12 October 2022

Holding Back the Tide (Putin's Folly, Pt. II)

The story of King Canute trying to hold back the tide by royal decree is sometimes framed as a fable of kingly vanity, but it’s in fact the reverse.  Canute was rebuking the flatterers in his court who pretended to believe the king’s powers were so absolute he could command the waters to obey.  Canute plunked his throne down on the shore and waited for the tide to come in, and of course got his feet wet.  His point being that only God had the final word, and the power of kings was for naught.

It’s nothing short of amazing that the vanity of princes keeps leading the rest of us to the precipice of doom.  Mitch McConnell clearly thinks Trump is a parasite and a clown, and a danger to the republic, but you won’t hear him say it, because Trump’s base are still useful idiots. A similar paralysis apparently holds sway in the upper reaches of the Kremlin apparat. Putin is dangerous to Russia because Putin has a dangerous idea of Russia, rooted in an imperialist, pan-Slavic, and imaginary czarist past. 

The clamor and the crazy don’t abate.

The voices on the Russian nationalist right are only getting louder.  I don’t know whether Ramzan Kadyrov, the puppet caudillo of Chechnya, or Yevgeny Progozhin, shadow commander of the Wagner Group, are trying to give Putin cover from the right wing by sounding crazier than he does, or positioning themselves as kingmakers for the succession, but their public rhetoric probably mirrors private sentiment, namely, Off With Their Heads, with no lack of fall guys.

Not that heads haven’t already rolled.  No fewer than eight one- and two-star generals have been killed in action this year in Ukraine.  This is a consequence of the Russian army’s institutional dysfunction: there is no professional NCO corps, and junior officers aren’t trusted to make command decisions; generals have to be on the battlefield, which gets them killed.  More to the point, the actual theater commanders are being relieved, retired, or packed off in disgrace.  Dvornikov, given ground command in April, was fired in June.  Serdyukov, commander of the airborne, shown the door.  Zhuravlev, commander Western Military District (responsible for the security of European Russia), got the boot last week. 

The new guy, and the first Russian general in Ukraine to be given sole command and complete responsibility, is Sergei Surovikin, known for tactics in Syria that included two months of airstrikes on Aleppo.  What this means for the war in Ukraine is anybody’s guess, but the Kremlin seems to measure success by the numbers of Russian dead.

Which brings us to the media hysteria.  It’s tempting to compare this to the MAGA bubble, the Fox echo chamber, but we’re not talking about Rupert Murdoch, we’re talking about Russian state media.  RT, Russia Today, is supposedly independent, but that’s a complete fiction, they channel the Kremlin id. Just today, after Russia went after dozens of targets across Ukraine, many if not most of them obviously non-military, Putin’s on-air cheerleaders were nothing if not gleeful.  Labeling the attack on the Kerch bridge an act of terrorism, they eagerly recommended a scorched earth policy, and targeting Zelensky and members of his government specifically and personally, to rid us of these “roaches.” 

I don’t know how to read this as anything other than panic. I think they’ve actually lost their marbles. Putin’s position, both inside and out, is now so weak that his stooges are using language that sounds like a parody of Kim Jong-un’s scripted praise.

I said this before, and I’ll say it again. Putin is a dead man walking. It can’t happen soon enough.

11 October 2022

Bail at the Bar

      For most people charged with a criminal offense, the top priority is their release from jail. It's a hierarchy of needs– protestations of innocence, lawyers, trials—all those issues follow the primal urge to escape the confines of incarceration. The rest will come later. Around these parts, release usually involves making bail.

            We've talked about bail before, but I'd like to spend some time focusing on the development of the idea in the United States.

            Black’s Law Dictionary defines “bail” as “the surety who procures the release of a person under arrest by becoming responsible for his appearance at the time and place designated.” In practice, we tend to think of bail as the amount of money that must be pledged to secure a defendant's release pending the disposition of the case. A "bail bond" is a written promise that the defendant will, while at liberty, appear as required or that the signers of the bond will pay the amount of money specified in the order fixing bail.

            Black's definition of bail is personal. It hearkens to an Anglo-Saxon notion and a time when English society was clannish. Justice was private, an affair between individuals. The government did not prosecute crimes. Individuals did. To prevent blood feuds, a system of personal remuneration emerged. Values were established for the loss of lives, limbs, or livelihood (a weregild or bot). Guilty parties were expected to pay. To guard against flight, the defendant was required to find a clan member to act as surety. The sponsor's pledge equaled the amount of the penalty.

            With the arrival of the Normans, things got muddied. Law enforcement increasingly became the responsibility of the royal authorities. Corporal punishments, rather than remuneration, became accepted practice. Accurately setting the value of bail, as punishments moved away from cash payments to mutilation, (ear notching, branding, incarceration) became harder. The Normans also identified classes of offenses that they considered non-bailable. Contraction and expansion of bail followed through the ensuing centuries. Parliament stepped in when over-zealous or corrupt local authorities limited the access to bail. For example, local judges sometimes thwarted the pre-trial detention laws by setting unaffordable bail amounts. To safeguard against this, the English Bill of Rights stated that excessive bail ought not to be required. A similar phrase was written into the Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

            The English bail system that emerged contained a pledge to appear, enforced by the threat of a reasonable penalty due upon failure. Exceptions were carved to continue incarceration for a variety of cases.

            The colonists carried the English notions of bail to America. Most states, however, wrote liberal laws regarding bail. Most of the English exceptions were ignored. This makes sense. Jails were expensive to maintain. Law enforcement resources were sparse. Keeping all but the most dangerous pre-trial defendants incarcerated was a difficult task. Colonists, furthermore, fled an oppressive government. The Federal Judiciary Act, enacted in 1789, and most state constitutions provided an absolute right to bail in all except capital cases.

            The English bail system transported to America encountered a new problem. Think back to that definition of bail from Black’s Law Dictionary. It incorporates the Anglo-Saxon notion that bail is a pledge by a person that the defendant shall appear. In the tight-knit communities of medieval England, a friend or clansman pledged attendance. Although nearly all crimes were bailable in the United States, who would pledge? On the frontier, most defendants lacked close friends or relatives to act as the personal custodian for the charged individual, especially when flight was readily an option. Sanctuary was always to the west. The combination of problems presented an entrepreneurial opportunity. The commercial bail bond business emerged in the United States.

Kai Schreiber, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/

The brothers, Pete and Tom McDonough, are usually credited with establishing the first bail bond business. The two ran their father's bar located at the corner of Clay and Kearney streets in San Francisco. The saloon stood near the Hall of Justice.

As a result, it served as a convenient watering hole for local attorneys. When a client got arrested, the bar owners began running down to the courthouse to make a defendant's bail. If the lawyer didn't have to leave "The Corner" to secure his client's release, he could keep drinking. When the brothers learned that the attorneys charged a fee for the bond, they saw the business opportunity. The McDonough brothers expanded the service, making the bail for non-drinking patrons.

            The McDonoughs developed an elaborate system of wireless communication. When an outlying jurisdiction made an arrest, they would be alerted. A payment, here and there, helped with access. Within minutes they would find a judge, secure an order setting bail, and post the cash. The defendant would be released, poorer for McDonough’s efforts. The business became known as “The Old Lady of Kearney Street.” Time Magazine once wrote:

"The Old Lady helped San Francisco be what many a citizen wanted it to be – a wide open town. She furnished bail by the gross to bookmakers and prostitutes, kept a taxi waiting at the door to whisk them out of jail and back to work."

            Not surprisingly, the McDonough brothers expanded into corruption and bribery. A local grand jury once reported,

"No one can conduct a prostitution or gambling enterprise in San Francisco without the approval, direct or indirect, of the McDonough brothers."

            Pete McDonough was convicted of bootlegging during Prohibition. Later, he was stripped of his bail bond license. The business closed. As the San Francisco Chronicle noted:

"The Old Lady … will take to her rocking chair, draw her shawl about her … But many a citizen thought simply: Good riddance."

            The commercial bail bond industry's original establishment retired. The Old Lady may have gone away, but she created a uniquely American business.

            Until next time.

(For the quotations, I am indebted to Corruption Central @Found SF.org and Schnacke, Jones, and Brooker, "The History of Bail and PreTrial Release")

10 October 2022

They came for the plot, and stayed for the characters.



Some things are essential, yet not of the first order of importance.  You need to get paid for your work, but generally, people choose a type of work and stick with it for less tangible reasons than compensation.  A functioning cardio-vascular system is pretty handy, if you want to survive, but most of us concentrate on the life of our minds, and emotions.

Likewise, a book needs a good plot.  I’d argue that, in the mystery world, it’s as important as a beating heart.  Yet for me, the characters are the most valuable return on a reader’s investment.  Characters capture our attention, hijack our feelings and infect our memories. 

Starting with the protagonist.  A protagonist ushers people into the most intimate, and deceptive, corridors of a human being’s mind.  First person, third, or whatever, the reader is invited to tag along with an individual’s mental process, her ruminations, flights of mental chaos, her cold calculations.  The reader is a parasite feeding off an alien brain, and thus escaping ones own.  (I mean this in only the best way, not excepting vampire books, of which I’ve read exactly zero.)

Though the transaction is also observational.  The reader sees other people through the protagonist’s lens, who selects which qualities the other folks in the play expose, and which to ignore.  That’s why capable writers suggest you don’t write “He had a full head of brown hair and green eyes, and had a funny look on his face,” but rather, “He looked like he’d just swallowed a poisonous fish and was almost happy about it.”

I consumed a lot of door-stop popular novels in my youth, since they kept showing up in our house as the result of my mother’s feverish compulsion to keep pace with the Book of the Month Club.  To wit, James Michener, Leon Uris, Arthur Hailey, Irving Wallace – masters of engaging plots, characters made of mud and straw.  It’s not easy to write these books, and I’m glad they at least kept big publishing in business, but can you name a single compelling character emerging from all that tonnage of spilled ink and paper pulp? 

Meanwhile, my mother and I both tackled Ulysses.  What’s the plot?  Guy gets up in the morning and wanders around Dublin for a day, sees a few things and thinks about his life.  No one, despite heroic efforts and warehouses full of doctoral dissertations, has fully dissected the richness of this character, and side characters along for the ride, which is why Ulysses will be forever consumed and Arthur Hailey is a forgotten name. 

If you want to write fictional characters of any kind, the good news is you don’t have to invent all that much.  We all live in a deep sea of human experience.  Everywhere you look are brilliant characters.  Your crabby sister, muscular palates instructor (the one with the lisp), retired special ops commando with a house full of cats, earnest supervisor of public works, cross-dressing carpet salesperson, too-chipper young bank teller, crew-cut lawn-cutter heading for the Marines, sociopathic next-door neighbor (also with a house full of cats) – the world’s bursting with them.  You just have to write it down.

Millions love mysteries, initially because they’re literary puzzle games.  But at the end of the day, people are mostly interested in other people.  The wonderful thing about mysteries is they put people we recognize into impossible situations.  We’re allowed see how they endure extreme circumstances, how they react and behave often in ways that exceed their apparent capabilities.  Mysteries are the ultimate vicarious thrill ride.

It's one of the reasons I’m so fond of mysteries and thrillers.  Humans stress-tested to their limits, revealing deep wherewithal, surprising weakness and trials of moral fortitude.    




09 October 2022


"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," Dickens wrote at the start of A Tale of Two Cities. He was thinking of politics and the run up to the French Revolution, but modern mystery writers might well echo his sentiments. Never has there been more opportunity to see one's darlings in print, but rarely has it been so hard to make a decent profit.

And then while narrative – factual, counter-factual, frankly fake – is a crucial part of our present turbulent culture, writing stories and studying them is certainly taken less seriously than the all important STEM disciplines. 

In this atmosphere, Anthony Doerr's Cloud Cuckoo Land is a cause for modest celebration: a fine novel that unabashedly celebrates stories – even silly ones like the fanciful ancient tale that fascinates so many of his characters.

Based on The Golden Ass of Apulieus, the story of a shepherd who longs to become a bird and fly to the paradise of Cloud Cuckoo Land, opens the wonders of literacy for Anna, an impoverished apprentice embroiderer in  Constantinople just before its fall to the Turks. It will later fascinate Omeir, an illiterate Muslim conscripted with his two beloved oxen for the Sultan's siege army, who comes to see the book, now carefully hidden, as a source of magic. 

Researching the Greek story causes Konstance, alone on an inter-planetary starship, to regard her supposedly complete library with a skepticism that will change her life, while presenting the shepherd-turned-donkey to the next generation proves consolation and purpose for Zeno, traumatized soldier and talented translator.

Doerr, whose Pulitzer prize winning All the Light We Cannot See also featured youngsters on the cusp of adolescence, again writes with special perception about children, whether his two 15th century juveniles facing poverty, war, and possible enslavement, or modern day Seymour, clever but mildly autistic, whose only friend is an owl, or Konstance, whose peculiar life is definitely in science fiction territory.

 A situation further away from the Ancient Greeks than hers could hardly be imagined, yet the old story about a man who wants to be a bird and is mistakenly tranformed into a donkey captures Konstance, too, just as it does the school children who, with Zeno's help, will transform the old tale into a little play.

Indeed, the many uses of stories, the wonder of literacy, and the perfection of the printed book bind together the disparate narratives in Cloud Cuckoo Land, suggesting the application of another old bit of wisdom: Man does not live by bread alone.

The Falling Men, a novel by Janice Law with strong mystery elements, has been issued as an ebook on Amazon Kindle. Also on kindle: The Complete Madame Selina Stories.

The Man Who Met the Elf Queen, with two other fanciful short stories and 4 illustrations and The Dictator's Double, 3 short mysteries and 4 illustrations are available from Apple Books

08 October 2022

Haunted Hearts and Trapped Souls:
We Have Always Lived in the Castle

October has crept around, and again for the season I'll risk a toe in gothic waters. Last year, I analyzed Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House. To stay with the author, I'll delve into my favorite of Jackson's novels: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962)

First edition (Wikipedia)

Hill House was written in third person, often in a sweeping omniscient perspective that amplifies the narrative distance. Jackson never wanted us to understand Hill House's ghost. Instead, the novel explores how worse things than the supernatural walk our world. Persecution, isolation, fear-mongering, self-destruction. Jackson wrote about ordinary cruelty.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is no ghost story. There's not a scrap of actual magic, however much protagonist Merricat wishes otherwise. Castle is a crime novel. Humans are humans, and the dead are dead but never out of mind. The holds of the dead and our past are what gives Castle its unsettling punch. This time, Jackson wants us to meet cruelty up close and personal.

Consider this your spoiler alert.

The opening paragraph:

"My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead."

Masterful construction. Straight out, the voice invites a bond with this Wednesday Addams-ish Merricat. Her interests promise quirks and raise questions, lots of questions. Death stalks the paragraph. Unlayering the moving parts takes reading Castle closely more than once. If you haven't read it, hold two thoughts. First, Merricat believes magic exists--with a preference for a violent sort--though good luck might not. Second, every single word is about herself.

Merricat and Constance are the last Blackwoods alive after arsenic-laced sugar poisoned the family. The only other survivor, Uncle Julian, had gone unusually light on the sugar and was left an invalid. Merricat had been sent to bed without dinner--again. Suspicion lands on the otherwise-saintly Constance, the family cook and famously averse to sugar. But why use obvious means when she had a garden's worth of poisons? Why kill without a motive? A jury acquits Constance from lack of evidence, and the Blackwoods retreat to their hilltop confines.

Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, 2006

The novel opens six years later. Constance is captive to agoraphobia and a mother role to Merricat and the slowly-dying Julian. Julian obsesses with the unsolved crime and dedicates his addled brain to document it. Merricat runs errands and helps keep the house just as their parent left it. Between chores, she dashes around semi-feral with her cat, marking daily rituals and burying talismans against outsiders.

Her sympathetic magic protections aren't without cause. The village, sure Constance got away with murder, amps longstanding class friction into a cold war and Blackwood monster myth. Merricat endures vicious taunts on her twice-weekly supply runs. The grocer only serves her because she pays in Father's gold coins.

Constance is still young and attractive– and rich. Scandal cloud or not, a loyal upper crust connection wants Constance eased back into society. Constance is tempted. Merricat can't process Constance's restless thoughts or why any Blackwood might want to leave home.

Into the mix comes gold-digging cousin Charles after Constance's hand. Charles isn't the sharpest blade around. His charms and bluster work on Constance alone. Worse, his tactics make the wrong enemy in Merricat.

Underneath her endearing fails at magic, underneath her Blackwood grit, Merricat is stone cold cruel. She takes great lengths to follow strict house rules, such as parental belonging she can't touch. She can't enter Uncle Julian's room. She isn't allowed to light matches. She isn't allowed to prepare food. She states the rules simply, as if handed down from Constance or parents six years dead. But those rules aren't placed on Merricat. They're self-imposed. As Charles malingers, Merricat's changing attitudes show how her rules make shapes around darker things--not least a control mechanism over Constance. 

Jackson planted that seed in the opening paragraph. Merricat uses "I" eight times in six brief sentences. Constance is mentioned almost as a possession. At eighteen, Merricat is an indulged girl-child full of daddy issues and Blackwood privilege. Discipline is for less perfect children. Woe to anyone who disturbs the fantasy.

Merricat's cruelty isn't evil. Her obsessive routines and lack of expression and antisocial struggles hint at someone on the autism spectrum. She was born into Blackwood expectations and taught by formidable and vain parents. Her mother, a villager, had the Blackwood grounds sealed tight over Father's hesitation. It's not the last time her parents disagreed. One such argument rattled the manor that night of the tragic meal.

In the Jackson way, cruelty begets cruelty. A family friend from town makes her periodic visits. Merricat, no proper hostess, complains how terrible everyone in the village treats her. The guest correctly suggests that the townsfolk would be nicer to Merricat if Merricat was nicer in town. Constance asks for the same truce with Charles– and a bath and clean dress wouldn't hurt, either. 

Merricat never developed such emotional intelligence. Instead, she escalates her empty magic. When that doesn't scare off Charles, she uses his smoldering pipe to start a house fire. The town gathers to gawk and celebrate the fast-spreading blaze.

When the night is done, Charles is gone but so is most of the Blackwood finery, looted by the villagers. The upper floors are a burned hulk. Julian is dead of a smoke-induced heart attack.

In the aftermath, and in case anyone missed what's been in plain sight, Jackson clears up the murder mystery. Merricat did it– out of childish revenge for simple discipline. Merricat is fine with murder and fine letting Constance take the blame. Merricat is fine with burning the manor down, come what may.

Merricat wins, such as it is. Constance isn't going anywhere. The Blackwoods remain. The sister bond is sealed, if doomed. In a literary turn, vines grow over the wrecked manor. The sisters live in darkness and on meals left hurriedly by remorseful townsfolk. Merricat has achieved her self-image, a light of lights to be brought offerings. Sacrifices, more like. She's become the village bogeywoman from those rhymes. 

Technically, Merricat is an unreliable narrator. I don't read her that way. Mary Katherine Blackwood is honest from that opening paragraph. Stunted and dangerously arrogant--but honest in what she says and what she withholds. She feels no more need to share uncomfortable truths with a reader than she does in the village. We can't be sure how much guilt she feels, but Jackson doesn't spare the torture. Guilt is everywhere in the house. Guilt is Julian's main character function, a withering reminder Merricat can neither avoid nor internalize. Those rules become a coping mechanism.

The novel's secret sauce, though, is Jackson herself. The main characters are the sister figures caught in complex circumstances– sister figures often based on her daughters. The setting is again her New England stomping grounds, where years as a Bennington wife left her agoraphobic and feeling undervalued despite her track record. She tinkered with witchcraft. When Jackson wrote We Have Always Lived in The Castle, she wrote from her soul.

07 October 2022

The Pros And Cons of Rideshare

 I've done rideshare for a while now. It's an easy way to make exrra money and get a leg up on bills. Gas hasn't been too bad for me. But I live in Ohio, and my car gets decent mileage.

But lately, the job hasn't been as much fun as it once was. Some of that comes from not driving so late. I don't do the 12-3 drunk rush on Saturday nights. The people who get into my car are generally sober. They're also rather subdued.

But that's not a stressor. I drive less now partly because the service now pays bonuses for twenty runs a weekend. That's good. I get tired more easily these days. And that's one reason I want to wind down my rideshare career.

  • Fatigue - I always got tired driving. But I used to drive set times, some of them until the wee hours on Saturdays. Now I notice it more knocking off at 10 or 11 PM. 
  • Wear and tear - This is a nice car I drive. I'd like to not buy another one for a few more years. Yet that dreaded 100K number is coming up.
  • Driver shortage - You'd think this would be a plus. Fewer drivers mean more money. But the runs are longer. At one point, I got sent almost into Dayton. I live fifty miles south of there. Not a good night.
  • Karening - I had a passenger who complained when I slowed down to look for an address. She reported me for falling asleep at the wheel. I reported her for being disruptive. I got $100 for having my account suspended for an evening. 
  • Violence - It's in the news. Violence is escalating. Random shootings have happened in Over the Rhine, the bar district where I've made a lot of money. It's not been a problem. Yet. The shootings tend to happen after I log off for the night. Still, one evening, I stopped at a Shell Station in Cincinnati's Price Hill neighborhood. Literally, it looked like a scene from The Wire. There was no question what was going on. I had four toddlers in the backseat while their grandmother ran inside to pick up something. I never locked the door during a shift before. I did this time.

Some would say, "Hey, this is a great opportunity for crime fiction." True. But if you've read just my stories, you know being in the story is not much fun. 

06 October 2022

Choosing the Right Weapon

(Short post this week, because we've got family coming for the first time in years!  Huzzah!)

Elmer Fudd whispering shhhh
Elmer Fudd © Looney Tunes

I was down at the Farmers' Market a couple of months ago, and there was a booth that the city had put up, asking people for suggestions to make downtown Sioux Falls better. I put in my two cents – we desperately need a large Central Park that everyone can use, that is quiet, not on any interstate, and has actual landscaping.  So did everyone else, including a lady who was telling every woman who stopped that "you need to empower yourself and get a gun. You will feel so safe."

Well, if you insist. I feel pretty empowered as it is.

I've never owned a gun, but I've known a lot of people who did and do. I've shot quite a variety of them myself, because in my younger days I attended dynamite parties down South, where it was quite common for people to show up with a few cases of beer, some stuff to grill, and a trunk full of firearms.

I quickly learned that I don't have the heft, the sheer mass, to use any kind of assault weapon without spraying bullets around like an old man in a barroom urinal after five beers. And some rifles have the kind of kick that leave you with a bruised shoulder (yep) and/or a cracked cheekbone (Nope – I would NEVER do the classic TV/movie/ad pose where you lean in with your face on a firearm. What, are you nuts?)

But I had good marksmanship with weapons that were more my weight. I could hit a distant target, and even a moving target, like a ping-pong ball hanging from a tree.

I also learned about shotguns – I could use one, if I aimed low and was ready to be knocked back, say, flat on my back to the ground. From that I learned that (at my weight) if you aim at someone's knees, you're bound to hit something serious as the shotgun kicks up, like their gonads, stomach, chest, or even head.

Which is why, to this day, if a woman asks me what kind of gun should she buy for self-defense, I always tell her to avoid any kind of handgun. If your hands shake (and they will, especially late at night in the dark), you're not going to hit your target, and you're just setting yourself up for worse than the whatever your assailant had planned. For home self-defense, buy a shotgun. Just racking the damn thing will scare the crap out of most people. Aim low, and you will hit something on the way up.

NOTE: One of my partners in crime, Leigh Lundin, pointed out that I really should tell people to keep a shotgun "pressed against their hipbone or thighbone to absorb shock and prevent the stock from slamming hard into the bone."  He's right.  Here's the thing, folks – if you never have fired a specific weapon you need to learn how to use it BEFORE you actually bring it home.

And I don't really believe in packing 24/7, because it gives too many people the idea that it makes them invulnerable, and they often do foolish things because of it. There are many true stories of a handgun falling out of a purse or a pocket and going off in the restroom. I know one armchair Rambo who managed to screw things up in the time of crisis and, while he survived, has never yet lived it down. Frankly, I've always found that a quick tongue or a quick run will get you out of most trouble, and I've lived in dicey neighborhoods in both LA and Atlanta. 

And I don't really feel like the karma or the cleanup from shooting someone, perhaps to death. I'm sticking to a baseball bat in the bedroom. Actually, I'm sticking to calling the police when I hear gunshots in the neighborhood (and I have), and otherwise trusting that the porch lights keep the critters away.  

So far, 100% success rate. 

Elmer Fudd with shotgun
Elmer Fudd with shotgun © Looney Tunes, Warner Bros.

05 October 2022

Quotable Chicago... In Space!


As promised last month, here are some quotations from Chicon 8, the World Science Fiction Conference which I attended in Chicago in September.  Unfortunately, all context for the quotes had be quarantined due to covid concerns.

 "Science fiction is about upsetting society.  Mystery is about restoring it."        - Roberta Rogow

"I wrote this book but in a way the book wrote me.  It was cheaper than therapy." - Shelley Parker-Chan

"Every medievalist's favorite movie is Monty Python and the Holy Grail.  It's the only accurate one." - Jo Walton

"Terrorists are political illiterates." - David Gerrold

"Neil Gaiman could write a haiku about his intestinal issues and it would be made into a hit movie about one man's struggle with colitis." - John Scazi

"Writers have a sort of Stockholm Syndrome with the protagonist." - James Patrick Kelly

"A lot of scriptwriters think of a published novel as a piece-of-shit first draft they can work from." - Meg Elison

"I can really sell integrity." - Adam Stempel

"How does time work?  Ask your grandmother.  She's seen more of it than you." - Joe Haldeman

"I have a five part answer to that.  The first part has sixteen parts. " - John Scalzi

"Rule Number One: Do not time travel to a war." - Connie Willis

"I'm a child skeptic.  Do they really exist?  They're always fuzzy in photographs." - Paul Calhoun

"Use problematic authors as a motivation to write a better book." - Suzanne Palmer

"Who among us has not wanted to be a pregnant horse?" - John Scalzi

"You hear about someone who does bad things and it turns out they had a bad childhood.  So what?" - David Gerrold

"The urge to always have novelty leads, ironically, to the oldest conspiracy theories." - Kenneth Hite

"The current scam is  cryptocurrency.  It's tulips." - Connie Willis

"My mother was a car and we lost her in a terrible space rotary accident." - Suzanne Palmer 

"I have a hard time watching Star Wars.  Those poor stormtroopers.  Did they all volunteer?" - James Patrick Kelly

"How do you write time travel stories?  With a manual typewriter." - Joe Haldeman

"You can put whatever you want in a burrito.  This is a free country." - John Scalzi

"If not us, who?  If not together, how?" - Suzanne Palmer

04 October 2022

Opportunity Abounds

We met Mary Tyler Moore
on the streets of

I returned home from Bouchercon Minneapolis with two things: Covid and a renewed appreciation for the value of in-person Bouchercons.

A mere 1.4% of Bouchercon attendees reported contracting Covid at the convention, which places me among the select few. I don’t know from whom I caught it, but I’m pretty sure I know at which unofficial event it happened. A handful of the other attendees at that event also reported positive Covid test results post-convention.

The disease hit me hard, knocking me back the first week I was home. The second week I operated at about half-speed. As I write this, I’m three weeks post-diagnosis, and I’m almost back to full speed.

It’s a good thing, too, because I came away from Bouchercon with many new and renewed connections. From preplanned dinners to impromptu lunches to coincidental breakfasts, and from late night poker games to hotel bar confabs to hallway howdies, I spent a great deal of time with writers I knew well and those with whom I have worked on various projects. Additionally, I met many writers for the first time, writers with whom I may work on future projects.

I came home from every previous in-person Bouchercon (beginning with Toronto) with a new project or opportunity that I likely would not have had had I not attended Bouchercon. This time was different, but no less exciting.

I had the opportunity to spend time with an anthology co-editor, had the opportunity to refine an anthology concept I’m working on with another co-editor, and had the opportunity to discuss potential future projects with several writers to gauge their interest level. I also had the opportunity to discuss editorial needs for Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Black Cat Weekly, and other projects already in progress.

Additionally, and no less important, Temple and I had the opportunity to get away from the daily grind, to experience a new city, and to spend time with people who enjoy the same things we enjoy. Though it’s difficult to quantify the value of all of this, it has clearly rejuvenated me.

Once I pushed through the impact of Covid, I dove into the backlog of projects piled atop my desk and atop the dining room table, and I’ve already diminished the piles by half. If I maintain this pace, I’ll be ready to pitch a slew of new projects come the new year.

Black Cat Mystery Magazine #12, the special cozy issue, released last month. It features new stories by K.L. Abrahamson, N.M. Cedeño, Debra H. Goldstein, Darren Goossens, Gordon Linzner, Charlotte Morganti, Alan Orloff, Bev Vincent, Stacy Woodson, Elizabeth Zelvin, and a classic reprint by Johnston McCulley.

03 October 2022

Working With James Patterson

APOLOGIES: This is Robert Lopresti apologizing for the fact that my name appears at the top.  It should be Jan Grape, but I had a problem setting up the entry and had to create a new file, which thinks I am responsible.  Can't change it.  My apologies to Jan.  Now, here she is...

I was a little shocked to learn my time for SleuthSayers was to be twice, for this the "witching month." Fortunately, my magical powers were already working. I had just finished listening to an awesome thriller, BLOWBACK written by my long-time pal, Brendan DuBois and his co-author, James Patterson. Maybe Bren would have time to write an article for one of my turns. I actually had asked if he might be interested a few days before Rob sent out the October calendar. Brendan readily agreed even though the topic I chose was the inane, "What is it like working with Mr. Patterson?"

I had known Brendan years before he became famous: as a JEOPARDY champion and meeting the late incomparable Alex Trebeck. Neither of us are exactly sure when we met, except we both remember partaking in never-ending MWA board member meetings as neophyte Vice-Presidents of our regional chapters and attending numerous Anthony banquets. However, most of our fondest memories are attending PWA dinners. Our most recent meeting was sharing a memorable cab ride in 2018, helping our driver locate an East Dallas restaurant where the PWA banquet was being held. Brendan also kindly helped me enter the SUV taxi the morning I was leaving. I had fallen in my room in the wee morning hours and cracked four posterior ribs. That's the definition of friend who becomes and stays a keeper.

Since I was scheduled for two times this month, 10/3 and 10/31, I gave him a choice.  My pal chose the third and here it is.

-Jan Grape

by Brendan DuBois

 What's it like to work with James Patterson?

     That’s a question I frequently get at conventions, book signings, and at diners, minding my own business over a cup of coffee.
    What’s it like to work with James Patterson, one of the most famous and bestselling authors in the world?
    It’s like walking on a tightrope.
    With no balancing pole.
    And with molten lava beneath you.
    No, just kidding.
    Working with James Patterson has been a wonderful experience, from A to Z, with no complaints whatsoever.
    My first short story was published in 1986, and my first novel in 1994.  When 2016 rolled around, my writing career had had its share of ups and downs --- more downs than ups --- and I was relatively at ease with my lot, that of a mid-list author struggling from one book and one publisher to another.
    Then came that proverbial phone call that changes one’s life.
    A call came in from a friend of mine in the mystery publishing field, who told me that James Patterson was starting a new publishing line, called BookShots, which were to be co-authored tales no longer than 40,000 words.
    James was looking for writers who could write fast, write well, and meet deadlines.
    I auditioned with James’ business partner, and soon found myself writing three BookShots, a fun and quick experience.  When it came time for the fourth BookShots, I developed an outline from James and submitted it as before.  
When the outline was finished, James called me up --- for the first time ever, since my only earlier correspondence was with him via an editor --- and basically said, ‘This outline could be used for a full-length novel.  Would you be interested in doing a novel with me?  I’ll give you a few days to think about it.’

“I said, ‘No, I’m good, I’d be thrilled to work on a novel with you.’  That became our first work, The First Lady, and later, we worked on another novel called The Cornwalls Are Gone, which was followed by The Summer House and this past September, Blowback.   This January, the sequel to The Cornwalls Are Gone --- Countdown --- is coming out.
    But then I get the other question…       
What’s it really, really, like to work with James Patterson?
    A lot of work.
    I mean, a lot of work, but also a lot of fun.  
    We start with the initial idea, and spend about a month or so working out a detailed outline which can run up to 40 pages, and then we get to the real work.  
    It’s an intensively collaborative process where I learned a lot from the beginning, and continue to learn to this day, with phone calls, pages sent back and forth,     As an example, with The First Lady, when I sent him the first draft of the early chapters, he called me and said, “The first three chapters are well-written, but I think they’d work better if you condensed them down to one.”
    At first I was a bit jarred --- was I failing already? --- but when I looked at them with a clear and cold eye, he was right.
    The first three chapters were condensed into one, and we were off to the races!    
    Over the years I’ve learned a lot from James, including his wicked sense of humor, his generosity, and his devotion to charitable causes.
    As a writer, I’ve learned more in the past six years than the previous sixteen.  How to cut to the chase.  Quickly set scenes.  Make each page and piece of dialogue to work.    
    A while ago I re-read a thriller I had written a few years earlier and…
    Oh my God, what a bloated piece of work!
    So I went through and cut about 30,000 words, making it a much better book.
    What’s it like to work with James Patterson?
    Every morning I pinch myself, considering how fortunate I am.
    How’s that for an answer?

Brendan DuBois is the award-winning New York Times bestselling author of twenty-six novels, including THE FIRST LADY and THE CORNWALLS ARE GONE (March 2019), co-authored with James Patterson, THE SUMMER HOUSE (June 2020), and BLOWBACK, which was just published in September.  He has also published 200 short stories.

His stories have won three Shamus Awards from the Private Eye Writers of America, two Barry Awards, two Derringer Awards, and the Ellery Queen Readers Award.
In 2021 he received the Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer for Lifetime Achievement from the Short Mystery Fiction Society.

He is also a JEOPARDY! game show champion.

02 October 2022

Dark Deeds Down Under


Amazingly, given the number of New Zealand mystery writers around today and in yesteryear, there's never been an anthology published of short kiwi crime/mystery fiction. 

I guess, because short stories have never been a focus here for kiwi mystery writers. Books are where the money and prestige lie in most minds. Me vexat pede, the Ngaio Marsh Awards (New Zealand's version of the Edgar Awards) has no short story category. There's also the fact that only a couple of local magazines print short stories, and they are solely literary magazines—they have no interest in plot twists, suspense, or Professor Plum in the library with the crowbar. 

New Zealand has a perfectly respectable history of short mystery fiction. Dame Ngaio Marsh had four short stories published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. And that paragon of New Zealand literature, Katherine Mansfield, graced the pages of EQMM (posthumously) in 1949.

Anyway, cutting to the chase, for the first time, there is now an anthology of New Zealand crime fiction. It was published in June this year, and its title is Dark Deeds Down Under. It's actually two firsts, because, as the title (Down Under) suggests, it's an anthology of New Zealand AND Australian mystery fictionthat's never happened before, either.

The anthology was the collective brainchild of Australian Lindy Cameron (mystery writer and publisher of Clan Destine Press), and New Zealander Craig Sisterson (founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, and author of Southern Cross Crime: The Pocket Essential Guide to the Crime Fiction, Film & TV of Australia and New Zealand).

Their plan was simple. Contact and invite leading mystery writers from both sides of the Tasman (the sea that separates New Zealand and Australia) to contribute a story. Fingers crossed; off they went. Bam. They got an enthusiastic response, such that two more volumes are planned. Which tells you, yes, mystery fiction is alive and kicking in this part of the world.

Many of the anthology's contributing authors have written a story featuring their book series characters: Kerry Greenwood’s Corinna Chapman, Garry Disher’s ‘Hirsch’, Vanda Symon’s Sam Shephard, Sulari Gentill’s Rowly Sinclair, RWR McDonald’s ‘Nancys’, Lee Murray & Dan Rabarts’ Penny Yee & Matiu, Katherine Kovacic’s Alex Clayton, Dinuka McKenzie’s Kate Miles, and a rare appearance from Shane Maloney’s Murray Whelan. The rest have written standalones, and I believe all the stories are brand new.

Here's the marketing blurb for the book (to give you a taste of what's inside):

Dark Deeds Down Under, a ground-breaking anthology, brings together internationally-renowned Aussie and Kiwi crime writers and their beloved characters.

This stunning anthology includes 19 short stories from some of the brightest storytelling talents from Australia and New Zealand: including international bestsellers and award winners.

Through the prism of page-turning crime, mystery and thriller stories you will roam from the dusty Outback to South Island glaciers, from ocean-carved coastlines and craggy mountains to sultry rainforests and Middle Earth valleys, and via sleepy villages to the underbellies of our cosmopolitan cities.

In these all-new stories you’ll spend time with favourite series cops, sleuths and accidental heroes, and meet some new and edgy standalone characters.

The anthology's perpetrators of dark deeds are: 

Alan Carter, Nikki Crutchley, Aoife Clifford, Garry Disher, Helen Vivienne Fletcher, Lisa Fuller, Sulari Gentil, Kerry Greenwood, Narrelle M Harris, Katherine Kovacic, Shane Maloney, RWR McDonald, Dinuka McKenzie, Lee Murray & Dan Rabarts, Renée, Stephen Ross, Fiona Sussman, Vanda Symon, and David Whish-Wilson.

I'm pleased to report that I have a story in the book. Mine is called "Mr. Pig" (excerpt above). It's a tale set in the rugged countryside north of Auckland in 1942. It's about a young girl, Mercy Brown. Her mother has gone missing, and her beast of a father is "grumpy." I had the ghost of Flannery O'Conner sitting on my shoulder when I wrote this one. I think Shirley Jackson breathed a few words in my ear, too.  

The anthology is available to buy via the publisher (Clan Destine Press), Amazon, and most major book retailers. 

August 1949


01 October 2022

Fictional Mistakes (Onscreen and Off)

I watch a lot of movies, thanks to Netflix and Amazon Prime, and mostly from my La-Z-Boy in the den. I usually prefer mysteries, thrillers, westerns, etc., and tend to avoid message-movies, superheroes, and foreign films--but in the right mood I'll give anything a try.

One of the things I find myself looking for in movies are little mistakes in either the plot or the filming that somehow slip through. I don't necessarily mind them, I just seem to notice them more, lately. Worse than film mistakes, I think, are errors in printed fiction; I look for those, too. But I'll get to that in a minute.

Here's a list of movie goofs that come to mind, goofs that I'm sure some of you have noticed yourselves. Some are tiny, some are glaring, and I suspect all are embarrassing to the filmmakers.

Just for fun . . . remember these?

North by Northwest -- In the cafeteria at Mount Rushmore, Eva Marie Saint pulls a gun and shoots Cary Grant--but several seconds beforehand, a young boy in the background (who's looking in the other direction and doesn't even see her) covers his ears in anticipation of the gunshot.

Casablanca -- Dooley Wilson (Sam) didn't know how to play the piano--so his hand movements never match the music.

Shane --  While Alan Ladd is talking to the little boy in the shed, a dark-colored car can be seen through the window in the distance, moving left to right. The movie is set in the 1860s. 

Pulp Fiction -- In one scene a young man comes out of the bathroom and shoots at both John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson (and misses)--but before the bathroom door even opens, several bullet holes are already there in the wall behind Travolta and Jackson.

Gladiator -- A metal gas canister is clearly visible underneath an overturned chariot in one of the battle scenes.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly -- Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach use dynamite to blow up a bridge in the Civil War several years before dynamite was invented.

Gone With the Wind -- More of the same. GWTW featured several scenes using not-yet-invented lamps with cords. In one street sequence in Atlanta, there are lightbulbs in what should've been gas fixtures.

A Streetcar Named Desire -- In a scene with Marlon Brando and Kim Hunter, he's obviously mimicking her lines with his lips while she's speaking them.

Double Indemnity -- Fred MacMurray's character is a bachelor, but his real-life wedding ring is visible on his finger several times during the movie.

Never Been Kissed -- A sign made by the math club that Drew Barrymore joins features an incorrect value for Pi.

Vertigo -- Kim Novak loses a shoe in the water and then has both of them on right after that.

Rear Window -- An injured and stationary Jimmy Stewart, a photographer with an expensive telephoto-lens camera in his lap most of the time, never takes a single photo of the mystery scene or of the neighbor he suspects has committed a crime.

Psycho -- As Janet Leigh lies dead on the floor, her pupils are contracted when they should be dilated. (Afterward, ophthalmologists told Hitchcock there were eyedrops that could achieve that effect, and he used them for corpses in later movies.)

Star Wars -- At one point, a tall stormtrooper bumps his head against the top of a doorway.

Pretty Woman -- At breakfast, Julia Roberts is eating a croissant she's holding in her hand; a few seconds later she's holding and eating a pancake instead.

Ocean's Eleven -- More food problems. The container for Brad Pitt's shrimp cocktail changes from a glass to a plate, and then back to a glass again.

It's a Wonderful Life -- The angel reveals that Jimmy Stewart's brother died at the age of nine, but the birth/death dates on his gravestone say he was eight.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory -- The candy man accidentally whacks a little girl under the chin when he lifts a countertop.

Twister -- Debris from a tornado crashes through the windshield of a vehicle containing stormchasers Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt, but moments later the windshield is magically unbroken.

The Wizard of Oz -- When Judy Garland meets the Tin Man, she and the Scarecrow oil his rusty joints for him so he can move--even though tin doesn't rust. In the same movie, after the Scarecrow gets a brain, he states the Pythagorean theorem--incorrectly.

Braveheart -- A white van is visible in the background during a battle scene.

The Star Wars series -- Every single planet has the same gravitational force, which in reality would be almost impossible.

Quantum of Solace -- In one of the dock scenes, an extra with a pushbroom in the background behind Daniel Craig is sweeping the air several inches above the ground.

Titanic -- Leonardo DiCaprio mentions that he once went ice fishing on Lake Wissota, which wasn't formed until 1917. The Titanic sank in 1912.

The Great Gatsby -- DiCaprio enters a house soaked from the rain, but moments later his clothes and hair are completely dry.

The Aviator -- Leo again. As Howard Hughes in 1928, he requests ten chocolate chip cookies while editing his movie Hell's Angels. Chocolate chip cookies weren't around until two years later.

Grease -- A waitress tries to turn off a light switch with her elbow but misses it completely. Seconds later, the lights turn off anyway. 

Hitch -- Will Smith has an allergic reaction that causes the left side of his fact to swell. Later the swelling switches to the right side.

The Karate Kid -- Ralph Macchio wins the final tournament by kicking his opponent in the head, even though such a thing is an illegal move and would be grounds for immediate disqualification.

Mean Girls -- Lindsey Lohan is from Africa in the movie, but there's a picture in her room of her riding an elephant with small ears (Indian) rather than large ears (African).

The Shawshank Redemption -- Tim Robbins's prison escape is via a tunnel covered by the famous movie poster of Raquel Welch in One Million Years B.C.--but that movie wasn't released until a year later.

American Sniper -- A fake baby is obviously substituted for a real one.

Spider-Man -- A mannequin is obviously substituted for Tobey Maguire when he rescues Kirsten Dunst and swings her to safety. (Her hair's even blowing in the wrong direction while they're in mid-swing.)

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone -- A metal bicycle seat can be seen on Daniel Radcliffe's broomstick during the Quidditch scene. Later, when he's debroomed, the seat's gone.

Back to the Future -- The guitar Michael J. Fox plays onstage in 1955 is a Gibson ES-345 model, with didn't exist until several years later.

Clueless -- Alicia Silverstone crashes into another vehicle during her driving test and knocks her side mirror off--but a few moments later the mirror's replaced.

You've Got Mail -- Tom Hanks puts an olive into his father's martini, the camera cuts to his father and back to Hanks, and he puts the same olive into the same martini.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring -- When Sean Astin and Elijah Wood walk across a field in the Shire, a car is clearly visible in the background.

Raiders of the Lost Ark -- As Harrison Ford sits at an outdoor table in Cairo in 1936, a man in modern clothes (a T-shirt and blue jeans) strolls by in the background. Also in Raiders, later in the movie, you can see the cobra's reflection in the glass that's separating it from Indy.

As silly as most of those are, I think it's even more humiliating to make mistakes in a novel or short story. (Probably because I myself am sometimes the guilty party.) There are many examples of this, but here are a few:

One of the Jesse Stone novels (I forget which one) by Robert B. Parker lapses at one point from third-person into first and back again. My guess is that this happened because all his Spenser novels were first-person.

One of the murders in the novel The Big Sleep was never solved, or even mentioned again. When asked years later about who killed the chauffeur, Raymond Chandler said, "Damned if I know."

In The Tommyknockers, a gun used by Stephen King's protagonist was an automatic at one point and a revolver a few pages later.

The 1631 King James version of the Holy Bible says, in Exodus 20:14, "Thou shalt commit adultery."

In Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein has a character whose name switches back and forth between Agnes and Alice.

In the novel Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, the Common Room is described as circular, but Ron and Lavender wind up in a "prominent corner" of the room.

The Story of Dr. Doolittle places orangutans in Africa, even though they're found only in Borneo and Sumatra.

There are many more of these, but the most painful mistakes for me are the ones I have made in my own writing. Most of them, thank God, I caught before the stories were submitted, but some of them were caught by editors who told me to correct them (embarrassing!), and a few made it all the way through to publication--in one I stupidly identified a horse as a mare and later tied "him" to a fencepost. The only good thing about mistakes that go all the way to print is that if/when you later sell the stories as reprints, you can correct them.

How about your own writing? Have you made any mistakes in grammar, structure, POV, character names, locations, plot, logic, etc., that wound up getting published anyway? Any that were particularly cringeworthy? How about movies you've watched? What are the worst goofs you can remember? Let me know in the comments section.

Meanwhile, if you're one of those folks who look for these kinds of errors . . . good hunting!

If you're one of those who commit them . . . well, go ye and sin no more.