17 January 2023

Guest Post: You Can Go Home Again

Filling in for me today is James A. Hearn, a writer I’ve known ever since publishing his first short story in The Eyes of Texas: Private Eyes from the Panhandle to the Piney Woods back in 2019. Hes since published several more stories and was an Edgar Award nominee this past year.
—Michael Bracken

You Can Go Home Again:
The Story behind “Home Is the Hunter” in Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, Volume 3

by James A. Hearn

“All art is autobiographical; the pearl is the oyster’s autobiography.” — Federico Fellini

The dream of the Old House is always the same. I’m walking through the woods with my dad; he’s alive and well. Robust. Immortal. I am both the boy I was—scrawny, quiet, hair so blond it’s almost white; and the man I became—fuller of face, quiet, the white now represented in my beard.

We’re walking through the scrub brush of West Texas, along one of the innumerable trails crisscrossing 150 acres of family land. We called this property the Old House. The name stood both for the hunting cabin someone had built there and for the land where it was situated. I’m not sure who named it that; maybe Sidney, my older brother with Down syndrome, took one look at it and said to my dad, “Pop, that’s an old house.” Sid loved going there to enjoy his comic books or listen to his cassette tapes; we all loved it. The Old House was to be our legacy.

View from the Old House’s front porch
on a snowy day.

In the dream, my dad and I are just walking. We have our hunting rifles, but we’ve no wish to disturb the tranquility of these sacred woods. There’s the live oak tree where I nearly stepped on that copperhead. Over there, the entrance to the gully that gets progressively deeper as it runs westward, until you’re walking between lichen-covered boulders taller than houses. These are the woods where I learned at my father’s knee how to skin a buck and run a trotline, as the song says.

It is home; I am at peace.

And I wake up and remember. Dad has been gone since 2007, the victim of a rare bone cancer that began in his skull and touched his brain, and the Old House has been sold. In the final year of his illness, I tried in vain to persuade my dad not to sell the property.

James, no one has mowed the grass around the Old House. It must be waist-high by now. Don’t worry about that. I’ll mow the grass when I can. James, the water pump in the well house needs to be drained before the next freeze. Dad, I’ll take care of it. We need to get you better, first. I’m not going to get better, Son. I don’t want there to be fighting about who owns the Old House. We won’t fight, I promise you. We’ll share it. There needs to be money for Sidney’s care when I’m gone. This will help. Barbara will take care of Sid. Grace, Jon, and I will help her. Don’t sell the Old House, please.

Scale model of the Old House as a birdhouse.

But my dad’s mind was set, and the Old House was sold. It gave him a kind of peace I didn’t understand, but I eventually accepted. Then on November 15, 2007, Howard Wade Hearn—retired schoolteacher, huntsman, craftsman, veteran of the Second World War, and the best father a boy could hope for—passed away. My sister Barbara and her husband Larry took on the enormous responsibility of Sid’s care, just as they’d promised. The money from the Old House’s sale, in part, helped to pay for an additional bedroom, one just for Sid, and other renovations for my brother with special needs. Maybe that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise; maybe my dad made the right decision.

After the funeral, I returned to Georgetown, Texas, and settled back into my life. I was an attorney with a mortgage, a wife I loved, and a job I tolerated. With my dad’s passing and the Old House’s sale, childhood was officially over. I guess it had been for a while, since I was thirty-six. It might sound strange, but up until that time, I hadn’t felt like an adult. Not really. I hadn’t felt the burdens of life on my shoulders until I became my dad’s executor. I hadn’t felt old.

At fifty-one, I still have dreams about the Old House and the lessons I learned there. Even waking, I find myself thinking about sitting in deer blinds with my dad. We designed and constructed them ourselves, even putting one on telephone poles for a commanding view of a clearing frequented by deer. I sometimes use Google Earth, starting from the I-20 exit for Gordon, Texas, and I retrace from memory the highways and dirt roads leading to the Old House. I could bookmark the location, but I like finding it this way better; it’s like a treasure hunt where you find yourself.

Destroyed by fire.

Unless I win the lottery, I’ll probably never have enough money to buy the Old House and restore it to the family. Not in this economy. And even if I did, the actual Old House, the hunting cabin, has been destroyed by fire.

My sister, Barbara, and her sons discovered this on one of their occasional drives to West Texas from Fort Worth. Like me, they enjoy recalling the good ol’ days; unlike me, they live close enough to make the actual trip. Every so often, they’d drive by the property, look over the barbed wire fences, and remember. I’m thankful Sid wasn’t with them on that trip; though we miss him terribly, his passing in 2019 at least kept him from seeing his beloved cabin in ruins.

When Barb sent me photos of the rubble, the news was a gut-punch. There was the Old House’s tin roof collapsed over a burned-out husk, the roof I’d helped my dad put on during a windy day when we were both nearly blown off. Oddly, the flames didn’t reach the nearby shade tree, and the horse tire swing my nephews loved still hung from its branches, forlornly waiting for a rider. Seeing those photos, it was like I lost it all over again, and home never seemed more far away.

But sometimes, through writing, you can go home again. In “Home Is the Hunter,” my third entry in Michael Bracken’s Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir anthology, Joe Easterbrook returns to his roots in the wilderness of West Virginia. When Joe sets foot on the land he loved, his emotions are my emotions. When he recalls hunting with his father, his memories are my memories. And when he rebuilds his father’s hunting cabin, I’m holding the hammer.

This one’s for you, Dad. We’ll be together again one day, and we’ll take that walk.

An Edgar Award nominee for Best Short Story, James A. Hearn writes in a variety of genres, including mystery, crime, science fiction, fantasy, and horror. He and his wife reside in Georgetown, Texas, with a boisterous Labrador retriever who keeps life interesting. Visit his website at www.jamesahearn.com.

Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir, vol. 3, is available here.

16 January 2023

Swing a hammer, write a page.

If you’re learning to become a woodworker or a writer, the most important thing is to make a lot of mistakes.  This means you’re developing skills, since not making mistakes means you aren’t actually working, just convincing yourself that you are.  The trick is to not be deterred by the mistakes, but rather have them teach you things.  Such as, don’t make the same mistakes more than once.  Two max, if you can help it. 

Before writing a novel, or building a house, figure out what you want to make.  For me, it starts in the imagination.  At this point, all you need is to see it with your mind’s eye while you’re driving a car, sitting on a beach or trying to fall asleep.  This is the basic plot; this is the floor plan.  Move your mind around and test how the various components can work with each other.  Both efforts are reasonably sequential:  this happens, then that; this goes here, so that can go there. 

When you finally get to your desk, or drawing board (mine are the same), sketching is handy to see if those mental playgrounds are more than fever dreams.  The goal is to hear yourself say, “That can work.”  The key for me at this stage is to not lose the sketches or rough story treatments, since the ideas will evaporate if not recorded. 

Assuming the rough paperwork survives, working drawings can proceed from there.  In this, the house designer has a clear advantage, since you have graph paper, standardized proportions, set engineering principles and a sturdy eraser to aid in the effort.  (Or if you’re technologically capable, a computer program.)   For the novel, some write out a complete outline.  I admire those people, but it’s not for me.  I’ve tried, but the outline always collapses soon after the writing begins (as in, the war plan never survives the first contact with the enemy).  Still, I jot down a lot of stuff – rough plot structure, progress of the story, potential scenes, character outlines, things that will help as I embark on the project. 

At this stage, the acts of building a house or writing a novel begin to diverge.  The house becomes more of a team activity, like a movie production, where you need to recruit specialists to do things like shoot the elevation, dig the foundation and pour a concrete basement.  With a novel, all you have is you, and you need to start writing, if you haven’t already – like me, eager to jump the gun.  With a house, the entire frame is raised in an exhilaratingly short period of time.  With a novel, you start building piece by piece, paragraph by paragraph, chapter by chapter. 

A house from there is a much slower process of filling in.  Roof, exterior, windows and doors, mechanicals, electric, insulation, sheetrock, trim.  Though after a while, the two activities of writing a book and building a house begin to re-converge.  The final finish of a house now more resembles editing a book.  The polishing, decorating, re-writing (more expensive with a house!), a million little aesthetic decisions.    

Craft is an old and overused word, but it applies to both woodworking and writing novels.  When you’re beyond the planning and plotting stages, the handwork makes the difference.  Getting those clauses in the right order and wrangling prepositions directly equates to cutting on the right side of the pencil line and fitting tight, symmetrical joints.  A sixteenth of an inch off at the beginning of trimming out a room can mean a half-inch failure at the end.  Same with a book.  What starts well, ends well. 

The process is never complete, though eventually, the book has to go to the printer, and you move into the house.  At first, all you see are the imperfections, the unfinished work.  You can’t do much about the published novel, but at least you can keep working on the house.  Either way, time will eventually settle in and you’ll accept that what you did is what you did. 

Maybe, with luck, you’ll actually be satisfied with the ultimate result, though you’ll be distracted by the next ungainly, terrifying projects already underway. 


15 January 2023

Dying Declarations I

I. Famous Lost Words

train steam engine

Above the rumble of the Trois-Rivieres – Montréal night train, an agonizing scream rent the dark. Two world-famous criminal experts rushed into the compartment of their secretary, M. LeJeune. They found him seized in death throes, struggling to whisper.

Hercule Gaboriau knelt. He loosened LeJeune’s collar.

“Speak, mon ami.”

Before he expired on the threadbare carpet of the rumbling carriage, three faint syllables fell from the dying man’s lips. Hovering above them, Professor S.F.X. Van der Dyne frowned. Awaiting an impromptu autopsy by the train’s multi-talented conductor, the traveling companions adjourned to the next car where they debated the murder.

“Porky Pig?” Van der Dyne said. “What could that mean?” He lit his pipe. “What a puzzle. Good God, man. If LeJeune wanted his last words taken seriously, he shouldn’t have mumbled ‘Porky Pig.’”

“Incroyable.” The great egg-headed detective shook his head. “Sacre bleu.”

The on-board autopsy revealed LeJeune’s brain had been penetrated by a thin, needle-like object.

“Obviously penetrated by a thin, needle-like object,” said the professor. “But what does Porky Pig mean?”

The great detective drew himself up. “It’s all so obvious. En français, he say porc-épic.”

“Right you are, old man, Porky Pig. We all got that.”

“Non, non, mon ami, you misheard.”

“The least LeJeune could have done was enunciate before popping off.”

Mais oui, bacon brain. He say porc-épic.”

“D’accord, my friend. We agree he said Porky Pig. So what?”

“Pork-ee-peek, you lumbering lump of lardon. Eet means zee porcupine.”

“But Porky Pig’s a hog, not a hedgehog.”

“Non, you swaggering, swollen swimbladder of a swineherd. Porc-épic. He was killed by a quill.”

“Bah! No one’s written with quill for three hundred years, not even our secretary who believes, er, believed his antiquated Underwood comprised the pinnacle of word processing technology.”

Gaboriau gritted his teeth. “I… said… a quill… killed him, you boarish, bloviating, bumptious, barbarian biographer of balderdash. He was murdered with a quill.”

“You didn’t get the memorandum, old man. Geese got quills. Pigs– porky or otherwise– no quills.”

Merde du taureau, you pretentious, pompous, porcine proletarian.” The great detective palmed his face. “It means nothing, this shirr knowledge in my egg-shaped head. That Belgique fellow, at least he got respect.”

train racing across Canada

Huh? What? Why? Wait! There’s more.

14 January 2023

Consider the Rabbit

Your Gregorian calendar says January 14, 2023, and let's face it: many a well-intentioned New Year's resolution is already regretted, shredded, abandoned. It doesn't make us terrible. It makes us human. We also have a reboot opportunity: the Chinese New Year, a mere eight days off. A few billion people celebrating it can't be wrong.

January 23, 2023 starts the year of the Water Rabbit. You might hear it as the Black Water Rabbit, which adds a touch of cool but little extra meaning. Water and black are associated concepts in the Chinese zodiac, or so says my literally minutes worth of research. 

It's never been a better time to be a Water Rabbit. Water foretells of peace and longevity. Rabbits are purposeful and lucky. And Rabbits are good planners. Serious planners, long range stuff. What I'm saying is, Rabbits likely make better resolutions than some of us, and Rabbits have that luck if plans fall apart. 

In that spirit, and to help with any resolutions do-over, I've stared at the wall for literally another minute and have divined your writing Water Rabbit horoscope.

  • The Rabbit is, as you might imagine, abundant. You will write many words this year, many more than usual. You will delete them. 
  • Rabbits are open and gregarious. To succeed as a Rabbit, you must leave the house for other than coffee, alcohol, and tobacco. That might scare a writer. It's okay. Be cool about this new socializing. You're a Rabbit among other Rabbits. It's all tres casual. Some of this will be book signings and workshops. But beware the Bad Critique Group: You'll encounter other Rabbits wishing to compete in words written not yet deleted. Remember that writing isn't a contest, that we can lift each other's work. Failing that, you will write a not-quite-legally-actionable facsimile of these other Rabbits into your crime novel and kill them off.  
  • Be careful accepting critique from a dragon, anyone dressed or styled as a dragon, or anyone you secretly suspect is a dragon. Lots of reasons, but mostly because dragons are your harm animal. Dragons are bossy where you are chill. If you must accept critique from a Dragon, ask those drama queens to focus on scene tension.
  • Speaking of harm animals--Roosters. Oh, boy. Avoid those spotlight-hoggers. Next thing you know, you're not only buried in unsolicited and unnecessary edits, you're also ghost-writing their novel.
  • Don't go near regular roosters, either. That's not a horoscope so much as school of hard knocks. You only need to get chased once, folks.
  • Consider the Rabbit and keep a carrot stash for writing snacks. Four out of five nutritionists will agree. If helpful to know, China produces 44% of global carrot yield.
  • A copy editor will point out that the Chinese Zodiac calendar doesn't start until February 4th. The copy editor--a Dragon, let's assume--will say that technically your January production was back in the Year of the Tiger. Thank them and press on, good Rabbit.
  • In your sustained productive fever, you will get hooked on carrots. So hooked, in fact, you will find yourself in the Shanghai derivatives market pricing out carrot futures. Do not buy. Next year, we'll all be Dragons.

13 January 2023

Have Caulk Will Travel

Alfred Hitchcock called them “icebox scenes.” Movie viewers stay riveted for 90+ minutes, dazzled by the story they’re watching. Only when they get home and start pulling cold chicken out of the icebox (Hitch’s imagery, not mine) do they realize that something about the storyline doesn’t quite make sense. When a producer pointed out the implausibilities in the script of the soon-to-be-shot Casablanca, the Hungarian-American director Michael Curtiz reportedly shrugged them off, saying, “I make it go so fast nobody notices.”

Plot holes are every writer’s bane. While I’d love to be the kind of writer who trusts that he can make the story zip along so fast nobody notices, the written word suffers from one fatal flaw that movies did not share until the invention of rewind and freeze frame. A reader can always choose to read slowly or reread a scene a second time.

My experience has been that I’ve gotten better at noticing problems in my stories and nipping them immediately, either in the first draft phase or on a second or third read. I draw a vertical line in the margin of my hard copy, and scrawl the word “fix.” That’s usually enough for my subconscious to get to work writing me out of that particular box.

When I was younger I used to fret more when I spotted these sort of problems. I took them as a personal creative failing that could easily upend the premise of an otherwise tight 3,500-word story. But as I witnessed myself seal up one hole after another, my confidence grew.

Plot solutions present themselves in one of two ways. The classic pops into your head when you’re doing a completely unrelated activity. You’re squeezing peaches in the produce aisle. You’re in the shower. You’re flossing. Whatever. The solution presents itself, often solving a problem you didn’t yet realize you had. Those moments feel like magic; the closest I’ll ever come to a lightbulb moment.

The second solution scenario is far more prosaic. The idea comes to you while you are immersed in the creative process, writing your story. You notice the problem, you ignore it for now, you type a few hundred words more until it’s time to take a break. You circle back a few grafs to see how things look, and you suddenly you know exactly how to fix the damn thing. And that feels wonderful.

The only method that doesn’t work is sitting with a sheet of paper and pencil and telling yourself: “I need to fix this plot hole. Time to brainstorm.” In that situation, my brain is useless. In fact, it’s more likely to cough up an idea for a new story than solving the problem I have in hand.

Novels can be far more problematic. More words, more plotlines, more characters all add up to more ways to screw up. In some cases, I have ignored an acknowledged hole for weeks and weeks, knowing I had to fix it but not quite sure how to do so. I have officially hit the Wall of Insecurity. The problem festers, and takes on disproportionate power in my mind. It begins to feel like avoidance not to deal with it.

You know what batters down that wall? The same two techniques: either the idea pops into my head full blown, or it occurs to me while I am again engaging creatively with that problematic scene.

The first time I handily fixed a problem scene in a novel, I was so stunned that I’d come up with a solid solution that I scoured my desk notes, wondering if I had scrawled the fix down and forgotten that I’d done so. How could it be that an idea that never occurred to me should suddenly pop until my head, free for the taking, while I was actually writing?

This question is laughable, of course, because it summarizes the essence of all creative work. Nothing exists until we make it. Duh. But it’s a lesson I have had to learn and relearn again and again.

I’d love to brag that I’m confident in my ability to fix holes that pop up, but the record shows that there’s such a thing as being too confident. A few years ago, I told myself I could easily circle back and fix a problem I’d spotted early on in a novel I was working on. When I circled back at the end of the first draft, the problem refused to budge. In fact, it was such a major hole that it sank the book. That manuscript is entombed forever on my hard drive.

Writing gives me life, but writing is not life. A while back we discovered that the previous owner of our home drilled holes in the exterior brick to attach some object, which was later removed. But the holes remain, and offer shelter to returning insects summer after summer.

“Are you going to caulk those holes?” my wife said.

“I’m thinking about it,” was my cagey response.

I have mulled over plugging those holes for seven years. Strangely, this has not fixed the problem.

* * *

See you in three weeks!

12 January 2023

A Tale of Tall Egos

As have so many of us, I've been following the case of the four Moscow, Idaho students (three women, one man) stabbed to death in their off-campus house in the middle of the night. When I first heard that the suspect was a criminology student, I thought of "Crime and Punishment". Roskolnikov was a young, handsome, intelligent law student who kills the old lady pawnbroker for money, and to prove that he is "exceptional", superior, like Napoleon.

Meanwhile, an old friend e-mailed "Leopold and Loeb", and that's a good comparison too. For those who haven't ever heard of them, L&L were two wealthy Chicago students who were obsessed with
Nietzsche's idea of the "Ubermensch", and came to believe that's what they were.

As Leopold wrote to Loeb, "A superman … is, on account of certain superior qualities inherent in him, exempted from the ordinary laws which govern men. He is not liable for anything he may do." So they decided to prove it.

They started out doing stupid petty thefts. They broke into a frat house and stole penknives, a camera, a typewriter (which they later used to write the ransom note). They got away with all of it, but the crimes were so minor that no one made much of a fuss, which wasn't what they wanted. They wanted to be recognized and, somehow, honored rather than held liable.

Anyway, theft wasn't doing the job, so they tried arson, but no one noticed that, either.

So they moved on to the next (to them) obvious thing to do: kill someone.

They spent the next few months planning the kidnapping and murder of 14 year old Bobby Franks, the son of wealthy Chicago watch manufacturer Jacob Franks. Bobby was also Loeb's second cousin.

NOTE: This would seem to prove that it's better to not be related to some people: as Augustus Caesar said, “It's better to be Herod's pig than his son.”

The two lured Franks into a rented car, killed him, mutilated his body, and dumped him at Wolf Lake, outside of Chicago. Then they called the family and said a ransom note was coming. And that's when everything went off the rails: first a nervous family member forgot the address of the store where he was supposed to receive the next set of directions. Then Bobby Franks' body was found.

Loeb went about his daily routine, but Superman (all ego, no tights) Leopold went around offering theories to anyone who would listen. He even told one detective, "If I were to murder anybody, it would be just such a cocky little son of a bitch as Bobby Franks."

And, even before DNA, the police found evidence: The typewriter. The car. Leopold's eyeglasses in the car. And an eyewitness to Loeb driving and Leopold in the back seat.

It became "the trial of the century", mainly because Loeb's family hired the attorney of the century, Clarence Darrow* to defend their boy. Darrow took the case because he was a staunch opponent of capital punishment, and the first thing he did was entered a plea of guilty on their behalf in hopes of getting them sentenced to life.

Darrow tried everything: the best testimony money could buy about the men's dysfunctional endocrine glands, psychiatric testimony about childhood neglect, absent parenting, sexual abuse (by a governess of Leopold's), and Leopold's claim that he and Loeb were lovers.

In the end, Darrow gave a 12 hour speech that's been called the finest speech of his career, pleading their youth (they were 19 and 20 respectively), and their immaturity ("Is any blame attached because somebody took Nietzsche's philosophy seriously and fashioned his life upon it?"), and the judge sentenced them to life.

(Personally, I think it helped that they were white. I find it very hard to believe that a couple of young black men in the same situation would have gotten anything but the death penalty. If they even survived the arrest.)

Leopold & Loeb mug shots
Leopold & Loeb

NOTE: Loeb ended up being killed in prison. Leopold eventually got parole in 1958, and moved to Puerto Rico, where he worked for The Brethren Service Commission, as a medical technician at its hospital. He went on to marry, get a master's degree, and do work in a variety of social services programs. (Wikipedia)

I don't know if the current suspect did the Idaho murders. I know that People magazine has some interesting reminiscences about him from his high school and college years: weight problems, bullying and being bullied, heroin addiction (and perhaps sales), a college contrarian who seemed to have problems with women, super curious, very intelligent, and a bit of a creep with the women at the local bar.

And then there's this:

Joey Famularo had Kohberger as a teaching assistant in one of her classes at Washington State and previously spoke about her experiences with him on TikTok. She recalled that Kohberger was a tough grader early in the semester, but that his behavior changed after Nov. 12, 2022, when the murders occurred.
She noted that there were no real red flags about him and that her class of 150 students "didn't see him very often," but explained, "after November 12th, his behavior changed significantly." Famularo noted that in October, Kohberger had failed all of his students on a test and left several comments on their work.
"Then starting November and December, he started just handing out 100s and leaving very minimal comments," she said. "So that was, I think, probably the biggest behavior change." (PEOPLE)

Yeah, that raises a bit of a red flag of something, doesn't it?

We'll all have to wait and see…

* Darrow went on the next year to defend the schoolteacher in the "Scopes Monkey Trial", where his sparring partner was William Jennings Bryan. Everything from vilification to hilarity ensued, but the main thing was endless publicity for all. It all sounds so modern…

** Also, you could do worse than watch "Compulsion", the fictionalized version of the Leopold & Loeb case, starring Orson Welles (as the Clarence Darrow character), and Dean Stockwell and Bradford Dillman as the Leopold & Loeb characters. You can rent it on Amazon Prime or catch it on TCM.

Compulsion poster

11 January 2023

The Fabelmans

Steven Spielberg’s latest picture, The Fabelmans, is a knockout.  Let’s start there.  It’s also tanked at the box office, although a big success critically.  I’m inclined to think its strengths weaken its wider appeal.  The movie wears its heart on its sleeve, without apology but without ever getting sappy, an anomaly, in the Spielberg canon, and its jaw-dropping technical fluency flies under the radar.

If you don’t know already, The Fabelmans is a roman à clef about growing up to be Steven Spielberg.  It doesn’t pretend to false modesty; it doesn’t lean into hagiography.  It’s mostly sly, and very funny.  It has big effects that are lightly touched on, like a glancing blow.  It conjures up big emotions, but manages them with suggestion, not brute force.  I’d even say, that alone among Spielberg’s movies, The Fabelmans has the virtue of leaving a good many things unsaid.  It leaves you to your own devices.

Not that there aren’t plenty of devices.  The whole picture is about devices, about invention, and subterfuge, about the tricks of memory, and the power of narrative.  It’s about becoming a storyteller.  And particularly about becoming a storyteller on film.  The actual plasticity of the medium, physically cutting film and gluing it together, how the character and plot reveals turn on the edits. 

You know there are going to be movie references, but they’re sparing – at least direct references.  The gang of Boy Scouts boils into the theater for a matinee, a couple of minutes late, and the movie’s already started.  The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the scene where Jimmy Stewart reaches up and wipes the dust off the old stagecoach with his sleeve.  Liberty Valance is of course a movie about the  tricks memory plays, or the tricks we play with memory.

There are Easter Eggs a-plenty in
The Fabelmans, don’t get me wrong.  Some are self-referential, like Sammy showing the film strip to his mom in his bedroom closet, some are directed outward, the hole in the piece of sheet music – is that Godard, maybe?  They can’t possibly be accidental. 

So, to the second point, Spielberg’s astonishing technical facility.  We’re talking about the guy who used Hitchcock’s simultaneous backwards-track and forward-zoom from Vertigo to give us Roy Scheider’s sudden disequilibrium in Jaws, not quite believing what he’s just seen from the beach, and knowing full well he has just seen the shark swallow a kid whole, out on the water.  That delicious moment in Jurassic Park, when Bob Peck, the hunter, realizes he’s become the prey, the warm breath of the velociraptor on the back of his neck: “Clever girl.”  Indiana Jones brings a gun to the knife fight; Paul Freeman, in the same movie, letting the fly crawl across his face and into his mouth and out again, without breaking character.  Oskar Schindler, out for a pleasant horseback ride, looks down from the hillside to see – what?  He doesn’t understand, quite, what he’s witness to, but it’s the Jews of the town being rounded up and dispossessed, something Schindler should push away, and simply unsee.

Spielberg himself once remarked, self-deprecatingly, that when he and George Lucas got back together to do Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, that Lucas seemed to want him, Spielberg, to forget all the skills he’d learned in thirty years, and essentially make a 1980’s picture, or maybe even the ‘50’s. 

Suffice it to say, that The Fabelmans comes along in a traditional, linear presentation.  It’s deceptively straightforward.  Cleverly constructed, but without calling attention to itself.  The story arc, which is low-key, is essentially the kid coming to terms with the dynamic of his parents’ marriage.  That he sees it through the camera isn’t your conventional framing device, or meta-narrative, or easy analogue.  The scene where his parents announce their divorce to the kids has one of the very few extremely tricky and calculated camera movements, that catches the teenage Sammy in a mirror, filming the scene.  It goes by so fast, it’s almost subliminal, and in fact it’s a fantasy from Sammy’s POV.  Here’s the biggest giveaway or Easter Egg of all.  The Fabelmans is shot in flat, the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, not the 2.39:1 of widescreen.  This is the closest Spielberg could practically come to the classic Academy ratio, used in Hollywood until 1953, and the advent of ‘scope. 

There are two show-stopping cameos in the movie, and I don’t want to be responsible for spoilers, so you can skip this part.  But here goes.  First up is Uncle Boris, who shows up in the second act.  Boris ran away with the circus and became a lion-tamer.  Judd Hirsch runs away with the movie, momentarily.  The second cameo comes at the end, and it’s John Ford.  I’m not going to tell you who plays him.  The scene with Ford, though, is by all accounts what in fact happened when Spielberg met him, the once.  Along with Ford’s advice, where you frame the horizon line.

Hitchcock once said that people love being shown what’s behind the curtain, and I think it’s true, but I think it’s also true they like sleights of hand quicker than the eye.  Sammy’s dad explains to him, at the very beginning, what they’re going to see: your eye holds the image long enough for the next image to succeed it, and this creates the illusion of moving pictures.  This is “persistence of memory,” so-called.  Spielberg knows just how much to give away, just enough for you to hold that shaky image, in your mind’s eye.  And he’s careful, this time around, not to give away too much – nor does he withhold.  The beauty of The Fabelmans lies in its generosity of spirit, its spontaneous embrace, and an abiding, naïve sense of wonder, even now, for enchantment.    


10 January 2023

Three Great Books

As reading weeks go, the past one has been pretty good. I'm on vacation (mostly--when you work for yourself, you're never truly on vacation). With the Agatha Award nomination ballot due in four days, I'm reading madly. I read a ton last year, but there was way more published than anyone could possibly read. Still, I'm trying to get in as much as I can before I decide what to list in each category. 

As a result, since January 1, I've read five novels, one novelette, one short story, and I'm in the middle of two more novels. I also started one novel that I decided not to finish, and I'm hoping to get through two additional books by Friday night. If you're thinking I must be a fast reader, I'm not. But I can listen really well, and all but one of these books has been an audiobook. Thank you to my public library system for providing access to so many audiobooks. And Audible, thank you too.

So, today I'm going to share with you three of the books I've read in the past week. I don't usually have such good luck in such a short reading period, but these three reads are all ballot-worthy. (Well, I'm still reading one of them, but if it continues to be as good as it's been, it will be going on my ballot.)

Gone for Gouda by Korina Moss

This is the second novel in Korina Moss's Cheese Shop Mystery series. It's also the author's second published novel. You often hear of the sophomore slump, that the author's second book isn't as good as the first. That's not the case here. I really enjoyed Korina's first book (Cheddar Off Dead), and I liked Gone for Gouda even more. 

The series is set in a fictional small town in California's Sonoma Valley, where Willa Bauer owns a cheese shop. At the story's start, a famous chef is scheduled to give a presentation at Willa's shop. Soon before the event is scheduled to begin, the obnoxious chef is found dead, and one of Willa's employees is a suspect since he was the last person known to have seen her. Willa feels guilty because the employee wouldn't have been in the chef's company if it weren't for her, so she starts investigating--just to ensure the detective on the case has some other suspects, of course. The search for the killer  becomes a group effort, as Willa, her two employees, some close friends, and some others at times, work together to try to figure out whodunit. Among the things I liked about the book:

  • The characters are all different and enjoyable and caring. 
  • Willa has a wonderful friendship with her male next-door-neighbor. There are no sparks there, just friendship.
  • Willa shares information with the detective on the case, and he doesn't treat her like an annoyance.
  • The plot is complex, the writing is often funny, and the story includes a cute dog.
Overall, two enthusiastic thumbs up.

Magic, Lies, and Deadly Pies by Misha Popp

This is an unusual book. The main character, Daisy, comes from a magical family. Each daughter's ability comes in a different form. With Daisy, she can bake pies and infuse them with magic to give the eater what they need. If she thinks you need some confidence, for instance, she can bake some into your pie. And if you're a woman who is in a bad situation with a dangerous man--one you can't safely extract yourself from--she can bake you a murder pie. There's no poison in it. Just magic. If the man can change into a better person, wonderful. The pie makes that happen. But if he can't, then after he eats the pie, he dies. Her company works solely on referrals from previous customers, and it's called Pies Before Guys.

The author's voice is a delight, as is the book's concept. Not just the magic (I love magic) but how Daisy is trying to make a difference in the world at a micro level. As the book progresses, Daisy finds she has an unknown stalker, one threatening to expose her unless she meets his demands. She is determined to save herself, her business, and her fledgling relationship without compromising her principles, which includes not baking pies solely for revenge. I loved her positive attitude and her desire to help others. I loved her friends and the person she grows closest to as the book proceeds. And, big surprise, I loved her dog.

This is the author's first book (!), and the next one in the series comes out next month. I can't wait.

Sinkhole by Davida G. Breier

This is another debut novel. The book has two timelines. In the present, Michelle Miller is driving home to rural Florida--where she hasn't been since leaving for college fifteen years ago--because her mother is hospitalized. While she's driving, she's thinking about her last two years of high school--memories she has tried to forget since she moved away. Michelle grew up poor, but her best friend in high school was rich. She also was manipulative, but Michelle didn't see that then. We see the girls' friendship from the beginning until ... I'm expecting ... the end. (I'm not sure because this is one of the two books I'm in the middle of.)

The book opens with this sentence: "When I was eighteen, I killed my best friend." Early on, we learn how the friend died--at least what the newspaper said. I'm expecting there was a lot more to it. I'm halfway through the book, and I'm eager for what's to come. The characters are complex, the setting is lush, the author's voice is strong, and she can really turn a phrase. Plus, I love all the details about the eighties. Overall, the book is hard to put down, and I'm going to get back to it as soon as I hit publish on this post. 

Happy reading in 2023. And if you're still thinking about your Agatha ballot choices, I'd be pleased if you'd consider including my short story "Beauty and the Beyotch." You can read it on my website by clicking here.

09 January 2023

Weaving the Past into the Present

Leslie Budewitz, my guest blogger today, is one of my oldest mystery writer friends. We met in Sisters in Crime Guppies, of which she was a founding member back when we really were the Great UnPublished. Liz

by Leslie Budewitz

I love curling up with a good historical novel. While most of my work is contemporary, my newest standalone suspense novel, Blind Faith (written as Alicia Beckman), weaves together a contemporary cold case investigation and historic scenes going back nearly fifty years. And I’ve dipped into historical mystery with several short stories set in the 1880s and a novella set in 1910. But the past is always present. Sneaking a bit of history into a contemporary tale can add layers to the plot and setting, and even character, that make for a richer, more textured read. Plus, it’s fun.

One way to use history in a contemporary novel is to weave in the history of place. My Spice Shop mysteries are set in Seattle’s Pike Place Market, which was founded in 1907. It’s a farmers’ market, but also home to locally-based retailers, craftspeople, and restaurants, as well as several hundred residents. It was the first mixed-use residential and commercial property listed on the National Historic Register. History is key to the place and to the experience of it.

And so my main character runs a spice shop and tussles with Market managers over exterior signage (“If it wasn’t there in 1937, there’s no putting it up now”) and funky wiring. She hangs a map showing the origins of her spices over cracks in the plaster that no caulk can fix. She chases baddies down cobblestone streets and up hidden staircases. She curses the place for its quirks and loves it for the very same reason.

When we describe a scene, we’re giving our readers cues and clues that allow them to create it in their own mind. They’ll never see just what we see, unless we’re using a real place they’ve visited. But whether the place is real, like the Market, or entirely fictional, like the historic lodge in my first standalone suspense novel, Bitterroot Lake (written as Alicia Beckman), details that flesh out the characters’ relationship to a place and its history create a deeper connection to the setting and story.

The history of a place can also spark plot. David Edgerly Gates gave a great example of this last month here on SleuthSayers when he discussed the TV series Three Pines, based on Louise Penny’s books. The TV writers added a brilliant (to me) story line about the experience of Indigenous people in the region, rooted in the residential school, a building that still dominates the town. While the murder in the second pair of episodes did not stem directly from that history, the victim’s connection to the school gave the writers an opportunity to tell the story of the horrors inflicted and show how building’s continued existence kept the wounds open. And they were able to show how the townspeople came together to end that.

In Bitterroot Lake, my main character returns to her family’s historic lodge in NW Montana, seeking solace after her husband’s death. A murder the day she arrives ties into a tragedy she and her friends experienced twenty-five years before as new college graduates. While cleaning up damage after a windstorm, she discovers a scrapbook detailing the lodge’s construction a century earlier. Through the photographs, along with letters and journals she finds in an old trunk, she uncovers a mystery about the lodge that answers questions about tensions with a neighbor and eventually helps her unmask the present-day killer. I love old homes, art, and furniture, and had a great time creating Whitetail Lodge, using memories of private and public lodges I’ve visited, and poring over real estate listings, magazine articles, and local history books.

That’s also how I discovered the region’s history of ice houses, including a survivor now in the parking lot of a building supply company in the next town. Closed up but well-preserved, it sits alongside a path built where railroad tracks once ran. With drawings of the plans and my site visit in mind, I staged the novel’s climax in a similar relic. And if I introduced readers to lodge culture, timber and railroad history, and social issues of a century ago, even better.

Every community has inherent tensions, often with origins that are no longer visible. In Six Feet Deep Dish, debut cozy author Mindy Quigley uses her fictional Wisconsin town’s beginnings as a summer refuge for wealthy Chicagoans to illustrate continuing conflicts between the haves and have-nots. She also mines it for humor, decorating her protagonist’s pizza joint with old photographs of mobsters, including Al Capone as a baby. Fortunately, the homicide detective, a direct descendant of the crime boss, takes it in stride.

Crime fiction often involves an incident in the past that triggers a present-day conflict, whether it occurred in 1925 or 1985. In Blind Faith, a cold case investigation draws us deep into the past, untangling the threads that tie a prominent family to the unsolved murder of a priest. Both personal history and stories about the community help us understand the motivations behind a series of crimes that continue to have ripple effects.

Our lives are influenced by the past on every level. And when we use history to explore events in the present, we can tell richer, more meaningful stories.

Leslie Budewitz is the author of the Spice Shop and Food Lovers’ Village mysteries. As Alicia Beckman, she writes moody suspense. She is the winner of three Agatha Awards, including the 2018 Agatha for Best Short Story, “All God’s Sparrows,” set in Montana Territory in 1884 and featuring a real-life figure, “Stagecoach Mary” Fields. A past president of Sisters in Crime and MWA board member, she lives in NW Montana.

08 January 2023

Crime Scene Comix Case 2023-01-020, Red Bull

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

Yikes! In this episode, Shifty goes to the dogs.

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

07 January 2023

Crime Scene Comix Case 2023-01-019, Red Card

Leigh here with a sexist rant: I like watching US women’s soccer. Why? The players are exuberant and serious. When a men’s player (pick a country, any country) stubs a toe over an imaginary slight, he tearfully collapses on the ground, grousing and groaning like a sobbing 3-year-old whilst pointing a quaking finger at his opponent, hoping for a red card. Ooo, boo hoo. When one of the women is knocked down, she gets up and goes back to work. Hey, don’t trash me for telling it like I see it.

This isn’t one of Shifty’s best, but FIFA football fans will watch anything soccer related. Let’s have a look.

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

06 January 2023


After watching a number of 'the making of' and 'behind the scenes' videos on YouTube, I realized I was allowing the illusion, the magic of some movies, to fade into ... reality. I don't need to know how a screen performer had chronic halitosis, false teeth, a toupee (although many are so easy to spot I don't know how I missed it). Don't need to know how crude a performer was on the set, or how certain special effects were done. I always thought they filmed the Mount Rushmore scenes in NORTH BY NORTHWEST at Mount Rushmore. It was a set.

I like a movie to draw me into its world. Science Fiction movies and mysteries lose a lot of their wonder when I know how the sausage was made.

A little-appreciated movie filmed in New Orleans, PANIC IN THE STREETS with Richard Widmark and the wonderful Jack Palance, featured gritty realism and excellent acting. No sets. The way to do it. It's great going back to Royal Street, Magazine Street and Jackson Square in 1950.

It's different with novels and short stories because that's what I write. How a writer crafted their story or put together a novel is interesting. If you build a building, you wanna know how others build their buildings. This is a lot of what we do here at SleuthSayers.

But I feel differently about movies. When I watch a movie with my wife, she always seems to figure out what's going to happen or who did it in a murder mystery. I don't for a couple reasons. First, I like to let the director and screenwriter take me there. Second, I think like a cop when I watch mysteries. I'm a homicide detective and most movies do not show the reality of a murder investigation. Some do but most don't.

Back to short stories and novels, where the CGI takes place in the reader's mind. I have my own vision of DUNE, and none of the movies have matched it. The latest is by far the best and there are looks in it I never envisioned. I don't want to know how director Denis Villeneuve pulled it off. I just let it flow over me.

I don't try to figure things out in a novel. I rather let the writer take me there. That's just the way I read. I find it funny when someone reads one of my books and tells me they figured out who did it in the first thirty pages because I rarely know who did it until I'm near the end. Lately, I don't even know how the book's going to end at all.

That's all for now.


05 January 2023


  New years are like new books.

“Well begun is half-done.” 

You may have first heard or read this in either the book or film version of Marry Poppins, but it was the Greek philosopher and polymath Aristotle who first referenced what even he noted was in his time a proverb of long stand in day-to-day language. In other words, if you started out well, and things are cooking, you have momentum, and a great feel for what’s going to happen next, or maybe you’re just enjoying the ride. Either way, whether reading or writing, a great beginning is key to a great finish. 

Yep, this guy, not Mary Poppins!

At the risk of employing too many quotations too quickly, let me add another one: “The journey of 1000 miles begins with the first step.” And just as December is a time to take stock of the recently departed year, so is January so often the month of first steps.

Whether it be starting a new diet, or a new exercise regimen, a new term at school, a resolution to read more, a resolution to read less, a resolution to watch less TV, or to watch more TV, the combination of the new year, and the human predisposition to place outsized importance on arbitrarily designated beginnings and endings means that January is usually crammed with good intentions. 

This is no less true in the writing community. And I’ll let you in on the one secret that successful writers have all figured out. Maybe it’s conscious on their part, or maybe it’s not. Either way, successful writers are successful because they write.

They don’t plan and plan and plan endlessly. They don’t set ridiculous goals. They don’t read a million books on how to write this or that way.

At the risk of sounding sappy or obvious, the writing journey is just that: a journey. I know this because I’ve been on it for a big chunk of my adult life. I started writing for intended publication back in the late ‘90s, and published my first book in 2005. And I have been as much a work in progress as has my writing during the intervening seventeen-plus years. Had I waited until I’d “developed and perfected my style” to get something published for pay, I’d still be waiting. So obviously, it’s my opinion that anyone who thinks they need to train train train, and then start writing for publication, has it exactly wrong

Writing, like any other art, requires dedication, persistence, and, of course, talent. The first two are not negotiable. They come from within, and only you can gauge your own limits in these two areas. The good news, such as it is, is that the third, since it's a skill, can be developed.

If you’re not especially talented, by dint of the first two (dedication and persistence), you can simply become more talented. Time for another quote. This one isn’t exact, but I think you’ll get the point:

“We weren’t very good when we first started out playing together, but when we went on tour that first time, we played three hundred dates over a calendar year. You play three hundred dates a year, you’re gonna get better.” - KISS guitarist Ace Frehley.

Yep, this guy. Note: not a KISS fan myself, but the wisdom in his quote above cannot be denied.

What can I say? When you’re right, you’re right. The most talented unpublished writer I’ve ever met wrote a great first novel, got rejected by ten agents and gave up. Reversing the point of view of a jealous Salieri, I was thrown by this. I loved this guy’s book. And I told him so. Repeatedly.

My friend’s problem was that while enormously talented, and pretty dedicated, he wasn’t persistent. And of the three things all successful writers possess, the most important isn’t talent or dedication. It’s persistence.

I know authors who don’t possess the talent required to review the guy above‘s never-to-be-published book. I either don’t care for their work or just find it amateurish. And yet I call them “authors” because they’re published. Many of them multiply.

Because they were persistent.

One last thought: no matter who you are, no matter how talented or connected, experienced or not, just as with putting pants on one leg at a time, you’re going to experience the beginning of your next project the same way that Hemingway, Erica Jong, Toni Morrison, Aeschylus, Jane Austen and so many others throughout the course of history have.

We all experience the so-called “ tyranny of the blank page” in exactly the same way.

By staring at it.

 How long you stare is up to you.

No one ever said beginnings were a piece of cake. After all, they’re beginnings.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go take that first step.

Happy New Year, and see you in two weeks!

04 January 2023

On A Winter's Night, A Writer...

At our house we usually keep the house pretty cool in the winter time, even more so at night.  The week I am writing this, in late December, the weather outside dropped to around 7 degrees Fahrenheit, which is darned low for my city.  Of course it was a lot warmer inside, but leave it to say it was cozier under the blankets than outside of them.

And as I lay there, all snug and warm, waiting for Morpheus to do his thing... I remembered something.  Details don't matter but it involved calling a doctor's office about something.  So, while it was not life-and-death, this was a matter of some significance.  It was an errand I had better not forget.  That meant I was either going to 1) find a way to make sure I remembered it in the morning, or 2) stay awake all night worrying about it.

Now, for the past fifty years I have seldom gone anywhere without a pocket notebook.  Every writer needs a way to scribble down the Next Brilliant Idea.  But as it happens my notebook was across the room on the dresser.  So in order to write myself a reminder note I would have to throw off the lovely sheet and duvet and stomp across the room, pick up my notebook, take it out into the hallway (so as not to wake my very tolerant wife), flip on the light, find an empty page, write down the reminder, and retreat to Slumberland.  It would be a cold couple of minutes.

I lay there for a while, trying to think of another alternative.  As it happened my cell phone was charging on my night table and I seriously considered turning it on, waiting for it to wake up, finding the note app, and sending myself a reminder.  This would actually take longer than the out-of-bed method but wouldn't get my toesies all chilled.

I decided that was ridiculous.  I got of bed, made the journey, made my note, and climbed back into bed. But before sleep could knit  up the unraveled sleeve of care, another thought came into my mind. 

What if, instead of a reminder of a medical issue, my brain had popped up a story idea?

I would have been out of bed in an instant, grabbing for my notebook to scribble it down. Because to a writer a hot idea can be much more important than a mere health issue.

Decades ago I remember reading that Buckminster Fuller said that from the moment you have an idea you have 17 minutes to do something physical with it - write it down, tie a string around your finger,  sing it out loud until it's stuck in your head -- or it will disappear.  I have searched for this bit of wisdom many times and have never found it again.  Did I make it  up?  Got the details hopelessly wrong?

If I ever do find it again, I'll even get off the mattress to write it down. In the mean time, the moral of the story: Keep my notebook near the bed.