Saturday, October 30, 2010

Something To Say

By Pat Browning

Growing up, I thought everything had been written. Who could top the King James Version of the Bible, the plays of Shakespeare, the novels of Charles Dickens?

In grade school, a teacher stood at her desk and read Longfellow’s poem “Evangeline” to us. I sighed and cried over it, but I thought of it as a fairy tale, not a story about real people. It would be years before I met Cajuns who lived on a Louisiana bayou, the poem made flesh, so to speak.

In junior high school the boys lined up for Zane Grey’s westerns even though the teachers didn’t accept book reports on such novels. I would be middle-aged before I read a Zane Grey book and realized what a good writer he really was.

In high school English class we read Beowulf, the Old English epic poem by an anonymous poet, and Canterbury Tales by Chaucer. Chaucer’s language fascinated me. I still remember “Whan that aprill with his shoures soote/The droghts of march hath perced to the roote.” Translation: “When April with his showers sweet with fruit/The drought of March has pierced unto the root.” Not nearly as musical as the original, and loooooong before my time.

In college I was put into an advanced freshman English class where we each got to choose one book to study for an entire semester. I chose John Steinbeck’s THE GRAPES OF WRATH, probably because the novel and movie were only whispered about in Oklahoma. I fell in love with Steinbeck’s writing and eventually read everything he wrote, but at the time GRAPES OF WRATH had nothing to do with me. I didn’t know any of those people.

The day would come when I moved to the part of California where Steinbeck lived while getting material for his novel. I would end up working on the local newspaper with a woman whose family had come from Oklahoma just like the Joads, and lived in an Okie camp, just like the Joads. She was a good writer and a good friend whose mantra – “The Lord will provide” – comes to mind almost daily.

Tme and fate led me to Dorothy Baker, who was beyond famous when I met her in late l962. Baker had literally been there and done that in the literary world. In Paris she had met and married Howard Baker, a poet, critic and novelist who became a citrus rancher in the rural Fresno area.

The Bakers taught and wrote, together and separately, but it was Dorothy Baker’s 1938 novel, YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN, that really made a splash. Loosely based on the life of jazz musician Bix Beiderbecke, it became one of 1950’s hit movies. She was back on the citrus ranch when she wrote her fourth novel, CASSANDRA AT THE WEDDING, the story of a young woman who tries to sabotage her twin sister’s wedding.

Baker was a careful writer. CASSANDRA AT THE WEDDING appeared more than 20 years after YOUNG MAN WITH A HORN. Reviews were mixed, ranging from “a perfect novel” (London Observer) to “a crushing disappointment” (Time magazine.) To me it was a revelation. Cassandra, the book’s narrator, drove home from Berkeley on the same roads, past the same fields, that I now drove to reach Baker’s house. Suddenly here was a piece of work from a famous writer that mirrored the here and now of my own life.

As a new stringer for The Fresno Bee I showed up at Baker’s door expecting to be awestruck, even intimidated. Instead, I found her company to be as comfortable as an old shoe -- no airs, no archness, no visible trace of vanity. She talked about famous people she had met, good books she had read, her writing technique, how she sometimes sat for hours before typing a single line.

My clipping of that interview is brown with age but still readable. The best quote from Dorothy Baker: “A writer should have a thorough understanding of what the Greeks call the ‘recognition scene,’ that moment when a character has a revelation, an insight that will change the course of his life and the course of the story. It’s a basic technique.”

Toward the end of our chat I confessed that I had written a brief memoir, hoping to turn it into a novel, but I was stuck. She dismissed it with a wave of her hand. “Don’t worry. If you have something to say, you’ll say it.”

Life takes its own sweet time. It would be almost 40 years before I finally had something to say and time to say it. FULL CIRCLE, my first mystery, was set in a fictional version of a small Central San Joaquin Valley town. A fictional version of the here and now of my life, as many first novels are, I self-published it in 2001.

In 2008, Krill Press, a small start-up press, picked it up and republished it, after some revisions and a new cover, as ABSINTHE OF MALICE. Best of all, the publisher put it on Amazon’s Kindle, where it has sold almost 400 copies in this month of October.

It was nine years after the book’s first publication before the brief memoir that started it all finally made it into print. “White Petunias,” about growing up in Oklahoma, had been revised periodically because I liked it too much to throw it out.

In 2007 “White Petunias” won second place in its category in the Frontiers in Writing contest sponsored by Panhandle Professional Writers, Amarillo, Texas. In 2009, after more revisions and polishing I submitted it to the RED DIRT BOOK FESTIVAL ANTHOLOGY: OKLAHOMA CHARACTER. In 2010 the anthology finally appeared in print. In the words of the Grateful Dead, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

And in the words of almost everyone who ever entertained a deep thought, “It’s not the destination that matters, it’s the journey.”
Photo of Dorothy Baker by Patricia Cokely (Browning), 1962

Friday, October 29, 2010

Carola's Dunn's a New Murderous Musings Blog Team Member

by Jean Henry Mead

The author of more than 50 novels, Carola Dunn was reared in England, where the majority of her books have taken place. Still others have been set in Belgium, France, Spain and Russia.

Her first novels were Regencies but she later gravitated to mysteries. "The genre I started my writing career with, Regency romance, is basically very English, with an English setting for most books. So when I started to write mysteries, though I'd been living in America for a good many years, my mind had been dwelling in England at least part of that time. It seemed natural to continue with an English setting.

Her Daisy Dalrymple series, set in the 1920s, is intimately entwined with her story and characters, as is her new Cornish series. "My new series is set in Cornwall. I've never lived there but from about the age of eight, family holidays were always spent on the North Coast, every summer and often in the spring, too. My sister now lives on the other side of the county, on the bank of the River Tamar, so whenever I'm in England I return. Cornwall holds many happy memories for me. "

Her Daisy Dalrymple series is written against a backdrop of England’s social changes, which make for an exciting setting for murder and mystery. "So many young men had been killed in the First World War that women were able to keep the non-traditional jobs they had occupied during the war. There was a constant struggle between those who thought the world should return to the way it had been prewar and those who embraced the changes. The class system was still strong, but crumbling at the edges."

Her new Cornish series is set in the 1960s, also a time of change. Britain had more or less recovered from the Second World War. "The Empire was supplanted by the Commonwealth, the 'affluent society' was in full swing, and young people proclaimed their distrust of anyone over thirty. In my books, the setting, both time and place, is always intimately entwined with the story and the characters. They can't be separated. As times change, people act and react differently, so though the motives for murder may remain much the same, the results can be radically different."

Carola wrote her first book in 1979, sitting at the kitchen table with a pile of lined paper and a ballpoint pen. "I'd never taken any creative writing classes or read any how-to books, but I used to get good marks for essays at school and I've been addicted to reading since a very young age. As I was lucky enough to sell that first manuscript--once it had been typed--I thought I'd better strike while the iron was hot. So I wrote another, and just kept on at it. Which is not to say I've avoided various vicissitudes. The big one was when both the publishers for whom I was writing stopped publishing Regencies within six months of each other. But that was a great incentive to switch to a different genre, so I'm not complaining."

Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer were her role models when she began writing Regencies, "for the sense of the period and the sense of humour." Her mysteries have been compared to those of Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, Margery Allingham and PG Wodehouse,  who influenced her writing. She also lists Josephine Tey, Patricia Wentworth, Ngaio Marsh, Michael Innes, "and many other authors from between WWI and WWII. Perhaps the most significant way they've influenced me is in demonstrating that mysteries can be driven by character and motivation as much as by clues or detailed descriptions of bloodshed."

The novelist writes six days a week, with Sundays reserved for laundry and gardening. "I used to take an hour off for lunch but I discovered I never got much written in the hour after lunch, so now I take two and run errands. I usually quit around 5 pm--quit sitting at the computer, that is. My brain is on duty 7/24. Ideas are as likely to pop up when I'm walking by the Willamette or waking up at 2 a.m.

When asked whether characters or plot are most important, she said, "For me, characters, whether I'm writing or reading. A book may have a fascinating plot but if I don't care about the protagonist, I can't be bothered to read it. And as I spend 24 hours a day with my characters (yes, I do occasionally dream about them), I prefer to have my head inhabited by people I like."

She's never prepared a detailed outline, but most of her books have been sold on the basis of a 7-10 page outline. A few have had no outline or synopsis at all. and with her novel, Sheer Folly, she wasn't sure till the next to last chapter who the murderer was or how her protagonists could solve the case.
Carola advises aspiring writes not to take lists of rules too seriously. "Somerset Maugham said, 'There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.' (Or words to that effect.)

Second, to be a successful writer, you need three qualities, Talent, Luck and Persistence. You can get away with two out of three. But the only one you control is Persistence."

Carola's articles will appear here the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

Her website: where she occasionally blogs.

You can also find her on Facebook.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Deadly Dinner

By Beth Terrell

This past Saturday evening, Tony Burton of Wolfmont Press hosted A Deadly Dinner in Calhoun, Georgia. I was one of eight authors there to participate in something akin to speed dating for authors. Eight authors, eight tables. At each table were a group of guests who had, for a variety of reasons, paid to have dinner with us. Even though I'm not well known enough to draw a crowd like this all by myself, and even though the three-course meal may have been the main draw for several of the guests, it was a heady feeling.

The event was held at the Harris Art Center, where volunteers had set up round tables elegantly draped in white and labeled with a number from one to eight. My fellow authors and I were each given a "super-secret, highly confidential" number (mine was 5), and as Tony introduced each of us, we went to the table with the corresponding number. This is the part that always makes me nervous (What if they don't like me? What if I can't think of anything to say? What if nobody else can think of anything to say?), but of course, everyone was charming, kind, and generous. Every fifteen minutes, Tony would tap his wine glass, and the authors would switch tables (since I had 5, I went to 6 next, then 7, and so on). Interestingly, each table had a character of its own. Some groups were interested in the writing process, others in the journey to becoming a writer, and some in other topics altogether. At one table, we talked primarily about horses. At another, we talked about teaching and education. At one, we discussed our favorite authors (present company excepted, of course). I also got a chance to trot out my new pen name--Jaden E. Terrell--and felt gratified when the responses were favorable.

After each author had made a complete circuit, we signed books and chatted with individual guests. I bought a book from each of my neighbors, both cozies, which I don't usually read. I chose one because I loved the cover and the other because the protagonist is a guardian angel named Augusta. Since I had a great-aunt Augusta, and she was the closest thing to a saint I've ever known, I knew I couldn't leave without that one. Especially since the title included a Jabberwocky. How can you not buy a book called "The Angel and the Jabberwocky Murders"?

I thought about that on the way home. I think of my book as appealing to people who like hardboiled PI novels, but just as I bought two books I wouldn't normally read for wholly personal reasons, there may be people who don't like PI novels, but who love Nashville-based stories or horses or children with Down Syndrome. Or modern-day cowboys or men named Jared. I've read that one of the first things you should do when coming up with a marketing plan is to go through your book and write down all the things that might appeal to a group of people other than your primary audience. Until I realized I had to buy Mignon Ballard's book because it reminded me of my great-aunt Augusta, I didn't really understand the power of those connections.

My fellow authors were Gerrie Ferris Finger (a former AJC writer and author of The End Game), Mignon Ballard (who writes the Augusta Goodnight mysteries and nine other novels, with Miss Dimple Disappears debuting in November), Randy Rawls (author of the Ace Edwards, Dallas PI series), Marion Moore Hill (author of the Scrappy Librarian Mysteries and the Deadly Past Mysteries), Mary Anna Evans (author of the Faye Longchamp archaeological mysteries), Fran Stewart (author of the Biscuit McKee cozy mystery series), Kathleen Delaney (Author of And Murder for Dessert, Give First Place to Murder and Dying for a Change).

Of course, the roster would not be complete without Tony Burton, who worked tirelessly to bring it to fruition and make it special. Thanks, Tony. See you next year?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Words to Die For

By Mark W. Danielson

President John F. Kennedy, who achieved immortality when he was assassinated in Dallas, is best remembered for his phrase, "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." John Lennon, assassinated in New York City, is best known for his song, Imagine. Princess Diana will be forever known as an ambassador of love and grace. Elvis Presley and Michael Jackson were both kings of song. All of these celebrities died before their time, but live on through their contributions, artifacts, videos, photographs, songs, and writings. Their memorabilia continues to increase in value because there can be no more. Even in death, Lennon, Elvis, and Jackson continue to generate substantial incomes for their estates.

In the process of mourning celebrity deaths, shrines appear with tributes and final words. In Dallas, a museum chronicles Kennedy's last moments. In Memphis, Graceland hosts an endless stream of fans wishing to say good bye to their King of Rock and Roll. In Paris, tributes to Diana appear at her crash site, which ironically occurred under a replica eternal flame from the Statue of Liberty. New York City has a Lennon tribute to his Imagine vision. In Germany, Michael Jackson has a memorial wall. There is always room for fitting monuments.
Like Elvis and Lennon, Michael Jackson touched the lives of millions through his songs. No doubt, his final This Is It! show would have been spectacular, had he and his cast had the chance to perform it. Fans were fortunate its taped rehearsals were turned into a Big Screen movie and later released on DVD and CD. Jackson was spot-on throughout every act.

Jackson's tribute wall is visible from Cologne’s “bridge of love” and the Rhine. As with tributes to Kennedy, Elvis, Lennon, and Diana, candles, photos, and personal notes to Michael transformed this concrete wall into a shrine. Such warm displays of humanity and personal loss are always touching, regardless of their location.

As an author, I see these celebrity memorials as proof that words from the heart stir the strongest emotions. They also remind me that anything said well is worth repeating. Why else would greeting cards, songs, and romance novels have such longevity? In this regard, every author should strive to create meaningful works. Book stores are full of "booky wookies" without substance. Considering how these celebrities have been remembered, perhaps it's best to write as if our words will one day speak from the grave.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Are We Being Misled?

By Chester Campbell

I'm reading a book that comes highly recommended, has plenty of glowing reviews, the second book by an author whose first mystery was a best-seller, but I'm still not sure how well I like it. I'm up to chapter five, in the middle forties pagewise, and the real story is just getting started.

The first few chapters have been full of backstory, nicely fleshing out the characters, but not giving much about the mystery. There's been a death, an apparent suicide, but those close to the victim think there may be more to it than a self-inflicted demise.

It makes you wonder about those warnings by agents that we have to grab the reader on the first page. Some even say the first paragraph or first sentence. I haven't read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, but from all the comments I've heard and read, the first hundred or so pages get pretty boring. One cover-blurber of the book I'm reading called it a "bullet-fast" thriller. Up to this point, for me the bullet hasn't left the gun.

So how do novels like these get to be best-sellers, indeed, a mega-best-seller in the case of Dragon Tattoo? I work my brain to the bone (there is a brain bone, isn't there?) trying to make that first sentence a great hook that will snare readers. Agents yawn. I did read the opening pages of Dragon Tattoo on Amazon, and he starts out with a mystery about an annual flower delivery. The reviews on Amazon are either "great, amazing" or "boring, awful."

I get the feeling that the key is to go deeply into the characters and don't worry about plotting mysteriously. But where does that leave you with Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code?

Oh, well, I suppose us shadowy toilers in the midlist ranks will have to go on creating mysteries the best we know how, following the conventional wisdom if it fits our situation. We have the solace of comments from our readers on how much they enjoy our books.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Over 40

[Ben Small Note: Normally, Monday is my day for Murderous Musings, but as Chester Campbell wrote earlier this week, we're adding new writers to this blog and Shane will be one of our contributors. This is Shane Cashion's first post. Shane is a practicing Florida and Missouri lawyer who also writes fiction, usually with a humorous twist.

Shane Cashion
Shane's latest release is entitled Govern Yourself Accordingly -- The Chronicles of a Brainsick Lawyer.]

by Shane Cashion

First, let me say that I’m a big fan of this blog and its writers, and that I’m excited and honored to be able to contribute.  Okay, so by way of personal background, at this point in my life, outside of my family, my time is generally occupied with three things: work, where I'm rapidly burning out; writing, which I’m addicted to but ambivalent toward; and playing soccer; which I’ve done for almost thirty-five years and love unreservedly.  Unfortunately, the latter is starting to betray me.  For my first post, I thought I’d share what happened at my last game; although I promise to keep posts about soccer few and far between as I recognize most folks’ disdain for the sport.  I’ll also be sure to make my future posts more visually appealing!

So, upon the invitation of a close friend, I recently played in my first over 40 game.  I’m actually not 40 yet, but because I turn before the year’s over, I’m technically eligible.   Our games are scheduled at obscene hours on Sunday mornings to accommodate the early risers.  The over 30 games are played in the afternoons; the open league plays its games at night.

I arrived at the field twenty minutes early so that I’d have time to visit with my new teammates.  As we made our introductions, I was instantly struck by their size. They weren’t taller than the guys I had played with in the other leagues, just considerably thicker, like soccer had been reorganized into weight classes and I was now playing in the heavyweight division.  I was also surprised to see a couple of guys dressed in button down shirts, slacks, and loafers.  At first I assumed that they were there to watch, until I saw that they had their uniforms on underneath their clothes.  For years they had been tricking their families into believing they were going to church. Like the rest of the players, their jerseys concealed party balls instead of six packs for abs.

For shoes, everyone wore standard issue black.  There were no white shoes, or orange, or red, or any of the neon colors that are so popular among the professionals and kids.  These guys were still sporting the styles they’d been wearing for more than thirty years.  To a spectator, there would have been no way to discern what decade we were playing in.  Because they’d been abusing their bodies for years, they also wore a motley assortment of strange orthopedic devices: elaborate knee braces, ankle wraps of various complexities, and back braces to support their bulging discs.  They looked more like retired rugby players than soccer guys.  Personally, I don’t wear any braces or shin guards; I play in tennis socks, or what we call Footies.  Throughout my thirty-five years of playing, I’ve been lucky enough to avoid even the slightest injury.

As the first whistle drew near, I trotted onto the field to begin my warm ups.  Unfortunately, no one remembered to bring soccer balls.  They did, however, remember to bring three barbecue pits, five varieties of meats, two containers of homemade rubs, and three enormous coolers filled with water, sodas, and every brand of lawnmower beer you can buy.  Without balls to warm up with, most of us just jogged in place, or performed a few lazy stretches.  A few guys used the opportunity for one last smoke, a pre-game ritual I hadn’t seen in my other leagues.  The guy they called “Bones” turned over a bench and proceeded to kick it. The organizer of our team yelled, “Look.  Bones is warming up.”  Everyone laughed.

The play itself was better than I expected, just a bit slow, though the constant substitutions kept the game moving along at a decent clip.  Soccer players don’t really lose their touch as much as their endurance.  I, of course, was quicker than most thanks to my relative youth and the fact that I wasn’t encumbered with thirty pounds of medieval orthopedic devices.  As the play progressed, I noticed that the guys who claimed to be at church were careful not to get dirty, avoiding slide tackles and other challenges that might leave revealing marks.  Bones played like one of the Hanson brothers from Slapshot.  The church guys steered clear of him for fear of collateral damage.

With less than ten minutes to go in a scoreless draw [insert soccer joke], I found myself equidistant from the ball and a meaty defender with shins as thick as a shop teacher.  I caught myself in two minds and instead of going into the tackle hard, as you should always do, or avoiding it altogether, which works even better, I went in half way, dangling my foot in front of him like a limp noodle.  I knew instantly that I’d made a mistake.

On the bench, writhing in pain, our solitary fan in the stands was kind enough to bring me a bag of ice.  She related that she was recently married to one of the guys on our team, a midfielder at least fifteen years her senior, which explained her presence at our game.  Wives with any history never attend. When the game ended she asked him, “Is that the end of the first quarter, honey?”  “No.  Why would you think that?” he responded, genuinely confused by her question.  “Because it takes you four hours to get home.  I just assumed that’s how long a game lasts. Four hours.”  We all howled.  The church guys toweled off and put their dress clothes back on.  The rest of the guys fired up the grills and cracked open the first of many easy to consume beers.  I limped to my car and gingerly drove home. 

My doctor says that I’ll likely need knee surgery.  I’m getting an MRI this week.  When I asked her whether I’d be able to play again, she answered, “In time, with the proper rehabilitation; although you probably won’t be as fast as you once were, and you’ll have to wear a knee brace.”  How perfectly appropriate.  Next time I play, I think I’ll wear shin guards too, and bring a cooler of Coors Light, if they’ll have me.


Saturday, October 23, 2010

Tales From The San Joaquin

By Pat Browning

All smiles after a presentation in Fresno, Calif. are mystery writers (from left) Marilyn Meredith, who writes the Deputy Tempe Crabtree series; Victoria Heckman, whose series features Honolulu PD officer Katrina Ogden; JoAnne Lucas, co-author of VALLEY FEVER, a collection of short stories; Lorie Ham, author of the series featuring gospel singer Alexandra Walters; Pat Browning, author of ABSINTHE OF MALICE, first in a series featuring reporter Penny Mackenzie.

All except Heckman, who lives on the Central Coast and sets her books in Hawaii, write mysteries set in the Central San Joaquin Valley. Meredith lives in Springville, in the Southern Sierra foothills. Lucas lives in Clovis, adjacent to Fresno. Ham lives in the college town of Reedley, near Fresno. Browning lived in Hanford, south of Fresno, for many years. (Photo taken about 2002.)

“The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of” -- Okay, so I stole that line from THE MALTESE FALCON. Nice line, but in this case it refers to an Indian legend from Central California and the Yokuts Indian tribes who were the original inhabitants of California’s San Joaquin Valley. Researchers relate the Yokuts Hairy Man legend to the legends of Big Foot and Sasquatch.

I had never heard the Hairy Man legend until I read it in a mystery novel by my good friend Marilyn Meredith. She lives about an hour’s drive from Hanford, where I lived for many years. We did some book signings together and both belonged to the Fresno Chapter of Sisters in Crime. (I miss those days!)

Marilyn and her husband, Hap, have been a team for more than 50 years and are still going strong. Hap knows as much about her books as she does and he’s great at taking over for her when she needs a break at a book fair or festival.

Their long running love story began with a blind date in Southern California, in what sounds like an episode of “Happy Days.” Hap was in the navy at Port Hueneme. Marilyn was a high school senior in Eagle Rock. With two other couples they took the streetcar to Chinatown in downtown Los Angeles, where they danced the hours away. Later they took a taxi to one friend’s house, but the final ride never showed up, so Hap walked Marilyn home, a distance of three miles.

They arrived about 3 a.m., and Marilyn recalls that her parents “were wild.” It had never occurred to her to telephone them. Hap had no transportation at that hour so her parents let him sleep on the couch in the den. A few weeks later, he and Marilyn tied the knot.

They lived in Oxnard for more than 20 years, where four of their five children were born. Hap served in the Seabees, going to Vietnam three times. When Oxnard got too big and busy for them they moved to the foothills, where Marilyn’s forbears had settled in the early 1850s. Marilyn and Hap were in the residential care business until retirement.

But back to the legend of the Hairy Man.

I recently read DISPEL THE MIST, the latest book in Marilyn’s popular Tempe Crabtree series. Tempe is a deputy on an Indian reservation in Central California. Although Marilyn lives near the Tule River Reservation, she says in the book’s Preface that her fictional Bear Creek Reservation is just that – fictional; and while Yokuts tribes inhabited the San Joaquin Valley, the Yanduchi branch in the Tempe Crabtree mysteries is fictional.

However, the Indian legends in this book are real, beginning with How People Were Made. It features the Hairy Man, who outwitted Coyote in a race to ensure that people would walk upright. The book’s cover is designed from Hairy Man pictographs at Painted Rock on the Tule River.

In an interview on the blog of paranormal fiction author Lynda Hilburn, Marilyn says: “The moment I stepped inside the rock shelter and spotted the pictograph of the Hairy Man and his family, I knew that my heroine, Tempe Crabtree, would not only visit this sacred place at night—which I’d been warned against doing—I also knew she would have an encounter with the Hairy Man.”

The book opens on an uneasy note. Deputy Tempe Crabtree and her husband Hutch, the community pastor, attend a blessing ceremony at the new Indian casino. The casino manager’s announcement of plans to build a hotel, golf course and indoor amphitheater gets a cool reception from the guest of honor, Lilia Quintera, a member of the Tulare County Board of Supervisors.

Meanwhile, another controversy brews at a new gated community nearby. Someone bought one of the larger homes and plans to turn it into a residential facility for developmentally disabled women, much to the displeasure of the other homeowners. Lilia Quintera’s niece Suzy, who has Down Syndrome, will be one of the residents.

Following the facility’s open house and a nasty encounter with a pharmacist named Duane Whitney, Lilia Quintera has a fatal heart attack. Tempe is assigned as a temporary special investigator because of her Indian heritage.

Quintera’s parents are suspicious of Lilia’s husband Wade, a trauma unit nurse with a reputation as a Casanova. When he doesn’t show up at Lilia’s funeral, Tempe goes to the house and finds him bleeding from a half-hearted suicide attempt. Suspicion also falls on Lilia’s younger sister Connie, who is Suzy’s mother. Tempe’s investigation reveals that Connie and Wade were having an affair.

Seeking insight into the tangle of suspects, Tempe calls on Nick Two John who has previously instructed her on how to use the supernatural aspects of her Indian culture. He supervises the kitchen at the Bear Creek Inn, owned by his significant other, Claudia Donato. Construction of a new casino hotel will cut into their business but Tempe dismisses any thought of Nick or Claudia being involved in murder.

Nick reminds Tempe that poisonous plants grow wild on the reservation. A few belladonna leaves made into a tea and slipped into Lilia’s cup at the open house could cause a fatal heart attack.

Back on the rez, Tempe sees a coyote and flashes back to her grandmother’s story of how animals scatter to forage for food when People multiply and take over the food supply. Exceptions are Dog, who decides to make friends with People in hopes they will feed him, and Hairy Man, who opts to come out only at night when People are asleep.

A pattern emerges. Grandmother’s stories lead to dreams that become nightmares. A late night phone call warns Tempe to stay away from Painted Rock. Puzzled and curious, Tempe and Hutch go to the rez to visit old acquaintances Jake and Violet. Jake takes them out to Painted Rock, where they see pictographs of animals and Hairy Man. It’s a busy place, with a rehab center and a sweat lodge located nearby, but Jake warns Tempe not to come out at night: “Too many spirits are here at night. Not all of them are good.”

The story builds slowly. This is a small book – 206 pages – and for the first 148 pages Tempe makes a pest of herself, asking questions but without proof that Lilia’s death was anything except a natural heart attack. When the supernatural aspects of Tempe’s Indian heritage kick in the story takes off in a dead run. The killer overplays his hand by luring Tempe out to Painted Rock at night, leading to a heart-stopping denouement.

As Shakespeare so wisely observed, all’s well that ends well, and DISPEL THE MIST ends on an upbeat note, including Tempe’s recipes for Quick Beef Stroganoff and Macaroni and Cheese.

Legends of a big hairy creature, often called Bigfoot, have been around for hundreds of years. In the U.S. sightings have been reported in every state except Hawaii, which has its own legends. The number of reported sightings ranges from two in Delaware to 493 in Washington State.

Readers interested in Bigfoot/Sasquatch legends can read more at The Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization,
Marilyn Meredith’s web site is at
Photo of Marilyn and Hap Meredith taken at EPICon 2004, the electronic publishing convention at the Westin Hotel in Bricktown, Oklahoma City.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Stretch Those Telomeres for a Longer Life

by Jean Henry Mead

Ever heard of telomeres?

They’re called countdown clocks because they determine how long you and your cells will last. Dr. Al Sears has written about them and lectured to the World Conference on Anti-Aging. Research into telomeres is so important that it won the Nobel Prize for Medicine last year.

But what are telomeres?

They’re tiny caps at the ends of DNA strands that serve as the blueprint for copies. Each time a cell divides, your DNA duplicates or clones itself.

“But, each time your cells divide, a little bit of each telomere is used up, and each gets a tiny bit shorter. When your telomeres become too short, DNA can’t copy itself correctly, and the cell stops dividing and dies. Overall, the shorter your telomeres, the older your body is, regardless of your actual age.”

The good news is that you can alter your aging clock by the food you eat and the way you live. Smoking and obesity shorten telomeres and speed up the aging process. On the other hand exercise slows down the shortening of your telomeres.

Even more important is that we now know the mechanism by which we age, and we can alter it. But there’s another reason the discovery is so significant. A new study published by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that longer telomeres can dramatically reduce your risk of cancer.

Sears reports that there’s growing evidence linking short telomeres to a higher risk of cancer. For example:

~A Virginia study found that breast cancer cells had shorter telomeres than normal cells.

~A research team at Harvard discovered that having short telomeres nearly doubled the risk for bladder cancer.

~According to Japanese researchers, cancers of the mouth begin in cells with short telomeres.

~Even colon cancer cells have shorter telomeres.

A recent Italian study measured overall cancer risk. The doctors found that people with the longest telomeres were the least likely to develop cancer. In fact, they were more than 10 times less likely to develop the disease.  And people with short telomeres are twice as likely to die from cancer. So by taking steps to promote longer telomeres, you can boost your chances of enjoying your later years cancer-free.

Exercise is one of the best ways to slow the aging of your cells to a crawl and reduce your risk of cancer. German researchers discovered that intensive exercise keeps cardiovascular systems from aging by preventing the shortening of telomeres.

Another study from the University of California in San Francisco found that vigorous exertion protects you from high stress by protecting your telomeres. And eating right also lengthens them. Cold-water, high-fat fish like mackerel, wild salmon, lake trout and herring are good sources of omega-3, which can lengthen your telomeres. Also, plenty of raw nuts and seeds. Walnuts, Brazil nuts, almonds and pumpkin seeds are also good preventatives.

Besides exercise and eating the right foods, there are supplements that offer protection for telomeres, such as vitamins C and E and resveratrol, which are thought to slow the shortening process. According to the National Institutes of Health, women who take a multivitamin have 5 percent longer telomeres than those who don’t.

One vitamin is actually linked with lengthening telomeres, and you don’t even need a pill to get it. It’s vitamin D. Just 10 minutes in the sun gets you 10,000 units.

There's no mystery about living to a ripe old age. Start stretching those telomeres today to add additional healthy years to your life.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


By Mark W. Danielson

I love Germany. The people are great, and they have wonderful traditions. I recently discovered a new one that expresses couples' devotion in an unusual way. While love has traditionally been expressed in paintings, poetry, songs, theater, books, cards, gifts, and even tattoos, I had never realized that padlocks could also be a symbol of endearment to this most powerful and important emotion. Then again, it makes sense, for we often refer to our lovers as holding the key to our hearts.

The Cologne railroad/pedestrian bridge is the first place I’ve seen such a padlock display, and it brings smiles to all who pass by. Here, love-locks span the entire Rhine River. Each lock is inscribed with the names of lovers whose devotion is boundless. Some locks are carefully etched, others written in pen, all are equally special. But the chained metal grinder that’s hanging mid-span suggests at least one person found a way to separate his or her bond. Not surprisingly, this rusting grinder brought more smiles.

Whoever came up with this padlock idea was a genius for it has transformed this bridge into a living work of art. With the magnificent cathedral behind it, there is no better setting. The only problem is it won’t be long before the bridge has reached its padlock capacity because hanging them has become so popular.

To capitalize off this romantic idea, a few people were attempting to hand red roses to damsels as they crossed the bridge. I never saw any money exchanged, and plenty of skeptical women refused their rose, but the gesture was still a nice touch. Who knows whether Cologne’s railroad bridge will become a renowned symbol of love like the Eiffel Tower in Paris. But whether it does or doesn't, it certainly has the same spirit.

Some may ask whether I contributed a lock to this bridge. The answer, of course, is yes. How could I refuse such a wonderful opportunity? It's placed mid-span where our love is bridged equally from either direction. Yes, I'm a hopeless romantic. I just happen to write about murder.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Welcome to the New Improved Musings

Murderous Musings is undergoing a major restructuring. If you're a regular (or occasional) reader, you probably noticed the change in the blog head the past couple of days. Well, it's about to change again. We're bringing in a lot of fresh writing talent to add more variety to our musings. With addition of a few more, we'll have each member of the team posting twice a month.

For the history buffs, Ben Small and I kicked around ideas for the blog a couple of summers ago, then recruited Beth Terrell and Mark Danielson to join us. We made a lucky find in Jean Henry Mead and had a five-day lineup in place. The first post, Ben's Fascinated with Murder, appeared on June 15, 2008. Pat Browning joined us the following month to fill out a six-day panel. Sunday posts have appeared occasionally when somebody had something special to say, or maybe a guest. Now we're looking at adding Sunday as a regular blogging day.

As Ben says, "The more the merrier."

We've already added Craig Johnson and Jonathan E. Quist to the heading above, and we'll have Ann Parker and Earl Staggs joining them shortly. There are at least two others waiting in the wings. As soon as we get confirmation on their status, we'll be putting up photos and book covers for everybody.

We will have writers covering nearly ever phase of the mystery genre, from thrillers to PI's to police procedurals to name it, we'll have it. I encourage you to join in the fun with your comments on the blogs. We've tried to make it easy to comment without leaving it open to spaminosity. You can sign in with one of several formats through Open ID. If you don't have one of those, you can get a Google ID with a simple sign-up.

We look forward to providing you with plenty of interesting stuff to talk about. If you have any complaints or suggestions, just send them to Chester Campbell and I'll guarantee a reply of some sort.

Monday, October 18, 2010


by Ben Small

No, Helldorado is not the name of an Eagles' song. Rather, it's a three day celebration of Tombstone's wild and sordid past, complete with get-ups, stage coaches and lots of blank cartridges going off. Sorta like the old days, maybe, except this time the only missiles flying through the air are made of paper wads. Most everybody has heard of the Gunfight at the OK Corral. But that's just part of the Tombstone story.

Helldorado celebrates it all, from the discovery of silver to the shooting of Marshall Fred White by Curly Bill Brocius, the most notorious Southwest outlaw of his time. Johnny Ringo, arguably the fastest gun in the Southwest outside of Wild Bill, is also a main character. And then there are the Earps and Clantons, icing on the Wild West cake.

Most people are not aware that the importance of these events rose to such a level that three presidents -- two U.S., one Mexican -- got involved;  there was a threat of war, and permanent changes to our law enforcement structure resulted.

Yee haw.

While the truth is there were really no "good guys," in either the Earp or Clanton bunch, history, television and the movies have dictated that Wyatt Earp be crowned a hero and the Clantons, McLaurys, Curly Bill, Johnny Ringo and the rest of the Cowboys be branded villains. And there may be some truth to these labels, although there's plenty of exaggeration to go around.

Helldorado is the biggest event of the Tombstone year -- every year. Tombstone is a town that lives by tourism, and Helldorado is the best time to experience the best and worst of "the town too tough to die." Folks come from all over the country, don their getups and make-up and prance around, some participating in re-enactments of significant Tombstone events. Earp-alikes, Clantons -- descendants of the participants, still attempting to convict the Earps of murder -- and pretend Curly Bills, Doc Holidays, Johnny Ringos and John Behans abound. And there are period ladies, both proper and improper...if you get my drift.


And there are other characters as well, hundreds of them, all decked out in period costumes.

It's hard to tell how many people attend the three day Helldorado celebration. On the Sunday my wife and I were there, there were gobs of people, hundreds if not thousands, spread all over town. Unfortunately, my wife and I stood out: We wore tee shirts and shorts.

There are stagecoach rides, mine tours, good food in the local saloons, and re-enactments all over town.

Of course, no visit to Tombstone would be complete without a tour of the world famous Bird Cage Theater, one of the few original buildings left in its original condition, bullet holes, furniture, brothel rooms and all. All the great actors and actresses, from Lilly Langtrey, Sarah Bernhardt, Fatima, Eddie Foy, Lillian Russell, Lotta Crabtree, Florence Roberts, Richard Mansfield, Joe Bignon, Maude Adams, Margarita Silva and others played the Bird Cage, the nightly hangout for the Earps, Behan and the Clantons, and of course, the best brothel in town. The Bird Cage was where Wyatt slipped to when he wanted to escape his common law wife and diddle Sadie Jo Marcus, John Behan's eighteen year old girlfriend -- the runaway daughter of Neiman Marcus -- and later Wyatt's third wife. In her spare time, Sadie Jo worked in the brothel, both upstairs in the cheap brothel -- 20 bucks for the balcony room, more for the girl -- or the basement brothel with the double beds, where the room-and-girl rates doubled.

Sadie gave Johnny Behan this picture, which was only re-surfaced after Wyatt died.

One glance, and it's easy to see why Sadie didn't want Wyatt to see this photo. There was already enough bad blood between Behan and Wyatt stemming from Behan's political screwing of a trusting, naive Wyatt Earp. See, the feud -- and the events leading up to the great gunfight -- were really about politics. The Earps were the gambling, swindling Republicans, Behan and the Cowboys the cattle rustling, drunken Democrats, and at play was the lucrative position of Deputy County Marshall, the tax collector, who got to keep much of the tax-take. Earp dropped out of the County Marshall race upon Behan's promise to give him the tax collecting job, then once Behan was appointed, he named someone else, perhaps because of Earp's cuckholding.

Good times...

At the entrance of the Bird Cage hangs a famous painting of Fatima. If you look closely at her picture, you may notice Fatima has more than one navel. Yes, it was patched, but the bullet holes in the painting are still visible, a few of the one hundred forty bullet holes, many of them .44 caliber, lodged still in the walls, ceilings and floors of the theater. Many came from drunken patrons just having a good time, like when one drunk didn't like a song and put three rounds into the wall of the stage. But there were also gunfights, sixteen of them, and twenty-six dead patrons, not including those killed by brawl or knife.

As I said, the furniture is original; everything inside the Bird Cage is original. So here is the Faro table the Earps owned, the site of the famous "duel" between Johnny Ringo and Doc Holiday, where Ringo twirled his pistol and Doc answered with a shot glass. Huckleberry, indeed...

Here's a picture of the interior of the Bird Cage, with a craps table in center in front of the stage, and the cheap balcony-brothels above. One can just imagine a drunken cowboy enjoying the show while he also enjoyed a bit of the nasty...

Along the walls of the Bird Cage are memorabilia of the times, pictures of those involved in the famous events of 1881. Here's a picture of Johnny Behan, and below that... Wyatt Earp.

After Tombstone, Wyatt lived with Sadie for the rest of his life. He died in 1929.

Heldorado is held yearly, in October, of course, the month of the great gunfight. As a growing city -- indeed the fastest growing city in the country during the 1880s, Tombstone had a short life. Ironically, Tombstone, a city with no water, became a ghost town after the great 1887 earthquake, which flooded all the silver mines. Still, its legacy lives on, and nowhere more so than during Helldorado.

And the Clantons now have a website. Doesn't everybody? Check here for their latest effort to once more win the argument who started the gun battle and who was at fault. It's a good read, even if their arguments still fall on deaf ears. Clanton Website

I invite you to come see for yourself. Helldorado is a throw-back to days gone by. And it's a rollicking good time.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Seasoned Sleuth: Not Your Mama's Miss Marple

By Pat Browning

Did someone say the first Baby Boomer is old enough to collect Social Security? My, how the time flew.

Savvy mystery writers age their series characters accordingly, making their female amateur sleuths older, although not necessarily slower. They age in real time without turning into cartoons. We’re not talking geezer lit here.

My favorite characters are still the women they always were. They’re survivors. They’ve come to terms with life and death. Call them seasoned sleuths instead of senior sleuths. “Seasoned” doesn’t automatically translate to “old” as “senior” does.

Take Agatha Raisin, the feisty heroine of M.C. Beaton’s long-running series. Agatha’s been hanging around crime scenes since retiring in 1992, but she hasn’t retired her high heels. In LOVE, LIES AND LIQUOR (2006) she’s also wearing flimsy knickers “in the hope of a hot date.”

Agatha hasn’t mellowed a whit despite arthritic twinges that make her think of a hip replacement. After opening her own detective agency, she’s dealing with murder, jewel thievery and romantic entanglements when her hip starts to hurt. For a moment she feels old and sick, but not too old and sick to face someone holding a gun and snarl, “Fry in hell, you bastard.”

Agatha’s polar opposite is the 70-something Charlotte Graham of Stefanie Matteson’s 10-book series. A retired but still glamorous actress, Charlotte ages gracefully and philosophically. In MURDER UNDER THE PALMS (1997) she visits friends in Palm Beach, where fate reunites her with a man she fell in love with more than 50 years earlier.

Their shipboard romance had lasted four days. He went on to become a famous bandleader. They find the old attraction is still there and it’s easy to pick up where they left off.

Quoting: “She had reached the point in life where now was what mattered. Because the next day, the next week, the next year, either or both of them might not be around. Maybe this was what Ponce de Leon had discovered when he’d come to Florida seeking the fountain of youth … (T)hat only by coming to terms with death can you really find life.”

Charlotte and her old flame work together to solve a couple of murders and a mystery dating back to World War II.

In DEAD MAN’S ISLAND (1993) Carolyn Hart introduces her 70-something sleuth, Henrie O, who is more cosmopolitan than Agatha Raisin, more driven than Charlotte Graham. Henrie O is a former foreign correspondent right out of a 1940s movie, with “dark eyes that have seen much and remembered much.” She is, in the best old-fashioned sense of the word, a dame. Think Lauren Bacall.

In a murder mystery set on a remote island off the South Carolina Coast, Henrie O answers a call for help from her first love. At one point she muses, “Loss is the price of love … But it’s kinder to let each generation climb that mountain unknowing. If we knew at twenty what we know at sixty, it would make the climb that much harder and harrowing.”

Six books later (SET SAIL FOR MURDER, 2007), Henrie O is still dealing with ex-lovers, this time on a Baltic cruise. In a scene touching on the dilemma of the older woman, Henrie O sits on a vanity bench to remove a pair of favorite earrings:
(quoting) “I looked into the mirror. When I’d first worn them, my skin was smooth and unlined, my dark hair untouched by silver. I balanced the earrings in my palm, looked dispassionately at my silver-streaked hair, the smudges beneath my dark eyes, the lines of laughter and sadness on my face. I felt caught between past and present. Perhaps the truest sign of old age is when the heart stubbornly looks backward instead of forward.”

But the definitive word on the seasoned woman comes not from a fictional sleuth but from an actress who portrayed the older woman to perfection. The late Bea Arthur starred on TV as “Maude” and as one of the “Golden Girls,” and later took her one-woman show on the road.
In a 2002 interview with reporter Sarah Hampson for Canada’s Globe and Mail, Arthur sings a song from her show:

(quoting) “We’re like birds who are perched on the limbs of a tree/When the time is right we simply fly away/That other birds come and take our places/But they won’t stay/We come and go/It was always so/And so it will always be.”

The song illustrates her answer to the reporter’s question about why she continued to work at her age. Arthur says, “… while we’re here, we have a chance to sing. … In other words, be ballsy, make a point and have an interest.”

That describes the mystery writer’s seasoned sleuth to a T.

Bea Arthur publicity photo from the Web

Friday, October 15, 2010

Craig Johnson

Multiple award-winning mystery novelist Craig Johnson has received high praise for his Sheriff Walt Longmire novels. The Cold Dish, Death Without Company, Kindness Goes Unpunished, Another Man's Moccasins, and The Dark Horse, received  starred reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, and Library Journal. It was also named one of Publisher's Weekly's best books of the year (2009).

Each has been a Booksense/IndieNext pick. Among his awards: the Historical Association's Book of the Year, the Western Writer's of America Spur Award for best novel of 2008 as well as the Mountains and Plains award for fiction book of the year. His latest Wallt Longmire novel, Junkyard Dogs, was released by Viking in June and Craig has been on the road meeting and greeting his readers. The rancher and former law enforcement officer lives in Ucross, WY, population 25.

Craig, have you always been a writer?

Nope, my father says I just come from a long line of bullslingers and I’m the first one to be smart enough to write them down… Honestly, I came from a family of readers and I think it’s a short step from there to writing books. I built my ranch myself and finally settled into the life with the thought that I’d always wanted to write a novel. I guess what basically happened was that I ran out of excuses.

When and where did you make your first sale?

Viking/Penguin picked up the first in my Walt Longmire series six years ago, and it’s been off to the races since then. Kathryn Court, the president of Penguin USA shoved a copy of The Cold Dish (a novel I considered to be a stand-alone) across the lunch table in New York and said, “We’d like some more of these…” Do you believe I argued with her? Thank goodness she won. My agent asked me who I wanted to be with and I thought of all those Steinbeck books I’d read as a child (and still do) and chose Viking/Penguin. It’s been pretty wonderful working with a literary press that gives me a lot of leeway. My last two contracts stated that the books had to be mysteries and have Walt in them… That’s a lot of freedom.

What made you decide to settle in Wyoming to write your first book?

I grew up in the Midwest, but my grandparents lived in Kansas and New Mexico, so I wasn’t completely unaware of the American West. When I was eighteen I loaded up an old Army pack, a thousand bucks and lit out for the territories. I think Louis L’Amour would’ve approved. Anyway, in my journeys I was working for a rancher up in Montana and delivered some horses down to Wyoming where I inevitably built my ranch near Ucross.

Your six Western mystery novels and articles have received quite a few awards. Which means the most to you?

Getting pulled over by a highway patrolman between Basin and Otto in the Red Desert and being told, “I read you books, Mr. Johnson…” He let me off, so I guess he liked them. I get a lot of emails from law enforcement telling me that they think I get it right, and that means a lot to me.

You latest book tour encompasses quite a few towns and events including a tour of France. Do you enjoy meeting readers and talking about your books, or do you prefer to stay at home on the ranch and promote your work via the Internet? And which methods of promoting your books have been the most effective?

Oh, I like living on the ranch and writing or else I wouldn’t have chosen this as a livelihood. I like meeting people and talking about the books though. They say that print ads, commercials, Internet and all that sells books, but I still think the old hand sale buzz of somebody saying, “Hey, have you read..?” Still works the best. Maybe it’s because the nearest town to my ranch has a population of 25, but I genuinely like people and enjoy talking to them about my books. I also think that the book sellers are the best friends an author can have. I do events in every one-horse book store on the High Plains because those people are important not only in the sense of sales, but their ability to tell me where I got it wrong and where I got it right. It’s an occupational hazard in living in a state with only a half-million occupants, that folks recognize characters in the books.

What do you enjoy most about writing and what chaps your hide?

As stated above, I really enjoy the isolation of writing. Heck, in any right-minded country they’d lock me away for sitting in a room by myself and typing about my imaginary friends. Dislikes..? Oh, people who I meet that proudly proclaim, “I don’t read.” That just worries me… Somehow I bet they find time to sit in front of a television for four hours a night. I think reading is a good habit for your mind, it keeps you alert and engaged unlike a lot of other activities.

What’s life like on your ranch near Ucross, Wyoming, and what’s your writing schedule like?

Well, I have a ranch so I get things sorted out at daybreak, make a big pot of coffee, and sit down to write. Sometimes I break for lunch, sometimes I don’t. I came to this wonderful life in my mid-forties, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let them find out I shouldn’t be doing it. I attempt to only work six days a week, but I eventually end up in my writing loft with ideas that can’t wait, or trying to fix up mistakes I’ve made—kind of like this blog…

Tell us about your protagonist, Walt Longmire? And how much of him is autobiographical?

More than I’d be willing to admit. Walt’s probably who I’d like to be in about ten years, but I’m off to an incredibly slow start. In my experiences with law enforcement, I tried to put together my version of an ideal sheriff. Not that Walt’s perfect by any means, but the kind of guy I’d want pulling his cruiser in behind me; kind, patient, tenacious intelligent and with a sense of humor. He’s no Captain Marvel, but he’s very good at his job. I think the humor is important, anybody that’s ever done the job knows how important a sense of humor is in getting you through the day.

Advice for fledgling western mystery writers?

Keep it real, do your research, and be honest to the place you love. Don’t have your protagonist running around on a cruise ship. One of the things I try to do is pull the seminal information for my novels from local newspapers, which keeps the books grounded in the social and cultural problems my neighbors and I face. I could just come up with wild plots, but I think that’s a disservice to the modern mystery reader, they tend to be looking for something more than just a ‘who dunnit’. There’s so much out there that needs addressing, I don’t think you have to go off looking very far away. That’s the advice I’d give.

Craig's website:

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Writers' Police Academy: Hazardous Devices Team

By Beth Terrell

At Lee Lofland's Writers' Police Academy a few weeks ago, I got a chance to talk with a member of the Hazardous Devices Team, also known as the Bomb Team, and examine some of the equipment. I took four pages of notes, but for the purposes of this post, I'll just hit the high points.

In Greensboro, which is where the Academy took place, there are 12 team members and 8 certified techs (in a force of 600). They're a regional team, the members of which are trained at the HDS (Hazardous Devices School), the school of civilian bomb techs in Hunstville, Alabama. In addition to the civilian (non-military) team members, there is an FBI agent and an ATF agent attached to the team. These agents don't run calls with the team, but are available to consult with the team and help with training.

There are 466 such teams in the country. Once upon a time, they worked strictly with bombs and other explosives, but because of the increased threat of biological and chemical weapons, the focus of their work has expanded. Thus, the official name change from Bomb Squad to Hazardous Devices Team.

Team members undergo extensive psychological testing before they can be on the team. When he gave us this bit of information, Jake--the team member giving the talk--grinned and said, "I'm not sure if they're testing to see if you're too crazy to be on the team or if you're crazy enough to be on the team."

When asked if he felt afraid when working to neutralize a bomb or other hazardous device, he shook his head and said there was no fear when you went on a call; it was more like excitement.

"What drew you to this line of work?" I asked Jake.

"The mental challenge," he said. "The mechanical side. It's definitely not high-speed. It's slow and methodical. Figuring out how the device works and how to disarm it. Beating the bomb."

"And you get to blow things up," I said, referring to an earlier comment about disarming some devices by detonating them.

He grinned again. "Well, that's always a plus."

It's not hard to make an explosive device, he told us. Pipe bombs with black powder are most common, but C4 and TNT are among the many alternatives. He explained how the explosion itself can tell you what material was used. TNT uses a push, a force. The smoke from a TNT explosion is white. C4 fractures instead of pushing. It makes a louder crack than TNT, and the smoke is black. Here, in no particular order, are some of the interesting things I learned from Jake's talk.

1) Team members who are approaching an explosive device wear a heavy (approximately 85 pounds), olive-green suit with ceramic inserts covering the chest and torso. The inserts are designed to break if he suit is hit my "frag;" this absorbs much of the force and may save the officer's life. "It's not much use if you're standing right over the device," Jake said, "but it's good for when you're entering or leaving the area. That's what it's designed for, because a lot of these guys set booby traps." There's a control pad on the arm of the suit--a light, a fan, batteries, and so on. It controls the temperature inside the suit. Jake called it "the brains of the suit."

2) When possible, they prefer to send the robot in. They have two, one called "Ray" after a former team member and another as yet unnamed. The robot is run via fiber-optics. It can go up and down stairs, but isn't of much use if the staircase is long or winding, because the fiber will get tangled in the banister and/or the turns. It has two mounted cameras that can scan 360 degrees and a weapons camera that shows you the angle of the two thin "cannons" that shoot water or projectiles. There's a pincer-style "hand" or grasper at the front, and the quick-release tires can be removed so the device can go down the aisle of a plane. Operating the robot is a delicate operation; team members need plenty of what they call "stick time" to master it.

3) Silly Putty was originally designed sd a rubber sealant for explosives, buut it wasn't strong enough. It made a great toy, though!

4) If the suspected device is under a car (or other small place where the robot can't reach), team members have a long stick with a grasper on one end. "You can do a fair amount and keep some distance."

5) If it looks like an actual explosive device, and if it's in an area that can withstand the damage, they set a counter-charge and blow it up. If that's not possible, they have several other alternatives. The most common is a water column; it will pull apart the batteries and blasting caps, fry circuits, and swell to pop open a package or backpack. If you can't use water on the device, you can fire a projectile into it.

As you can imagine, I left the Jake and the Bomb Team with a head full of story ideas and an even greater respect for the job they do. Thanks, guys!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

War is Over!

By Mark W. Danielson

John Lennon would have turned 70 this month. As a Beatle, he was an international celebrity. As a peace activist, he was feared by the United States government. Interestingly, neither could have occurred without Lennon’s lifelong penchant for speaking his mind and standing by his beliefs.
In the late 1960s and early 70s, John used his celebrity status and musical talents to rally young people against the Vietnam War. The British pop singer’s ability to do this became a serious concern for the Nixon administration. They tailed him, tapped his phone, and spent millions of dollars trying to deport him. Once Nixon was reelected, their interest in the singer faded, but the bullet that claimed Lennon’s life in 1980 never stopped his message that peace was possible. All of this is documented in the movie, The US versus John Lennon. While watching it, I found some startling parallels to our current international affairs.

Not unlike our situation in Afghanistan, our involvement in Vietnam began slowly. Although the US already had military advisors in Vietnam when President Kennedy took office, Kennedy’s official policy was that the South Vietnamese forces must ultimately defeat their Communist aggressors. Kennedy was firmly against deploying American combat troops in Vietnam, and stated that, "to introduce U.S. forces in large numbers there today, while it might have an initially favorable military impact, would almost certainly lead to adverse political and, in the long run, adverse military consequences.” Following Kennedy’s assasination, President Johnson took the opposite tactic by escalating the number of US troops in Vietnam from 16,000 in 1963 to 553,000 by 1968, and still the war went on. It’s interesting to note that 40% of the US casualties occurred after Nixon was elected in 1968.

Our ongoing war in Afghanistan can be traced back to the US military advisors that were sent to aid the Taliban during the Russian occupation. Long after these advisors left, and in response to the September 11 al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Center, the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom blitzed Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, defeating many of the same people they had trained. In late 2001, the United Nations Security Council approved to establish the International Security Assistance Force, which consisted of a coalition of 46 governments including Australia, Britian, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, Spain, Turkey, and the United States. At the time, the US had committed 29,950 military personnel to the cause. In December, 2009, after many coalition forces had withdrawn and with no end in sight, President Obama committed another 30,000 US troops to Afghanistan. The latest figure shows over 78,000 US troops are serving there.

The parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan take me back to the 1960s where I witnessed countless anti-war protests while working in Berkeley, California. John Lennon and Paul McCartney had co-written the song Revolution to encourage a peaceful end to the Vietnam War. Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono later continued this message by placing banners and posters all over the world that read, “War is Over – if you want it”. Their three-week bed-in in Montreal spurred Lennon’s song, Give Peace a Chance, which became an anthem sung by millions of people during their anti-war rallies. The nation had not been this divided since the Civil War. By 1973, it was evident that superior technology and ground forces could not defeat a guerilla enemy that had unlimited reinforcements. As such, the US began withdrawing its forces from Vietnam. The Vietnam War may have been lost, but only its lessons have been forgotten.
Today, the US is heavily involved in an equally undefined and devastating war in the Middle East. I’ve written before about our nation’s apathy toward this war, but it’s worth reiterating that our young citizens are not protesting against it because it doesn’t concern them. This is easy to do when there is no threat of being drafted. However, the ramifications of their apathy extend beyond their lack of protests – it goes to the heart of their ability to communicate.
But rather than blame the kids, perhaps we should blame our high tech society, for these days, kids see little reason to verbally converse with each other. Instead, they stand next to each other or sit in restaurants, heads down, sending text messages. Somehow I doubt that a “Text-in” would have the same political impact as a 1960s “Sit-in”.

Our involvement in Afghanistan will never end until we recognize their distinct differences in ideologies. It matters not how many troops, tanks, or laser-guided missiles the US throws at its enemies, the US will always be viewed as the invader. Not unlike Vietnam, Afghanistan’s topography is too diverse and the resolve of its people too great for any foreign power prevail. The Russians figured this out after nine years. Sadly, after nine years, we haven’t.

I normally refrain from discussing political topics, but in this election year, it’s disturbing that our war in the Middle East is not being addressed in political ads or debates. How is this possible when millions were protesting against war just four decades ago? How is this possible when our soldiers are still dying over overseas? How is this possible when this war is draining our economy? These are questions worth asking in any election. Time is running out. Perhaps we should look into our past so that we can re-write our future.

John Lennon may be dead, but his message lives on. War is Over! – if we want it. Give peace a chance.