16 June 2022

Fear and Loathing in the Midwest

I spent the first weekend of June doing an Alternatives to Violence (AVP) Workshop at the pen - my 46th workshop, BTW.  (We all have our hobbies.)  

Anyway, we hosted a bunch of brand new inmates, who were still being processed, i.e., watched and classified. That takes about a month, during which they have plenty of time to experience apprehension and remorse. Maybe.  

So we had a boatload of new inmates, and they all really got into it, and it wasn't just that they were bored s***less in their cells. (Being locked down 23/24 is harder than it sounds, especially if you're not allowed books or other entertainment.) They were impressed that we weren't Bible-thumpers, or some kind of recruitment for treatment centers (although we certainly recommend AA/NA/Al-Anon), etc. All of them wanted to go to the next workshop, and all of them said the program is desperately needed outside. (Tell me something I don't know.) 

Meanwhile, during and in between exercises, war stories were told. Most of them were in for addiction - drugs, alcohol, gambling - or addiction related crimes. 

"Meth is everywhere," one guy told me. "You can't go to a party where someone isn't loaded with meth. You can't hang out with your work buds without someone offering it to you."

"And they're all crazy," another guy said. 

"Yeah, this one guy, he was tweaking for 24 straight, and he finally crashed, right. Right on the living room floor. And then when he woke up, he woke up just freaked, totally paranoid, and started shooting everyone in the house."  

"Yeah, these days they'll kill you. They'll shoot you and don't know why they're doing it. They'll shoot you first and then figure it out."

"Somebody's gotta do something about meth, man." 

"Yeah, you're a hell of a lot safer here than out there." 

(Tell me something I don't know.)  

Of course, some kind of drugs have been everywhere for quite a while.  At least in California, where I grew up. In the mid-1960s, the junior high school girl's bathroom reeked of marijuana, but that's another story.  There were reds (downers), whites (speed), acid (blotter, orange barrel, windowpane, Mr. Happy, and other pharmaceutical concoctions), other hallucinogens (mushrooms, mescaline, peyote, etc.), hash (fresh off the boat or from the pressure cooker), heroin, and cocaine (very expensive).

There was also crystal meth which was, I was told, very cheap. But meth-heads then shot it up, which put it in the "Oh, hell no, I'm not doing that!" category for me. (We all have our standards.) Plus crystal meth users were as crazy then as they are today. True, they were less violent back then, but there were also a lot fewer guns around, especially since I avoided biker gangs if at all possible.  Turns out the biker gangs were the ones who controlled most of the production and distribution of crystal meth, which I did not know at the time, and only found out in writing this blog. (HERE)  

Anyway, crystal meth users were nuts. I had a neighbor at the infamous Blackburn Hotel who used crystal meth. He had a theory that, if he could get his body speeded up fast enough on meth, he would be able to run through walls. He tried that theory out, over and over and over again, with all the bumps, bruises, and smashed bits you'd expect. 

Another feature of modern drugs is, of course, fentanyl. Now there's a conservative talking point (making the rounds for quite a while) that drug addicts die because they're "doing fentanyl", as if they're actually buying fentanyl by name, and so they deserve to die of an overdose. (Sigh; the cruelty really is the point.) But fentanyl (which is apparently ridiculously cheap) is what today's drug dealers cut their expensive drugs with. So heroin - always notorious for being dicey in strength - today is cut with fentanyl. And a lot of junkies die. 

Back in my day, heroin was generally cut with milk powder, which was very cheap, but at least non-lethal. What was lethal was when some really pure heroin went around, and junkies who were used to the cut stuff OD'd left and right. Now it's fentanyl that's killing them, but it's heroin they bought. The same with the fake oxy pills that are out there - cheap fentanyl with some cheap other thing put together in a makeshift lab to look pretty much like oxycontin or oxycodone pills. Only these will kill you, and of course nobody tells you. It's a dangerous world out there. 

Of course, not all the drugs in my day were stepped on with benign substances, either. Orange barrel  acid was cut with strychnine, supposedly because it made for more intense colors in the hallucinations. I don't know anyone who died of it, although I did hear of a few people who had intestinal cramps.  

One thing that strikes me in the difference between then and now is that back then, most drugs were still either a plant (marijuana, peyote, mushrooms), or derived from a plant: hash, opium, mescaline, morphine, heroin, and cocaine. These were all processed in some way, but at least there was some natural substance behind it, and (lacking adulterants) wasn't nearly as toxic as the drugs of today.  

Today, however, most of the drugs are all synthetic - meth, oxycodone, ecstasy (MDMA), synthetic cannabinoids (known on the streets as K-2, spice, synthetic marijuana, bath salts, etc.), and fentanyl, all made in a lab, highly addictive, highly toxic, with a tendency to psychosis.  And it shows.  I see a lot of meth-heads (my generic term for people who've been on synthetic drugs for too damn long), and it doesn't take 30 days for them to detox - it takes 2 years. If then. They just aren't right. Sometimes they never get right again. Not to mention lesser issues like loss of teeth, skin sores, etc. (Warning:  Graphic PHOTOS HERE)

NOTE:  And even these drugs are cut, too - in some cases with brodifacoum, a rat poison that causes bleeding, or fentanyl. 

NOTE: I understand Fox News pundits are worried sick about "pot psychosis-violent behavior link". But pot doesn't do that. "Synthetic marijuana" does, but it's not marijuana. Apparently this is hard to figure out, especially if you're paid just to bulls*** about it.  (Wikipedia, The Wrap)

NOTE: So just get it over with and legalize marijuana nationally, so law enforcement can move on to stopping meth and synthetic cannabinoids, etc. because the boys are right, meth is everywhere, and meth and K-2 can transform people into psychotic monsters.  

God help us all. 

And now, a lighter note:

I don't know if you remember or were there, but if you stood in line at a drugstore in the 1960s and 1970s, you found all sorts of over-the-counter products that were chock full of amphetamines. That's what most prescription diet aids were were made of. Also all the No-Doze type study aids for sale, which now (I am assured) have only caffeine in it. But a lot of prescriptions are still made with amphetamines - like Adderall. 

BTW, am I the only one who remembers Ayds diet candy? There used to be a shelf of them by every drug store register. Yes, sales collapsed as the AIDS epidemic spread in the 1980s, and it folded. (HERE)  Note my favorite of all the ads:  how to control your weight during pregnancy, using Ayds...  

And, of course, back in the late 1800s, early 1900s Coca-Cola's main ingredients were cocaine and caffeine. Since 1929, Coca-Cola has used a cocaine-free coca leaf extract. But my mother, who was born somewhere around 1917 (exact date a little hazy), well remembered her father going up to the drug store on Saturday night for a pail of Coca-Cola, which was Coca-Cola syrup mixed on the premises with soda water. "And that was the best Coca-Cola I ever had. It's never been the same since they put it in bottles." 

Finally, a last word from South Dakota:

From February, 2022:  We had two successive Sioux Falls police officers arrested for possession, manufacturing and distribution of graphic, hard core child porn.  (Argus

From June 13, 2022: 2 Sioux Falls men were charged & arrested as part of a white supremacist group planning a riot at an Idaho Pride Parade. One of them, James Michael Johnson, moved from Denver to Cheyenne, WY, where he tried to make the world a safer place for himself, if not democracy by "march[ing] around downtown armed with a gun or a baseball bat, claiming to be keeping us safe." And then moved to Sioux Falls, because Cheyenne didn't appreciate him enough. (Dakota Free Press)

Seems like something rotten is going on in Sioux Falls that we we really need to pay attention to.

Ah, South Dakota, where we talk like Mayberry, and act like Goodfellas...

15 June 2022

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Sophocles, and I

 I have a rather unusual book beside me as I write this, courtesy of Flame Tree Publishing.  They are a British firm that publishes beautiful volumes, including their Gothic and Fantasy line.  The latest example of that series is Chilling Crime Short Stories which features nine original stories plus tales by Poe, de Maupassant, Dickens, Sophocles (an excerpt from Oedipus Rex), Sir Thomas More (about the princes in the tower), F. Scott Fitzgerald, and... me.

Rather daunting company, that.

Before I move on some of you may be wondering what Fitzgerald wrote that qualified for this volume.  Well, the new book includes the entirety of The Great Gatsby.  This might shock "mainstream" readers who think of it as one of the great American novels, but the fact is you can't reduce the plot of that book to a single sentence without outlining a classic noir novel.  

But forget about Fitzgerald; let's talk about me.  They reprinted my story "The Present" which appeared originally in The Strand Magazine.  I had read that Flame Tree was looking for stories that would fit the theme of Chilling Crime so I submitted the story and they bought it.  

This was not the first time I have been reprinted.  I also successfully submitted two stories to a now-dead story-publishing site called Great Jones Street. I point this out because submitting  is not the way things always work in the world of reprints.

For example, last year, Barb Goffman reached out to me, wanting to republish my story "Shanks Gets Mugged" in Black Cat Weekly.  I was happy to agree.  As I have said before, being paid for a reprint feels like getting away with something.

The first time a publisher approached me about reprinting my material it was an Italian firm.  I had just won an award and they thought they might be interested in publishing my winning book in Italy.  (I assume my Sicilian surname was a factor.)  I told them that my winning work was a short story but I did have a novel available.  I sent them Such A Killing Crime, about murder in Greenwich Village during the Great Folk Music Scare of the early 1960s,  and they wound up publishing it under a wonderful title that translates Folk Crimes. 

A few years later I received an email from an author who had been contacted by the same publisher.  Suspicious, she did her research and saw my name among their works.  She asked: Is this a scam?  I replied that if it was it was one of those rare scams where they pay you.

More recently my book Shanks on Crime was translated into Japanese with a title that Google tells me translates roughly as Sunday Afternoon Tea With Mystery Writer.  O-kay.  That one sold so well that the publisher decided to produce an otherwise uncollected set of my stories with the English title The Red Envelope and Other Stories and the Japanese title (according to Google) Solve Mysteries on the Holidays at the Coffeehouse.

Since then several writers have asked me how to get their books published in Japan. I told them the process is simple: Open your email and find a note from Tokyo Sogen asking if you would like to sell them the Japanese rights.

Simple, yes.  I never said it was easy.

But the most delightful experience I have ever had with a reprint had to be the two books below, both of which contain "The Street of the Dead House," originally published in nEvermore!

The only downside is that in order to have a story reprinted you first have to write it, so I better get to work.  Can't let Dickens and Poe get ahead of me.

14 June 2022

When Ignorance is Bliss

We've all heard the advice that authors should write what they know. (And before you roll your eyes, it doesn't mean write only about things you already know about. It means do your research before you write about something so you get the details right and your story is believable.) Along the same lines, editing what you know makes sense too. If I were to edit a police procedural novel, it sure would help if I knew about police procedure. Ditto for a legal thriller. Knowing what a summary judgment motion is and how it works would be important if I were to edit a novel with one of them in it.

But sometimes when I'm editing, I find that ignorance can truly be bliss. It can result in my asking questions an expert in a particular subject might not. Take, for instance, the topic of farming. I'm not a farmer. I've never lived on a farm. I don't even like to go outside. Twenty years ago, a woman in my writing group was writing a novel set on a farm. Each week we'd go over another chapter and I would ask questions that made her realize she'd incorrectly assumed certain things were common knowledge. When that book came out, she gave me a copy and inscribed, "Barb, your ignorance of farming was invaluable." It still makes me laugh.

It's not the only time my ignorance came in handy. Several years ago, a client used an acronym that I'd never heard of before, and I noted it when editing her manuscript. She was surprised. It was a common word in the military, she said. After polling a bunch of people she knew, she realized she either needed to explain the acronym or change it because enough non-military people didn't know the term, and its meaning wasn't obvious from her story's context. If I'd had a military background, it might not have occurred to me that many readers might not know that acronym. 

Ignorance can be bliss. So can pizza.

So, where does the line lie between when an author wants an editor who's a subject-matter expert or one who isn't? I'm no expert on answering this question (ha ha), but I think it depends on how much of an expert the author is on the subject at hand--or how much research the author is willing to do. 

If you're a homicide detective writing about a homicide detective, working with an editor who's never been a police officer might be useful. The editor could bring a helpful outsider's perspective, enabling you to see when you're making assumptions about what most readers will know. But if you've never been a police officer and you don't love doing research, then you'd be well served by working with an editor who knows enough about how police investigations work to tell you if you got something wrong or if you might've gotten something wrong so you should check. 

That said, sometimes you won't be able to find the exact expert you need. If I wanted to write a story about a gravedigger, I might be able to find a gravedigger who could answer my questions. It might be more difficult to find a gravedigger or former gravedigger who also edits mysteries.

So, if you can't find an expert to edit your manuscript, look for one who isn't afraid to question things, asking if you checked if certain things are correct. (It also wouldn't be a bad idea to find a subject-matter expert who will read your manuscript, not to edit it, but to tell you if you got the details right.)

Even as I type this, I can imagine someone reading this column and thinking, even a homicide detective could benefit from the expertise of another insider, someone who might have suggestions a lay editor wouldn't think of. And that is true too. It's why it's a good idea to know your strengths and weaknesses and know exactly what you want--and need--from an editor before hiring one. Sometimes someone with certain expertise is exactly what's right for you. But other times, the person who's right for you is an editor who's ignorant about your field--and who isn't afraid to show it.

13 June 2022

Crime Scene Comix Case 2022-06-016, Wishing Pond

Once again we highlight our criminally favorite cartoonist, Future Thought channel of YouTube. We love the sausage-shaped Shifty, a Minion gone bad.

Uh-oh. In this episode, Shifty takes a soaking.

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

12 June 2022

From the Memoirs of a Private Detective

This piece appeared in Smart Set Magazine in 1923. -Robert Lopresti


by Dashiell Hammett

 1. Wishing to get some information from members of the WCTU in an Oregon city, I introduced myself as the secretary of the Butte City Purity League. One of them read me a long discourse on the erotic effects of cigarettes upon young girls. Subsequent experiments proved this tip worthless.

2. A man whom I was shadowing went out into the country for a walk one Sunday afternoon and lost his bearings completely. I had to direct him back to the city.

3. House burglary is probably the poorest paid trade in the world. I have never known anyone to make a living at it. But for that matter few criminals of any class are self-supporting unless they toil at something legitimate between times. Most of them, however, live on their women.

4. I know an operative who, while looking for pickpockets at the Havre de Grace race track, had his wallet stolen. He later became an official in an Eastern detective agency.

5. Three times I have been mistaken for a prohibition agent, but never had any trouble clearing myself.

6. Taking a prisoner from a ranch near Gilt Edge, Mont., to Lewistown one night, my machine broke down and we had to sit there until daylight. The prisoner, who stoutly affirmed his innocence, was clothed only in overalls and shirt. After shivering all night on the front seat his morale was low, and I had no difficulty in getting a complete confession from him while walking to the nearest ranch early the following morning.

7. Of all the men embezzling from their employers with whom I have had contact, I can't remember a dozen who smoked, drank, or had any of the vices in which bonding companies are so interested.

8. I was once falsely accused of perjury and had to perjure myself to escape arrest.

9. A detective official in San Francisco once substituted "truthful" for "voracious" in one of my reports on the grounds that the client might not understand the latter. A few days later in another report "simulate" became "quicken" for the same reason.

10. Of all the nationalities in hauled into the criminal courts, the Greek is the most difficult to convict. He simply denies everything, no matter how conclusive the proof may be; and nothing impresses a jury as a bare statement of fact, regardless of the fact's inherent improbability or obvious absurdity in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence.

11. I know a man who will forge the impressions of any set of fingers in the world in the world for $50.

12. I have never known a man capable of turning out first-rate work in a trade, a profession or an art, who was a professional criminal.

13. I know a detective who once attempted to disguise himself thoroughly. The first policeman he met took him into custody.

14. I know a deputy sheriff in Montana who, approaching the cabin of a homesteader for whose arrest he had a warrant, was confronted by the homesteader with a rifle in his hands. The deputy sheriff drew his revolver and tried to shoot over the homesteader's head to frighten him. The range was long and a strong wind was blowing. The bullet knocked the rifle from the homesteader's hands. As time went by the deputy sheriff came to accept as the truth the reputation for expertness that this incident gave him, and he not only let his friends enter him in a shooting contest, but wagered everything he owned upon his skill. When the contest was held he missed the target completely with all six shots.

15. Once in Seattle the wife of a fugitive swindler offered to sell me a photograph of her husband for $15. I knew where I could get one free so I didn't buy it.

16. I was once engaged to discharge a woman's housekeeper.

17. The slang in use among criminals is for the most part a conscious, artificial growth, designed more to confuse outsiders than for any other purpose, but sometimes it is singularly expressive; for instance, two-time loser--one who has been convicted twice; and the older gone to read and write--found it advisable to go away for a while.

18. Pocket-picking is the easiest to master of all the criminal trades. Anyone who is not crippled can become adept in a day.

19. In 1917, in Washington DC, I met a young lady who did not remark that my work must be very interesting.

20. Even where the criminal makes no attempt to efface the prints of his fingers, but leaves them all over the scene of the crime, the chances are about one in ten of finding a print that is sufficiently clear to be of any value.

21. The chief of police of a Southern city once gave me a description of a man, complete even to the mole on his neck, but neglected to mention that he had only one arm.

22. I know a forger who left his wife because she learned to smoke cigarettes while he was serving a term in prison.

23. Second only to “Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is “Raffles” in the affections of the daily press. The phrase "gentleman crook" is used on the slightest provocation. A composite portrait of the gentry upon whom the newspapers have bestowed this title would show a laudanum-drinker, with a large rhinestone-horseshow aglow in the soiled bosom of his shirt below a bow-tie, leering at his victim, and saying: "Now don't get scared, lady, I ain't gonna crack you on the bean. I ain't a rough-neck!"

24. The cleverest and most uniformly successful detective I have ever known is extremely myopic.

25. Going from the larger cities out into the remote, rural communities one finds a steadily decreasing percentage of crimes that have to do with money and a proportionate increase in the frequency of sex as a criminal motive.

26. While trying to peer into the upper story of a roadhouse in northern California one night--and the man I was looking for was in Seattle at the time--part of the porch crumbled under me and I fell, spraining an ankle. The proprietor of the roadhouse gave me water to bathe it in.

27. The chief difference between the exceptionally knotty problem facing the detective of fiction and that facing the real detective is that in the former there is usually a paucity of clues, and in the latter altogether too many.

28. I know a man who once stole a Ferris wheel.

29. That the law breaker is invariably sooner or later apprehended is probably the least challenged of extant myths. And yet the files of every detective bureau bulge with the records of unsolved mysteries and uncaught criminals.

11 June 2022

Don't Pluck a Star From the Sky

A fun thing about writing is we get to re-invent our natural world. Writing isn't just bringing characters to life. There's a whole sandbox of staged reality around those characters. A scene needs their go-to restaurant? Invent one! Then, if you're me, spend an hour sorting around Google for snazzy name ideas. And you can put this restaurant anywhere, even if it’s a terrible corner for business. In this story, somebody bad at the restaurant game opened a spot there. What matters is that the sandbox holds itself and the story together. Authors can be Near-Gods of Verisimilitude, truthful enough in purpose if not fact.

Last month, I sold my 39th short story. In 38 of them, everything that happens could happen. The happenings are often improbable, but as Sherlock Holmes said many times, the improbable can be reality. There's gold in improbabilities. In those stories, I’ve invented towns, corporations, lost paintings, tennis legends, famous dishes, and yes, restaurants. What a story needs, I'll make.

If I can. The other part of Sherlock Holmes’ famous maxim is about eliminating the impossible. In fiction terms, eliminating what can't or shouldn't happen lets a story glimpse its golden opportunities. My fiction takes place on planet Earth in our dimension of whatever multiverse we’re living in. Physics applies. Gravity, electromagnetics. Human bodies function how they function, physically and physiologically. Our sun rises in the east and sets in the west because our planet rotates on a particular orbit around a particular star in a particular arm of the Milky Way. At any given time, the Moon and stars occupy a particular spot in the only sky we have.

You would think, if my rule was to ensure the stars traverse the sky as they must, I would have any star-reading character find constellations in the right spots. Well, I did. Eventually.

Let's rewind. 

It’s 2017, and I have just invented a fictional boat. An older boat, big enough for bluewater ocean crossing but small enough not to need much crew. And I have just thrown a guy off the boat. That seemed a pretty good way to force a bunch of action. First thing, the guy tries reading the stars to figure out where exactly he wound up adrift.

Full disclosure: The night sky looks like a web of Big Dippers to me. I’m darn good sensing my way around a new city, but if getting somewhere depends on my locating the true Ursa Major, I’m toast. 

I was not deterred. In the early drafts, I let the stranded guy see whatever sky objects made sense to him. He spotted the planet Mars, this and that constellation, and because this was the subequatorial Indian Ocean, the Southern Cross. If it didn’t work, it could get tweaked in editing.

I do edit. And I do my research. As the story formed up, I checked around for correct sky features by time, date, and geographic location. With a proper star chart, adjustments would be easy. Eventually.

What needed to get fixed? Mars: Not visible from that location at that time. Constellation this and that: Not visible. Any of them. The Southern Cross: Not visible. Honestly, it’s hard to get stuff this instinctively wrong, but I pulled it off. I’d invented a magic sky.

I couldn’t move the boat’s location. The plot hinges on a round trip to Perth, Australia, and the characters’ motivations would collide soon on the homeward leg. I was also constrained by date. Seasonal monsoon conditions would deter small boats for months at a time. I couldn’t just press the easy button and switch to daylight. The guy’s ability to sort-of navigate by the stars was core to both back and front story. And eventually, after too many writing sessions and much banging my head on the desk, after teaching myself the Southern sky and playing with geolocations and sunsets, I found an actual starscape the guy would’ve actually seen.

The immutable laws of our universe are not the fun part of writing. They’re essential, though, if we want an improbably real-world story told well. In this case, a story also sold well--"Crossing the Line, Twice," my tenth story for AHMM. I wasn't about to submit AHMM a real-world story with a magic sky.

Lesson learned? Don't pluck stars from the sky and move them around. Writers don't have that power. A wrong lesson might’ve been to skip a try at star navigation. Where is the sport and reward of writing if we don’t expand our personal horizons?

And anyway, maybe next time I’ll plop a floating restaurant out near Sumatra. I’m not saying it’s a probable location, but it’s not impossible.

10 June 2022

Historical Mystery Revisited

With the release of my latest book, I thought it might be time to revisit my first SleuthSayers article – Writing the Historical Mystery. Since the article aired in September 2016, I have had five historical mystery novels and fifteen historical mystery short stories published.

Accuracy vs. Fiction

Joseph Pulitzer wrote on his newsroom wall – “Accuracy, Accuracy, Accuracy.” Excellent advise for journalists but fiction writers are not journalists and we do not write history books. Historical accuracy is important in the historical mystery but is it more important than your story? I say no.

When we write historical fiction we are writing FICTION. I have a degree in European and Asian History and have had historical articles published in academic journals.

In writing academic historical articles, I strive to be as accurate as humanly possible. Nearly all history graduate students take a class in HISTORIOGRAPHY, the study of historical writing. They know unless you are an eye-witness to an historical event – and that’s one person’s subjective observation – then you must rely on first hand accounts of other contemporary witnesses or second hand accounts complied by other historians. So why worry if you get a minor detail wrong in your historical fiction as I did when I had a character wearing a Banlon shirt several years before Banlon was introduced? Oh, yes. Someone caught me and I had to miss recess that day. Same thing happened when I put a Parker T-ball jotter in a private eye's hand a few years before Parker distributed the pen. Wrong. An easy fix.

Historians in critically-acclaimed history books also get things wrong. Ever read history books of the Napoleonic Wars? British Historians and French Historians paint nearly opposite histories of the same period. It’s almost funny.

Back to my first statement - when we write historical fiction we are writing FICTION – I have fudged on historical accuracy to write a better story because, in my opinion, historical fiction is like someone’s name. John Smith is a SMITH, part of the SMITH family, not the JOHN family. Historical Fiction is FICTION and fiction outranks history, otherwise you’re writing a history book.

“ … fairness is not the historical novelist’s first duty,” the great historical fiction writer Bernard Cornwell pens in his notes at the end of Sword Song (2008). He is correct, of course. The duty of an historical novelist is to entertain, to elicit emotion in the reader and if mistakes of fact are made (from errors in research, by omission or by design), well, it happens.

Fiction writers make up stuff. We make up characters and events, sometimes with an historical backdrop.

Artistic license was taken when I wrote my latest, Hardscrabble Private Eye. I'm not a reporter, I'm a fiction writer.

A novel set in 1935 New Orleans. A tale of buried treasures. Diamonds. Rubies. Emeralds. A priceless stolen book. A tale of treachery with alluring femme fatales, gangsters, Mafiosi, gunfights, tommy guns peppering the night and a private eye harscrabbled in the middle.

That's all for now.

09 June 2022

A Classic Misdirection

I was still with Jordan Baker. We were sitting at a table with a man of about my age and a rowdy little girl who gave way upon the slightest provocation to uncontrollable laughter. I was enjoying myself now. I had taken two finger bowls of champagne and the scene had changed before my eyes into something significant, elemental and profound.

At a lull in the entertainment the man looked at me and smiled.

"Your face is familiar," he said, politely. "Weren't you in the Third Division during the war?"

"Why, yes. I was in the Ninth Machine-Gun Battalion."

"I was in the Seventh Infantry until June nineteen-eighteen. I knew I'd seen you somewhere before."

We talked for a moment about some wet, grey little villages in France. Evidently he lived in this vicinity for he told me that he had just bought a hydroplane and was going to try it out in the morning.

"Want to go with me, old sport? Just near the shore along the Sound."

"What time?"

"Any time that suits you best."

It was on the tip of my tongue to ask his name when Jordan looked around and smiled.

"Having a gay time now?" she inquired.

"Much better." I turned again to my new acquaintance. "This is an unusual party for me. I haven't even seen the host. I live over there—" I waved my hand at the invisible hedge in the distance, "and this man Gatsby sent over his chauffeur with an invitation."

For a moment he looked at me as if he failed to understand.

"I'm Gatsby," he said suddenly.

— The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

"Subverting expectations."

That's the flashy new phrase all the cool kids are using these days, when in truth what they're referring to is your basic old-fashioned misdirection. And it's been with us at least since the Greeks invented drama.

So. You know. Thousands of years.

The excerpt above highlights one of the best examples in modern literature of this sort of thing. And linked here is a mashup of this very scene from the novel portrayed in five different film adaptations done between 1926 and 2013. And each of them plays the scene a bit differently. The best of them build up the anticipation of the first appearance of the novel's mysterious titular character.

And when Gatsby does make his first appearance, it's practically anti-climactic. In person Gatsby is so unassuming as to be nearly forgettable, at least at first blush. The mundane reality crashes hard into the soaring fantasy of the Gatsby of rumor, of myth, of legend.

With the advent of Summer, Gatsby has been very much on my mind. This happens with me every late Spring. Maybe it's because Gatsby is in so many ways the ultimate "Summer Novel."

As such, I'll be reading it again, as I have done every Summer for the past twenty-five years. Every reading brings me delight.

A large part of the enjoyment I get out of Gatsby is from the way the reader's expectations are continuously "subverted."

Gatsby, while nothing like the legend which had grown up around him, is ironically the most honest person in the novel. Furthermore, every other character takes a cue from Gatsby in one regard: none of them is as they initially seem.

Not Gatsby's lost love, Daisy. Not her husband, Tom. Not her cousin, Nick. Not her friend Jordan Baker.

So here's my question for you, the reader: which novel have you found to most consistently subvert expectations? Give your response in the comments. and let's get to talking about it.

Next time around I talk about real life subverted initial impressions of real life individuals, how those worked out, and how these real world experiences informed my fiction in the best possible ways.

See you in the comments, and in two weeks!

08 June 2022

The Last Roadside Attraction


The last Howard Johnson’s in America closed this June, in Lake George, up in the Adirondacks.  There was one in Lake Placid, too, but it went under in 2015.  The following year the second-to-last, in Bangor, Maine, turned out the lights.  Once upon a time, they were a fixture across the U.S. and Canada, familiar roadside stops – there was one in Times Square - now as forgotten as the passenger pigeon.


They started out in
Quincy, Mass., a drugstore with a soda fountain, and Howard – there was in fact a Howard – came up with a better ice cream recipe, higher butterfat, and made a killing.  The first restaurant followed.  He franchised a second down in Orleans, on Cape Cod, and popularized the fried clam “strip” (the foot, minus the belly) which became industry standard. 


He weathered the stock market crash in 1929, but WWII rationing nearly put him out of business.  He saved himself with War Department contracts to serve food in Army commissaries.  Then he went after state turnpikes, which had tolls, limited access, and service plazas.  He locked up Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, and Connecticut.  It was the first major nationwide chain.


Me, what I remember, is driving up to Maine in the summer, and back in the 1950’s, before the turnpike to Augusta, you took Route 1, along the coast.
  Somewhere along the way – I’m guessing a little way north of Portsmouth, NH, or Portland - my dad would pull into the HoJo’s.  I was crazy for the hot dogs, because they nicked them with a knife, so they swelled and popped open on the grill, and they buttered the outside of the rolls, and toasted them on the grill.  It came in a paper sleeve, and you could dress it up in yellow mustard and dill relish, and not have the whole slippery thing slide into your lap.  And of course we got ice cream sodas.  


An interesting thing happened, though, in the 1950’s,
Brown v. Board of Education.  Howard Johnson’s, and Woolworth’s, both had a lot of outlets in the American South.  Woolworth lunch counters in the South were segregated; they wouldn’t serve black patrons.  Same with Howard Johnson’s.  The fact that these were franchise operations, not corporate, made no nevermind.  There was economic leverage applied.  I used to go to the Woolworth’s in Harvard Square.  They sold everything from notions to tropical fish you took home in plastic bag, but now, I wasn’t supposed to go the lunch counter.  A boycott had been organized, in sympathy with the sit-ins to integrate Southern lunch counters.  Then a Howard Johnson’s in Delaware made the national news when they refused service to a visiting diplomat from Ghana, and there was more than enough embarrassment to go around, the Eisenhower administration trying to build bridges to the Third World as a counterweight to Soviet influence, and Jim Crow making them out to be hypocrites. 


It’s a little strange, and not a little scary, that we can connect that ten-year-old kid with his hot dog and an ice cream soda to a larger and more ambiguous circumstance, the Cold War and the nuclear threat, the struggle for personal respect and ordinary decency, and the realization that political change is both local and glacial, but that experience was in fact one of my earliest encounters with the wider world – an understanding that the boundaries I took to be solid as stone, family, neighborhood, tribe, were as brittle as glass, and afforded no protection.
  The world could break in.  There were more than twenty-eight flavors.  The story we believed was a comforting construct, a fiction we’d chosen, just one among many. 

I don’t know that it made me apprehensive, so much.  More of an insight, that this was the world grown-ups inhabited, all day and every day.  It was a small glimpse of wisdom.

But still, admittedly, a lot to read into a hot dog. 

07 June 2022

A Text Mess

Some weeks ago, I posted a few voice-to-text hiccups that found their way into
probable cause documents I had been tasked to review. Since then, a couple more have caught my eye and proven too good to ignore.

The other night, a police officer arrived at a domestic disturbance, separated the warring parties, and started talking to the man. The officer in the probable cause affidavit noted that from the defendant’s speech, mannerisms, and behavior, it was obvious, the report stated, that the arrestee had been “heavenly drinking.”

Without further elaboration, I could only guess that his speech involved promises to “smote thine enemy” and the mannerisms include the waving of “his rod or staff.” The police transported him, presumably not to a land flowing with milk and honey.

Jlcoving, CCBY-SA3.0, Creative Commons.org
A different officer arrested a young man and, during the subsequent search of his person, located a short glass tube blackened with burn marks. The officer, helpfully, identified the object in his possession as a “math pipe.”

The problem with these little typos is not that I can’t figure out what the officer intended to say, but rather they encourage flights of imagination. One minute I’m reading the case report and the next I’m composing a story problem.

Mark bought an eight-ball from his hook-up. How many dime bags can he get from this? Mark took a hit from his math pipe. His hand shot into the air. Thirty-five, he answered. (The answer might depend on the reliability of your dealer and is always subject to the local conditions of your market.)

Of course, interpretation errors cannot always be blamed on the software.

Years ago, I joined the Dallas County District Attorney’s Office. Back then, the first stop for a newly hired prosecutor was the traffic appeals court. Defendants had the right to a trial de novo on some traffic tickets. We new kids rotated in and out, staying only until a “real” spot opened in one of the regular misdemeanor courts. We would then transfer, and our important selves would move on to prosecuting Class A and B misdemeanors. Don M. was the lawyer permanently hired into the traffic appeals court. He would remain behind to welcome the next new hire.

Don was a weathered attorney, typically in a brown suit. He had traded the stress of an active criminal practice for a steady paycheck and good insurance. (Life choices I better understand now than I did at the time.) The morning docket involved long lists of cases from around Dallas County. Don stood before the judge and stated the government’s position as each case was called. He spoke in a low voice, mumbled, and expressed himself in a code that had been refined to efficiently describe the state of each case to the presiding judge.

“Hiram Bedder,” I heard him routinely tell the judge, and the ticket disappeared.

I didn’t know who Hiram Bedder was or why he had such control over the flow of traffic ticket cases in Dallas County.

I could have asked, but that’s not the normal response of a newly licensed lawyer who’s been validated as special smart. Instead, I wondered and assumed one day I’d meet Lawyer Bedder somewhere in the office’s hallways.

I later learned that Don was saying “higher and better.” The officers had also filed a more serious charge, often driving while intoxicated, in addition to the traffic violation. The district attorney’s office would dismiss the minor charge and not allow the defense to essentially depose the arresting officers. (There was also a jurisprudential question of double jeopardy back in the day, but we don’t need to get all in the weeds on the legal issue.)

My brain went voice-to-text on Don’s speech and completely misfired. I can only imagine where it might have ended up if I’d been drinking heavenly?

Until next time. 

06 June 2022

Crime Conn '22

Last Saturday, I attended a writing conference for the first time in much too long. The in-person attendance was sparse, but many people chose to attend on Zoom. I considered that, but I knew a few writers attending and wanted to catch up. Besides, Tess Gerritsen was the Guest of Honor and Alison Gaylin was on a panel and I wanted to meet them both, especially since Gaylin's The Collective may be the best book I've read so far this year.

The "Changes" panel getting ready

Crime Conn is now a regular event (barring the pandemic) at the Ferguson Library in Stamford, CT, about 35 miles west of New Haven. That makes it an hour's drive for me, and I got there in time for coffee and donuts and greeting a few friends before the presentations began. The program offered five 45-minute panels with time in between to buy books and get them signed. You can never have too many books and never meet too many crime writers, who are among the most generous people on earth.

The theme of this year's conference was The End of the World As We Knew It, complete with the REM track introducing the festivities. For the music buffs, the panels were "Cha-cha-cha-cha-changes," examining what's different for writers now; "The Eve of Destruction," discussing whether or not this is the Apocalypse; "Forever Young," presenting three YA authors explaining how they help young readers navigate the New Crazy; "Psycho Killer," three current or former law enforcement officers and a death investigator from the CT State Medical Examiner; and "I'll Be There For You," looking at how the last two years of isolation, hostility, and shifting rules have helped writers create or maintain relationships. The final presentation, "Doctor My Eyes," featured John Valeri, a Connecticut book critic and one of mystery writingt's best friends, interviewing Tess Gerritsen.

MWA Chapter Pres Al Tucher
welcomes the guests

I'm pretty sure Chris Knopf, one of the organizers, came up with the titles. That night, he would be playing bass in a band. He and I shared tales of how arthritis affects our guitar playing, but he's still probably much better than I am.

Rather than discuss each panel in depth, here are a few pithy comments from the writers.

From the Changes panel: Multi-racial and gender identity are important in this changing world. Roughly 10% of today's kids are multi-racial, but only 1% of the books out there have a multi-racial character. We have to represent "Different" accurately.

The Eve of Destruction panel asked "Will pandemic books sell?" The idea reappeared in other panels, but the prevailing wisdom is that 9/11 books still don't (the only exception I know might be SJ Rozan's Absent Friends), and we're still too close to Covid. When asked about upping the ante in today's world, the authors stressed that the best approach is not to amp up the crime, but to become more human. I was one of many who appreciated that emphasis on character over "stuff."

The YA writers (I bought books by two of them because they impressed me on the panel) pointed out that backstory informs character NOW. What in the past will make them afraid in the present?

The law enforcement officers explained, among other things, how Covid has changed policing. The New Haven detective observed that the streets were much quieter at first, and that she became leery of interacting with the public. All three panelists tried to minimize arrests and bringing people into enclosed cells. They agreed they'd seen an increase in domestic violence. One officer-turned-writer has not yet included Covid in his work and commented, "It's easier to read and write about adversity after it's over."

Audience at left. The tables of books for sale
in the background

Wendy Corso Staub and Alison Gaylin shared many writers' problems with trying to write when they were no longer alone all day because their hsuband was working from home and the children were learning online instead of in a school. Staub reverted to early morning writing as she did years ago. She would feed her infant child, then stay up and write for several hours before going back to bed. Over the last two years of lockdown, she has completed four novels. 

Tess Gerritsen wanted to write from the time she was seven, but her parents encouraged her to study other fields. She majored in anthropology as an undergrad, became a physician, and plays several musical instruments between writing now. She said, "It doesn't matter what you study, it matters what you LIVE."

The gathering was small enough so writers and audience mingled easily. There was a writing workshop during the lunch break for those who were interested, too.

I sat at a table with Lynn, now working on her first nonfiction book, and Chris, who has not written anything… yet. They both attended the writing workshop. As the conference wound down, they weren't the only ones who looked eager to get back home so they could resume writing.

That's what a good conference does.

05 June 2022

Happiness is a Warm Gun

Obsessives make me cringe– drugs, religion, politics, hero worship. The literal meaning of idée fixe suggests the rational brain has locked up and passion has seized control.

In gun control arguments (the late, great ‘debate’ was strangled in its sleep), I haven’t seen admissions about feelings and the emotional relationship of gun ownership. Denial of feelings represents a fundamental dishonesty.

May 1968 American Rifleman

A rare exception is the Beatles’ song, ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ on their White Album found in an ammoerotic movement called ‘The Gunman’. Inspiration came from a May 1968 NRA American Rifleman article called, what else, ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’.

Happiness is a warm gun.
Bang, bang, shoot, shoot
When I hold you in my arms
And when I feel my finger on your trigger
I know nobody can do me no harm
Happiness is a warm gun.
Bang, bang, shoot, shoot

I bring this up because from a young age, I felt comfort, I felt empowerment when I holstered cap pistols and later, a Peacemaker Colt B.B. replica. I didn’t grow up with the television exposure David Edgerley Gates wrote about, but I absorbed it in school. I’d tramp through forest and farm and field unafraid.

Industry lobbyists and politicians promote that illusion, that a gun keepa you safe, it protecta you. They like to forget that when you rode into Tombstone or Abilene, you checked your guns. The Earp brothers understood that, but a century and a half later, we fail to internalize the simple concept that we’re not safer.

1839 Colt Paterson
1839 Colt Paterson

American engineering in the latter 1800s was brilliant and Colt Arms was no less so. The 1839 Colt Paterson had one of the cleverest safeties; the trigger remained invisibly tucked inside until the hammer was cocked. The 1847 Colt Walker that followed set the blueprint for the Navy Colt and Army Colt, and the six-guns that won the West.

They were also peculiarly seductive. The heft seemed natural. The grip fit either hand without effort, better than today’s pseudo-ergonomic designs of, say the Colt Python. I surmise its grip’s rear convex curve may help it not snag on clothing if you’re rushing to shoot your wife’s lover, but the concave tang of an 1800s Colt grip feels more secure in the hand. Like I said, seductive.

1847 Colt Walker
1847 Colt Walker

Some people take that literally. I'm pretty certain a squirmy little security guard at a client found great excitement and, er, pleasure in his acquisition of a dodgy Saturday Night Special. And we've written about a Florida woman who also took great pleasure in a motel parking lot with a loaded, yes, loaded automatic. If people fetishize bridges and bicycles, the leap to a Beretta might be smaller than we admit. Nothing like proximity to death to get the blood pumping.

1851 Colt Navy
1851 Colt Navy

Then there's the religiously obsessed, the true believers who massage warm oil into their current love and find it impossible to converse without bringing up the latest gadget to convert their AR into a fully automatic rifle. In chat rooms, they discuss which ammunition they should use to liquefy brains or flay muscle from bone, because hollow-points and explosive tips are so last season. There was a type of shotgun round that spread in flight, a whirligig of sharp metal and tiny wires that was touted to inflict incredible damage to the human body. But let us not forget the holy grail of gunnery, finding a way to encapsulate a drop of mercury in a lead slug for theorized maximum expansion.

1860 Colt Army
1860 Colt Army

Many of these wishful warriors look forward to eliminating 'libtards' from the landscape, without being certain quite why. Hate radio, of course, and the venerable NRA American Rifleman regularly feature articles about 'the war on guns' or some such fear.

Most listeners and readers don't realize thirty years ago, the 2nd Amendment of the Constitution was treated very differently. While it was never uncontroversial, a couple of events changed the terrain.

Weapon manufacturers took over the NRA hobbyist club, turning it into a political lobbyist powerhouse. And Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas reinterpreted the 2nd Amendment to mean open season.

1980 Colt Python
1980 Colt Python

With a math and science background, I’m more likely to regale readers with the horrifying bullet points of American gun ownership, • how we kill nearly a thousand of our fellow countrymen a month, • how we average more than a multiple/mass shooting every day of the year (we’re way ahead this year, 233 mass shootings in 150 days), • that the US population is 330-million but every American man, woman, and child owns a total of 400-million guns– twice as many as the armies on the planet combined.

But gun control advocates overlook the heartfelt feelings of gun ownership, the deep-seated relationship between a man (or woman) and his/her gun. Statistics aren’t meaningful for them because he– or she– is different. The averages don’t apply to them.

Yet the spilling of visceral feelings are a frighteningly small step from spilling one’s viscera.

The TL;DR summary means we need to find a way to deal with the deep emotions of gun ownership.

And when I feel my finger on your trigger
I know nobody can do me no harm
Happiness is a warm gun.
Bang, bang, shoot, shoot

04 June 2022

Saving Mrs. Hapwell, Over and Over


Last month I posted a column here at SleuthSayers about humor in fiction, and how those kinds of stories can be fun for the writer as well as (hopefully) fun for the reader. And while putting that post together, I took a look back at my published stories to see just how many were funny and how many weren't. I won't bore you with my statistics, but it turned out I've written a lot of (what I think is) humorous fiction. But a lot of it isn't. Mystery stories often contain at least some degree of lightheartedness, and I try to inject that when appropriate, but the truth is, crime is serious business, and so is crime fiction.

Even so . . . the funny stories are still the most enjoyable to write. Maybe the most surprising thing to me is that editors seem to like them also. I've been fortunate in that two of my humorous mystery stories won Derringer Awards in 2020 and 2022, one won a Shamus in 2021, and many of them from long ago have been reprinted again and again. (Many have also been rejected again and again, but that's another matter.)

The story that wouldn't give up . . .

I found that one of those older stories, a sort-of western called "Saving Mrs. Hapwell," has so far appeared in the following publications: 

Dogwood Tales Magazine, March/April 1997 issue

Mystery Time, Spring/Summer 2000

Desert Voices, December 2004

Taj Mahal Review, December 2005

Crime & Suspense, February 2006

Rainbow's End and Other Stories (collection, Dogwood Press, 2006 and 2010)

Crime & Suspense I (anthology, Wolfmont Press, March 2007)

Kings River Life, May 2020

Crimeucopia: As in Funny Ha-Ha, August 2021

I hope it'll show up in other places too, before it's finally put to rest.

I think some of the things that have made that story marketable to multiple publications are that it's cross-genre (crime, western, humor), it's short (1160 words), it's almost entirely dialogue, and it has what I've been told is a memorable ending. One editor who reprinted "Saving Mrs. Hapwell" informed me awhile back that she still receives emails that mention the final line of the story, a fact that gladdens my writer's heart, and I've often been asked to read the story aloud at library signings. An old friend of mine who is himself an author even referred to that story in a YouTube interview he did with me a few weeks ago, saying he always brings it up as an example whenever he gives talks about writing to high-school classes. Also gratifying is that our longtime SleuthSayers friend and author Anne van Doorn, who since 2016 has read one piece of short fiction every day, recently selected "Saving Mrs, Hapwell" as his pick for Best Short Story of the Week. (Thanks, Anne!) So that story's been good to me, over the years. If you're so inclined, you can read it here:

The second, third, and fourth times around

The point I wanted to make today, though it's taken me a while to get to it, is that we short-fiction writers can and should try to remarket our published stories. All of us still have the manuscripts; they might be stacked somewhere in a closet and aging like tobacco leaves, or buried in the forgotten depths of your computer--but they're still there if you look for them, and just waiting to be recycled. Find 'em, dust them off, and send them out again into the world.

There are plenty of potential homes for these old stories. As you can see from my list for Mrs. Hapwell, you can include previously pubbed stories in a collection of your own work at some point, and you can also--as long as the rights are retained--continue to sell them as reprints to magazines and anthologies. Sometimes you're even paid again for the stories, and if you're lucky you might receive a higher payment than you did the first time around. (That hasn't happened to me often, but it does happen.) Markets will also contact you occasionally to ask if they can reprint a story, and--failing that--you can find all kinds of possibilities on the Internet. Here are a few suggested sites:

105 Literary Magazines Accepting Reprints

Where to Submit Reprints

18 Magazines Accepting Reprints

I also check ralan.com now and then for possible reprint targets. (Just pull up their pages and do a search for "Reprints: yes.") It's primarily a fantasy/SF site but also includes info on some mystery markets.

Questions for the class

If you're a writer, do you actively seek out publications that are receptive to reprints? Have you been successful in that? If so, where do you usually look to locate those markets?

Whatever the answers, I wish you luck in all your writing endeavors.

See you in two weeks.