is contrary to what a lot of us think.  I’m not talking about the drift of liberal opinion, I mean gun guys.  It’s ridiculous to conflate Ruby Ridge or the Branch Davidians or some other asshole who hates the Feds with people who hunt, or shoot, or need personal protection in a dangerous place. 

What we lost is that we ceded the argument.  We let the other guys get possession, we need to take the conversation back.  Like everything else. 

Enough with the crazies sucking the air out of the room.

24 May 2022

What Fired Me Up to Write a Fireworks Story


Shortly before July 4th last year, I posted this on my Facebook page:

One day I am going to write a story in which someone who sets off fireworks in a suburban neighborhood, not giving a crap about the animals he's scaring, gets what's coming. And I won't feel bad at all. 
 
Sincerely,
 
The mom of a freaked-out dog
 
Boy, did the responses pour in. I got 145 likes, 29 loves, 47 hugs, and a smattering of other emojis. The comments were just as enthusiastic. Here's just a handful:
  • PLEASE please write that story!
  • Also endorsed by moms of small children, fire marshals, ER staff, those with PTSD. Please do something to those who sell the fireworks also . . . 
  • I'm happy to consult on this one! People here are also very concerned about their horses being frightened by them. Apparently several were injured last year
  • And I would read that book and recommend it to everyone I know. My poor boy Paddy has not left my side for hours now. 
  • You’d get lots of support from those of us in California who are sniffing for wild-fire smoke after every very illegal bang.
  • This has always been my least favorite holiday simply because of the loud noise and the fear and confusion it causes to animals, pets and wildlife both. Then there are the accidents to humans and fire potential.
Buoyed by the 100+ comments, I decided to write a story addressing the impact of fireworks. Then I saw a call for stories for an upcoming anthology to be titled Low Down Dirty Vote Volume 3: The Color of My Vote. Authors were asked to submit stories involving voting and color. We were giving wide latitude in how we interpreted the theme. As you may imagine, I thought of fireworks. They come in all kinds of colors. People who shoot them off frequently say they're being patriotic (red, white, and blue). People who don't like their impact see red. People who sell them want green. There were many more color associations I could make. Yes, I thought, a story involving fireworks could be a good fit.
 
Then I had to work in a voting aspect. Maybe, I thought, a city council could be about to vote on a proposal to bar residents from shooting off fireworks. I created a main character, a teenage girl, who is desperate for the ban to pass because of how fireworks set off in her neighborhood scare her dog, Bailey. The vote is expected to be close, and she has a friend whose neighbor is on the city council, so they decide to try to push him to vote their way ... with an unconventional approach.
 
Now it's almost a year later, and Memorial Dayanother holiday associated with fireworksis right around the corner. It's the perfect time for Low Down Dirty Vote Volume 3 to have been published. And I'm delighted the book includes my story "For Bailey." It's not the straight-on revenge story some people were hoping for, but it does address the effects fireworks can have on veterans with PTSD, firefighters, the environment, wildlife, and, especially, pets. I should add that I do not endorse any real-life crimes against people who set off fireworks or sell them. But I do like using fiction to try to open some eyes to the impact fireworks can have while offering an entertaining tale at the same time.
 
The anthology is out in trade paperback and ebook. It includes 22 stories of crime and suspense, ranging from comic to tragic and from cozy to noir. You'll also find a few stories involving science fiction, horror, and fantasy. The publisher is donating all the proceeds to Democracy Docket, an organization fighting voter suppression in the United States.

Here are the authors with stories in the book, in order of story appearance:

David Corbett, Faye Snowden, Eric Beetner, Sarah M. Chen, Gabriel Valjan, Jackie Ross Flaum, David Hagerty, Thomas Pluck, Katharina Gerlach, Stephen Buehler, Ember Randall, Camille Minichino, Patricia (Pat) E. Canterbury, James McCrone, Ann Parker, Miguel Alfonso Ramos, Misty Sol, DJ Tyrer, Anshritha, Bev Vincent, Barb Goffman, and Travis Richardson
.

You can order a paper copy of the book through many indie bookstores. Click here to find some near you. If you prefer Amazon (paper or ebook), click here. Paper copies are also available through Barnes and Noble. Click here for them.

The anthology supports a worthy cause, so I hope you'll consider picking up a copy. I also hope you enjoy my story and you and your loved ones (human and furry) don't suffer too much from the effects of fireworks this summer.