20 December 2022

Gift Ideas for the Readers and Writers in Your Life

If you're reading this blog, you most likely love to read crime fiction. Maybe you also write it. With that in mind, and because we're in the midst of the holiday season (and because I'm swamped with work), I'm pulling this goodie out of the archives with some updates.  I cordially present (cue the trumpets) ...


First we'll start with gifts for readers

Love Beacon

You think this is a book bag, right? It is, but it's so much more.

We'll start with its function as a bag. Every reader needs a book bag. Something to take with her to the library or when she's out and about. It shouldn't be too small because she might finish the book she's reading and need another one. She shouldn't be caught without options. So she'll need to carry several books with her wherever she goes. So make that bag sturdy.

But sturdiness is only one important quality of the bag. It should say something. Does your reader love sci fi? Make sure your bag shows it. Or does your reader coo at cozy mysteries? Let the bag share that with the world. Or, if your reader has eclectic taste, you can simply use the bag to proclaim that its owner loves books. But the bag should make a statement because a book bag can do more than carry books. A book bag can help readers find each other. So keep that in mind when shopping. With a book bag, you're not just giving a tote, you're giving a love beacon--a signal someone can send to the world that she is a reader. And maybe, just maybe, another reader will see the beacon and respond. What better thing to bond over than books?

Book Light

You might have bought a book light decades ago and realized they weren't made well. You might have even had a store clerk at a Waldenbooks discourage you from buying a book light back in the eighties because of their poor quality. (Nope. That wasn't me. No, siree.) But today's book lights have come of age. Not only do they work well, but they're lightweight and pretty. Oh so pretty. Doesn't the reader on your list deserve a sturdy way to read in bed without the lamp on. (And to that point, doesn't the reader's mate deserve a way for the reader to read in bed without the lamp on?) So buy a book light. It's a gift for two, all in one.


While any bookends are better than no bookends, consider these adorable metal ones of a librarian pulling a book from a shelf (or maybe she's putting a book back). They look like a bibliophile's dream and are sold in a number of places. Search for "librarian bookend," and they'll come up. That said, you'd think bookends would be sold in pairs. These, alas, are not, so if you want these bookends plural, order two.

Go for the Gold

Book bags, book lights, and bookends are nice, you're thinking, but you want to show the reader in your life just how much you love her. Isn't there something nicer (read: pricier) you can buy? But of course. First, there's an e-reader. Yes, most people who would like a e-reader already have them, but I'd be remiss without mentioning them. When wrists get weak, e-readers can be easier to hold than books. And when eyes get tired, e-readers let you increase the type size, which can be nice too. And if you want a book and have an e-reader, you can click and have that book at your disposal in mere seconds, which is a pretty nifty thing indeed.

But, Barb, you're saying. I don't want to give an e-reader. I want to truly show the love of my life that I get her, right down to her introverted little toes. What can I buy that will show her I understand her completely? (Besides, of course, a vacation for her alone with her books.)

Well, okay. Get out your wallet. Besides a gift card for books, the best thing you can buy a reader is a ... bookshelf. Or two. Or two dozen. More and more and more. There are small bookshelves to go into niches in your bedroom. There are large bookshelves to cover walls in your study. And then, there's the granddaddy gift of them all:


Nothing says love like a built-in bookshelf. Be still my page-turning heart. (But Barb, it's too late to order built-ins. We're in the middle of Hanukkah. Christmas is in five days. To that I say, it's never to early to start planning for next year. Get to it!)

Moving on to Gifts for Writers

The Anti-Welcome Mat

We all know the standard ways people indicate they don't want others knocking on their doors. The Beware Dog sign. The doormat beseeching you to Go Away. The sock on the handle of a dorm room door, indicating that ... well, you know.

Writers need something like this too. All too often, a person toiling at home (especially someone who spends his days making up conversations for imaginary people) is viewed as interruptible.

"Mom, where are the cookies?"

"Have you checked the jar?"  Grumble, grumble.

"Dad, I'm bored."

"Then play with the dog." Even more grumbling.

"Honey, the house is on fire."

"I swear, if I get interrupted one more time I--oh, wait. That's an interruption I'm okay with."

Let's hope that house fires are few and far between. For those other times, your writer needs a way to nicely tell the member of his family to Go Away. So here we have it, a simple sign the writer can hang on his office door. Interrupt thereafter at your peril.

Page Holder

Until you've tried to type in edits, hunching forward to look down at a page on your desk then looking back up to your screen, then hunching forward again to find your place, then straightening up to type the next edits in before hunching once more, over and over and over, you haven't typed in edits first done on paper. Yes, some authors might do all their editing on the computer, but many people edit and proofread the old-fashioned way.
That's where a Page Holder comes in. It allows you to have your pages standing upright, so you can sit in the same position, with your eyes on the pages and your fingers on the keys, typing away. And when you need to look to the screen, it's so much easier moments later to simply scan to the left to find your place again on the paper page. This may seem like something silly or unnecessary, but oh my goodness, the writer in your life may need it.

An editor

Every writer needs an editor. You never know when you might be telling too much instead of showing, or writing stilted dialogue, or not recognizing a plot hole so big Big Foot could fit through it. That's why it's always good to get a second pair of eyes, especially someone who specializes in this type of work.

Some authors rely on critique groups, and they can be great. But sometimes an author needs a professional. A freelance editor. This can be especially true for authors trying to sell a first manuscript and authors planning to self-publish. But freelance editors can be pricey, so if you love an author, perhaps the best present you can give is the gift of an editor's time.

So, do you have a great gift you can recommend for the reader or writer in your life? Please share in the comments. And happy holidays!

19 December 2022

He Said, She Said.

girl and boy talking

“I love writing dialogue,” he said.

“Really?” she asked. “How come?”

“Well, first off, the lines are short, but it takes up tons of space.”

“In other words, you can crank out a lot of pages with less effort than straight narrative.”


“Isn’t that cheating?” she asked.

“Not if your reader enjoys the experience.  Who hasn’t quietly closed a book when confronted by a giant hunk of exposition, when tidy bits of dialogue might’ve kept things rolling along?”

“My mother.  She liked Dostoyevsky.”

“!”“That explains your penchant for lugubrious literary tomes.”

“No one says ‘penchant’, ‘lugubrious’ or ‘tomes’ in regular speech.”

I do, but you make a good point,” he said. “Actually instructive.  Keep that dialogue simple and unadorned.”

“That feels a little doctrinaire.”

“Simply advisory.”

“I do like my doctrines to be somewhat flexible,” she said.

“Then you’ll hate this: always write the way people speak.  Can’t, not cannot; don’t, not do not; isn’t not is not, you get the idea.”

“You never met my Professor of Medieval Literature, circa freshman year.  Contraction-free.   An eight o’clock class, no amount of caffeine was enough.”

“Leave him, and others like him, out of your book.  Better to waste time listening to Miles Davis.”

“Now there’s a right turn without a signal.”

“Not really,” he said.  “He’ll teach you a masters class in meter, tempo, rhythm and dynamics, all applicable to fluid and effective dialogue.”

“I lean more toward Bruno Mars.”

“Just as good.  ‘Julio, get the stretch.’  And the master of them all, Chuck Berry.

“You haven’t mentioned poetry,” she said.  “All this talk about meter, tempo, rhythm and dynamics.”

“Don’t forget brevity.  Too many words spoil the conversational broth.”

“Haiku.  The fewest words to convey the idea, none that don’t.”

“Though beware of double meanings,” he said. “Or triple and quadruple, if you happen to be T.S. Elliot.”

“Please don’t banish innuendo.  It’s my stock in trade.”

“Never.  I’ve seen Casablanca.  Innuendo is the match that lights the fuse.  The straw that stirs the drink.  The sauce that inflames the pasta.”

“So tortured metaphor is okay,” she said.  

“Not if the metaphor cries out in pain.  As I just demonstrated,”

"They say to show not tell.  Same with dialogue?"

"Especially with dialogue.  Which is why adverbs are verboten (see Elmore Leonard)," he said, imperiously.  

“All this clean and simple might slip into dull and boring.  Just saying.”

“Hemingway’s dialogue was simple, but no one ever said it was boring.”

“That’s an overstatement,” she said.  “My mother thought he was not only boring, but simple minded.  To say nothing of misogynistic and egomaniacal.  I also prefer my dialogue with a bit of garnish.  A flip of the wrist, a scattering of bon mots, a little storytelling, a gush of passion followed by self-deprecating wisecracks.  A full-bodied dose of sincere confession, delivered without restraint or censure.  An outpouring, a geyser, a revealing hemorrhage of pent-up feelings.  This requires some narrative elbow room, n’est-ce pas?”

Oui.  Just don’t lose the reader in the deluge,” he said.

“I can’t tell if you’re a liberator or a killjoy.”

“You can do anything you want as long as it works.  Rules are for scolds and scaredy cats.  Break them at will.  You just have to figure out if the gamble was worth the outcome.”

“So you don’t hand out instruction manuals.”

“Elmore Leonard ruled you should only use ‘said’ in dialogue.  If you use any verb at all.  He thought a good enough writer could convey everything through the strength of her writing alone.  I’m not so sure.  He also wrote you shouldn’t over-describe settings.  He obviously hadn’t read much Lawrence Durrell or Robert Silverberg.”

Chris Knopf
Chris Knopf

“Can you at least share some inspirational examples of great dialogue?” she asked (properly defying Leonard).

“Watch His Girl Friday and read Robert B. Parker.  Casablanca, to my earlier point, is another movie to pay attention to, and anything by W.B. Yeats.  Not exactly dialogue, but you asked for inspiration.”

“You said to avoid dialogue that’s too long.  Can it ever be too short?”


18 December 2022

The Digital Detective: Encryption ≠ Encoding

Telex paper tape
Telex paper tape

The Explainers

Don’t refer to ‘computer codes’. When coaching lawyers for depositions, that became my first rule. I urge the same rule for authors as well. Don’t blow credibility by trying to ‘pluralize’ code with codes– in computerdom the plural of code is still code.

And what kind of code? Source code? Microcode? Machine code? Generic ‘computer code’ is less than meaningless. And while we’re at it, hackers can’s remotely set opponents’ computers on fire, not unless they slip their adversary certain laptops with defective Sony batteries.

To illustrate concepts, real-world analogies appeal to me, but some computer specialites are so abstract, explaining them is difficult. A few software specialists relate systems programming to composing music: Both take place in the originator’s mind, both use symbolic languages and, since the invention of the player piano and now modern mixing consoles, both can be programmed. But analogies can go only so far.

One of the most common questions has proved the most difficult to answer: How are characters stored in the computer? For example, what does “Now is the time” look like inside the machine? Explaining each character has a numeric representation loses some people, but mentioning numbers 0123 are represented as 30313233 (or worse, F0F1F2F3) results in eye-glazing and blood leaking from the ears.

Many programming courses don’t attempt to explain how letters and numbers are recognized and stored in computers. It’s taken for granted and too often they fall back upon, “Do as we say and you’ll do okay.” But that doesn’t answer the question.

Mike Drop

And then… two Michaels came together and showed me the way.

One was Michael Bracken. The other was… Mike Lindell.

Yes, that Michael Lindell, everyone’s favorite mad uncle, the My Pillow Guy. Wait, this is not about politics, I promise. We’re talking about writing.

Mr Lindell has very publicly complained that data in voting machines is secretly encrypted to prevent it being studied. He’s sponsored symposiums with ‘proof’ of skulduggery, and he infamously slandered and libeled voting machine companies, inviting lawsuits with nine decimal zeros in the complaints.

During one interview, Mr Lindell displayed a sample on the screen giving me my first glance at what he was talking about. Could he be correct?

As a writer, I try to get details right, because as a reader, I’ve been yanked out of stories when authors get details wrong. Mr Lindell got it wrong:

Voting machine data isn’t encrypted. It’s encoded.

Wait. Same thing, you say, right? To*mah*to versus To*may*to?

Nope: encoded ≠  encrypted.

Encryption implies obfuscation. It’s how spies try to protect their secrets. It’s how financial institutions are supposed to shield their transactions.

Mikey isn’t all techie and sciencey. I don’t doubt Mr Lindell innocently misunderstood what he saw, but his misunderstanding ‘plain text’ 0123 looks like 30313233 is costing him millions. If a highly visible businessman with political connections doesn’t understand, what about us ordinary readers and writers?

Michael Bracken’s Fault

Baudot 5-bit paper tape

An upcoming anthology for Michael Bracken required digging into historical events, early radio, and teletypes. I didn’t use teletypery (that’s a word, right?) in my story, but at some point the penny dropped, how to help people visualize character encoding. It’s so simple.

Once upon a time, I communicated by telex with offices in Europe. For quick notes, we’d dial in, tap out a few words and perhaps receive an immediate response. But overseas connection time was expensive, so for long flirtations, I mean messages, I’d prepare text on paper tape, then connect and transmit.

And therein lay my solution for anyone to see: encoding on paper tape, a technology a century and a half old. People could see and touch each character as a distinct hole pattern easily converted to a unique number:

hole = binary 1; no hole = binary 0

No Remorse

Morse Code, developed in the 1830s for single-key telegraphy, wasn’t suitable for this new medium. In the 1870s, French engineer Émile Baudot developed a five-bit code. Five bits allows for 2⁵ or 32 distinct characters, but Baudot and the subsequent Morkrum Code (1915) used ‘escape’ characters to switch to and from alphabetic letters mode and numbers-symbols mode, bringing possible combinations closer to sixty, although in practice, far fewer were used. (One of those ‘characters’ rang an attention-getting bell at the other end.)

Baudot paper tape showing shifted values
Baudot paper tape showing shifted values

Morkrum’s new ‘teletypewriter’ was literally a modified typewriter. Morkrum, by the way, is not a person, but rather three people: Joy Morton, founder of Morton Salt, and mechanical engineer Charles Krum, joined by the latter’s son, electrical engineer Howard Krum.

Puzzle Me This

This is paper tape, the stuff of telexes and teletypes, the technology that once powered Western Union, Wall Steel, and news wires. I’ve included only the Roman alphabet, invented a century and a half ago. Each letter has a distinct punch pattern. Curiously, the hole combination for A looks nothing like those for B, C, D, and so on. Each letter’s numeric assignment seems so utterly random as as to defy logic.

Baudot paper tape showing alpha/number shift values.
Baudot paper tape showing decimal values of alphabet

But there is a logic and I’m betting you can figure it out. Why didn’t Baudot lay out letters one after the other in alphabetical order and bump holes one-by-one?

There is method to the madness. Your challenge is to suggest a reason for these seemingly arbitrary hole assignments.

binary values of holes (numbered right to left)
values of holes
Hint № 1
It helps to know *the earliest* machines had five piano-like keys corresponding to the holes. A teletype operator would press the correct keys one-by-one, and the machine punched holes and advanced the tape.
Hint № 2
Note this sample includes a space character. It’s actually a clue.
Hint № 3
Hover for another clue…

Twitchy Fingers

AT&T developed a machine nearly identical to the Telex but using 7-bit code similar to ASCII and its Unicode descendants. Seven bits allowed for 2⁷ or 128 characters, many of them assigned special purposes. Many universities hung cheap, obsolete TTYs  on their early Unix computers, making an ASCII relationship clearer.

ASCII paper tape showing 7-bit values
ASCII paper tape with 7-bit values

[Unix aficionados blame those sluggish keyboards for the plethora of ungodly, abstruse Unix commands: awk, chown, df, grep, lp, m4, qalter, renice, uucp, yacc.]

Did It Work?

So does the paper tape comparison help explain how ‘plain text’ data is used and stored in computers? And does the difference between encoding and encryption make sense? Enquiring minds want to know.

Puzzle Answer ↷

17 December 2022

An Early Christmas


One thing I've found, as a writer, is that if you get into the habit of writing and submitting short stories to editors regularly, you can usually--not always--expect to sell and get them published regularly. Sure, there are dry spells, we all have those. But if you set a good pace and don't let too much time pass between submissions, all those swallows you send out are eventually going to find their way back to Capistrano--and sometimes they come in flocks. Rejections? Sure you'll get rejections. But if you're careful to send out the best work that you can do, you'll probably find that the writer who gets the most no's is also the one who gets the most yeses.

Publishingwise, the first half of December was good to me this year. I had a story published in the December issue of Mystery Magazine, one in a Golden Age of Mystery anthology, one in the third Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir anthology, one in AHMM, one in Kings River Life, and one in an anthology of previous Shamus Award-winning stories. All of those tales are firmly in the mystery/suspense genre, but most are very different in terms of location, mood, characters, time period, type of crime, etc. If you're at all interested, here are quick summaries of those six stories.

"The Magnolia Thief," Mystery Magazine, December 2022 issue. This is the umpteenth installation of my "Law & Daughter" series featuring Sheriff Lucy Valentine and her crimesolving mother Fran. It's a lighthearted solve-it-yourself mystery about traveling salesmen, motel restaurants, and the theft of a valuable painting of the state flower that was given to the local mayor by the governor. Side note: "The Magnolia Thief" is my seventh story in Mystery Magazine this year--four more have been accepted by MM but not yet published--and my fifth Fran/Lucy story there.

"Burying Oliver," Mickey Finn, Vol. 3: 21st Century Noir (Down & Out Books), edited by Michael Bracken. My story in the third Mickey Finn outing is a standalone tale featuring a young farmer, his wife, his cousin, his dog, and the local sheriff--and, as you might expect, some of those five don't make it out alive. (Actually, most of them don't make it out alive.) "Burying Oliver" probably has more plot twists in its 3000 words than any other story I've written recently, which is one of the things that made this one such a pleasure to create. Quick plug, here: Michael Bracken anthologies are always fun, both to write for and to read, and this book is no exception.

"Old Money," Edgar & Shamus Go Golden (Down & Out Books), edited by Gay Kinman and Andrew McAleer. This anthology contains twelve original stories set in the Golden Age of Mystery, all written by winners of either the Edgar or Shamus Award. The one I wrote specifically for this book, "Old Money," features New Orleans private eye Luke Walker, and is set mostly in 1940s Natchez, Mississippi. The crimes involved are insurance fraud and murder, and the story was great fun to write because of two things: (1) the research I had to do regarding language, cars, businesses, cigarettes, equipment, procedures, buildings, etc., of that time period, and (2) my familiarity with the city of Natchez.

"Going the Distance," Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (Jan/Feb 2023 issue). This is the seventh installment of my series about Sheriff Ray Douglas of Pine County, Mississippi, where a rare Christmas snowstorm serves to complicate an already weird murder investigation. Also featured are Douglas's loyal deputy Cheryl Grubbs and his off-and-on love interest Jennifer Parker. (Even though this issue is dated January/February, I'm told it went on sale this past week, on Dec. 13.) FYI, the eighth Ray Douglas mystery has been accepted by AHMM but is still awaiting a publication date.

"Santa's Helper," Kings River Life, December 14, 2022, issue. Most of my KRL stories over the years have been reprints, but this one's an original Christmas mystery--another installment in my Fran and Lucy Valentine series. In this adventure my amateur sleuth and her sheriff daughter investigate the mugging of pint-sized Al Wilson, half of a two-man team who often perform at Christmas events and parties: Al's giant brother Ernest plays Santa and Al plays what he calls a subordinate Claus with low elf esteem. Obviously, this is an ultra-lighthearted story, and is being given double duty: editor Lorie Lewis Ham is featuring it now in the magazine and will run it again next Christmas as a Mysteryrat's Maze Podcast. Thanks, Lorie!

"Mustang Sally," The Shamus Winners: America's Best Private Eye Stories, Vol. III (Perfect Crime Books), edited by Robert Randisi. This is an anthology of all the Shamus Award-winning stories from 2010 to 2021. My story was originally published in Black Cat Mystery Magazine #7: Special Private Eye Issue and was the first installment of my series about present-day private investigator Tom Langford, who takes a case involving the recovery of an engagement ring that went missing under highly unusual circumstances. I was notified this past week that the book is out now but available only via Barnes & Noble. Amazon and other outlets will be getting it soon. 

One special thing about these "early Christmas gifts for me" is that three of these six publications happened only because of my fellow SleuthSayer Michael Bracken. Michael was the editor who bought "Burying Oliver" for Mickey Finn, Vol. 3, and he's also the editor who first published "Mustang Sally" in Black Cat Mystery Magazine--a story that went on to win the 2021 Shamus Award and was thus included in the Shamus Winners III anthology. In addition, that Shamus win is the only reason I was invited to write "Old Money" for the Edgar & Shamus Go Golden anthology. So thank you, Michael, for making all three of those publications possible.

Questions, regarding my spree of good luck: Have any of you writers experienced these "when it rains, it pours" spells, with the stories you've submitted? Do you find that these clusters of publications happen more often around the end of the year (because of the approaching holidays, I guess) than at other times? Do you often experience long stretches when nothing you send out seems to be getting published, no matter how often you submit or how hard you try? (I found Bob Mangeot's recent SleuthSayers column on that subject to be interesting.) How do you deal with extended periods of rejection? I can't help recalling what one writer told me years ago, back when everything was done via snailmail. She said she'd found a sure-fire way to prevent getting rejection letters: don't include SASEs. And it worked.

But don't do that. Follow this advice instead: When you get a rejection, send that story someplace else, and then send a different story to the place that rejected you. Never give up, never stop trying. Persistence will pay off, and sometimes in bunches.

Anyhow, that's my pre-Christmas message. I wish all of you a happy and healthy holiday, and many, many publications during the second half of the month--and in 2023! 

See you again here on New Year's Eve.


16 December 2022

Hair styles

 Writing stories and novels set in the late 1940s and early 1950s takes a lot of research to get things right. My computer has folders with examples of the clothes worn back then, women's dresses and blouses and slacks and shoes, men's suits and pants and shirts and shoes.

After WWII, women's dresses became longer and their hair shorter. Nothing wrong with women cutting their hair or wearing longer dresses or capri pants, or wearing anything they want to wear. What is jolting, however, are the hairstyles of the late 40's and early 50s. Short hair on women – no problem. Goofy hairstyles – Oh, God.

Not that men with their flat-tops and crew-cuts had anything to brag about.

This is no criticism of the ladies below. It's a criticism of their hair stylists. Oh, man. Look at what the hairstylists did to these movie stars.

Beautiful Gene Tierney from Laura. Uh...

Is that supposed to be the perky look?

Gorgeous Eleanor Parker wearing some sort of hair helmet.

Why does she alway look like a characature?

OK. They got it right here. Then again, it's Ava Gardner and no matter what's done with ther hair, she's stunning.

Is it me or does this make her look older?

No comment.

Was that a wig? Man, that's one scary looking Stanwyck.

Steve Martin did not improve the look. From Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid

OK, it's all a matter of taste but my characters have their opinions in the stories and books, so I just let it rip.


15 December 2022

Better Late Than Never

"Well, better late than never" was my reaction to reading Slow Horses by Mick Herron.  Seriously - where was I when news of this book, this series, got out? I only found out about it because of the review and interview by Jill Lepore in the Dec. 5 edition of The New Yorker.  As soon as I read about Jackson Lamb - "a disgusting, lumpy, vulgar, chain-smoking Rabelaisian wreck of a man. [who's] 'been said to resemble Timothy Spall, with worse teeth,'” - and his unmerry band of MI.5 rejects, I was in.

So I checked out the book from my local library, read it in a major gulp, and plan to read the entire series as fast as I can gulp them down, too.

Now I've read many books this year which have not induced such a deep thirst for more from the same author, even though I thought they weren't bad or pretty good.  So why this book? Why this series?  And it dawned on me that Slough House strongly reminds me of Len Deighton's novels of an unnamed agent (named Harry Palmer in the movies) working for the W.O.O.C.(P) and their group of misfits. I read every one of those books. I also read the complete Ashenden series, and the complete James Bond canon (of that time) as well, but it was Harry Palmer that won my heart, for a thousand reasons, beginning with atmosphere, sarcasm, and wit. 

BTW, I wrote a blog post some time ago that included my criticism of James Bond as spy:  (HERE)

"the interesting question of why Ian Fleming - who certainly knew better - made James Bond so damned obvious. Apparently, on November 29, 2016, Anthony Horowitz and David Farr got into a 90 minute debate as to who was the greatest spy novelist of all time, Fleming or Le Carré. (Full Transcript.) Horowitz' summation was that ‘George Smiley is a fascinating character. James Bond is an icon. That’s the difference.’
And that's largely true, despite the fact that James Bond was actually a horrible spy. Think about it: He uses his real name. All the time. He blows his cover, every time. He gets captured. All the time. And he destroys everything he touches… There's a whole lot of things get blown up, run over, caved in, and I'm not just talking about the women. (10-reasons-james-bond-worst-spy-.)

Real spies must be far more like Deighton's anonymous agent, Smiley, and Ashenden, who don't stand out in a crowd, who are never sitting at the baccarat table in full tuxedo gear, lighting a cigarette, with unlimited credit, who is never known by name by every supervillain on the planet (or much of anyone else) and who, rather than announce their name to all and sundry, don't even remember what their real name is.

And real active spies must be headquartered not in flash offices, but hidden, where they're highly unlikely to be photographed on their way in and out.  Both Slough House and the W.O.O.C.(P) are tucked away in seedy neighborhoods, behind nondescript doors that supposedly lead to a business of some sort - but of course, it's never used and certainly has no customers. Inside: shabby offices with lots of mold and mildew, peeling paint, instant Nescafe and bad tea, cracked linoleum floors, old desks, battered chairs.

Granted, Palmer is an active agent, who's good at his job, while all of the Slough House members have screwed up royally.  And Dawlish, W.O.O.C.(P) Chief is infinitely less profane than Lamb.  Though he can be just as sarcastic. In The Billion Dollar Brain, Palmer asks why he's being sent to Finland, since he speaks no Finnish, etc., and Dawlish says, "You are the one best protected against the cold." 

BTW, if Jackson Lamb is "Timothy Spall gone to seed", I always envisioned Dawlish as Leo G. Carroll, with his pipe and three piece wool suit. In fact, I figured that was why they cast Carroll as Waverly, the Chief in the Man From U.N.C.L.E. Typecasting, right? 

And there is no Miss Moneypenny:  The W.O.O.C.(P) secretary is Alice, a middle-aged crabby administrator, who's called a secretary, but certainly doesn't have time to make tea for everyone who comes in the door. If you need anything, you call her, and one of my favorite scenes is when Palmer is trying to open a new case file and Alice finally, grudgingly, agrees. She names the case file "Death's-head Hawkmoth" which he then has to handwrite on every page…

And Catherine Standish in Slough House is no one's secretary at all, really. She makes tea for Lamb, and she's an administrator, but mostly she's serving her time. It could have been worse. She's there as one of Jackson Lamb's few (perhaps only?) acts of reparation, for sending her into hell in the first place. 

And the characters:  One of Palmer's coworkers is a young employee, Chico (think Bertie Wooster without Jeeves), who screws up just often enough that he probably ended up in the 60s version of Slough House. At one point Palmer tells a chattering Chico to go to a library and read a book for a change. Chico asks, "What book?" Palmer tells him, "Any book." 

“You’re joking, sir.” “I never joke, Chico. The truth is quite adequately hilarious.”

And God knows the following piece of dialog (with more profanity added) could have been just as well come from Slow Horses:

It was a large black case and contained a ream of reports. One of them he passed across to me.
"Read it while I'm here. I can't leave it."
"It's secret?"
"No, our document copier has gone wrong and it's the only one I have."
- An Expensive Place to Die

So you can see why I was and am overjoyed to find a new series of books with a similar combination of wit, incompetence, professional sarcasm, plot, seedy backgrounds, outrageous characters, intelligence work, clever crafting, and a writing style that fills me with, in the immortal words of Jackson Lamb, “joie de fucking vivre”.

But then, in the words of Li Kao, "I have a slight flaw in my character."*

BTW, No I don't get Apple TV+ and don't plan too. I have cast Slow Horses brilliantly in my own mind, and am very satisfied.  Plus, I'm PC, not Apple, and always have been.

* Barry Hughart, Bridge of Birds


My latest story, "The Closing of the Lodge" is in the latest AHMM:

My story, "Cool Papa Bell", is in Josh Pachter's Paranoia Blues;

And on Amazon HERE

And more are coming!  Huzzah!

14 December 2022

Three Pines


This may be a commonplace, but I’ve been thinking about what makes TV adaptions of mystery series work, and while casting is clearly the biggest piece, there are a whole lot of other pre- and post-production decisions in play.

Looking back at the success of Magnum or Rockford, you point to Tom Selleck and Jim Garner, and they deserve all the credit they get – but their shows were successful both commercially and critically, the key being consistency, and that’s due to sharp writing and committed exec producers, Don Bellisario and Stephen Cannell.  You see a similar dynamic in Longmire or Justified, and for my money, the two best shows currently airing, Bosch and Shetland.

Michael Connelly has two series running, with one in the pipe, and Ann Cleeves has three.  This is no accident.  The books give good weight.  Connelly also gets exec producer credit on Bosch and The Lincoln Lawyer, and his sensibility looms large.  The other thing you notice, though, is the depth of the cast, in both shows, and the feel.  Bosch is very L.A., the heat, the culture, the streets; Shetland is very much the outer reaches, the damp, the insular, and the cold sea.  They’re lived-in landscapes.

Three Pines is adapted from Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache novels, and so far, Amazon has aired two episodes.  The runtime is about an hour and forty minutes, which allows for development, and breathing room.  The pace is measured, and there’s a very strong sense of place.  It’s shot in the Eastern Townships of Quebec, and it shows.  You need a warm coat.

Pursuant to the remarks above, the first reason to watch is the lead, Alfred Molina, as Gamache.  Molina goes back to Prick Up Your Ears, with Gary Oldman, and would you believe Enchanted April, not to mention voice work on Rick and Morty and Robot Chicken, as well as Doc Ock in Spider-Man?  One of my personal favorites is Close to the Enemy, from 2016.  Okay, he’s not Quebecois, or even Canadian, but he convinces me, and a large number of the rest of the cast is Canadian, and/or Indigenous.  (Tantoo Cardinal!)  All the same, Molina is the one to watch.  Gamache is grounded.  He doesn’t have a drinking problem, and he’s not grieving for a lost love.  He’s a still point in a turning world, and Molina gives him enormous gravity.  He seems to experience other people, to absorb their pain or folly or hope, and see it whole.  His empathy makes him, of course, a terrific investigator, but it makes him deeply human, as well. 

As for the Indigenous presence, there’s a thread of sorrow, never far from the surface.  The back story of Native children taken from their parents and their homes, denied their language and history, pushed to assimilate into a white, Christian culture, subject to physical and emotional abuse.  A survival narrative.

Three Pines works within the conventions, the community of eccentrics, and rash outsiders, hidden currents, shared secrets, and the rest, but touches on them lightly, for the most part. The sorrows, however, remain.

13 December 2022

Fist or Firearms

A high-profile murder case kicked off here in my local courthouse. A former police officer stands accused of shooting a woman in her home. The case turns on the issue of self-defense. I have no involvement with the case and have no specialized knowledge about it. I have, however, fielded a number of questions about the right to protect oneself. I’d like to devote today’s blog to a quick, substantive overview of self-defense.

            Quick disclaimer: although every jurisdiction acknowledges a right of a person to protect him or herself, the rules in your jurisdiction may vary from those here in the Lone Star State.

            Quick disclaimer #2: Lethal and non-lethal force have their own separate sections in the Texas Penal Code. The general rules are the same, so I’m lumping them together for the purposes of this column.

The Rule

A person is justified in using force against another when, and to the degree, the person reasonably believes that the force is immediately necessary to protect against the attacker’s use of unlawful force.

That’s the Texas law regarding self-defense. It seems straightforward, but volumes have been written exploring it. We will touch upon only a few points.

1.      Like must meet like:

The response must be proportionate to the threat. Locally, we distinguish between force and deadly force. If I attempt to slap you, you don’t get to shoot me. And here, we open the door to a whole bunch of “what-ifs.” That’s where the defense bar makes its living.

2.      Words alone don’t make an adequate threat.

In my jurisdiction, we have a load of phrases we commonly call “fighting words.” The title doesn’t make them so. I might say that I want to slap you. That doesn’t give you the right to punch me. Some other action must accompany my words. A general fear of being physically harmed is not enough to trigger self-defense. But see 3.

3.      The defender doesn’t have to wait.

Bullets don’t need to be flying in your direction before you are entitled to respond. The line distinguishing #2 and #3 can easily become murky. It gets resolved on a case-by-case basis. Usually, the trial testimony involves the victim making some threatening statement. He then reaches into a pocket or plunges his hand toward his waistband. Perhaps, earlier in the day, someone witnessed him loading a firearm. How much activity demonstrates an immediate threat is decided by the jurors.

4.      The defendant can’t provoke his/her use of self-defense.

I sneer and say I’m going to hit you. In response, you stand, ball your fists, and prepare for the onslaught. I can’t let a punch fly and claim that I was pre-empting your obvious assault. I don’t get the benefit of self-defense if I start the trouble.  

5.      A defender gets to use force until the threat is extinguished. This has a variety of implications for the application of self-defense. If I start something and then surrender or retreat. You don’t get to keep hitting me. Once the danger to you is over, so is the right to protect yourself from it. But you get to persist with your defense until the end of the perceived threat.

Often, during a murder trial, the prosecution will try to stretch this. The government may argue that the defendant shot the victim multiple times. Assuming the legitimacy of his right to self-defense, the defendant is entitled to keep shooting. John Holmes, the former Harris County district attorney, expressed the concept succinctly, “if I have the right to shoot you dead, I have the right to shoot you dead, dead, dead, dead.” Once legally permitted to fire, a defendant may keep firing until the threat is extinguished. An after-the-fact claim of excessive force won’t nullify the right.

6.      Unlawful force

A defender has a right to protect themselves from illegal contact only. Most times, this element is a no-brainer. I don’t get to punch or shoot you. But some contact is not illegal. Police officers get to lay hands during the apprehension of criminals. As a society, we don’t recognize the right to fight back. Even among civilian-to-civilian contacts, some touching is neither harmful nor offensive, thus not necessarily illegal. I do not get to respond to it with violence.

7.      Applying the standard

The lens through which all this conduct and counter-conduct is evaluated is a mixed subjective/objective standard. What would a reasonable person standing in the shoes of the defendant think? The requirement does not make allowances for the defendant being drunk or high. Delusional thinking or paranoia might fall under a different defense, but they aren’t a part of self-defense. What a defendant had been told about the character of the victim is generally admissible. That seems reasonable. If you’ve been told that I’m a crazed murderer who wants to decapitate you, it might well influence your perception of my actions as I approach.

8.      Finally, before using force, English common law had a duty to retreat behind castle walls. The Castle Doctrine crossed the Atlantic with the colonists. The duty to retreat faded as settlers moved westward. When I started practicing law, Texas recognized that prior to deploying deadly force, a defendant had a duty to retreat if it could be done safely unless the assault occurred in his own home. The Texas legislature has since eliminated the Castle Doctrine. Assuming you’re someplace you’re entitled to be and not engaged in illegal behavior, a person is free to stand his/her ground.

There you have it. We’ve reduced a highly contentious, oft-litigated area of the law down to eight points. The main idea should be that self-defense in the courtroom is very fact specific. It depends on skilled advocacy and the careful articulation of details. Cases of seemingly similar facts may result in different outcomes. The brief summary may not be specific enough for the reader to begin trying criminal cases, but hopefully, it will help in digesting the morning news or plotting the next story.

Until next time.  

12 December 2022

When the Characters Run Away with Your Series

DorothyL, the mystery lovers’ e-list, is often the source of inspiration for me in thinking about why I write what and how I write. A while back, a DL reader was “disconcerted” when an author who had written the first few books of a series from the sole point of view of the first person protagonist brought out a new book with multiple POVs: some chapters from the protagonist’s POV as before, and others from the third person POV of other characters.

original 2008 hardcover

In the case of my Bruce Kohler Mysteries, a series which includes both novels and short stories, I intended to write from the POV of a first person protagonist. But it never happened. I also intended to have a bestselling hardcover series with a major publisher that sold for $27.95 that appeared in paperback a year later and continue writing it forever, but that never happened either. How the world has changed in the twenty years since I finished the first draft of Death Will Get You Sober.

In fact, my Bruce Kohler short stories, starting with “Death Will Clean Your Closet,” have been solely in Bruce’s first person POV until recently. That first novel originally had two alternating first person protagonists, Bruce, the sardonic recovering alcoholic with an ill-concealed heart of gold, and Barbara, the nice Jewish codependent from Queens who can’t resist helping and minding everybody’s business. When an editor finally showed interest in publishing Death Will Get You Sober, the first thing he said was, “Bruce is a terrific protagonist, but Barbara would be better as a sidekick.” So I rewrote the book, putting her chapters in third person. I also fixed some awkward scenes, like having Bruce tell us what Barbara told him she overheard in the ladies room. Sometimes you really need another POV.

Every writer hears the starting bell for the next work differently. In this series, I start with the title. I had Death Will Get You Sober in my head for years, though I didn’t write it till I quit the job on the Bowery that I fictionalized in the novel. And then, I wait for Bruce, Barbara, Jimmy, who’s Bruce’s best friend since childhood and Barbara’s boyfriend, now husband, to start wisecracking in my head. I take my marching orders from them.

Over the years, each character has developed. I haven’t developed them, any more than I planned for my son to grow up to be a decent man and a terrific husband and father who wears his hair very short and earns a six-figure income in the fantasy sports industry. (Take that, hippie parents!)

An e-publisher changed the titles
but the artist got Bruce's wry grin

Bruce, with his distinctive first person voice, is at the heart of the series. He once described himself as “ham on wry.” He’s still sardonic, but his compassion is closer to the surface as his sobriety continues. The main character arc is that of his recovery and personal growth. As he said recently, in “Death Will Take the High Line,” “At seven years sober, I’d be a sorry excuse for recovery if I still thought about alcohol all the time.” The main characters are his circle of friends.

Barbara has agency. As the series goes on, she’s become the one who pushes the others to investigate and instigates the moments of confrontation. She’s also funny. She works on her codependency issues, but if she ever recovered completely from being nosy and bossy for the good of those she loves, she wouldn’t be funny anymore. Luckily, she keeps backsliding.

Jimmy provides stability and serves as a foil for the others. His passions are AA, the Internet and all things tech, and Manhattan. He can get culture shock in New Jersey, if you can get him there, or even in Brooklyn or the Bronx. He and Bruce have some Mr Jones-Mr Bones routines they’ve been doing since they were kids in Yorkville. They keep coming up with ones I’ve never heard before, usually when I’m lying on the floor doing my stretches.

The unified e-series edition –
this novel is an e-book only

Cindy, Bruce’s NYPD detective girlfriend, became necessary when the device of amateur sleuths in New York City became harder and harder to pull off realistically, even in the mystery story context of suspension of disbelief. When she first appeared in the trio’s clean and sober group house in the Hamptons in Death Will Extend Your Vacation, Bruce didn’t know she was a cop. And I didn’t know she would become a permanent member of my cast of series characters. But it was time for Bruce to have a serious relationship. We both needed Cindy. So there she was again when we needed her: in Death Will Pay Your Debts, “Death Will Help You Imagine,” and “Death Will Finish Your Marathon.”

But Cindy really sprang to life when I gave her a story of her own in “Death Will Give You A Reason.” I absolutely didn’t “flesh her out.” Cindy and I went through the process of discovering who she was in depth together. In that story, Cindy’s about to celebrate her tenth anniversary of sobriety, a very big deal in AA, when a case pulls her back into a painful part of her past. Solving it, we found her essence. Cindy belongs to two tribes, NYPD and Alcoholics Anonymous.

Bruce appears briefly at the beginning and end of “Death Will Give You A Reason,” because I thought fans of the series might object to a “Death Will” story that left him out. After her big evening at AA, he falls asleep beside her as she thinks about all that matters to her.

Besides taking [the murderer] in to be booked yesterday, she’d had to trace the knife, mobilize a social worker … and fill out a ton of paperwork. In a couple of days she’d be able to think about her anniversary, the love that had come pouring in when she’d told her story. It was nice to take a break from being a cop, if it didn’t last too long.