Wednesday, July 30, 2008
A few years ago, four colleagues and I went on a business trip to New Jersey. This was an exceptionally good business trip, because not only were we all friends, we also had similar interests and travel styles. We spent our days doing enjoyable work with good people and our evenings discovering such treasures as The Chocolate Cottage and The Parrot Place and giggling at the unusual business names (Gimpy's Funeral Home), the high number of strip clubs in the vicinity of our hotel, and the apparent inability of New Jersey-ites (New Jerseyans?) to make a left-hand turn. Only one of us had ever heard of, much less seen, a "jug-handle," and the one time we had to make five right-hand turns in order to turn left left us giddy. We loved it, from the 50's-style diners to the treasure trove of magazines on "Weird New Jersey." (We picked up a whole set, on the theory that they were chock-full of story ideas. Hey, maybe I should have written them off on my taxes!) Every night, we went to a different restaurant, each with delicious food and appalling service. Good thing we liked each other; none of our meals was less than an hour and a half long, most of that spent waiting on the server.
All in all, it was a delightful trip. But the high point of it didn't take place in New Jersey. It was on the last day, when we had almost a full day to call our own, and Cindi suggested we spend it in Philadelphia at the Mutter Museum of Medical Oddities. (To say Cindi loves museums would be an understatement; she once refused to enter the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History on the premise that she would never leave it and would have to live the rest of her life on food from the museum cafe.)
The rest of us were equally game, especially after hearing the rumor that the museum had Chang and Eng, history's most famous conjoined twins, in a jar. I have always been intrigued by conjoined twins, and while I realized there was probably something disrespectful about the public exhibition of their preserved body/bodies, if the museum really did have Chang and Eng in a jar, by George, I wanted to see it.
All I can say, is, if you've never been to the Mutter Museum, and if you are interested in the human condition (and what writer isn't?), then you should make it a point to put it on your list of must-sees. We got there early in the afternoon, and they practically had to push us out the door at closing time. This tiny museum was packed with stories, more than 20,000 artifacts, each one a glimpse into the web of life, death, and--if to be remembered is to live forever--immortality.
It is impossible to go through this exhibit without being forever changed by it. We are fearfully and wonderfully made; yet, there are so many ways the human body can go awry. Like the man whose 9-foot colon is one exhibit, looking, as one viewer phrased it, "like a sandworm from Dune." Looking at pictures of his distended belly, one can only imagine how it must have felt to go through life carrying this monstrous impaction.
There were wax models of flayed bodies, jars of miscarried infants at various stages of development and with a variety of medical conditions, a collection of objects (buttons, wedding rings, safety pins) taken from the windpipes of choking people, side-by-side plaster casts of a person with giantism and a person with dwarfism, a collection of medical instruments used throughout history, a collection of tumors and syphlitic organs, the brain of a murderer, and medical photographs taken to show the symptoms of a variety of medical conditions, including a wealth of information on conjoined twins.
Many of these exhibits are disturbing and haunting. The one that left the most lasting impression for me was a wall of skulls. Each was labeled with what was known about the person it had once belonged to. Most of them seemed so small. Some of the labels had only dates. Others had smidgens of personal information, like the thirteen-year-old boy who had killed himself over "a discovered theft" or the soldier found on a Roman battlefield. It struck me as terribly sad that this was all that was left of them. Then I realized that most people never even get this much. Here on this wall, there is some bond forged between me and a man who lived 2,000 years ago.
No, they didn't have Chang and Eng in a jar. They had a plaster cast of the twins and the preserved wedge of flesh, complete with attached livers, that had joined them. But after being immersed in so many stories, how could we have been disappointed?
Last week I walked from Le Meridien Hotel in MontParnasse to the Pont Alexander III Bridge, which overlooks the Seine. It was a beautiful day with partly cloudy skies and mild temperatures. On Monday mornings, tourists are few. A woman swept cigarette butts off the sidewalks. A bum quietly sat with his muzzled German Shepard.
I passed Les Invalides where its golden dome shields Napoleon, and flowers bloom between bullet-shaped hedges. Beyond it is the extravagant Pont Alexander III Bridge, which leads to the Grand Palais. To the southwest, Tour Eiffel stands as a sentry to the city. All three landmarks were originally built for the 1900 Universal Exhibition, and are must sees for tourists. And therein lies the problem.
Overlooking the Seine from the Pont Alexander Bridge is always a pleasure. Tour boats packed with waving people pass underneath as bridge people wave back. Most on the bridge are admiring the scenery, unaware of prowling illusionists. I was enjoying the scene when a woman in her late twenties approached and placed a men’s gold wedding band in my hand. First speaking in French, and promptly switching to English, she said she had found it in front of me, and insisted that I keep it as it would do her no good. Every time I tried handing it back, she closed it in my palm, insisting that it was good luck to find gold. She kept pointing things out on the ring to hold my interest, and as I felt the gold in my hand, I kept wondering who I could turn it over to. But the longer she spoke, the more I realized the ring wasn’t there until she showed up, and that’s when things started clicking. For a moment, she pretended to walk away, but then quickly returned saying she needed money for food. I don’t carry cash when I’m walking around, and I didn’t ask if she accepted Master Card. Of course, she wasn’t convinced that I was cash poor, so I emptied my pockets, coming up with my folding cheater glasses. She eventually left with her ring, leaving me to recapture my moment, but it never came. A quick glance at the opposite end of the bridge confirmed she was seeking another mark. I felt duped for having been drawn into her illusion.
On my way back to the hotel, my mind replayed the scene like an endless video loop. I wondered how many times the con artist would use her scam today, and how many would actually give her money. Ironically, the bum with the dog that I passed earlier was given food from an elderly lady for doing absolutely nothing. Maybe the girl should trade her ring for a dog.
Some may blame this incident on “the French”, but I assure you, we have plenty of con artists in the US. I chock this up as another credit from the school of hard knocks. At first, I believed the ring was real, just as you may believe the photo above is distorted. Actually, the photo is quite clear; just look at the sign post in front of it. But the French don’t believe in simple tarps while resurfacing buildings. Instead, they create masterful facades to mask their construction. Some are of sporting events, and in this case, it’s a distorted building. Feeling duped? Join the club! It just goes to show that no matter how street-wise you think you are, there will always be someone smarter. Hmm – sounds like there’s a story in there somewhere.
Tuesday, July 29, 2008
By Chester Campbell
I’ve always been a bit of a history buff, which I suppose contributed to my love of research. The problem, as any conscientious researcher knows, is that you invariably come across some interesting tidbit that has no relation to the subject. However, it seems too intriguing to pass by, so you’re off on a tangent.
When that happens, I try to find some way to work it into the story.
Take, for instance, when I went to the small town of Hartsville, about forty miles northeast of Nashville, looking for good places to commit a few murders. I always consult AAA maps and Mapquest and Google maps before making such ventures. I had found a likely spot along a bend in the Cumberland River and decided to check it out.
THE BATTLE OF HARTSVILLE
HERE, DEC. 7TH 1862,
1500 CONFEDERATES UNDER
GEN. JOHN H. MORGAN
SWIMMING THE ICY CUMBERLAND
SURPRISED AND CAPTURED
A LARGE FEDERAL GARRISON.
Though not a Civil War buff, I had heard of the famous John Hunt Morgan and his cavalry raiders. But I put that aside as I took a major highway south from downtown (in this area that means a nice, paved two-lane road). Shortly before reaching the river, I spotted a sign pointing toward the Battle of Hartsville Park. I detoured over to take a look.
I learned that Morgan’s advance had worn Union blue uniforms to fool the enemy sentinels. In less than two hours of fighting, the Confederate party of 1,500 had surrounded the Federals and convinced them to surrender, taking 1,800 prisoners. Casualties, dead and wounded, included 1,855 Union soldiers and 149 Confederates. Checking the battlefield maps, I found Morgan had placed his artillery across the river at the exact spot I planned to leave a corpse.
This had to go in the book. I had my protag, Greg McKenzie, visit the park and comment on the Union soldiers suffering their own Pearl Harbor, seventy-nine years to the day before Dec. 7, 1941. When he visits the murder site, he muses:
“Realizing a party of tired, half-frozen Rebel soldiers had fired cannons in this area nearly a century and a half ago, I wondered if any Confederate ghosts had lingered about Monday night when someone fired three shots into (the victim). If so, they weren’t talking.”
It was an opportunity to provide a little local color and add to the realism of the story. The moral: research is hardly ever wasted. If we look around, we can probably find a use for it. If not, hey, chalk it up to education. We can all use more of that.
Monday, July 28, 2008
It’s Stupid People Season in Arizona, particularly it seems, around Tucson. This time of year is also known as “Monsoon Season”, which the Fed wants to change to something like “Possibly Aggressive Sudden Storm Season”, I think because it gives the Fed a PASSS, but folks here are stubbornly insisting that our summer rains remain “Monsoon Season” even while they whisper under their breath it’s really Stupid People Season.
Because people do stupid things this time of year. And they die as a result of them.
Most people living in Arizona, it’s no secret, are from the Midwest. And Midwesterners are used to driving through water puddles. So they see a water puddle in the road out here, they attempt to drive through it.
This water is moving. Six inches of rapidly moving water will send your car to Mexico, no roads required.
“Well, then,” you say, “I’ll just get out and walk to the side.”
Even dumber. This water is moving sludge. Concrete-like. Fast setting. You’ll be buried faster than you can say, “Ulp!” And there’s quicksand, so while your mouth is being filled with Ready-Mix, your feet are sinking deeper and deeper. Plus, there are rocks and trees in the water. Bonk. You’re dead.
Just last week, some college dude was drinking with his buds. It was raining outside. Time to go home. Ignoring his friends’ pleas to wait out the storm, the kid left in his rice-beater. On his way home, he tried to drive through a moving puddle in the road, and his beater was thrust downstream a half-mile into a wash. Washgazers, which is what tried-and-true Tucsonans become when the washes are running – no telling what you’ll see ― yelled at him to stay in his car. But being young and male (which often means stupid), he chose to exit.
That was five days ago. The young man hasn’t been seen since. Officials are estimating his body may have traveled as many as twenty miles, and they’re saying his remains may be buried under the sludge, never to be found.
This scenario plays out almost daily during Monsoon Season. People just don’t learn. And rescuers are put at great risk. In an attempt to educate (or intimidate - you choose which) the public and save rescuers ― some of them are lost each year too ― the state passed The Stupid Motorist Law a few years ago. Yes, that’s its title. The Stupid Motorist Law says that if you enter a street that’s blocked off due to running water and a rescue attempt must be made to save your sorry... um... circumstances, you must pay the cost of the rescue.
You’d think having a law like this on the books would help. But not so anyone can determine. Every time it rains and the washes run, some idiot tries to drive the puddle and either has to be rescued or loses his life. And the amazing thing is you can see the wheels turning in some drivers’ heads. They’ll come up to the flowing water, right up to the barricade, hesitate, then slip forward a bit, stop, inch ahead again, stop, and then make a decision: Go for it or not. And of course, often there’s some idiot-in-training behind them blowing his horn, anxious to see if they make it.
Too often, people don’t make it.
But there’s a bright side to all this tragedy. When it’s raining during Stupid People Season, the local news staffs put their people on overtime. So much good television out there just waiting for the camera. Who wants to watch Keeping Up With The Kardashians, when there’s gripping real-life suspense on Channel 4? And it’s balanced news coverage; they show both sides of the wash.
But it’s not just the washes that make people stupid this time of year. Yesterday, three folks were hit by lightning. Ever see lightning during an Arizona storm? Looks like Thor’s really mad at somebody; he’s firing tracer bullets left and right. So what better time than one of these storms to repair the metal roof on your trailer, right? Or maybe it’s a good time to point a golf club to the sky and show how high a wedge shot is going. Somehow, these three people survived. One of the golfers can’t remember his name, even though he remembers his score.
Stupid People Season. It happens every year.
Saturday, July 26, 2008
Here’s a news story that warms my heart.
Children’s librarian Judith Flint, who is 56 years old and 4-feet, 10-inches tall, faced down five Vermont state police detectives who wanted to seize the library’s public access computers.
According to an Associated Press story, Flint asked the lead detective for a warrant. He said he didn’t need any paper. Flint said, “Show me the paper.”
That librarian would make a great protagonist in a cozy mystery series.
A bench at Wal-Mart is an ideal place for doing character studies, but for story ideas you can’t beat a newspaper. Many writers keep a file of newspaper clippings. To riff on a famous quote attributed to bank robber Willie Sutton, that’s where the ideas are.
John Dunning is best known for his Bookman mysteries, but early in his career his clip file included a story about a circus fire and a little girl whose body was never identified. Dunning wove that into a novel titled DEADLINE. His protagonist is a journalist who pursues such a story, connecting it to the story of an Amish girl who leaves home to become a Rockette in New York City. DEADLINE was nominated for a 1982 Edgar Award (Best Paperback Original Mystery Novel).
The past week saw a glut of news stories that could start a crime writer mumbling, “What if?”
*In Los Angeles, a 100-year-old fig tree in downtown L.A. has been designated a historic-cultural monument. What if – a tornado pulls it right out of the ground and there’s a skeleton buried there?
*Remember the slogan “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns”? In Pittsburg, a convicted felon up on federal gun charges argues that the law allows him to keep loaded guns at home for self-defense. Police found seven pistols, three shotguns and five rifles in his private stash. One might ask: Is he expecting a home invasion or World War III?
*In San Francisco, a brewer named Maytag is about to release another barrel of single-malt rye, 13-year-aged Old Potrero Traditional Pot Distilled Hotaling's Whiskey. It’s the only pot-distilled whiskey made in the U.S. and there are only five barrels left. There are so many what-ifs in that story I can’t count them on the fingers of one hand even when I’m sober.
*Here’s one that might have been dreamed up by a writer for “Boston Legal.” A bicycle thief rode the stolen bike onto the North Washington Street Bridge, jumped off the bridge into Boston Harbor, swam to shore, and ran down a harbor walkway before the cops caught him. I’d like to hear James Spader argue that case.
*Or how about the Wiccan in Indiana who ran a three-foot sword into her foot while performing a good luck ritual? The ceremony calls for candles, incense, a full moon and driving a sword into the ground. What if -- a love rival had been standing just a little too close when the sword came down?
*Now that airline service is so unpredictable, a business traveler has created the Mini-Motel for sleeping in airports. For $39.95 you get a little tent, air mattress, pillow, reading light and alarm clock. What a great way to make new friends. Didn’t Tom Hanks star in that movie?
*The story of the week, the month, the year, comes from Belgrade – the capture of
Radovan Karadzic, former Bosnian Serb leader wanted for war crimes but hiding in plain sight since 1998. Karadzic masqueraded as an expert in “human quantum energy,” gave lectures, appeared on TV, and wrote for an alternative medicine magazine. He walked around with a $5 million bounty on his head, but he had business cards and a Web site. He was arrested while waiting for a bus.
There’s a ready-made thriller for a writer like Daniel Silva and his protagonist, Gabriel Allon. And by the bye, MOSCOW RULES, Silva’s latest story of international intrigue, launched this week.
*One more airline story: American Airlines is installing a missile defense system on three of its passenger jets. CNN quotes “experts” who say 500,00 to 700,000 shoulder-fired missiles are abroad in the world, some selling for as little as $5,000. The JetEye defense system works by detecting a heat-seeking missile and firing a laser to divert it.
Makes you want to take the train, doesn’t it? Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest, Murder on the Orient Express …
Friday, July 25, 2008
Recently losing my daughter to cancer was the worst experience of my life, but having a daughter murdered and subsequently suspected of the crime has to be off the endurance chart. I’m referring to the JonBenet Ramsey murder and the additional tragedy that followed.
Six-year-old JonBenet was found by her father in the basement of their Boulder, Colorado, home the afternoon following Christmas 1996. Her mother reported to police that she had found a note on the stairs demanding the unusual amount of $118,000. The note said the little girl would be returned the next day if the money were delivered. The Ramseys called police, who reportedly treated them as suspects from day one, although their voluntary handwriting samples bore no resemblance to that of the ransom note.
JonBenet’s parents took the two-and-a-half page note seriously and set out to raise the money, but the call they expected never came. Meanwhile, serious mistakes were made by local police. Investigators failed to seal off the area or make an effort to protect forensic crime scene evidence. They also neglected to conduct a thorough search of the house until later that afternoon when Detective Fleet White accompanied John Ramsey through the house to search for anything unusual. Starting in the basement, Ramsey found his daughter in a seldom used room, according to the London documentary, Who Killed JonBenet?
Because no footprints were found in the snow, police and local media assumed the murder was an inside job, although a basement window latch was broken and a portion of the Ramsey’s yard contained no snow. An intruder could have gained entry through the window and made his way up the carpeted stairs to JonBenet’s bedroom, one floor below that of her parents.
The Ramseys were under constant scrutiny and rumors were rampant they had killed their daughter. Even their nine-year-old son Burke was suspect. Because JonBenet was a beauty pageant contestant, her parents were accused of sexually exploiting her. Following her funeral in Atlanta, the Ramseys were aware of their sole suspect status, to which Ramsey replied, “The police weren’t there to help us, they were there to hang us.” However, all allegations against the Ramseys proved groundless. That didn’t stop the host of a major talk show from conducting a live murder trial, complete with judge and jury. The “jury” decided the Ramseys were "liable for the wrongful death of their daughter JonBenet."
There isn’t room here to discuss the entire case, but the point I want to make is that investigative blunders must have contributed to Patsy Ramsey’s unfortunate death. She announced to a group of friends at a Christmas party that she had overcome a recurrence of ovarian cancer, and that her husband John had been named “Boulder’s Businessman of the Year.” The couple’s happiness was short-lived when, three days later, their daughter was found murdered. The accusations and stress that followed undoubtedly contributed to Patsy Ramsey’s death.
John Ramsey not only lost members of his family, he suffered incredible pain. He took the news of his murder clearance by Boulder officials ten years after the fact with the grace of a true gentleman. My heart goes out to you, John. #
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Interestingly, while these communities are packed with people, crime is not tolerated. Why? Because squatters tend to look out for each other. Mess with your own people and you’re cast aside. Being alone in Shanty City is a fate worse than death.
Every day is a struggle for these people. They know nothing about a switch giving light, a flushing toilet, or purified water pouring from a tap. Refrigerators aren’t necessary, for they have no source of reliable electricity, and there is little money for food. To the children, discarded trash is a gift. Their knowledge of new products comes from newspapers or magazines blown their way. But when the sun sets, these families all gather together, grateful they made it through another day.
I've been wracking my brain for a topic this week, so I asked Mary Beth, our Project Monitor at work, if there was a mystery-related topic she'd like to read about.
"Yes," she said. "Why does it always have to be about murder?"
"It's because human life is so high-stakes," I said, (or wish I'd said; I'm much more eloquent after the fact than I am in real life, which is probably why I'm a writer and not an orator). "It's easy to care about who killed Colonel Mustard and if our hero/heroine can stop them before they garrote poor Miss Scarlett. It's harder to be invested in who stole Grandma's china tea set."
There are no stakes higher than human life.
Still, because I am by no means an expert in these things, I went in search of a better, less simplistic answer. My quest began, as so many modern searches do, with a bit of creative Googling. After several false starts, I stumbled across Murder Most Fair: The Appeal of Mystery Fiction, Michael Cohen's treatise on why we enjoy mysteries. While the book is not exactly about why mysteries almost always involve murder, he does touch on the subject of why so many of us enjoy reading about murders (rather than about, say, tea sets).
Please note that these are my interpretations of one small part of Mr. Cohen's much more comprehensive work, which I'm sure he'd love you to explore in more detail by buying his book. Here are a few possibilities he offers for the pleasure we derive from reading about murder.
Premise #1: Reading about murder appeals to some lingering emotions passed down from our primitive ancestors. Cohen suggests that we all know how it feels to want to hurt someone, even if only for an instant, and that when we read mysteries, we not only identify with the protagonist, but also, on some uncomfortable level, with the villain . But we quickly distance ourselves from the villain, who is portrayed as being so bestial that the protagonist is justified in defeating (or even killing) him. Thus, we can indulge our primitive thirst for violence while feeling good about our identification with the hero. There may be something to this. How many of us derive a feeling of satisfaction from the mind-numbing violence of a Schwartenegger movie, once we've been convinced of the absolute badness of the bad guys, who are so bad they deserve whatever is coming to them?
Premise #2: We read murder mysteries for catharsis, to evoke and then banish our fear of death. Cohen says, "Such stories acknowledge that death exists by showing us a murder, but they also find its immediate cause in the murderer, and by eliminating that one deadly agent, they seem to eliminate the threat of death itself." Cohen goes on to suggest that the popularity of the modern mystery may reflect a need for a larger, cultural catharsis, where we fear not only for ourselves but for society as a whole. I wrote about this very thing a few weeks ago, and both of these ideas seem true to me--or at least for me. Reading mysteries banishes the bogey man, who always gets caught in the end.
Premise #3: We're all a bunch of sadomasochists who enjoy the suffering of others. On this point, I have to disagree. I've had the pleasure of meeting a lot of people who read and write mysteries, and by and large, they are the kind of people who scoop up spiders and gently put them outside, who will get out of a warm bed at 3:00 AM to pick up a friend whose car has stalled in thirty-degree weather, who not only do not take pleasure in the suffering others but are utterly horrified by it. In all fairness to Mr. Cohen, he didn't seem all that convinced by this idea either.
So why does it have to be murder? Maybe because nothing else evokes the depth of emotion of this one despicable act. Maybe because it is the one thing that threatens that which is most precious to us all: life itself.
Monday, July 21, 2008
I’ve been busy plotting murder all day.
Why? Well, why not? I’m a murder writer, aren’t I? Besides, I’m tired and frustrated. Did three hours at the skeet range two days ago and six hours at the rifle range yesterday. Can’t seem to hit a damn thing.
So somebody’s gotta go. I’m due for some joy.
So who? Hmmm…
The cat’s out; my wife would plop me on the rack, fire up a butane torch, and roast and pop my joints like popcorn. Might ruin my whole day.
What about the skeet-tender kid, who laughed until he cried when I pumped my shottie, aimed and fired, not realizing I hadn’t loaded up? Yeah, that was a real hoot. My friends loved it. I’ll be hearing about that one for years. But no doubt the kid shoots better than me. Heck, I think people in Power Chairs probably shoot better than me. No, I’m better off tracking the kid and seeing if I can inject some nicotine into his Gummy Bears. That’ll take some time.
I need more immediate satisfaction.
How about I go back to the gym and pay that lady back for her rude comments while I was gawking in the Nautilus Room? I mean, c’mon, she was on the chest augmentation machine. And so what if I slobbered a bit? My “Yeah Baby!” wasn’t directed at her. I told the manager Stairway To Heaven was just on my iPod. Not my fault he couldn’t find it listed. He didn’t have to throw me out. Maybe I’ll sneak back in and drop a steel plate on that lady’s head while she’s doing sit-ups. Oops. Slipped. Better her than the manager, huh? He’s ripped. Oh wait, so is she.
Back to the drawing board. I’ll get my Charles Atlas supplements, beef up and then go back to the gym. Maybe I’ll get a bag of sand. Sorta goes with the Charles Atlas thing, don’cha think?
No. I’ve got it! There’s a two foot Gila monster living under my front bridge. We call him Helio. Every day or so, Helio the Gila monster goes for a little stroll through our wash. I’ll just grab him and take him to the gym, drop Helio in the Nautilus Room, and then watch the fun begin. Cool. Maybe this time I’ll actually load Stairway To Heaven onto my iPod, so if my exultations are suspect, I’ll just point to Steve Jobs’ little thingee.
Uh… How does one pick up a Gila monster?
Uh oh, here comes the pool guy. Gotta go alert my wife. The pool guy was supposed to care for the pool while we were on book tour, and we came back to find it green. Not good. Very, very bad. So last week, we laid in wait, watched the pool guy sign in and then leave after not doing anything. So my wife spent four hours shocking and cleaning the pool, while I watched American Gladiators, ate chips and salsa, and generally supervised. So now, my wife’s got a mad on for the pool guy. And when she’s angry, my wife makes Medusa seem like Betty White.
“Honey! HONEY! Here comes the pool guy.”
Sorry. I gotta go now. Wifey’s got the machete, and as she walks she’s rubbing a stone across its blade. A blinding flash as shiny steel catches the sun.
“Here, dear,” I say. “Let me get the hose.”
Saturday, July 19, 2008
I have no real experience with dead bodies. That’s why I decided to write cozies. The really nasty stuff takes place offstage.
Even so, I can’t ignore it entirely. What’s a murder mystery without a murder and a mystery behind it? Who, how, why?
I started FULL CIRCLE from Scratch Minus One and was enrolled in online writing classes the whole time I worked on it. When I finally got around to a murder victim, I set the scene in some detail.
The protagonist climbs a circular staircase to the tower of an old jail converted to a bar. It’s based on a real jail/bar. I’ve made that climb to the tower so I felt confident that I got it right:
“The stairway was narrow and winding, and halfway up I stopped to get my breath. No more midnight rambles for me. Music coming up through the door downstairs bounced off the walls. Doody-wop-doody-wop …”
On the class bulletin board the instructor wanted to know what the scene smelled like. Smelled? I didn’t have a clue. Someone suggested a sickroom smell. Someone suggested the smell of vomit. I hadn’t vomited in at least 30 years (and then only after some jerk slipped me a Mickey Finn) but the memory never goes away. I added this:
“I went on up, stopping at the top to call again. Heard nothing. Smelled something, a sick room smell. I forced myself to take a small step inside the room. … I ran to her, got down on my knees, and turned her over. She lay in vomit, her eyes open and staring, her face pale, distorted. I sat back on my haunches, my eyes watering from the smell.”
Here’s where I need a little Twilight Zone or Inner Sanctum music. I swear I’m being coached from another Dimension. Once I conquered vomit, I went out for a hike around the neighborhood. I turned onto a cul-se-sac and saw a huddle of people at the end of the street.
Some primitive instinct for self-preservation kicks in at such times. I stood stock-still. Goose bumps jumped up on my arms and turned them to ice. Finally someone left the huddle and told me an elderly couple had been murdered. A florist delivering a bouquet looked through a window in the front door and saw the bodies. I went home and added this to the scene in the tower: “Goose bumps jumped up so high on my arms that my whole body felt cold.”
Later on, when another dead body turns up, a character merely says, “Whoo-ee! Musta been a big rat died up here!”
Don’t blame me. I’ve already told you I don’t have much experience with dead bodies.
I read somewhere that a writer should evoke all the senses on every page. That sounds like sensory overload to me, but it’s something to consider. James Lee Burke, one of my favorite authors, has a gift for it. He may work as hard as everyone else but you’d never guess, given the rhythm and cadence of his words. The reader simply comes upon a lovely passage, such as this one from IN THE MOON OF RED PONIES:
“The wind was up, balmy and smelling of distant rain, denting the alfalfa and timothy in the fields, puffing pine needles out of the trees on the slopes. The two sorrels were running in tandem across the pasture, their necks extended, their muscles rippling. In the distance I could hear thunder echoing in the hills.”
Is there a sweeter smell than distant rain? “Whoo-ee! Musta been a big rat died up here!” just doesn’t compare, does it?
Friday, July 18, 2008
I’ve always been fascinated with bank robberies. The first U.S. bank heist was committed August 31, 1798, at the Bank of Pennsylvania’s Carpenter’s Hall. Nearly $163,000 was stolen from the vaults, which would currently amount to nearly $2 million, if not for devaluation. No forced entry was found so authorities assumed it was an inside job. One of two men charged with the crime died of yellow fever two days following arrest. Some might call it poetic justice.
The biggest bank robbery in U.S. history occurred 199 years later when two men stole $4.46 million from the Seafirst Bank in Lakewood, Washington. They hauled off 355 pounds of cash stuffed in canvas sacks, their 28th successful heist. Their accumulated wealth totaled $7 million. One would assume the robbers were geniuses to have alluded arrest for so long, but one man was stopped for speeding with 1.8 million in cash in his car as well as safe cracking tools. His partner neglected to pay the rent on his storage building and the owner found similar amounts of money and tools before notifying police.
Professional bank robbers, according to Corvasce and Paglino, in their book, Modus Operandi, will keep the bank under surveillance for some time before attempting a robbery. They’ll also video tape the bank’s location as well as the teller stations. Only a quarter of lone robbers display their weapons although they threaten the teller that one will be used if they don’t cooperate. Some have threatened to kill customers although very few actually do.
It seems that lone bank robbers are the rule, and they’re nearly always captured. We’ve seen them in the news wearing disguises, or using gimmicks such as Candice Rice Martinez, the 19-year old cell phone bandit, who robbed four Virginia banks for $48,620 in 2005. Her boyfriend, who drove the getaway car, helped her spend most of the loot on a new Acura and two large screen TV sets. It must be tough to get a bank loan when you’re only 19.
Two FBI agents arrived at my desk one morning at a San Diego newspaper office. Dressed as though they had stepped from the pages of GQ, they smiled and asked if I were interested in helping them capture a cross-eyed bank robber. One of them whipped out a grainy bank photo of a stocky young man with dark, curly hair. He was dressed in a nylon jacket and baggy pants. One hand held his jacket at an angle as though he had a gun, the other was stuffed in his pocket as he left the tellers cage. He reminded me of one of the Marx brothers although I could not see his eyes. I took the agents’ word that they were crossed.
Someone who read the article informed police that the robber had checked into a rehab center immediately after the heist. And he wasn’t cross-eyed, after all. He was a Vietnam veteran who had lost one eye in combat, which had been replaced with a glass orb.
For some reason, I wasn’t happy about aiding and abetting his arrest.
Thursday, July 17, 2008
My father told me he heard the distinct thumping of a helicopter hovering close by. For weeks, California has been battling horrific wildfires, and with the continued extreme dry and heat, there was a good possibility that another fire had erupted. Dad’s interest was piqued by the lack of smoke plumes, and the helicopter hovering in the same proximity as my fictitious helicopter in Diablo’s Shadow. He had to wait for the Ten O' clock News to find the answer.
As it turns out, the police helicopter on scene was supervising a man convicted on circumstantial evidence of killing his wife, lead officers to where he said he had buried her. Sure enough, the woman’s body was unearthed, right where he pointed. Apparently, the killer, who lived near the park, presumed that he couldn’t be convicted without a body, so he took advantage of the park’s remoteness, and started digging. But as in a scene from a true crime tale, justice prevailed, and the bastard was convicted anyway. I suspect that his leading police to his wife’s grave was part of a plea bargain. After all, why else would his lawyer accompany him? But wouldn’t it be great if they had just tossed a rope over one of those tall pine branches and saved the California taxpayers a lot of money? Better yet, make it a package deal and throw in the lawyer! (Just kidding, Ben.) Sadly, only fiction writers can get away with such things—but that’s the beauty in writing. And that’s also why readers love our novels.
This isn’t the first time that police have found a body in an East Bay regional park, nor will it be the last, but it’s also what makes Redwood Regional Park the perfect setting for Diablo’s Shadow. Of course, the chances of something happening while walking through a park are remote, but none of that matters if you happen to become the next victim. So, the next time you’re trekking through a forest, beware, for the sounds you hear may not be coming from branches clanking in the wind . . . Can you dig it?
Wednesday, July 16, 2008
I've been thinking about villains today, and one thing that really stands out to me is this: hardly anyone thinks he is one. Take Darth Vader. He's not out there thinking, "This is me, being the villain." He's thinking, "This is me, helping build an empire while getting even with all those jerks who didn't appreciate me back when I was a Jedi."
Or take Voldemort, the over-arching villain in J.K. Rowling's best-selling series about Harry Potter. Voldemort doesn't believe he's evil. Heck, he doesn't even believe in evil. He believes he's entitled, superior, and above all, wronged. He's just taking what's rightfully his. The Harry Potter books are chock full of villains who don't believe they're villains. Lucius Malfoy thinks he's preserving the purity of the pure-blood mages from the coarse Mud-Bloods. Toad-faced Dolores Umbridge (in my opinion, one of the most horrifying villains ever written) doesn't see herself in the black-hat role. She's standing up for order and tradition, defending the Ministry of Magic against the forces of anarchy. And you can bet that Harry Potter is not the hero of their stories. In Voldemort's mind, he's the hero. In Dolores Umbridge's mind, she is.
Of course, technically, the main character is the protagonist, who may or may not really be a hero. And the antagonist is anyone who stands between the protagonist and his or her goal, regardless of his morality. He may be a perfectly nice guy who wants to drain the marshland for perfectly good reasons. But in a mystery, the villain is usually a true villain, meaning his or her motive is generally a selfish one. I don't mean he or she has no redeeming qualities, only that the murderer in a mystery very rarely acts for altruistic or noble purposes - except maybe in his or her own mind.
So how do you make an effective villain? It's no good to make a Snidely Whiplash-style villain who twirls his curly moustache and thinks of wicked ways to kidnap the girl and foil the hero. This type of two-dimensional (or even one-dimensional) evil is rarely effective. Nor does it help much to show Snidely patting a stray dog on the head on his way to foreclose on a house he doesn't even need. Such tacked-on "good qualities" are rarely convincing, because they don't seem like part of the character.
On the other hand, Thomas Harris did a magnificent job of making the serial killer, Francis Dolarhyde, both terrifying and sympathetic. We feel for the child he was and are horrified by the monster he became, and Harris made us believe that one could easily have become the other. How? By showing us how the boy was tormented by his schoolmates because of his cleft palate, and later, how he was physically and emotionally abused by his grandmother. Harris made these scenes real, and later, when we see Francis's tenderness toward a blind woman, we understand why he takes comfort in her company, why he needs what she has to offer, and why he inevitably misunderstands her motives. None of this excuses Francis's actions. He's a villain, but he doesn't see himself that way. There are perfectly logical reasons (to him) for everything he does, even though any sane person could clearly see that his actions are evil. But because his actions grow out of his own perceptions, he is a believable villain.
That, I think, is the key. No matter how evil your villain, no matter how horrific his acts, he believes in what he is doing, and that makes us perceive him as rounded and real.
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
Early in the process of writing my latest book, I decided on the title The Marathon Murders. At the time, I had no idea how many murders would occur or who all the victims would be. Since the story revolved around a man missing in 1914, I knew the identity of the first victim, but not how he died.
In his Bump ‘Em Off, Eh? blog yesterday, Ben Small mentioned several methods of dispatching people who needed killing. I wound up using different methods for each murder but didn’t consciously plan it that way.
As a “seat of the pants” plotter, I let the story develop as I write. The characters move the plot as they do their own thing.
I didn’t get very far into the Marathon story until somebody was pulling a body out of a lake. Hmm, I thought. How did he die? At first it looked like a blow to the head. To be sure, I turned to the mystery writer’s favorite medical forensic guru, Dr. D. P. (Doug) Lyle. I emailed him with the situation my characters found and asked a few questions. He sent an answer and referred me to his website for more elaboration. All things considered, it turned out the guy had drowned.
Two more murders occurred in the book before Greg and Jill McKenzie could lay the case to rest, but based on the circumstances, they were pretty straightforward.
In yesterday’s blog, Ben mentioned a book on poisons that provides plenty of fodder for writers trying to decide how to kill. I bought two of Dr. Lyle’s books, Forensics for Dummies and Murder and Mayhem. The latter is subtitled “A Doctor Answers Medical and Forensic Questions for Mystery Writers.” It is organized under three main headings: Doctors, Hospitals, Illnesses, and Injuries; Methods of Murder and Mayhem; and Tracking the Perp.
The good doctor has revised his website since I last visited. Now www.dplylemd.com has a section called The Writers Forensic Community where questions from authors and Doug Lyle’s answers are archived. He also has a section with articles of interest to writers written by himself and Lee Lofland, a former cop who has a blog called The Graveyard Shift that is a goldmine of police info (www.leelofland.com/wordpress).
The goal of all this, of course, is to make our fictional murders sound authentic. As Dr. Lyle says in one of his articles, “To write a good mystery that will keep the reader guessing to the end, you must plot the nearly perfect murder.” Deciding what makes it nearly perfect is the writer’s number one task.
Monday, July 14, 2008
We all know somebody we want to bump off. Maybe the woman who waited to get to the Exact Change toll booth today before rooting around for change. Or maybe the father who brought his six screaming kids to McDonald’s and parked them at the table next to me. I do not enjoy having to dodge flying fries while I’m trying to eat a Grease-Burger. Or what about the woman who sat next to me on my last flight? She weighed over three hundred, I’ll bet, and she’d doused herself in chemicals I’m sure the EPA have outlawed. Getting up ― no doubt so she could splash on more Skunk-Scent in the bathroom ― she rocked the seat ahead of her so hard, she gave the poor schlub sitting there whiplash. You can imagine my thoughts about her return.
Why not just bump these folks off before they become a menace to society… or more particularly… me?
The problem is: How do I get away with it? There was that famous Hitchcock play where the little ole lady bumped off her hubby with a frozen lamb shank, and then fed it to the investigating cops. But how many times can one get away with that? And how does one keep the lamb shank cold when on the road?
Last week, I spoke about the problems of using a gun. Sure, one can get around these problems. Use cotton gloves to load your bullets and fire the thing, wear long sleeve shirts, ear and eye protection, and use a drop-in barrel in a semi-auto. But that’s all so much trouble, and even so, somebody may still see or hear you plug the deceased.
Chester suggested a smudge pot. Would that be called a “Smludgeoning?” Chester, we need to explore that crime a little further. Jean suggested a bathtub drowning, but what if the offender is bigger or stronger than I am? I’m not into role reversal here. Trevanian used a credit card, but that’s close-up work – kinda messy. Charlie Chan once investigated a series of murders where the killer put venom on a needle which was inserted into a doorknob or vending machine slot, or something like that. But how practical is that, Charlie?
Maybe I need to get in touch with my feminine side. Lucrezia Borgia got a bad rep, I’m told, but she may have been on to something. I picked up Deadly Doses, a Writer’s Guide To Poisons, by Serita Deborah Stevens and Anne Klarner. Remind me not to have dinner with either of these ladies...
Seriously, a handbook of poisons should be on every murder writer’s bookshelf. All sorts of interesting info. And what could be better, if one truly has a murderous heart, but to sit and watch your target die an agonizing death? How fun! Pass the popcorn.
Sunday, July 13, 2008
Today’s guest blogger is Doug M. Cummings, who spent eight years as a Kansas deputy sheriff and the next twenty-five as a television and radio crime reporter. He is the author of the Reno McCarthy crime novels, the most recent of which is Every Secret Crime (Five Star/Gale), just out in June. He can be reached through his website at www.everysecretcrime.com.
By Doug M. Cummings
My latest book, Every Secret Crime, is about a TV reporter who puts his life at risk to solve a series of murders in an upscale Chicago suburb.
I searched my memory for experiences that would illustrate similar risks I’ve taken, first as a law enforcement officer and, later, as a crime reporter in television and radio.
I spent my first two years of eight on the sheriff’s department riding with senior deputies. Larry was my favorite partner. As easygoing as he could be, nothing ever riled him. Until we stopped at a chain burger joint one day for lunch and the kid working the drive-up window tried to kill us.
Larry and I were talking as we waited for our food. He stopped in the middle of a sentence and said, “I’m not believing this. Check out the mirror.”
We were parked in such a way that we could see a reflection of the preparation table. The kid put a burger on a bun. I watched a little longer. Saw him take another burger off the stove top with tongs, turn around, dip it in a sink filled with soapy water, give it a swipe with a dirty towel, slap it on the bun and throw on some cheese. He wrapped both McDishwaters, dropped them into a bag and brought them to the window.
Larry was furious. He stormed into the restaurant, demanded to see the manager on duty and arrested the kid for trying to poison us. The charge didn’t stick, of course, but my resolve did. I haven’t eaten at that chain in thirty years.
Several weeks later, in plainclothes this time, I went to lunch at a new Italian joint with the department’s legal advisor and another deputy, also plainclothes. The waitress brought our orders and we dug in. I was enjoying the meal until Joe, ever the eagle-eyed lawyer, pointed to my plate, laughed and said, “What’s that? Looks like a toenail.”
This time, I was furious. Out came the I.D. wallet. The terrified waitress brought over the flustered owner. We all trooped to the kitchen and nearly gave the cook, the owner’s sixty-five year old mother, a heart attack. The owner almost wept he was so embarrassed. He apologized. He swore he had no idea where the toenail originated. In the middle of the kitchen, he whipped off his shoes to show his untrimmed nails and ordered his mother to do the same. Before his daughter took hers off, I demanded a container for the toenail, seized it as “evidence” and left muttering words like health department and newspaper.
It wasn’t until we were in the car headed back to work that I realized (a) I had clipped my nails two nights before and (b) the sport coat I was wearing had probably been on the bed beside me when I did.
We seriously considered driving back so I could apologize. Really.
Speaking of driving, as a young TV reporter I often hung out with our station’s news photographers. I wanted to learn their craft so I could add another skill to my resume. One night, I was partnered with Steve, the youngest and most eager of the camera guys. We covered a meeting and were returning to the station after getting footage of a high-school football game when an armed-robbery call came out at a local pizza place. We were only a couple of blocks from the joint so we headed there, knowing our ten-o’clock anchor loved to lead his newscast with crime stories, even run-of-the mill stickups.
As we pulled up, however, I noticed two things that would make our coverage of this robbery a tiny bit different than usual.
The crooks were just leaving the building.
We’d beaten the cops to the scene by about ten seconds.
As an aside, I should point out that television stations back then, as now, provided their photographers with vehicles that resembled unmarked police cars.
All the crooks heard and saw was a collection of official-looking Fords, with us in the lead, rushing toward them. They opened fire, jumped into their own car and sped away.
Steve, pissed at the bad guys for shooting at us and eager to get some video, took off in pursuit. What he failed to consider was the order of vehicles: bad guys’ car (with guns), followed by our car (no guns), followed by police cars (with guns).
Sirens wailed. Lights flashed. More shots exploded.
Steve grabbed his camera. I grabbed the wheel from the passenger side while he leaned out the driver’s window far enough to tape the fleeing felons, then pretzel around and catch the cops in pursuit.
Since I was trying to cram my entire body under the dash, wondering if the chili-dog I’d eaten at the game was going to come back to haunt me, I steered us over a curb, through a fence and into a muddy yard. Conveniently, that allowed Steve to get a wide shot of the bad guys banging away and the cops speeding past, with an officer in the lead car returning fire. Several blocks later, the bad guys crashed their car and the police took them into custody.
Of course, the cops were thrilled by our participation in the chase. So were our bosses.
The police expressed their gratitude for our assistance by issuing us four tickets (who knew “driving from the wrong side of the vehicle” was a traffic offense?).
The station manager barred both of us from driving station-owned cars. Forever.
The video aired on our newscasts and even made it to the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. Because Steve, professional that he was, had tape rolling as we arrived at the scene, my first astute observation was included for the entire world to hear:
“Hey, do those guys have guns?”
Saturday, July 12, 2008
I can’t remember my first major crush on a fictional character. Not that it was so long ago, but there have been so many of them.
Linda Fairstein’s Mike Chapman, Lawrence Block’s Toby Peters, J.A. Jance’s J.P. Beaumont, for starters. Other characters whose company I enjoy are Hazel Holt’s Mrs. Malory, M.C. Beaton’s Agatha Raisin and Carola Dunn’s Daisy Dalrymple. They’re like old friends. No matter how long it’s been since my last visit, I just pick up where I left off. It’s as if time stands still between books.
Basically, that’s what happens, no matter how real the characters seem.
I interviewed Stephen Booth shortly after BLACK DOG, his debut crime novel, became an international best seller. The interview is still in the Spotlight archives at the Sisters in Crime-Internet Chapter’s web site. Here’s what Stephen said about creating characters:
I love creating the characters and the setting. They are all completely real for me, and I can see Ben Cooper and Diane Fry going about their lives in Edendale quite clearly.
The easiest part is the dialogue, which just flows. This is because I can hear the characters talking—it's almost as if I'm back to be being a journalist, desperately trying to record a conversation as fast as I can…
I love it most when I'm asked about the characters in my novels, because it means readers are responding to them as if they are real people, which is what I'm aiming for.
Sometimes I've been asked what happens to a character after the novel is finished. Strictly speaking, they just cease to exist, of course, but it's a shame to spoil the illusion.
Sometimes the illusion is strong enough to confuse fact and fiction. The late Katherine Shephard called her mysteries “faction”—fact-based fiction.
Before her death, Katherine had written two novels in what was to be a series. In FRATERNITY OF SILENCE and BETRAYED BY SILENCE she blended romantic comedy and mystery, with politics as the backdrop.
She was a bright spirit, as a person and as a performer, and she really connected with an audience. I attended one of her library presentations. As usual, she got a variation of the question: "How did you make the leap from writing political speeches to writing fiction?" She took a beat and said, "What leap?"
It cracked us up and led her into the story of "the mole in the hole," or how she got the idea for her mystery series from overheard conversations in the women's restroom at a political convention. She wrote about political corruption but her books were so warm-hearted, even cozy, that the politicians she wrote about apparently were flattered, not offended.
There’s been an interesting discussion on DorothyL about Shakespeare’s use or misuse of history and geography. As someone pointed out, Shakespeare wasn’t writing history, he was a storyteller.
To quote The Bard himself: “The play’s the thing.”
Friday, July 11, 2008
Our regular Friday blogger, Jean Henry Mead, has been called away on a family emergency. During her absence, her spot will be filled by guests or one of the regulars contributing an extra essay for the week. Today Pat Browning gives us an interesting look at a senior TV private eye, the late Buddy Ebson. The photo shows Buddy and his wife with Pat some twenty years ago.
By Pat Browning
Remember Buddy Ebsen? Sure you do. Davy Crockett … Jed Clampett … Barnaby Jones …
But before those long-running TV shows, he made a string of movies, and before that he was a Broadway star. Until he put on a coonskin hat for “Davy Crockett” he was first and foremost a song-and-dance man.
In “Barnaby Jones” (1973-80) Ebsen played a private eye who came out of retirement to solve his son’s murder. A YouTube video has Ebsen explaining how he went from Jed Clampett to Barnaby Jones. He supposes that network executives sat down in a back room to think of a private eye they didn’t already have.
In that hey-day of the private eye, TV shows featured a fat PI (Cannon, 1971); a lame PI (Ironside, 1967-75); a blind PI (Longstreet, 1971-72). Other hit PI shows were Mannix (1967-75), Harry O (1973-76) and The Rockford Files (1974-80).
Ebsen supposes that network executives huddled in a back room and said, “What haven’t we got? A mature private eye … somebody over 39.” Ebsen draws out the word “mature” in his trademark folksy manner, and gets a big laugh from his audience. For all we’ll ever know, that explanation is as good as any.
Ebsen was 65 when “Barnaby Jones” began, 72 when it ended. He never retired. Check him out at imdb.com. He apparently guest-starred in every TV show on the tube. He took up painting and wrote a book or two. By the time he died at age 95 you might say had tried everything once and some things twice.
Anyone curious about the ins and outs of 20th century show business should read Ebsen’s memoir, THE OTHER SIDE OF OZ. The photos alone are worth the price of the book.
There are a couple of good YouTube videos of Ebsen at his youthful best. He was 6’3” tall. In a clip from “Broadway Melody of 1936” he’s dancing with Judy Garland, whose head was about level with a point above Ebsen’s elbow. In a clip from “Captain January” (also 1936) he’s dancing with Shirley Temple, whose curly top is about even with Ebsen’s belt buckle. Didn’t matter. His moves were so smooth that he made the routines look easy.
I met Ebsen in 1985. He was promoting a Shakespearean festival. I was freelancing for a travel trade journal. His age was beginning to show, but he was still Barnaby Jones in the flesh, and still a trouper. When he saw my $60 point-and-shoot camera, he didn’t turn a hair. He simply struck a pose.
He did, finally, get frail and white-haired and snaggle-toothed, but once upon a time—oh, how that man could dance.
Thursday, July 10, 2008
By Jaden Terrell
Recently, on a listerve I subscribe to, there was a rather passionate discussion about Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter novels. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the books (Darkly Dreaming Dexter and Dearly Devoted Dexter), the protagonist, Dexter Morgan, is a blood spatter specialist for the
There are those who love the books, those who can take them or leave them, and those who know these books just aren’t their cup of tea. Then there are those who call the books “torture porn” and say anyone who enjoys them must be a little sick themselves. I think they’re missing the point. I don’t know anyone who enjoys Dexter because of the graphic descriptions of the horrors he commits on his victims. In fact, I suspect a lot of them skim or completely skip those parts. I know I do. And yet, they have to be there.
Dexter only works as a monster commenting on the nature of humanity; but if it were not for the extreme tastes of his “Dark Passenger” (his name for the dark urges that lead him to kill), he would not be a monster at all. In fact, one might argue that, if he dispatched his victims quickly and painlessly, he would be a hero. Because, while in real life, vigilantism is a bad thing, in fiction, it’s what heroes do. Think Jack Reacher. Think Joe Pike. Think John Connolly’s Charlie Parker and his assassin friends Louis and Angel. Killers all, but in the name of justice and protecting the innocent. It's Dexter’s enjoyment of his victims’ suffering that makes him a monster.
The appeal of Dexter is that he is an outsider observing and trying to understand what it means to be human. His wry, yet wistful observations of human behavior give us pause because they are fresh and funny, yet true. Then there are the contradictions: Harry insists that Dexter is a good person inside and tries to give him a moral compass, but are Henry’s actions those of a moral man? Dexter insists that he can’t love anyone and has no emotions; yet is obvious to anyone reading his words that he loved Harry, that he loves his foster sister, and that he is at least fond of several of his co-workers. He cares about his “girlfriend’s” children. When he recognizes aspects of himself in one of the children, we sense that he will try to pass on Harry’s “gift” of an artificial conscience to the boy. Disturbing as this is, isn’t an artificial conscience better than no conscience at all?
There are no real Dexters out there. This is probably a very good thing. But these questions of morality and conscience are good things too. They are, in my opinion, what Dexter really all about.
Wednesday, July 9, 2008
His real-life adventures shame our big-screen action heroes. How many others have witnessed the Italian naval bombardment of Beirut in 1912, camped with Lawrence of Arabia, and witnessed the Russian Revolution? Grandpa met his wife in China in 1915, where she was a missionary teacher for girls and he also was a teacher and coach at the boys’ school. He was the foreign correspondent for the Christian Herald from 1916-1918, covering events in China, Russia and Armenia. He escaped from Russia in the spring of 1918, traveling with the Czechoslovak Brigade by rail across Siberia to Vladivostok. On arriving back in the United States, he immediately was commissioned an Army officer and sent back to China with his bride, whom he married in September 1918. Upon being released from his military attaché duties in the spring of 1919, he joined the National Geographic Society as chief of the NGS foreign journalists. In 1923, he was in Egypt, reporting on the opening of King Tut’s tomb. (See photo.) His amazing photos from his travels now grace the walls of many homes. Few owners of his photos have any clue as to the incredible history behind them.
The French Citroen-Haardt expedition, traveling by motor car for nine months across Asia from Beirut to Peking, was his favorite journey. He was the expedition’s photographer, and its only American, and his photos appear in a series of NGS 1931-1932 articles. Between 1918 and 1955 he published more articles and photographs than any other journalist/photographer ever has, or will, in the National Geographic magazine.
Conditions were rough in the early 1900s, but to Grandpa Williams, getting the story was worth every hardship. In The Tomb of Tutankhamen, he wrote, “There is drama in the very air of the place, and I want to be there recording it for the Geographic.” In a letter to Geographic assistant editor John Oliver la Gorce, he said, “It is costing much money here; a thing I regret. But you will get your money's worth. My legs curse you. But my heart says, 'Thank you'.” Whether disassembling a vehicle to cross a river and reassemble it on the other side, live in tents under the worst conditions, or travel by horseback or yak, his pursuit for bringing the world closer remained his first priority. His work was worthy enough for his alma mater, Kalamazoo College, to confer an honorary Ph.D. for literature in 1935, and, after his death, to offer an annual prize in his name for the best creative nonfiction article written by a student. Yes, Grandpa, you were one of the best photo/journalists of your era. I only wish I could have known you better.
When Grandpa retired in 1955 he became a cruise lecturer aboard the S.S. Independence, captivating audiences for eight years with his tales and lantern-slide photographs showing scenes of places passengers would visit, as they crossed the Atlantic Ocean. There is no doubt that my self-described “camera coolie and a roughneck” grandfather could have inspired the character “Indiana Jones.” In 1948, he wrote associate editor Gilbert Grosvenor, “Never grieve for me if it is my good fortune to die with my boots on, that's what I most hope for.” In 1963, his wish came true when, camera in hand, the "Curse of Tutankhamen" worked and he died suddenly from a brain aneurysm in Antalya, Turkey. He is buried in the Protestant Cemetery in Istanbul, close to Rumili Hissar, where he and his family lived by the Bosphorus for several years in the 1920s. Turkey was the perfect location for God to take him.
So, perhaps it was fate that I follow in his footsteps, traveling the world as I do. I never expected to set foot in China, India, or the UAE, but I consider it a privilege to go there. Like my grandfather, I share my impressions through my photos and writing; through I limit mine to posts on my web page. Even so, I’m sure he’s smiling at me.
Tuesday, July 8, 2008
I haven’t indulged in any scientific study of the subject, but it seems to me that in crime fiction the most popular motive for murder is greed. I say that using the dictionary definition of greed: “An excessive desire to acquire or possess more than what one needs or deserves.” Most often it involves money in some form or another, but it could be almost anything, including somebody else’s wife.
One of the classic Bible murders occurred when David got his henchmen to arrange the death of Uriah. That left him free to marry Uriah’s widow, Bathsheba. James M. Cain used a similar plot (sans henchmen) in The Postman Always Rings Twice.
Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon is a classic tale of greed. All the killing is done in an attempt to acquire the supposedly ancient black bird.
Another popular fictional murder motive is revenge or retribution. This has spawned the good guy killer fad seen most notably in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher novels. The hero doesn’t consider them murders but retribution for injustices to himself or other friendly characters.
Interestingly enough, this type of rationalization is similar to that of the schoolyard killers. At Columbine and Virginia Tech, the students rationalized that they were punishing other kids who had bullied them, ostracized them, made fun of them, or generally made them feel unwanted. In the fictional world, authors make sure their targets are painted black enough that there’s no doubt “they deserved it.”
Actually, rationalization is the balm that most murderers use to justify what they’re doing in their own minds, even when they know it is against the will of the law and society. They become determined to do it anyway.
I say most murderers, because there are always the psychopaths—serial killers. These guys (and a few gals) are so egocentric and socially disconnected that they know what they’re doing is right. Nobody else matters, so what’s to rationalize? Psychologists say there are plenty of them around. Fortunately, only a few drift into the murderous category. Except in fiction.
In the real world, according to a statistical analysis I saw, 37.7 percent of murders are motivated by arguments. Most of them, I suspect, are family arguments. "Other motives," whatever that means, accounted for 22.5 percent, "Unknown" 16.5 percent, "Robbery" 10.1 percent, "Narcotics" 7.1 percent (I suspect this is higher now as the analysis was several years old), and "Other felonies" 6 percent.
So why do they murder? If you’re writing a novel, they can do it for any good (or bad) reason you can dream up. Just try to keep it believable.
Saturday, July 5, 2008
Talk about timing. CHASING DARKNESS, Robert Crais’s latest Elvis Cole novel, opens with a forest fire. The book launched July 1, and on that day more than 1400 fires were burning in California.
While forest fires are a fact of life in Southern California, June saw an outbreak of fires that literally set the state ablaze.
Crais has a good YouTube video for readers who like to hear authors talk about their lives and why and how they write. Here’s his comment on opening the new book with a forest fire: “The horror of fire is that it cleans out the old and uncovers things.”
Crais says that he began writing the Elvis Cole novels after his father died. Writing was therapy for him. Here’s a comment I especially like:
“Books are a very, very personal art form. They’re a collaborative art form like no other. When you look at the book, it’s actually not a completed piece of art. The art isn’t completed until the reader reads it.”
Some other examples:
The dust raised by the American Indian Movement (AIM) in the 1960s and ‘70s has never settled. While I was reading Margaret Coel’s THE GIRL WITH BRAIDED HAIR, American Indians were marching through Oklahoma on their way to Washington, D.C.
Coel’s book is fiction, but it’s about a crime on Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation where Lakota leaders find refuge with Arapahos after the ill-fated occupation at Wounded Knee. Years later, discovery of a skeleton stirs up old angers that lead to more murders.
In the real world, today’s AIM members are following northern and southern routes from California, planning to join up on July 10 or 11. They hope to meet with congressional leaders to address environmental issues, as well as legal battles over mineral rights and ancestral lands.
Meanwhile, in Austria, a Nazi war crimes suspect has created a furor by showing up at a soccer game. He’s 95, and his defenders say he “should be allowed to live out his days in peace.” Shades of Inspector Rebus!
I just re-read for the umpteenth time Ian Rankin’s THE HANGING GARDEN. In this one, Rebus pursues an accused war criminal who has lived a long and apparently blameless life in England since World War II. Another character says to Rebus:
“You are not investigating the crimes of an old man, but those of a young man who now happens to be old. Focus your mind on that. There have been investigations before, half-hearted affairs. Governments wait for these men to die rather than have to try them. But each investigation is an act of remembrance, and remembrance is never wasted. Remembrance is the only way we learn.”
Those books resonate with me not only because of ties to recent or historical events, but because they speak to the human heart.
Friday, July 4, 2008
Ever wonder how novelists decide which of their characters to kill? I was recently forced to kill a character I loved because I had written myself into a corner. I was so upset that I had to stop writing that day. I then remembered something Benjamin Capps once told me during an interview:
“Probably no reader of mine ever felt so strongly [about the storyline] or shed a small tear unless I had already done so in the writing.”
Emotional investment in a writer’s characters is undoubtedly what makes a novel successful. If an author doesn’t really care about his characters, why should the reader? But how involved does a writer have to be to make his readers care? That’s a question someone much smarter than I am will have to answer.
I do know, however, that many of us live with our characters 24/7, until the book comes to a conclusion. Then it’s hard for me to let go, which is why I like writing a series. The characters to whom I’ve given birth can age right along with me, unless, of course, I’m forced to whack them.
After covering a police beat for eight years and writing about the worst aspects of human nature, I decided to write a senior sleuth series. Shirl Lock & Holmes features two 60-year-old widows; one a private investigator’s wife, the other a mystery novel buff. The friends are literally forced to discover the identity of a compulsive murderer, who is alphabetically doing away with their friends . By literally, I mean they realize their own names are on the killer’s list.
In the second novel, I placed them in a motorhome in the midst of a Rocky Mountain blizzard. I then killed one my character’s sister, but the reader doesn’t get to know her until her diary is found and read throughout the novel. I didn’t shed a tear until the last entry was read.
I like my main characters because they’re witty and sassy, according to one reviewer, and I could never bring myself to knock one of them off. But anyone who threatens them in any way is in big trouble in my book. I’m also a compulsive killer. (Literary, that is.)
Thursday, July 3, 2008
In a previous blog, I wrote about my novel's link to an actual Colorado case, but looking back, I realize it was really the Petaluma, California, kidnapping that took place a few blocks from my sister’s home that struck a nerve. My two girls were quite young at the time, but my sister’s girls were close in age to Polly Klaas. October 1, 1993, Polly was abducted at knife-point from her bedroom where she and a friend were having a slumber party. Her friend was tied up, but otherwise unharmed. Many mistakes were made by police and sheriff's officials, including one questioning the abductor and then releasing him. Sadly, Polly’s body was found on December 3rd. For two months, her parents agonized over whether they would see their daughter again. The candle in their window was snuffed the day they learned of Polly's fate. Diablo’s Shadow is about the emotional roller-coaster that my characters ride when their child is missing, and like Polly’s parents, decide to replace fear with action.
As the saying goes, those who don’t remember the past are doomed to repeat their errors. In this sense, some positive elements have come from several real child abductions. In the case of Amber Hagerman, kidnapped while riding her bike near her grandparents’ home in Arlington, Texas, police were quickly given a description of the vehicle and a partial description of the abductor. Local media immediately broadcast the event, but it wasn’t enough to save Amber. Her body was located four days later. Still, her memory lives on through the creation of the AMBER Alert. “America’s Missing: Broadcast Emergency Response” is a nationwide program to immediately broadcast abduction information. Today, with nearly everyone carrying cell phones, the possibility of finding an abductor before a child is harmed is significantly enhanced. The Polly Klaas Foundation, formed after her abduction, has counseled over 6900 families on ways to find their missing children. John Walsh raised the consciousness of nearly every American during his nationwide appeal to find his son, Adam. Although Adam’s life was robbed, John Walsh’s efforts resulted in him hosting America’s Most Wanted; a show he helped create to capture our nation's worst criminals. In this sense, all of these victims and their families have made significant contributions to aid in children’s safety.
I didn't write Diablo’s Shadow to compare it to any of these tragic events. For me, it was merely a novel way of resolving my own fears of losing a child, and allowing my characters to work through their crisis, as so many victims’ families have bravely done.
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
I fall into the outliner category. Part of this is because I have no sense of time, and with no outline, I would have my detective being in two places at once and responding to clues before he finds them. Part of it is because I find it easier to write the story if there’s already a shape to it.
An outline is the writer’s armature. With the shape of the story laid out, the writer can concentrate on the details—emotions, sub-plots, and character development. Some writers use detailed outlines laid out with Roman numerals. Others scrawl out quick plots on the backs of cocktail napkins. Julia Spencer-Fleming writes until she “finds the story,” then outlines the remainder of the book. I use index cards, writing brief descriptions of the scenes I think I’ll need, each on a separate card. When I can’t think of any more, I put them in what seems to be a workable order and begin to write. The advantage of this method is that, as new ideas come to me, I can discard, replace, or rearrange the cards. My “outline” is in a constant state of flux.
Maybe it’s just a way of convincing my left brain to give up control, since I often find myself in uncharted territory. My muse calls out, “Hey, wait! I have a better idea!” and we’re off, strewing plot cards behind us like a trail of breadcrumbs.
Tuesday, July 1, 2008
I realize this is risky business. Who knows who might read this and call the cops on me. I assure you, however, that all the murders I plot are strictly on paper. Honest Injun—hmm, that’s probably not PC, either (oh, well, if I’m gonna get in trouble, I might as well get in deep).
The question is, how does a mystery writer go about plotting a murder?
The answer to that one is easy for me. I don’t. Since I’m not an outliner who works several chapters or a whole book ahead, I don’t know about the murders until they happen. The first homicide that occurs in The Marathon Murders, my fourth mystery featuring senior PIs Greg and Jill McKenzie, caught me by surprise. I knew the guy was missing, but I didn’t know what had happened to him until Greg and Jill found his house in disarray.
Okay, sure, I wrote it, but you get immersed in the characters and what they’re doing, and suddenly—BAM—there’s a dead guy in the lake.
Did the murderer plot it? You bet your bippy, but I didn’t know who it was at that point, so don’t blame me.
I suppose I do plot in one respect. I just do it backwards. After finding the body in the lake, I had to go back and figure out who did it and why? Come to think of it, did I do that, or was it Greg and Jill? I’m not sure, but before I could get all that straightened out, the murderer had done it again.
This plotting business, or plottingless, if you please, can easily get out of hand. That’s why I try to keep my hands off and let the characters work it out. Well, not strictly hands off. After all, what they are and what they do comes through my fingers, but you know what I mean.
I suspect there are lots of others out there who work the same way I do. So the next time you’re reading a book and run into a few bodies, you may be learning about it at the same time the author did. We don’t set out to be murderers, you know. It just happens that way.