19 May 2023

The tomatoes stink, but you should really try the pie


Back in May 2021, I shared some memories of my mother, and it occurs to me to revisit her story at least once more before this month of mothers passes us by.

Early last year I finished assembling a Word doc containing all the recipes she left behind when she died in 2016. They came in two forms. The first was a giant box of index cards, and frankly, those recipes were largely unremarkable. Like a lot of home cooks, she snipped recipes she discovered in magazines, and gradually altered them to her taste the more she experimented with them. A few of these truly became her own, but most did not.

The second group of recipes were far more interesting. In a “marble” cover composition notebook she kept what can probably best be described as a cooking journal. In this book, she recorded recipes that she had just thrown together off the top of her head, along with occasional diary-like entries and comical asides.

The existence of the journal came as a surprise. I could not imagine her actually taking pencil to paper in this way. She was born in Italy, so English was forever a second language to her. She did not take to writing easily. She never finished high school, and her only jobs in life required manual labor. Hence, her notebook is filled with misspellings and wonky grammar. But I love this little book because I can see her mind at work, trying to make sense of her intuitive cooking process. I’m going to share some entries from the notebook exactly as written. Warning: punctuation is nonexistent, and the prose is somewhat hard to parse:


for jars 2 colander (colapasta) makes 6 1 quart jars 1 buscel makes approx 18 jars. I made on my birthday 8-21-01 the last time I made in 2000 also on my birtday. Sthings because I got gipt*

Where to begin with this? I had not known that the word colander in Italian is colapasta, so that was a revelation as I was editing. The word buscel is her rendering of bushel.

I don’t know why she would throw in the non sequitur about canning tomatoes on her birthday; possibly it served to remind her what time of year she traditionally bought and canned tomatoes. I don’t think she noted the date to remind herself when the produce was at its peak of flavor. The last line—which I translate as stinks because I got gypped**—reflects a theme that crops up often in these pages. She is convinced that a particular farmstand in New Jersey sells subpar tomatoes. Here’s another dig:

August 29

The past 4-5 days Im making tomato there are very bad I got them from the farm never again

This is the Last Time

I love how she capitalizes those last two words.

In a few entries we find her making handmade egg noodles, which she generously plans to mail to a former neighbor who retired to Indiana. I can’t recall the last time I received a box of handmade noodles in the mail, let alone handmade anything, but I do recall that this neighbor loved the chicken soup my mom served with these noodles.

Shortly after embarking on this editing project, I realized that the recipes in this book were largely unusable as written. They are more lab notes than recipes. She’s trying to figure out which ratios of ingredients have the greatest impact on the final dish, and that’s too backstage to interest most of us. If I ever hoped to share her discoveries with family members, I’d need to test each recipe by making each dish myself. I also saw that in some cases I’d need to offer footnotes to explain to the uninitiated what Mom was talking about.

also on Sep. 7

I made Tacconelle Molise dis is homemade pasta in shepe of
diamanti. Because I seen it in La Cucina Italiana in Cantalupo we made this all the time with fresh tomato sauce
Translation: In a magazine called La Cucina Italiana, she spotted an article on a regional diamond-shaped pasta dish which she chose to call Tacconelle Molise. (Modern foodies generally describe the pasta as typical of the Abruzzo region. Years after my mother left Italy, “the Abruzzi” she knew as a child split politically into two distinct regions—Abruzzo and Molise.) Mom hailed from a village in Molise called Cantalupo. Clearly, the recipe inspired her recollection of that dish, and the urge to make it.

All professional writers have had the experience of reading a sentence, detecting that a critical word is missing, yet still being able to comprehend the sentence anyway. But I have no clue how to read the second-to-last sentence in this recipe:

Sep. 5 — 01

I made a pie today with 5 nactarine & 2 plums 1/4 sugar 1/4 tapioca 1 tb. of lemon juice cinamon & nutmeg I can bake and tell if it is good pie is OK.

To bad nobody is here to eat it.

Not sure what kind of pie this is. It doesn’t sound like a two-crust pie, but maybe more of a hand pie, tart, or galette. The penultimate line remains as cryptic to me as it was the first time I read it. Is she saying she baked the pie, and tasted it solely to determine its quality? Or is another reading possible?

The last line, on the other hand, is abundantly clear, and touches on another of her favorite themes. She made a pie that can only be eaten by herself and her husband, because her three ungrateful sons have left the nest empty.

Which brings me, I guess, to the only advice I can offer you this May. If your mother is still with you, by all means visit sometime and gorge yourself silly on pasta and pie.

A belated happy Mother’s Day to all.

* * *

* Nearly all online dictionaries note that the use of this word is informal and offensive.
** Still offensive, even when spelled correctly.

See you in three weeks!



18 May 2023

Little Shrimp on the Prairie - the Return!

Stop the presses and start mixing up the cocktail sauce! 

Or maybe not yet.  

Once again, aquaculture company Tru Shrimp has announced that they're sadly going to have to put off groundbreaking for the Madison Bay Harbor until 2024. 

What could possibly have happened?  After all, this facility will be "modeled exactly on what is here in Balaton. That facility will be capable of producing about 1.8 million pounds of shrimp, over 4,700 kg of chitosan, and about 600,000 pounds of pet food ingredient.”  

What is chitosan?  I'm so glad you asked.  It's "a sugar that comes from the outer skeleton of shellfish, including crab, lobster, and shrimp. It's used as medicine and in drug manufacturing." However, there is no good scientific evidence for its use for most purposes. In fact, the words used throughout the WebMD article are "might be used for", and "possibly safe". Unless, of course, you're allergic to shellfish. (Reminds me of Barb Goffman's Bug Appetit, which was nominated for multiple awards.)

And I would love a definition of "pet food ingredient."   

Now back in 2019 I wrote a blogpost about Tru Shrimp (Little Shrimp on the Prairie) where I related how me and my compadre Dark Ally went to Balaton, MN, in search of the Great Cultivated Shrimp.  We found an old elementary school with 6 shrimp bobbing around in a home-sized aquarium in the lobby.  There was a new construction with no windows out back, in the former school playground (?) and the lobby obviously had cameras, because a person in charge came out to try and find out who we were and what we wanted.  We told him the truth:  we were a couple of old snoops who wanted to know what was going on.  And, after pointing out the shrimp in the aquarium, he encouraged us to leave. 

Back then Tru Shrimp had already received $11 million in "incentives" (i.e., grants and loans, and nobody's talking about how much private investors have put into it).  But so far all they have - still - is a lot of money and they haven't spent a penny yet, except on advertising and fundraising as far as anyone can tell.  Oh, and research.  Endless research. 

And they don't even own the land yet:  Brooke Rollag, the executive director of the Lake Area Improvement Corporation, said that the LAIC has "engaged in a land option with Tru Shrimp Madison" with Lake View Industrial Park land the LAIC owns.  (SDPB)  WHAT????

BTW, the Lake Area Improvement District (LAID for short, and Oh, the things I could riff about that, but this is a semi-family publication) in Madison also invested money in the company. "That money holds a convertible note that becomes stock in Tru Shrimp when the company breaks ground."  (SDPB) Leading to the obvious question:  STOCK IN WHAT????  

Also, back in 2019, Tru Shrimp promised the potential for 120 jobs and tens of millions of dollars of economic impact. Now? 60 jobs. (Dakota Free Press)

Back in 2019, I wrote, when someone asked me if I thought there was any "there" there, and I replied that I think there's just enough "there" there to cover taking millions in South Dakota money. Especially if we just give it to them. Which South Dakota did.  And there's still nothing to show for it, except a sign:  "Future Home of Tru Shrimp Bay Harbor"  

Purely informational: The dictionary definition of Ponzi scheme is "a form of fraud in which belief in the success of a nonexistent enterprise is fostered by the payment of quick returns to the first investors from money invested by later investors."

South Dakota really needs to take to heart the immortal words of Paul Newman:

If you're playing a poker game and you look around the table and and can't tell who the sucker is, it's you. 

Meanwhile, Dark Ally and I have been discussing how we can get in on the game.  Not Tru Shrimp, but the amazing game of launching a new company without assets or (as far as anyone can tell) product.  I mean, Jared Kushner got $2 billion or so from the Saudis for an investment firm with no assets or experience, so how hard can it be?  Anyway we've come up with a new idea:  Urban Buffalo. 

Basically, the idea is to take a newly, probably permanently emptied urban office building and repurpose it for industrial, indoor buffalo ranching.  They'd have to have feed, which perhaps we could source from Tru Shrimp, but they're probably angry with me by now, and I'd want a definition of "pet food ingredient" first.  Better yet, it could be a new way for South Dakota farmers to make revenue.  Raise the feed, and ship it to Gotham for the buffalo.  

And the buffalo would supply so many needs, from the meat (incredibly healthy and nourishing) to the hides (incredibly warm).  But perhaps its most important product would be the buffalo chips.  Used as fuel on the prairies from the earliest days of Native Americans to mountain men to the pioneers, buffalo chips were and still are ideal.  They burn like coals, with an intense heat that is odorless (no pollution!), almost smokeless (again, no pollution!), and almost ashless (easy waste disposal!).  

And, working on an industrial scale, we may have the solution to the entire problem urban heating / cooking costs.  The potential is massive.  The research is invaluable.  The investment is obvious.  

My only question is, what should we call it?  Is "True S***" too subtle?  

Now for some BSP:

Josh Pachter's Paranoia Blues is one of the five finalists for the Anthony award in the Best Anthology category, and Ed Aymar's "Still Crazy After All These Years," from it is a finalist in the Best Short Story category! And I am honored to have "Cool Papa Bell" in it!

17 May 2023

In Your Dreams. Or Just Prior To Them.

I have mentioned before that I am an archaeology buff (and that theme will be returning in a few weeks, methinks).  This led to me reading Inside the Neolithic Mind by David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce.

It's an interesting book but right at the edge of my brain's ability to cope.  I found some of their arguments tautological and some others about altered states of consciousness  too abstract to be convincing.  But I especially enjoyed their examination of the mound tombs of Ireland, especially since I have visited Newgrange, which is one of them.

Here is an example of an attempt to think about how neolithic (late stone age, roughly 12,000 to 6,000 years ago) people used to think.  Those mounds are decorated with abstract designs of various kinds.  Do those designs  have any meaning, or are they effectively doodles?  Is there anyway to tell?

Someone surveyed those designs and found out there is a pattern to them.   For example, spirals - like the ones I photographed at Newgrange - always appear at the entrance way to the tombs, not deeper inside. Different designs show up in the burial chambers, and so on.

So they aren't random.  Those pictures meant something to their creators; we just don't have a clue as to what.

 But what fascinated me most was a different topic the two Davids mentioned: hypnagogia.  Ever hear of it?  You may very well have experienced it, as most people have.

Little Bear

Hypnagogia is the period just before you fall asleep and especially the visions or other sensations you experience in that half-awake state.  The Davids think that the most common visions are hard-wired in our brains and tell us something about how our Neolithic ancestors would have interpreted their world.

I can clearly remember the first hypnagogic hallucination I experienced (or was aware of).  I was in my thirties and one night I saw a bear, in the style of Maurice Sendak's Little Bear books, standing on his hind feet, wearing a police hat, and walking under a stone arch.  It was a non-moving two dimensional picture and it was so convincing I thought I must be remembering it from a Sendak drawing, but I have never found such a picture.  Attached you will find the DALL-E AI program's attempt to capture the image.  It isn't very close.

Once I learned about  hypnagogia  my post-Neolithic brain immediately asked: Can I get a crime story out of this?

I did.  It's about a fancy dinner party where the host starts explaining the concept to his guests, one of whom seems a little too interested... "Hypnagogia" appears in the May issue of Mystery Magazine.

One more thing: R.T. Lawton and I usually swap stories for critique before sending them to editors.  In this case he told me he liked the end of the story  but the beginning was boring.

I changed the opening sentence and I think it made a difference.  Here is the old version:

"I beg you,” Karla called from the kitchen. “Do NOT tell them about your dreams.”

And here is the new, Lawton-inspired version:

"I warn you,” Karla called from the kitchen. “Do NOT tell them about your dreams or I may get violent.”

Just a tad of suspense to begin with.  

Until next time, sweet dreams.   

16 May 2023

Caution: Writer at Work

When you're pulled in too many directions at once, it's nice to have a friend who is willing to pinch hit for you. So today, instead of offering my own (cough cough) words of wisdom, I'm delighted to share a behind-the-scenes look at writing from my friend Donna Andrews, author of the New York Times-bestselling Meg Langslow mystery series. Take it away, Donna! 

 Caution: Writer at Work

by Donna Andrews

I will start the first draft of my next book on Thursday, June 1. Note that I’m not saying “I plan to start” or “I hope to start.” I will be starting it then, because that’s when I need to start to finish it, revise it, and turn it in on time.

And I’ve got my spreadsheet ready.

Yes, I consider my trusty spreadsheet an essential writing tool. I start with my actual deadline, the date I have to deliver the manuscript to my editor, and then set my own deadline for finishing the first draft--optimally four to six weeks before the real deadline. Then I construct a schedule that lets me work at a comfortable pace, writing on weekdays and taking the weekends off to recharge--or catch up. I tinker with the spreadsheet--building in breaks for times when I hope not to be writing--trips to Malice Domestic and Bouchercon, for example. And then--voila! I know what day I need to start my draft.

It helps if I do this process far enough ahead that I don’t finish the spreadsheet and then realize that I should have started five weeks ago.

Don't be fooled. That's not Donna.
She'd never write without Diet
Coke by her side.

Once I start writing . . . (June 1) . . . the spreadsheet helps keep me sane. When I sit down at my computer every day, I don’t have to think about how much I’ve written and how much I still have to write and whether any of it’s any good. I just have to write that day’s quota. As long as I write however many words I’ve assigned myself for the day, I’m allowed to celebrate.

And for this next book, the magic day is June 1. Sorry if I keep repeating that, but as my start date creeps closer, reminding myself helps me focus on everything I need to do before then. Because I’m a planner--or plotter, if you prefer. If I’m on my game, by June 1 I will know how the book starts. I will know who done it, and who got done, and how, and why. I will know who else had a motive, and how Meg, my heroine, unmasks the real killer, and what happens in the dramatic final scene. I’m already over the first hurdle--finding a bird-themed punning title that my editor likes. Now I’m doing my research, scoping out the cast of characters, working out the plot.

If it sounds as if I know what I’m doing . . .yeah, I do. Sort of. After all, I’ve done this before--38 times before. That doesn’t mean I’m all relaxed and “whatever” about it. It doesn’t ever get easy. (Apologies to newer writers, but it really doesn’t.) Some parts of it get easier. But there's still the challenge of trying to write a book that's better than the last. Not to mention that with every single book, at some point I reach what I now call the “it’s all crap” phase. Knowing this happens every time doesn’t make it feel any better. So what do I do when that awful feeling creeps over me?

I write the day’s quota. It doesn’t necessarily get rid of the “it’s all crap” feeling. But it gets me one day closer to finishing. I remind myself that if I keep going, the feeling will eventually vanish. And that you can edit crap, but you can’t edit a blank page.

Ahhhhh! A blank page!
And what do I do when I sit down at the computer feeling singularly uninspired? Same thing. I do my quota. Inspiration is overrated. I don’t write because I’m inspired; with luck, along the way, I’ll get inspired. But if I don’t--at least I’ve done my quota.

I take comfort in Lawrence Block’s example. In one of his books--don’t ask me which, because I like his take on writing and have several of them--he recounts how, when he began writing full time, he made himself write every day. Some days he couldn’t wait to get to the keyboard, and other days he wanted to do anything else. He wrote anyway, figuring if it was really bad, he could always throw it out. But over time he found that he rarely had to. Sure, what he wrote when he wasn’t inspired needed revision and editing. So did what he wrote on the good days. He’d learned to write at a certain level--a professional level.

Really wish I could find the essay in which he said this. Some days it would help, reading it before I put my fingers on the keys and write anyway.

I was able to find another favorite quote on writing, from Kenneth Atchity’s A Writer’s Time:

I haven’t mentioned the Muse, the mythic word for “inspiration.” She is the last person you want to depend on. Professional writers generally speak of her with a mixture of affection and tolerance. Discipline, not the Muse, results in productivity. If you write only when she beckons, your writing is not yours at all. If you write according to your own schedule, she’ll shun you at first, but eventually she won’t be able to stay away from your workshop. If you deny her urgings, she will adopt your discipline. Nothing attracts her more than a writer at work on a steady schedule. She’ll come around. In other words, you become your own Muse, just as you make the clock of life your clock.

Useful book, A Writer’s Time. Along with Block’s books on writing, like Spider, Spin Me a Web and Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. I sometimes reread parts of them when I need encouragement. And then I write my quota.

If this sounds boring . . . I prefer to think of it as a comforting routine. Starting June 1, every day--well, every weekday--I'll get up, stumble downstairs to my computer, open my spreadsheet, open my manuscript . . . and do my quota.

And now back to all those things I need to do before June 1. Is my villain’s motive believable? Do I have enough red herrings? Too many? Wait, have I created a perfect crime, one that will be impossible for Meg to solve? Or is the twist too obvious? What if--

You know, I’m actually looking forward to June 1.


Barb again, thanking Donna for finding time in her well-planned schedule to show you how she sets--and keeps--her schedule.

And now for a little BSP, I'm thrilled to share that at the end of April I won the Agatha Award for my short story "Beauty and the Beyotch," which appeared in issue 29 of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine. And last week, this story was named a finalist for this year's Anthony Award, to be awarded in September at Bouchercon. If you're interested, I have it up on my website for your reading pleasure. Just click here.

15 May 2023

True Crime Confessions

Note: Jan is anything but a mystery guest but we had a little trouble setting up this column so her name doesn't appear in the usual spot.  Our apologies.  — Robert Lopresti 



by Jan Grape

 As a crime writer have you ever committed a crime? You don't have to admit to any of these  minor...surely misdemeanor things.

Stealing as a kid? Candy, gum, baseball card? Lipstick. Prizes from a Cracker Jacks box. Yes, kids, there used to be prizes. Even money, up to a quarter, I think. I don't remember ever getting more than a nickel and maybe only two of those. I never pryed open a box but I shook at least fifty or so. Trying to guess if any box rattled like a quarter. 

As a teen-ager did you ever steal a car? Tires, money? Ever get caught? I didn't really steal a deputy's car, one evening about twilight time, but he left it running with the keys in it. I think I drove it around the courthouse square. Around the block in case you've never seen a small county courthouse square. What was I doing at the courthouse on an early spring evening? I have no memory of that.

As an adult? Have you ever swiped ashtrays, towels, blankets, pillows or one of those soft, fluffy robes  from a hotel? Or silverware? Or shot glasses from a bar or restaurant?

Have you done any crimes more serious?? Like maybe a DUI? You don't have to answer that either.

Did you ever write about or fictionalize your experience as a Juvenile? Or committing a felony? 

I know most if us have never committed a serious crime but we write about it often. Especially murder. Was it a joke that the heroine of Murder She Wrote was really a murderer because she always stumbled over a body?

If you've never done a crime then how do you research so confidently to write about a kidnapping, a bank heist, or a car bombing?  Do you talk to Police officers? FBI or CIA agents?
This looks huge and it's not.
See next photo for reference.

I once called the Security Chief at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport to ask if an idea I had for a story  was feasible. After I explained that I was a mystery writer he listened to my idea. 

Which was: Could a person flying from Los Angeles, eat dinner and slip the metal knife in the chair back pocket and the hostess who picked up trays didn't notice the missing knife. The bad guy retrieves the knife, goes to lavatory & sharpens the knife point and puts it in his pocket. The plane lands at Dallas/Fort Worth airport for say 30 minutes, half the passengers including our bad guy, stay on as it's a continuing flight to Miami. The passengers who stay onboard are not rescreened and it takes off again. So before the plane gets to Miami, the bad guy stabs another guy to death in the lavatory. The Security guy told me it was feasible but not very likely.

But I had already slipped a steel plated knife into my purse on such a flight. I got away with it. I think I wrote a story like that which was published but I don't remember what anthology where it was published. Have no memory of which one. I'm fairly sure the statue of limitations on both of my crimes have run out. I'll plead not-guilty if ever questioned. 

 Airline knife next to
kitchen knife & scissors.

This was back when security was fairly lax & you got meals on long flights and nice metal forks & knives.

If I'm not mistaken I heard recently some guy used a plastic knife which he'd broken & made a shiv which he used to stab a flight attendant. Hope he didn't read my story 40 years ago to get the idea.

The Austin police dept used to have a Citizen's Police Academy program and as a student you attended a 4 hour class one night a week for 10 weeks. Ours were held at the actual police academy location.  I took the training in 1991. Each week a department head would give an hour talk on their department . The training began for citizens interested in becoming a neighborhood watch captain. But I applied as a mystery writer wanting to be as accurate as possible when writing about police work and I was accepted. Programs covered: White Collar Crime, Robbery/Homocide, Burglary, Firearms, Drugs Victim Services.  Firearms Specialist gave a demo of different weapons & Canine dogs went through their routines, both outside. Fingerprinting got us on a school bus & driven downtown to APD headquarters where we were printed and shown  how they read and reported on fingerprints. We were photographed  and saw how ballistics were done. And shown insider views departments at HQ, including homicide & the Top Floor bosses offices. 

Our two final classes were special.  For one each person was shown a scenario on a big screen, where you had to pretend you were an officer who'd received a call out to a crime scene. You also held a computerized gun which you pointed at the screen, not knowing what you might find. You were then to decide if the scene was a "shoot or don't shoot" situation. You had only 3 seconds or so to decide. Mine was a "shoot" at first, but by the time I pulled the trigger I shot the bad guy in the butt, because he stopped pistol whipping a guy,  then turned and was running away, which then made it, a "don't shoot" situation. It had became a pursue, catch and arrest. It had changed before I could see, understand, then decide, to shoot or not. You just how slim the time margin can be as the deciding factor for an officer.

We had a real graduation ceremony with invited guest & the APD Chief gave us diplomas (certificate) and could join the Alumni Association , which I did.

The other final item was to go in a ride-along in patrol car with an officer for a full 8 hour shift if you wanted to and I wanted to. You could chose a busy or  reasonably quieter sector of town which I did. I was paired with a gruff sounding but very nice officer. We only had two or three potentially dangerous calls. Only one was scary but turned nothing happened he had had me stay in the car.
I enjoyed the whole program. My late husband, Elmer Grape attended CPA and graduated in 1992 and it ran for several more years that I'm aware of, just not sure if APD does the program anymore. I do know you can no longer go on patrol car ride alongs because of insurance, privacy and such nowadays. Next time I'll clue you in on my exciting days & nights as an APD alumni member and getting to be a bad guy. 

In view of mother's day and to honor my mother, aka PeeWee Pierce, I must mention, my adventure at the corner grocery store when I was about 8 years old. We lived about one block from the corner, think maybe 4 houses in the same sjde of the street. I was given a dollar and also permission to walk to store and buy a candy bar. But I could only buy that one chocolate bar and bring home all my change. Mom emphasized only that one candy bar. But while there & looking at all the goodies I decided I absolutely had to have a package of dentyne gum. Naturally I finally slipped the gum in my pocket. Naturally Mom knew by the way I was acting that I'd done something. And am sure she could see the bulge in my pocket. I didn't get a spanking but I got a "talking to" which was worse than a spanking any day. Then I had to walk back to the store and tell Mr Parish what I had done, return the gum and tell him that I was sorry and that I'd never steal from him again. Boy, did that ever hurt my soul. 

Thank you, Mom for keeping from a life of crime. However, she was always proud of my fictitious lies. She read  enjoyed several of my published short stories and thrilled when I won an Anthony Award in 1998. She passed away only 4 days later and my first book wasn't published until 2000. She had read the almost final draft.  I love and miss you, Mom.

14 May 2023

To Mask or not to Mask, that is the Question: Spoiler alert, those who mask may not be criminals.

When the Mayor of New York city asked shoppers to remove their masks, it led to very worrisome conversations with many moving parts that need to be unpacked.

First, Mayor Eric Adams framed mask wearers as likely criminals by saying, “When you see these mask-wearing people, oftentimes it’s not about being fearful of the pandemic,” he said. “It’s fearful of the police catching them for their deeds.”

Second, it prompted many like Fernando Mateo of the United Bodega Workers of America, to weigh in with an assessment of the risks of COVID19 - despite having no expertise to do so - by saying, “COVID is over, let’s take the masks off.”

This conversation is being echoed in Canada as well, as can be seen from this quote by a guy who works in security with no expertise in COVID19, “We are seeing a lot of people who are up to no good keeping masks on, and I’m sure it’s to aid in their ability to do what they want to do.”

Let’s unpack the facts. If COVID19 is still a risk for hospitalizing and killing people, masks would be warranted and this makes the whole argument that only criminals wear masks a moot point. So, let’s start there.

Vaccines have helped reduce the harms of COVID19 but even those who have fully updated bivalent vaccines can still get infected. We are hoping for better vaccines that prevent infection but they are still in the works, so until the time they arrive, masking is crucial if COVID19 is still a risk and, indeed, it is.

In Canada, COVID19 is the second reason for hospitalization and the third cause of death.

So, the narrative that COVID19 is over and there isn’t a need to mask, simply doesn’t fit with the facts. When lives and health are at risk, facts matter.

In his statement, Mayor Adams suggests what he probably considers a compromise, by saying, “We are putting out a clear call to all of our shops: Do not allow people to enter the store without taking off their face mask… And then once they’re inside, they can continue to wear it if they so desire to do so."

This statement also misses the facts by a wide margin. COVID19 is an airborne virus and, in an area where many people removing their masks, the density of the virus would be significant, putting people at risk by breathing in enough virus to get infected.

When calling out inaccurate facts, I’d also like to call out bad takes, because Mayor Adams called people who wear masks as “being fearful of the pandemic.” and this is a call to remove masks and get infected when COVID19 is still a clear and present danger to the population.

There is a hidden bad take in all of this and it warrants some airtime: identifying who might be involved in criminal activity on first glance is fraught with biases. Much has been written about racial biases in policing and this call against masks puts those masking while not white at risk.

An article published in April 2023, presented findings showing that Indigenous, Latino, Pacific Islander and Black Americans all have significantly higher COVID-19 mortality rates than either white or Asian Americans when the data are adjusted to account for age distribution differences among racial and ethnic groups.

So, those more likely to be identified as criminals while wearing masks are also the same groups that are most in need of masking because they are most at risk.

Between inaccurate facts and bad takes, the conversation about masks and criminal activity is problematic. It may well be that criminals are using masks as a way to hide their identity but many are masking to protect themselves against an airborne virus that is still putting people in hospital and killing them. Conflating mask wearing and criminal activity is something I did not expect to be on our Bingo card for 2023, but here we are.

And let’s get personal – because it is for me – If my 6’ 3' mixed race son enters your store masked, do not tackle or taser him. He’s my child, trying to protect his parents – including his father who just had heart surgery – from COVID19.

13 May 2023

Mother's Day and Why I Crack Foxy

Perched atop my basement cabinet is a Maltese Falcon. 

Not the Maltese Falcon prop, understand, but it’s the same size as the movie dingus, the same regal pose, same black matte if less dramatically lit. I bought the thing off eBay complete with that needless sort of tack-on certificate that calls authenticity into question. The whole room is a nod to The Maltese Falcon, with replica period furniture and sidelight insets of Spade and Archer-style frosted glass. The reason behind the homage goes back long ago, to the woman who first encouraged me to dream.

My mom. She died in February.

Mom was always drawn to the creative, to art and architecture. She wrote histories of Louisville homes and reveled in garden design wherever she traveled—and over a lifetime she traveled her share. She loved plays, musicals, the orchestra, anything with a story. She read widely and constantly. Biographies were her staple, to feed her curiosity about what people did and what made them tick. Her tastes in fiction leaned toward literary--but only a lean. Mom could talk Poirot or Rumpole or Morse with anybody. Perry Mason was a favorite show, and maybe she had a little thing for Paul Drake.

One weekend, Mom and Dad bundled the whole family into the car and drove us to UofL’s Speed Art Museum. Young Me wasn’t exactly stoked over art museums. I was more of a dinosaur man then. Mom’s lure was that we would catch a movie. A black-and-white classic, she said, which did not boost Young Me’s excitement. Young Me wasn't getting a vote. There was a classic movie festival, and I was going.

To The Maltese Falcon.

I don’t know why Mom picked this particular festival that particular day. It occurs to me now that I never asked. That’s another thing about grief. You keep stumbling on so many half-stories and so many fuzzy memories you want to be remembered. There stays this shape of a loved one where they'd filled your life. I keep thinking it’s time to call her. And I can’t.

But I've long understood why Mom wanted her kids to see classic films. Because they were classics. Mom believed in a way of living. There was the world of family, of practical safeguarding and careful shepherding. Beyond that was the reason we're all here, a big world that we're to seek out. 

Life is a beautiful community, in her view, or at least it should be. People are meant to engage each other, to laugh and enjoy good company. To live well Mom’s way, you had to be up on events, on dance steps, on the classics. You had to be on the scene and conversation ready.

Plus, she liked Bogart. Of course, she did. Even the name is evocative a half-century later. Bogey made any story crackle. Young Me sure thought so watching him match wits with Astor, Lorre, and Greenstreet. That noir patter was corny--in a great way. These people snapped off terrific line after terrific line like champs in pro banter. This was gold, this stuff about black birds and sending up gunsels and birds cracking foxy. And anything could happen in this black-and-white San Francisco. Anything, even a sea captain bursting into Sam's office.

I spent the next weeks letting my imagination revel in Bogey and this character-palooza. Mom could've shut me down, and no doubt wanted to a few times, but she did what she always did. She egged me on. She'd put books in our hands as soon as we could read. When she spotted my storyteller's instinct, she bought me a notebook and asked me to write. 

It's only fitting on Mother's Day to thank her for that and being right about a million other things. This world is huge. Fascinating, and it can even be beautiful on its best days, with the best stories and best teachers to help us through. 

Last night I re-watched The Maltese Falcon for the umpteenth time, this time in her honor. I still think about that darkened museum theater whenever Sam Spade lands a wisecrack or my maybe-authentic Maltese Falcon replica makes me smile. My dingus has a few chips in it, but don't we all? So, yes, I enjoy the classics. Yes, sometimes I listened to my mother. Admitting stuff like that puts you in solid with the boss.

12 May 2023

Audiobooks Revisited

I like audiobooks.

Jim Winter’s May 5th column “Listen” about audiobooks took me back to my audiobook column of May 24, 2019, so I've updated it.

I used to listen to audiobooks primarily during my commute to and from work. Since retiring, I listen to more audiobooks – novels primarily but some non-fiction books. It gives my eyes a rest after writing on my computer and reading short stories in magazines and anthologies. Now that I think of it, I've listened to some short stories as audiobooks in collections and anthologies.

There are many audiobook mysteries from Hammett to Chandler, Elmore Leonard, James M. Cain, Cornell Woolrich Donald E. Westlake, Dorothy Sayers, Maria Muller, Bill Pronzini, and many others, including nearly all the works of Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes tales.

Most of the audiobooks I read come from my local library and from audible. Both allow me to expand my reading/listening as I also read a lot of historical fiction as well as science-fiction and young adult fiction.

Audible and amazon have a platform called ACX, which provides an outstanding way for writers to produce audiobooks, especially indie writers like me who own and control the audiobook rights to our books. I've 15 audiobooks available through ACX, a 16th in production.

I have recently binge-listened to an outstanding historical fiction series, the Norsemen Saga of Viking Books by James L. Nelson:

  1. Fin Gall
  2. Dubh-linn
  3. Lord of Vik-Lo
  4. Glendalough Fair
  5. Night Wolf
  6. Raider’s Wake
  7. Loch Garman
  8. A Vengeful Wind
  9. Kings and Pawns
  10. The Midgard Serpent

Stumbled on another delightful series, the Temeraire Books by Naomi Novik, about dragons during the Napoleonic Wars. Yep, historical fantasy books.

  1. His Majesty’s Dragon
  2. Throne of Jade
  3. Black Powder War
  4. Empire of Ivory
  5. Victory of Eagles
  6. Tongue of Serpents
  7. Crucible of Gold
  8. Blood of Tyrants
  9. League of Dragons

I will repeat my praise of the books of Adriana Trigiani, Ken Follett Kristen Hannah, and Edward Rutherfurd, as well as other great books like Isaac Asimov's brilliant Foundation trilogy – FOUNDATION, FOUNDATION AND EMPIRE, SECOND FOUNDATION. I listened to Harlan Ellison narrating his own stories – I HAVE NO MOUTH AND I MUST SCREAM, JEFFTY IS FIVE, DEATHBIRD STORIES which includes his Edgar Award winning THE WHIMPER OF WHIPPED DOGS.

Mystery gems like John D. Macdonald's A BULLET FOR CINDERELLA, and James M. Cain's THE COCKTAIL WAITRESS, and Cornell Woolrich's NIGHT HAS A THOUSAND EYES are available as audiobooks.

Is listening to an audiobook the same as reading the book? Yep. It's the same words.

If any are interested in my books on ACX/audible, here is a link to the listings on my website: (http://www.oneildenoux.com/audio-books.html)

That's all for now.


11 May 2023

Yes, But Is It HISTORY?

What good is a wet blanket against a cannonball?

Not THIS type of "wet blanket"

Yep. You read that right.

What good is a wet blanket against a cannonball?

We'll come back to that one.

Before I decided to try my hand at fiction, I spent a fair amount of time pursuing the tenure track as a "professional historian." I got my MA, published scholarly articles, and strongly considered going on to earn my PhD.

An actual blanket soaked in water

During that time I encountered all manner of apocryphal, anecdotal stories concerning the great and small, the wise and the foolish, the lucky and the unlucky. Some of them were just what they seemed: terrific stories, and nothing more, with little in the way of available evidence to support them. Others were well-documented with all manner of primary sources to serve as bonafides.

The ones that drove me nuts as a practicing historian were the ones I'd find in secondary sources, with primary sources to detail how exactly the incident in question came to be recorded, laid down for posterity, if you will.


Oh, and I should have clarified this earlier for those of you non-historians playing at home: when I say "primary," I mean a source who either witnessed or otherwise participated in the historical events being discussed. "Eye witness" stuff. A journal entry. A letter. A videotape. A blog entry/social media entry. "Secondary" means literally everything else: Someone at a remove of one or of several people in the communication chain. For example, if you're writing about your grandfather's experiences growing up in Seattle in the 1950s and using his diary as a reference, the diary is "primary," and your writing about it, "secondary."

The primary source can also be in certain instances, secondary, as well: like if your grandfather writes movingly about his father's experience as a young immigrant coming through Ellis Island a generation before the grandfather himself was born, your grandfather's account, even though it's related in a source that is mostly "primary" in nature, is in this case, "secondary."

Clear? Hope so.

With that clarifying digression out of the way, back to the type of history that drove me nuts as a professional historian.

Back when I was still working on my Master's (we're talking nearly thirty years ago now), I wrote a paper about the role of the Hudson's Bay Company in the exploration and settlement of the Pacific Northwest. I even got the chance to present said paper at a scholarly conference. I still have a copy. It was good work, solid analysis. I was pretty satisfied with it.

The only problem is that I had a series of events I wanted to include in my paper, but couldn't. Because I could only find secondary sources about them. These events culminated in a bloody confrontation between agents of the Hudson's Bay Company and members of a Native American tribe called the S'Klallam, in Dungeness Bay, on what is now Washington's Olympic Coast, bordering the Straits of Juan de Fuca on July 4, 1828.

I'm talking about the now infamous Cadboro Incident.

The Cadboro was a schooner built in England in 1824, bought by the Hudson's Bay Company, and sent to support HBC activities in the Oregon Country in 1826. The Cadboro will be important later.

As with many things, the causes of the so-called Cadboro Incident were many. The inciting factor though? Really just a single one. A man. a fur trader named Alexander MacKenzie.

MacKenzie was, like so many HBC employees in the Northwest at the time, a Canadian of Scots heritage who came out to the Oregon Country already an experienced fur trader. That's not to say he was good at his job, just that he had experience at it.

He was also possessed of a terrible temper and fiendish disposition. And of course, he viewed Native Americans as inferiors. This much shows in his actions.

In the Spring of 1828 MacKenzie was on a trading mission, having led a party of four men and a woman who walked from Fort Vancouver on the Columbia River, up to Puget Sound, and all the way to the territory of the S'Klallam (who were widely considered hostile to whites at the time). Once there, he hired two teen-aged S'Klallam boys to carry his party in a couple of canoes to several points in Puget Sound, then across the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Vancouver Island, and back to their point of origin at what is now Port Gamble, Washington.

Things did not go well. MacKenzie beat and cursed the two boys when they asked for their agreed-upon pay. That night his party was attacked and all four men killed, with the woman (presumably a Native American) taken captive. It was assumed the attack was undertaken by elders of the S'Klallam, the tribe to which the two boys MacKenzie had so abused belonged to.

The formidable Factor: John McLaughlin

When Chief Factor John McLoughlin, ranking HBC employee at Fort Vancouver, got wind of the attack, he dispatched the Cadboro to punish the killers and negotiate the return of their captive. After all, it would never do for local tribes to think they could kill HBC traders with impunity. Not only was it bad for business, there was also considerable outrage among the white denizens of the Oregon Country (British and American citizens alike) that Native Americans had dared attack a party of white men.

Long story short: the Cadboro arrived at the S'Klallam village on modern day Dungeness Bay, where it rendezvoused with a detachment of sixty-some HBC employees under the command of HBC trader Alexander Mcleod. After linking up, the HBC representatives entered into negotiations for the release of the kidnapped woman. The Cadboro carried three cannon onboard. In the middle of these negotiations, all three cannon opened up on the village.

By the time the smoke cleared the village was leveled. Forty-six of the tribe's canoes were destroyed. Twenty-seven people, men, women and children, were killed. The captive woman was "rescued" and a portion of MacKenzie's trade goods were retrieved. The Cadboro returned to Fort Vancouver by sea, and Mcleod's expedition returned south by the overland route, but not before burning another S'Klallam village for good measure.

Mcleod expected a warm welcome upon his return to HBC Headquarters. Instead the same superiors who had dispatched his force and schooner in the first place were put off by the actual extent of the punishment his men and the cannon of the Cadboro visited upon the S'Klallam. Apparently being too violent when meting out retribution was also considered "bad for business" by the braintrust running the HBC. It later cost Mcleod a promotion to Chief Factor.

I have found considerable evidence supporting the facts as related above regarding this incident. The problem? They're all secondary sources. I've looped in colleagues still in the business over the years: folks with tenure, who know the field, and they have had no more luck than I in tracking down any primary sources about the so-called Cadboro Incident.

So I couldn't justify using it in my paper all those years ago. And it's a shame, because this is a story that deserves to be told. And retold. And remembered.

Of course, I write fiction these days…

Oh, and the question above about wet blankets and cannonballs? The S'Klallam, not at all understanding the destructive power of a cannon, soaked their blankets in water and hung them from the walls of their homes in an effort to defend them from the cannonballs of the HBC.

Let that one sink in.

See you in two weeks.

10 May 2023


Harry Lorayne died last month.  He was 96.  Most people, if they were familiar with his name, would have thought, “Oh, the memory guy,” because that’s what he was famous for.  He’d tell you it wasn’t a parlor trick; he could teach you how to exercise your memory, and he did it in corporate seminars as well as on Johnny Carson – twenty-four times – I’ve Got a Secret, Merv Griffin, Mike Douglas, Good Morning America, the list goes on. 

For me, though, Lorayne was a close-up card magic guy.  He wrote ten or a dozen books about it, one of them, The Ha-Lo Cut, explaining his single most useful sleight, which is essential to performing Gary Ouellet’s show-stopper of an effect, Finger On The Card.  (This is inside baseball, Gary Ouellet another influential popularizer of close-up.)

A vocabulary note.  Magicians don’t perform tricks.  They perform effects.  And the dizzying variety of lifts, palms, forces, counts, spreads, peeks, breaks, culls, and false shuffles are called sleights.  Any given effect can involve one or many sleights. 

Buddy Karelis.  Buddy Karelis was a classmate and a pal of mine, who lived out in Belmont, a bus ride away.  We were both into magic, but we were at the age where we were more into gimmicks, not sleights, per se.  We were ten.  I can pinpoint this, because I remember watching Davy Crockett and the River Pirates together, a two-part broadcast event of enormous significance.  (Davy had gone down at the Alamo the year before, the Mike Fink riverboat episodes were a prequel.  Disney recognized a merchandising bonanza when it presented itself, coonskin caps, “flintlock” muskets, and lunch boxes, we had ‘em all.)  Buddy and I were gear freaks, always getting new stuff to show off to each other, a lot of it mail order: spring-loaded paper flowers that compressed into a wrist-held clip, and exploded into a full bouquet; Chinese boxes, where giant dice changed spots, as you slid them back and forth behind their doors; the baby guillotine, where a finger in the upper slot was magically unhurt, but dad’s Chesterfield in the slot below was sliced in half. 

Daddy & Jack’s.  Daddy & Jack’s joke shop was on Bromfield St., off Tremont, behind the Parker House.  Like its cousins, Little Jack Horner’s, and Jack’s Joke Shop in Park Sq., they were nervous about kids coming in, because the back of the house was adult novelties, but they were serious enough about magic to have guys behind the counter who could demonstrate effects.  A lot of the tricks were gaffed, like a Svengali deck, with shaved cards, so if you reverse a card, you can strip it out.  This isn’t magic, in the classic sense, because A) anybody can do it, and B) it’s no mystery how it’s done.  Magic is when the ordinary is made to do the impossible.  The punchline of a joke, the reversal of expectations.  The reveal.

                                      Carl Bertolino, house magician, performing at Little Jack Horner's:

David Reddall.  Dave Reddall, an adult pal of mine, and another mystery writer, as it happens, comes by the house one afternoon, and out of the clear blue, whips out a deck of cards and does – I don’t remember – maybe the Elmsley Count, or something like.  I’m watching with my mouth hanging open.  I haven’t done any magic in something like twenty-five years, and I’m astonished not only that he’s into it, but that he hasn’t said anything about it before.  It takes me back to Buddy Karelis and Daddy & Jack’s.  Dave is amused and gratified to find a kindred spirit.

On his recommendation, I buy a couple of Harry Lorayne’s books, basic sleights, passes, double lifts, shuffles, card control.  This of course leads to Erdnase, The Expert at the Card Table, as annotated by Dai Vernon – acknowledged by and large to be the best living card handler, at the time – and the book sets me back something like $75, which seems like serious money.  But what I come to realize is that I’m not particularly interested in performing the tricks.  I’m interested in the process, the method.  It’s the sleights I want to learn, the techniques.  I don’t care that much about fooling people. 

Looking back, I see a development, maybe what I’ve thought about before as The Approach To The Canvas.  I was just a kid when I saw Blackstone (Harry, Sr., not Harry, Jr.), and it was a marvel.  Years later, I saw Doug Henning, also a terrific showman.  But quite recently, I saw a guy named John Carney, who’s among the best current close-up card people (and who did in fact study under Dai Vernon), and I have to say, seeing somebody do close-up, in a fairly intimate setting, is enormously more satisfying than seeing a big stage show.  It’s not the circus, it’s just for you.


And watching close-up, literally close up, isn’t so much about being manipulated as it is being invited into the performer’s confidence.  There’s a sense of participation.  I might suggest a link to the notion of craft, that much of it could be said to be hiding in plain sight.