Saturday, April 29, 2017

A One-Star Review and Guns

Like other writers, I loathe one-star reviews. I hate to get them, and if there’s a book that I didn’t like I’d rather ignore it and spend my time writing a review of a book that I did enjoy. But I was compelled to write a one-star review on a particular book because it exploits my favorite genre--crime fiction--as a soapbox to promote a political agenda that I disagree with. The book, Unloaded: Crime Writers Writing Without Guns, is an anthology edited by Eric Beetner who uses the book as a platform for his pious grandstanding as a shill for the anti-gun lobby. Read my review here.

No doubt, you’re going to ask, “Mario, what is it about you and guns?”

To begin, I’ve always liked guns. When I was four, my mother asked me what I wanted for Christmas and I told her I wanted a machine gun. Part of the reason I joined the army was that I’d have the opportunity to shoot all kinds of guns. Once I even got to shoot a vintage automatic rifle reportedly used by the police when they ambushed Bonnie and Clyde. Macabre for sure, but if you write crime novels, supremely cool.

Then on September 5, 1985, my father committed suicide with his pistol. It was a day of enormous tragedies, heartache, and shame. I associated guns with those horrific events and my reaction to the pain and grief was to get rid of the few guns that I owned. My attitude was that I didn’t need guns, and neither did anyone else. So for the next twenty-five-plus years I was ambivalent to owning guns.

Then recently I read Woe To Live On by Daniel Woodrell and Empire of the Summer Moon by S.G. Gywnne.


In both books, the early black powder revolvers were central to the action. I became fascinated with these guns to the point that I decided to buy one. When I mentioned this to a writer friend, he told me that if I owned a gun my chances of being killed by it would be 2.7 times more than if I had no gun. The statistic shocked me. Why would I do such a risky thing? I decided to investigate his claim and that led me to dive headfirst into this debate about guns in America.

I learned that statistic came from a study (long since discredited) headed by Dr. Arthur Kellerman, sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control. His study was part of CDC’s quest--not to find the truth or promote public safety--but to cook the evidence in support of abolishing guns. “We’re going to systematically build a case that owning firearms causes deaths.” And “…a long term campaign… to convince Americans that guns are, first and foremost, a public health menace.” However skeptical you might be that the CDC willingly compromises its ethics you only need look at their history with the infamous Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.

The anti-gun lobby, in league with the American medical establishment, likes to preach about the dangers of owning a gun but when you look at the numbers reported by the CDC, for 2015 Accidental Fatalities, you have: Firearms 489; Pedestrian 959; Drowning 3602; Falls 33,381; Automobile 36,161; Poisoning 47,478 (of which half are prescription opioids, i.e., provided by the medical community). Considering that in this country there are as many gun owners as there are car drivers, Americans as gun owners are much safer than Americans as car drivers. And accidental firearms deaths continue to decline (in 2005 it was 789, in 2010 it was 606), and so you think the anti-gun crowd would cheer that trend but they don’t even mention it.

The Epidemic of Gun Violence! Now that sounds super scary. The big numbers that make up “gun violence” are gun homicide and gun suicide, and those numbers are subsets of the much larger totals of violent crime and all suicides. Interesting how no politician or bureaucrat ever says we have an epidemic of violent crime or an epidemic of suicide. By using the term gun violence, the apparatchiks can blame gun owners--people like me--while washing their hands of the hard work needed to stop violent crime (domestic violence, robbery, gang violence, and drug trafficking) and suicide (depression and substance abuse). To me, suicide is especially troubling since we live in a land of promise and plenty, and yet as our material standard-of-living continues to rise, so do our suicides.

If we are truly committed to solving violent crime and suicide, then we must devote the necessary resources and be diligent and honest in grappling with some tough social issues. The solution will not be a policy based on fraudulent agendas, misdirection, and lies.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Serial Killers Begone

The Beautiful Lizzie Borden

Fractured Families required a serial killer. It was necessary for the plot. The murders were too bizarre to have been committed by a person of ordinary sensibility. I did a lot of research on this subject and know more about truly evil people than is good for me.

My editor asked if she should use the word "sociopath" or "psychopath" in flap copy. Actually the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, which is the psychologist's bible, called this kind of deviance "psychopath" until 1958, then the term switched to "sociopath." After 1968,  information was classified under the heading of Anti-Social Personality Disorder.

For publicity purposes, we settled on using the word "psychopath" because the term is more familiar.

My home state of Kansas has had its fair share of serial killers. Lizzie Borden was famous, of course, and so were the Bloody Benders.

Graves of victims of the Bloody Benders

However accurate historically, It seems as though serial killers have been done to death in mysteries. I'm happy that my current work-in-progress won't need this kind of individual. The classic motivations of greed, love, and revenge have stronger characterization.

Recently I listened to an old, old book (1830s) The Count of Monte Cristo, on an audio recording. Narrated by John Lee it was the one of the best narrations I've ever heard. A classic tale of revenge, it held my interest for hours.

I think betrayal and revenge is are two motivations that are universal.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Going Places

One of the great things about the crime fiction genre these days is that it is so diversified readers can both see themselves in books and experience (virtually) societies and people who live in worlds far from their own.

Therefore, when I buy a crime novel, I’m more interested in character and setting than I am in crime and plot. I want a novel to take me to a real world I haven’t explored yet.

Naomi Hirahara gives me this. She explores the Vietnamese-American culture in Los Angeles in a fascinating and interesting way in her Ellie Rush series. (SJ Rozan, who does New York City pretty darn well herself, suggested Naomi’s books to me.)

Hirahara’s parent-child relationships illustrate the potentially-tense dynamics among a generation that wants for their children all that America offers but also needs for those same children to appreciate their Vietnamese heritage. A familial conflict is always simmering, ready to boil over.

Similarly, I’m rereading A Corpse in the Koryo, by James Church, who according to the author bio on his books was "a former Western intelligence officer with decades of experience in Asia." That’s about all I can find on the guy. No pictures. No further info. Church offers North Korea in a way the makes his respect and love for the citizens their obvious. Here’s a teaser: “Trees are not like people.” His lips tightened, and his cheeks lost their color. “They’re more civilized. People lose someone, what do they do? Nothing, they just keep going. Some people lose everything, everything. They lose everything, they keep going. Not trees. Trees don't do that. They live together, they don't move away, they know each other, they feel the wind and the rain at the same time, they can't bear it when one of them dies. So the whole group just stops living.” He paused while the train went past a patch of open ground with an abandoned log cabin. “Don't listen to anyone who tells you about loyalty to an idea. You're alone,” he said. “Without your family you're alone.” (101)

Wonderful metaphor. Fascinating illustration and exploration of culture and society. Church is an impressive prose stylist who offers North Korea (in a novel written in English, no less) in a manner similar to Dostoyevsky's handling of Russia (in translation). North Korea’s people, politics, and landscape are presented in a nuanced and subtle way that only decades spent on the ground observing can provide. Will I ever get to North Korea? I bet most of us won’t, but Church takes us there.

And, finally, there’s The Sympathizer, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the Edgar Award, written by Viet Thanh Nguyen. This book is a huge step forward for crime fiction. It wasn’t too long ago, after all, that my grad school professor told me that if I wanted to teach at the college level I needed to “write a mainstream novel.” (I asked why if I wrote a mainstream novel, I was doing the acceptable thing, but if he wrote a crime novel, he was becoming a commercial sellout.) I never got an answer that day. The Sympathizer shows a great crime novel can be a great novel.

So many contemporary crime novels offer setting in rich and interesting ways that plot really does become secondary, at least for me. I’d love to hear what my Type M colleagues are reading and what they and others look for in contemporary crime-fiction novels.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

SWAT On My Street

I used to live on such a quiet street, so quiet that during the day you could hear the birds twittering in the trees and squirrels skittering across our roof. When there was noise, it came from leaf blowers and kids playing in the street.

Then the Great Construction Period started. For the last six years or so, there’s been one house or another under construction on the block. The bang of hammers and rat-a-tat-tat of jackhammers has become the new normal.

Last week, it got more interesting. We received a notice on our doorstep that the local SWAT team would be doing a training exercise on our block, using a house that is slated to be torn down. (Yep, another one.) They warned us there may be loud noises during this period. We’d be allowed to observe as long as we stayed in the designated areas.
SWAT vehicle parked in front of house and a few observers on the right.

SWAT preparing to go in

The thought of a police training exercise happening just two doors down from us filled this writer’s heart with joy. The first evidence of activity was someone going into the designated house and hearing them talking about their plans.

When the SWAT vehicle arrived, I headed outside to do a little gardening...and see what was going on, of course. (Yes, I really did do some weeding and deadheading of roses. It wasn’t just an excuse!) A few people hovered around watching. I met the developer who’d bought the property and his children and grandchildren, all there to observe.

Finally, the SWAT team was ready to start. They breached the front door of the house followed shortly after by a flash bomb. The boom set off two car alarms on opposite ends of the block and brought out a concerned neighbor who hadn’t gotten the memo about the police training exercise. Some time later, another boom. Then, an hour or so after that, they were done and the street returned to normal.

The part of me that likes a quiet street was happy they disrupted the neighborhood as little as possible. They didn’t block the road or cause excess noise. Other than the two booms you wouldn’t have known anything was going on. But the writer side of me was disappointed there wasn’t more to observe. The construction fencing prevented us from seeing a whole lot. Still, it was interesting to see what they were doing.

There’s enough construction going on in this city and the surrounding ones, the police shouldn’t have any trouble finding another house to train in when they need one.

On a separate note, I found that sentence I was looking for the other day. Yep, it wasn’t as great as I remembered but, at least I found it! Now I have something to revise.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Arthur Ellis Awards Shortlist for 2017

by Rick Blechta

In case you don’t know — and that’s probably most of the readers of Type M — my novella, Rundown, published last year has been shortlisted for an Arthur Ellis Award given by the Crime Writers of Canada. It is a high honour indeed and I am over the moon about it. Here's a link to the complete shortlist in all categories:

My book is in pretty select company with a past winner in this category, Jas. R. Petrin, plus the illustrious Peter Robinson and two other very worthy writers, Linda L. Richards and Brenda Chapman. With competition like that, I’m not figuring on much happening past the nomination, but at the very least, it is very validating to have one of my works chosen — and I also get a whole month of glory.

But beyond the wonder of possibly winning an Arthur is this: the idea behind the awards has always been to promote Canadian crime writing (both fiction and non-fiction) to the world-at-large and show there are good things happening in the Great White North. So every Canadian crime writer has a stake in every Arthur Ellis shortlist.

Most of our Type M readers do not live in this country, and even if you live in Canada, the chances are good that you’ll not hear about any of these books. Our publishers don’t have the megabucks needed to seriously promote their books, and what money they do spend always goes to the “sure things” because they know (or at least feel) they’ll sell enough of those books to justify the expense.

So please, if you enjoy reading crime fiction or true crime (and I assume that’s the case if you’re visiting Type M), whether in English or French, take a look at the Arthur shortlist, pick something that piques your interest and give it a read. All of the books on this (or any) year’s list have been adjudicated by experienced panels and found to be “worthy”. I’m pretty darn sure you will be pleased with your selection.

And please cross your fingers for me on May 25th!

By the way, I’m also the photographer for the Arthur Ellis Gala this year, so if by some amazing circumstance Rundown gets the Best Novella Arthur, I guess I’ll have to take a selfie.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

What Sort of Reader Are You?

by Vicki Delany

I got a chuckle out of this cartoon.

What sort of reader are you, this chart asks.

I am a variation of a monogamist reader.

I usually read one book, straight though. Beginning to end. And then I start another book. I never read two books at once.

But unlike the above category, I don't often re-read books. I have lots of favourites that I would probably enjoy discovering again, but time is short and there are so many new books out there.

There are only a few books I've re-read. I've read the Lord of the Rings maybe twenty times. Seems excessive, doesn't it? Most of that would have been a long time ago, although I did reread the entire series when the movies came out.

I've read The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart several times. Gosh, how I loved that book. And her others about the life of Merlin as well.

Product Details

A couple of years ago, I bought a bunch of Barbara Michaels' books and re-read them. I did enjoy them, but in some ways I found them dated. Michaels (who we all know was Barbara Mertz AKA Elizabeth Peters) was an early feminist and wrote with a feminist sensibility, but her female characters still needed saving, rather than saving themselves.

I re-read an early V.I. Warshawski novel for a radio interview I did on influential books. And I found it really dated.

I recently re-read The Hound of the Baskervilles to reacquaint myself with the story for writing the next Sherlock Holmes Bookshop novel, and enjoyed it very much. Of course it's horribly dated, but as I read I could hear Jeremy Brett's voice in my head.

Speaking of reading new books, last time I wrote about the book I'd read for my book club and how I thought it needed a bit of food and drink to liven it up.

Vicki Writing (not exactly as shown)
Vicki Reading (not exactly as shown)
This month’s book club choice is one of the best books I have read in a long time. I just loved Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. It's very slow and lyrical, so beware if that's not your taste. I am now just beginning the next book by him, The Gift of Rain, and so far enjoying it as just as much.

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So much, that I've decided to go to Malaysia for my next year's trip.

Tell me, dear readers and fellow bloggers, what reading type are you? And do you re-read old favourites?

Friday, April 21, 2017

Of Notebooks and Chocolate Bunnies

In the midst of my usual almost-end-of-semester chaos, I'm late to the discussion about how we keep track of ideas. But I did take a photo this morning. Here's my current notebook.  I've had this notebook for years. I bought it one Christmas as a stocking-stuffer for myself – intending to keep a journal when the new year began. I never got around to the journal. But I have enjoyed looking at the notebook's lovely pristine pages. A couple of months ago, I had an idea and no other paper handy. I grabbed the notebook and a red pen and wrote down my semi-brilliant idea before it could slip away. I am now using my notebook to record random thoughts.

This notebook is in addition to the five files I have on my computer with notes about potential books or short stories. I sometimes forget those files. But when I go back to them I'm always pleased that I have a plot factory quietly churning away. I'm also dismayed at how many ideas I have with limited time to develop them. But sometimes the ideas come together – as in the case of the short story set in 1948 that I have coming out in EQMM. Random thoughts became ideas that finally took shape and came together when I did some research.

That brings me to the chocolate bunnies in this post. Here is my cat Harry's plate. I took this photo this morning. His plate is one of the reasons I choked when I tried to eat the chocolate bunny that I bought during the Easter candy sale. I haven't had a bunny in years and I thought it would be a treat.

But as soon as I chopped the head off I remembered the headless corpse of one of the rabbits who was living in my yard. I came upon it one morning as I was walking to my car. The rabbit had apparently been the victim of one of the cats who pass through my yard. The memory of that headless rabbit – and that I could never eat rabbit stew (made by my mother when my father went hunting) when I was a child – gave me some clue about why I was having a hard time eating my chocolate bunny. Harry's plate this morning gave me the rest of the story. This is what he left after gobbling down his breakfast of rabbit and pumpkin. Harry has a finicky stomach so I didn't argue when his vet suggested I vary his canned prescription cat food, alternating between chicken and rabbit. I didn't argue but I did say, "Yuck!" Which suggested that I am much more squeamish about fluffy bunnies than about chickens. At any rate, watching Harry gobble his weekly canned rabbit reminded me once again that my sweet, gentle cat would hunt and kill his own bunny if he were allowed outside.

So because of a headless corpse, rabbit stew, and Harry's gourmet cat food, I choked on my chocolate. That got me thinking about characters and how something as simple as a chocolate bunny can be a way into understanding a character and revealing something about her or him to readers.


Thursday, April 20, 2017

Rough Justice


Aline’s entry, below, got us Type M-ers talking about how some of us keep notes, in one way or another, of stories we’ve heard or read about, that finally end up in our books. I am particularly guilty of doing that.

I’ve lived most of my life in the American West, which is a gold mine of eccentric behavior that is better than anything I could make up. My books and stories are full of tales that others have told me or snippets I have read in the paper, or events I was involved in when I was a slip of a lass—sometimes things that I have remembered for decades. A few weeks ago I was having lunch with a friend who is very into research on her ancestry, and she told me a tale about a forebear of hers who pretended to commit suicide on the front porch of the lady who had rejected him. I immediately filed that tale away for use in a future Alafair Tucker mystery.

My own relatives have provided me with a wealth of material, though I have to admit that some ancestral events are too grim or shocking to use in the type of series I’m writing without being…let us say, cleaned up a bit. There is one family tale that I’ve used as inspiration for murder more than once, but never actually written about. One of my maternal grandfather’s sisters, whom I will call Violet, was married to a man who regularly abused her, but she kept it a secret from her family for years. Until her husband (let’s call him Perry) finally beat her so badly that she took the children and went home to her parents. Her face was so pulped that her father, my great-grandfather, grabbed a pistol and ran out of the house, intending to do justice right then and there.

My great-grandmother didn’t care about the abuser, but she did care about her husband and had no desire to see him hanged for murder, so she persuaded her sons (including my grandfather) wrestle their father to the ground and prevent him from leaving the house. I fear that eventually my great aunt went back to her abuser, who also was a womanizer and cheated on her regularly. But this was in the late 1910s in the wilds of Arkansas, and women had few other options back in the day. My great-grandfather was a Baptist circuit preacher, and I’m sure divorce was not an option.

The story has an interesting ending, however. Shortly thereafter, Perry was found dead by the road, a bullet in his head, apparently shot right off his horse. No one was ever charged with the crime. Was he killed by a cuckolded husband or the relative of a wronged woman? Or did one of Violet’s brothers, or even my preacher great-grandfather, decided to take matters into his own hands? However Perry met his end, he brought it on himself in those days of rough justice.

Violet didn’t have a lot of time to enjoy her freedom. She was killed in a car wreck in the 1920s, and her children were raised by Perry’s parents.

I love to learn the details of a life, and there is no one who has ever lived who doesn’t have a fascinating story, whether they share it with us or not, whether we ever know about it or not. It seems important to me that our tales by shared, because the joys and tragedies of every life are what binds us together as human beings.

p.s. Someday I’m going to ask permission from my living relatives to tell some of our more shocking family stories. I’ll bet that when they brought into the light of day, we will hear from many people who have shared our experiences and lived to tell about it.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Politics and the Pen

Barbara here. It seems right now politics is foremost on everyone's mind. As the world teeters dangerously closer  to war, as leaders rattle sabres and trade threats, it's difficult to keep our gazes resolutely turned away, ignoring the rumblings and avoiding any kind of discussion on the subject. I suspect not too many Passover and Easter gatherings escaped without a single mention of missiles and egomaniacs, no matter what one's political stripe.

My favourite social media sites are full of it, with the resulting flame wars, outraged "unfriending", and accusations of stupidity and heartlessness. There are those who insist they will always stand up for truth, equity, and justice. There are others who are overwhelmed by helplessness and just want a respite from the fruitless anger and fear. They have withdrawn from social media altogether or choose nothing but flowers and cute puppy pics.

Social media, with their instant communication, relative anonymity, and impatience with subtlety or complexity (why use a paragraph to express your thoughts when you can use an emoji), fuel this polarized, oversimplified discourse. And sometimes we authors find ourselves caught in the thick of it.

By nature, we writers are thinkers and communicators. We reflect on the world and want to share our thoughts and observations. If we weren't, we'd fix cars instead; it pays better. Crime writers in particular are concerned with questions of moral and social justice, of right and wrong, of good and evil. We grapple with heroes and villains every day. So not only do politics seep into our writing, we usually don't try to avoid them. We want to talk about the ills of the world.

Most crime writers I know lean towards the progressive end of the political spectrum. I realize this is an oversimplification, because even the "spectrum" is multi-dimensional, but in general our exploration of interpersonal struggles and our quest for social justice in the stories we tell, together with the empathy we develop as we step into the shoes of many different characters, leads us to a nuanced and tolerant understanding. As many scholars have observed, the less a person knows about a subject, the more certain they are. Conversely, the more a person learns about a subject, the less they "know".

Many crime writers prefer to leave behind the simpler world of black and white in favour of the grey zones of human frailty, conflict, and failings. Politics can't help but sneak in, whether in overt themes such as poverty, racism, and exploitation or in more subtle, personal themes of greed, family dysfunction and unattainable dreams. It's part of who we are as writers, and to ask us to stop writing about the challenges of today's world and simply focus on telling a "good story", is like asking a bird to fly without wings.

Sometimes we're not even aware of the political biases in our books, and we're surprised when a reader expresses their disapproval. Some readers go so far as to say they will never read another book by us. No writer wants to lose readers, but after a brief period of soul-searching, most of us dust ourselves off, shrug, and carry on, muttering privately that the reader probably wouldn't enjoy our next book anyway.

Socia media are a different story. As the recent horrific murder illustrates, social media have a dark, unpredictable side. Writers often have an eclectic mix of friends from around the world, some of whom we've met only casually through conferences and book events. Often a joy of reading has brought us together. With all of them, we writers enjoy sharing book talk and other thoughts of the day, including political opinions, without expecting flame wars, name calling, or unfriending. We react like anyone else; sometimes we block, unfollow or unfriend, sometimes we just delete the comment, sometimes we engage the commenter in a discussion.

But sometimes we feel a twinge of alarm. Social media trolls can be more that just a nuisance; they can be threatening and dangerous. Public figures can be the targets of extraordinary, unfiltered hatred, so much so that some have shut down their accounts, changed addresses, and retreated from the public eye. The more public and outspoken we writers become, the more vulnerable we are to this fringe element. Not just ourselves, but our families. Most of the time, it's all sound and fury signifying nothing, but it only takes one person ...

This should not, and will not, shut us up, but it does give us pause. Who knows where I live? Who knows where my children go to school? What invisible bear might I poke simply by creating this story or posting this opinion? I'd love to hear what others' thoughts and experiences have been, and how they have handled it.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

And now for something completely different…

by Rick Blechta

As I said in the comment section of Aline’s post from yesterday, her woeful story of loss brought back one of the really bad moments in my life to the point where I couldn’t get the memory of it out of my head all day, and it even carried over into my dreams last night.

Something wonderful and a little strange happens when the bond is forged between  serious musicians and their instruments. I often tell people it’s really falling in love with an inanimate object. The emotion is that strong. I’m speaking, of course, of musicians who are committed to playing well, not some youngster who’s taking piano lessons and really not all that into it. I never felt any kind of bond between myself and the piano banged away on for years in our house.

That all changed when I held my French horn for the first time in 1969. I’d played trombone in high school and in university switched to horn, basically because New York University’s School of Education was awash in great trombonists, untouchable in their excellence. Hornists were, however in short supply, so I contacted the school’s horn teacher, Harry Berv (who’d taught a very good friend all through high school) and asked if he’d take me on. I told him I’d bought a very good pro trombone just before school. Harry told me to bring the trombone to him, he’d sell it, and the following week at my first lesson, he’d have a horn for me. (I had to pony up an additional $225).

From the first time the horn’s mouthpiece touched my lips, I was in love. It just felt so right. I progressed very rapidly and was soon playing in the school’s senior band. I could not put that horn down and practised for hours, completely smitten.

Then disaster struck one Friday evening the next fall. After a very long week, I got my sorry butt onto the train at Grand Central Station, found a seat, and put my horn on the overhead luggage rack. During the 40-minute ride, I fell asleep over a book I needed to finish for a class.

Waking with a start as the train arrived at my station, I grabbed my briefcase, shoved the book into it and dashed for the door. Unfortunately due to my grogginess, I completely forgot about my horn on the rack above.

I discovered what I’d done almost immediately, but alas, it was too late. The train was already disappearing around the bend north of the station.

I ran home as fast as I could. My brother was home, and we jumped into his car and tore off up the Thruway, heading for Stamford, Connecticut where the train terminated. When we got there, the train had already been sent to the north yard for the weekend. I implored the man in the office to let me search the train. They sent someone instead who came back with the bad news: no French horn.

Most people face personal catastrophes during their lives. This was my first. I was completely beside myself, distraught, angry that I could have been so stupid, and sad beyond belief. We went home (my brother was actually nice to me during the drive). I wrote up a poster, offering a reward for any information on my lost “closest friend”, and took it up to the Stamford station — but not with much hope.

I spent the next two days sitting beside the phone. It didn’t ring. I have certainly never been so depressed.

Monday, I just couldn’t face going to school and stayed home. Around eleven o’clock, the phone rang. It was a conductor who’d been on the train. He’d found my horn at the end of the line. In a hurry, he’d jumped on a southbound train with my horn which he’d taken home for the weekend. When he’d seen my poster that morning and immediately called me. With unimaginable relief, I picked up my horn that evening and gladly gave the man $100 for his honesty (a lot of money for a student in those days).

A few weeks later, my brother presented me with a set of handcuffs for Christmas so I could be assured of never being separated from my beloved instrument again.

I still have that horn, and I still feel the same way about it. My wife understands. She feels the same way about her flute!

And now here’s a link to that Flanders and Swann version of the Rondo from Mozart’s Fourth Horn Concerto in Eb Major. It is very clever and has always been a favourite. If you’ve never heard it before, you’re in for a treat — and a good laugh.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Losing the Plot

I was so interested in Sybil's post about organising those invaluable random thoughts that occur to us and might even, one day, spark an idea for a whole book. I too have these scrappy bits of paper – ideas don't tend to come handily when you're sitting at your desk with a neat notebook or a computer file marked 'Inspiration' readily to hand.

My practice has been to chuck them into a box – a Tiffany's box, in fact, which I couldn't bear to throw away – and on one of those bleak days when no beautiful idea possesses me I tip the whole lot out on to my desk and sort through.  Surprisingly often, I find that there's been a subconscious theme to these bits and pieces and some of them hang together and point to a plot line that's worth pursuing.

When it comes to a WIP, I do try to be more systematic. For the series, I keep a file of names, dobs, physical characteristics and so on but for a long time there were piles, too, of plot development thoughts that occurred while I was writing and I scribbled down on a sheets of paper – recycled, naturally! – which then did their very best to get themselves lost among all the other things on my untidy desk.

This time, I vowed it would be different. Like Sybil, I got myself a book and put all the snatches of ideas, plot line, one or two pivotal scenes, details of characters and research background in it together. It's certainly a more efficient system.

But then I was inspired to tidy my desk. This doesn't often happen but just once in a while I realise I've forgotten what the surface looks like and think it might be nice to reacquaint myself with it. I had a proper clear out, and then we went away on holiday. When I came back, there was a beautiful tidy desk.

But when I sat down to work, I realised the book wasn't in its usual place. I ransacked my study. I ransacked my husband's study, darkly suspecting he might have picked it up by accident. I ransacked the house, looking in more and more improbable places. Twice.

It had gone, swept up with something else and put in the recycling bin that was emptied while we were away.   It was a bad blow, and I had no one to blame but myself. It should, of course, have made me vow to keep my desk tidy. In fact it's made me swear I'll never, ever, tidy it again. Well, probably I will sometime, but much more carefully.

But like Sybil having to find that one perfect sentence, there was quite a lot of original material in that book that I'd been pleased with, at least at the time, and that's getting in the way of the replicating I have to get down to now. I keep feeling that it just won't be as good as what I wrote before.

I may well be wrong about the lost material. There have been times when I've found something I'd misplaced after a long search and been quite disappointed with what I had thought was a sparkling piece of writing. So I just have to remind myself of that.

Sybil, I do hope you find your perfect sentence. But if you don't, I hope you can convince yourself that its replacement is even better.

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Velvet Curse

I've had a lot of trouble writing this week.

Oh that's such a lie. I only have trouble writing when I'm actually doing it. The truth is that I've stopped about fifty pages into my next book. Not because I'm stymied but because I've sullied up and indulged in one time-wasting activity after another. True I can always find excuses. Allergy season, etcetera, etcetera. But they are fake. Truth is I can write almost anywhere, anytime. I don't have enough sense to be temperamental.

There's a subtle curse hanging over me this time. That of good fortune. My newest book, Fractured Families, has received a series of good reviews. This week I was dumbfounded when one of the largest papers in the San Francisco bay area, the Mercury News, reviewed it. In fact, Fractured was in the lead position.

So it seems like the best time possible to retire, or at least stop the series and write something else. I make no secret of my passion for historical novels. But the truth is I really want to write the new one, Silent Sacrifices. Nevertheless, it involves a lot of new territory from a technical standpoint and I worry that I'm not up the challenge.

One of the ideas I've inserted in my blogs time and again (with the fervor of an evangelist) is that writers have to toss people out of their writing room. Read head. Whether it be a husband, mother, priest, principal, next door neighbors, fellow writers, or literary critics. Whoever is peering over your shoulder standing in judgement of your morals or your abilities. Nattering, chatting among themselves about your ability to plot, characterize, turn a phrase. Raising doubts, jeering.

They must go. They all have a paralytic effect. Like the head of Medusa, they will turn you to stone if you allow them to peek at your manuscript.

One of my favorite images from Kansas's Garden of Eden (the first scene in Fractured Families) is that of Reaching Woman. This week it seems to portray my state of mind. Reaching, reaching, for a half-constructed plot misting away, reaching for wisps of characters and scenes that lack energy.

Monday morning, the end of Lent, I promise to end this self-imposed slumber and throw everyone out of my writing room once again.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Shaken Snow Globe

There are days when it hits the fan, when life leaves you feeling like your head is a shaken snow globe, and you want nothing more than a quiet corner and a blank computer screen.

These are the days when you know you’re a writer –– when at the end of a long day you don’t want a drink, you don’t want to exercise, or even to curl up with a good novel, but, rather, to fill a blank screen.

I had one of these days recently: a long meeting that ended at 8 p.m., followed by a debrief. I came home and watched the first episode of House of Cards with my wife Lisa. When she went to bed, I stayed up to write. Needed to do so. Just 45 minutes. Just needed to clear my head by filling it with the novel I’m working on. Then off to bed, and I slept like the dead.

All of this makes me think about what writing means to me. Billy Collins, in his poem “Driving Myself to a Poetry Reading,” writes, “There is a part of me that wants / to let go of the wheel, climb over the seat / and fall asleep curled in the back.” This makes me think of the complex relationship writers have with writing. The thought, for instance, of everything this new book (and its author) will endure on its way to publication –– feedback, revisions, submission, rejection, contract negotiations –– is like staring at Mt. Everest before attempting the climb. It makes no sense to do so. Later in the poem, Collins writes, “Another part of me wants to be up on the hood, / a chrome ornament in the shape of a bird / leaning aerodynamically into the wind.” There is a push-pull relationship with this craft that most writers experience. The personal insecurities (will people like this?) that we all have and the business frustrations (promotion, reviews, advances) are often at odds with the love we all have for the craft, the I-need-to-do-this aspect of writing. When the latter wins, you know you’re in this for the right reasons.

The physical, mental, and spiritual act of writing keeps me going. I don’t write full time. So it’s not and never has been a job. It’s what I do –– most days at 4 a.m. when I push the plot forward –– but also late at night on the heels of month-long days when I need to clear my head by filling it.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Keeping Track

Right now I’m looking for a sentence. Not just any old sentence—the first sentence of my WIP. Sometime when I was working on the final edits to A Palette for Murder I thought of the perfect sentence for the next book. I wrote it down in a safe place so I wouldn’t lose it. Trouble is, I don’t remember where that “safe place” is. It could be anywhere.

I tend to write down my thoughts in random places on pretty much anything—Post-it notes, envelopes, travel brochures, stray pieces of paper. I’ve even written a short note on my hand when nothing else was available. (Hey, it’s washable!) I always intend to transfer these gems somewhere more permanent, but they don’t always make it. I’m a lot like my amateur sleuth, Aurora Anderson, in this respect. She learned her lesson in Fatal Brushstroke when a Post-it note she’d written something on ended up where it shouldn’t. Unfortunately, I haven’t yet learned mine.

So now I’ve started writing everything to do with a story in blank notebooks I pick up all over the place. Okay, mostly at Disneyland. I’m hoping I’ll lose less that way.

I may have problems keeping track of notes, but I don’t have a problem keeping track of the timeline for my books. I’ve got a system for that.

In a past life, I worked as a script supervisor on a handful of student films. That’s the person responsible for preserving continuity while filming—within a scene as well as between scenes. As you might guess, there’s a lot to remember so script supervisors use all kinds of forms to keep track of important information. When I started writing mysteries, I realized some of those forms could be repurposed to do the same for a book.

One of my script supervisor duties was to create a list of “one-liners”. Essentially, these are one line descriptions of what happens in each scene. In the course of working on those, I also noted down the time within the story, i.e. when a scene takes place in relation to other scenes.

I modified the Story Breakdown/Chronology form I used on those films, substituting ‘chapter’ for ‘scene’ and voila! I have a way to keep track of the timeframe of each chapter and its contents.

I fill out the form as I’m writing. Whenever I have a question about when a scene takes place, I have a ready reference. It only takes me moments to find the answer. Or if I’m looking for when an event takes place, like the finding of a body, I can easily look that up as well. I also use it for a final review of my manuscript, making sure what I’ve written on the page matches the timeline I mapped out.

The form I use is a table with three columns labeled ‘Chapter’, ‘Time’ and ‘Description’. ‘Chapter’ is the chapter number. ‘Time’ is the day number on which the chapter takes place in the story. ‘Description’ is a one-line, barebones description of what happens in the chapter, something that will jog my memory about its contents. By the time you’ve finished a draft of a book, you’ll have all of the chapters listed with the time they occur and a short description.

Entries in the time column are in the format D or N followed by a number, e.g. D1 or N1 for day 1 and night 1, respectively. Chapters that take place during the day use the D designation; those that take place at night use the N designation. D1 is the first day in story time, D2 the second day and so on. D1 and D2 don’t have to be consecutive days, they could occur days, weeks or months apart. But, in terms of story chronology, D1 comes before D2. If there’s a gap in time, add a plus sign to the time designation. e.g. D1+ indicates a chapter that takes place on day 1, but there’s a gap in time from the previous chapter.

If a chapter spans more than one time designation, you can split it onto two lines or leave it on one line and put a slash between the times, e.g. D1/N1 denotes a chapter that takes place during the day as well as at night. Do whatever works best for you.

So, for the first chapter of my book, Fatal Brushstroke, the columns in the first line on the form were filled in as follows: Chapter: ‘1’, Time: ‘D1 (Tues)’, Description: ‘Rory discovers body in garden and police come to investigate.’ (I like to keep track of the day of the week in the time column since that’s important to me; if you’re writing something where the actual date is important, put that there also.)

I don’t generally use flashbacks in my books, but if I did I’d probably use an FB designation for those to indicate they’re taking place at a different time. I generally have one line for each chapter though, if two chapters cover the same event such as a memorial service, I might combine them on one line.

That’s it. I hope you find this interesting and useful. It’s pretty easy to set up the form in Word or any other program you want to use. Now, back to seeing if I can find that sentence...

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Some things to make you smile

by Rick Blechta

It’s another one of “those” weeks and there’s been no time to think of a topic for a post — let alone write one. I just noticed that it’s nearly one-thirty, and I’d better get something up so there won’t be a big Tuesday hole here on Type M and that just will not do!

Being prepared with quick fixes is something in which I specialize, so this week I come armed with cartoons of a literary bent. I’m sure you’ll guess the underlying theme.

So enjoy, everyone.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

On Nurturing Delicate Flowers. And then there’s me.

By Vicki Delany

As many of you know I am a great fan of the modern Gothic novel. I am reading one right now by an author I have followed for a long time, Carol Goodman. The book is entitled The Widow’s House.

I am enjoying it very much, but what prompted me to write about it today is Goodman’s portrait of the main characters: a ‘writing couple’ and their famous author/professor.

I won’t get into (today anyway) that the female half of the ‘writing couple’ has seen her extremely promising career destroyed by the less talented male half. In effect, she has to earn a living, do all the housework, and babysit him so he can ‘write’.

The male character is a ‘writer’. He writes.

And OMG what a chore it is.

He needs a proper night’s sleep or the next day’s writing is ruined. He has to have complete silence in the house, or he can’t write. He turns off his cell phone because any interruptions would destroy his concentration.

He has suffered from writers block; at one time he burned his entire MS, but now he is inspired again and writing furiously. And everyone, especially the wife, tip-toes around him.

Here’s a quote: “He’d entered into the “deep stage” of writing that made him nearly oblivious to everything going on around him.

She, now that she is also feeling inspired to begin writing again, isn’t a whole lot better. She talks, constantly, about her “idea” to everyone who will listen. And I am sure to many who don’t want to.

Much talking about the “idea” ensues. Remarkably little writing is actually done.

Frankly, I want to say, get the heck on with it, will you? To the both of them.

Geeze, get over yourself. It’s your job, do it.

Now, I know we lowly genre writers aren’t in the same class as the great men and women of English Literature. As they see themselves anyway. But do “literary” writers really act like that?

Do they really think they are soooooo special? Such delicate flowers in need of constant reassurance and nurturing?

Maybe they do.

Image result for snoopy writing

One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was in a creative writing class. The teacher said: Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block. If you are a writer, then write. It’s your job, so do it.

But what do I know. I’ve never been in the “deep stage”. I just write books people seem to want to read.

Speaking of which, I will be in Ottawa tomorrow (Tuesday April 11) for a joint book launch with Linda Wiken. Come out and celebrate with us. Peter Devine Pub, Clarence Street in the Byward Market.

Friday, April 07, 2017

Working the List

Sorry to be late today. We had a technical difficulty, and I couldn't log-on. I need to get ready for a film screening (including dinner with group) at school this evening. Therefore, I'm going to save my longer post for next time and simply share a couple of observations I've made since my last post.

1. The physical therapy that I mentioned having for my neck is working. I have to remind myself to do the exercises three times a day and get up and move from my computer before I freeze into place. But the exercises at home, the neck massage and heat pack at the therapy office, and the exercises I'm now doing on the machines are untangling my stress knots.

Note to self:  Remember I need to take care of my body because it's hard to meet deadlines when I'm in too much discomfort to work. The exercises are boring and trips to therapist time-consuming, but I need to stay committed.

2. This week, with end of semester looming and multiple deadlines, I have been making a to do list. Writing the list out, rather than telling myself what I need to get done, is both efficient and effective.
I know this, but I often don't take time to make a list -- unless I have errands to do and want to move from one place to another without backtracking. Simply making a list of what I need to get done can be overwhelming.

Note to self:  Seeing all of the to-do tasks from my life on a list causes dismay, depression, and near-panic. But having a list of task that I need to complete, allows me to prioritize. It also allows me to manage my time -- fitting in minor tasks like phone calls for appointment when I have only a few minutes here and there. Making a list for the next day gets me up and moving. Working the list -- checking off each task as it's completed -- is invigorating. I feel competent, efficient, and focused. With list in hand, I can decide to ignore minor distractions.

This post was first on my list today. Check. 

Thursday, April 06, 2017

The Fork in the Road

When last we met at this spot on March 22, Dear Reader, I (Donis) wrote about reaching the middle of my work in progress. I was feeling like I had veered off into the weeds and was having to slog my way around a bit in order to find my way back onto the road. In the two weeks that have passed, I have managed to get back onto the highway and get moving again. So here I am, speeding along nicely, when much to my discomfort I come to a fork in the road. Which way should I go?

You may wonder why I don’t have a map. Well, I did, once. Kind of. But my map no longer leads me to where I want to go. I was told once by a mystery author (who also happens to be a lawyer - a significant detail, I think), that before she begins writing, she outlines each and every one of her novels to the tune of at least one hundred pages, and never deviates therefrom.  One Very Big Name of my acquaintance never outlines at all, or even has much in mind when she begins her mammoth novels.  She writes dozens of seemingly unrelated episodes, then arranges them in some sort of order and cobbles them together with new scenes and segues.  This technique may sound pretty slapdash, but it seems to work for this woman, since she could buy and sell us all.

I have done both.  Each book seems to be a whole new order of creation for me, and demands its own unique method of coming into being.  I’ve been known to outline before I begin when I think that would help me clarify the direction of the plot in my own mind.  I have also simply started writing, usually at the beginning, but I’ve started in the middle and the end, as well.  More than once I’ve begun a novel on the fly, and then gone back and created an outline because I’ve gotten myself into a muddle and can’t quite figure the way out. It’s not like this has never happened to me before, and I must remember that miraculously it always works out. As I write the first draft, my beginnings never do match the end, for somewhere in the middle of the story, I changed my mind about this character, or this action, or this story line. I try not to waste time by going back to the beginning and fixing it to fit my new vision. No, no, that way lies madness. I can get (and have gotten) caught up in an endless merry-go-round of fixes and never reach the end. I just have to keep going until the book is done.

When I was a pre-teen, I spent several summers at Girl Scout Camp, way out in the woods outside of Locust Grove, OK. One of our activities was something called a Penny Walk. We would hike down a long, maze-like path through the woods, and every time we came to a fork in the trail, the point-girl would toss a penny to decide which way to go.  Every walk was different from the one before, yet we always found our way back.

So I hope to construct this new novel like a penny walk, and every time I come to a fork in the road, I’ll make a decision which way to go, and trust that it will lead me home.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Goodreads – love it or hate it

Barbara here. As part of the build-up to the September release of my next novel, THE TRICKSTER'S LULLABY, my publisher sends out periodic emails with promotional suggestions. Yesterday, the subject was Goodreads. The publisher is planning a giveaway, and wants me to be involved in the promotion, claiming that Goodreads is becoming the single most important social media site for authors and readers to connect. I sighed. More social media? I am active on Facebook, make the occasional stab at Twitter when I have something timely to announce, write this bi-weekly blog, and try to keep my website up-to-date with news and events.

I have an author profile on Goodreads and I know my books get reviewed there, but I have never been able to figure out how to use it for promotion. I don't use it as a reader because I get more than enough book suggestions from friends, book discussions, conferences, reviews, etc., and although I recognize the value of reviews for both readers and authors, I don't review or list any books I am reading. After twenty years in the writing community, many of my close friends are writers and I treasure my place in the community. Reviewing books, even positively, opens up the potential for misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and other conflicts. For example, "You reviewed her book, why not mine?"

Increasingly, as publishers' publicity and touring budgets are reduced and professional review sites dry up, social media have become essential  promotional tools. Authors are building relationships directly with readers in cyberspace. I actually enjoy this; readers have become friends and, when writing gets too lonely or discouraging, nothing lifts the spirits better than a message from a reader who enjoyed my book and eagerly awaits the next. But there are limits to the time I can devote if I also want to write that much-anticipated next book. There are limits as well to the amount of promotional book chatter that people want to see on their news and message feeds.

So my heart sank when I read the message about Goodreads, and I decided to conduct a very informal, very unscientific survey of my Facebook friends yesterday to find out whether they used Goodreads to find book recommendations, and whether they posted or read reviews, joined groups, interacted with authors, etc. My Facebook friends are a mix of fellow authors, family and personal friends, readers and other book people, and people I have met only in cyberspace (so far). By the end of the day, I had 83 comments. It was a topic that excited both readers and authors, many of whom are asking themselves the same questions as me. I appreciated all the people who took the time to share their experience and advice. All the comments were very interesting and useful.

First of all, there were wide differences of opinion. Many authors who replied have, like me, some Goodreads presence but aren't sure how to use it. However, a few of the more tech savvy ones are very active in linking it to their other social media and find it an extremely valuable way to reach new readers. They believe because it is a site dedicated to books only, without the extraneous chatter of Facebook or Twitter and because it's frequented mainly by active, avid readers, it is like one giant online book club. And unlike Facebook and Twitter, there's less blatant author self-promotion. Its main aim is to help readers connect to books  and to discuss, review, and compare books. So the algorithms that produce book suggestions and comparisons can really help readers find new authors they might like. The key here is "new" readers. Other social media strengthens existing relationships; Goodreads creates new ones.

Some authors replied they did join discussion groups and post reviews, but many did not, preferring to use the Q&A options, giveaways, and links to other social media. Giveaway offers elicit hundreds of responses, and even if only a fraction of those actually check out the book, it's a big reach. Several authors noted that discussion groups disapprove of authors who promote their own work in the group, so that strategy could backfire.

The comments from readers were eye-opening. Some didn't use it at all but most used it to some extent to get recommendations or to check the reviews of a book they were considering. Some get book recommendations almost exclusively through Goodreads. They read the synopsis and a sample of reviews before deciding whether they would like the book. One bookseller noted that customers would check the book reviews on their iPhone before buying the book in their store. Libraries are also using Goodreads to help them find new books.  Increasingly as a society we are relying on on-line peer reviews when making consumer choices, whether it's booking a hotel or finding a restaurant, and the book world is no different.

As a final exploration in this world of Goodreads, I went on the site to look at my own author profile. Someone, not me, has kept it up to date; all my books are on there with their synopses and covers. The feature "Ask me a question" has been enabled, although I have received only one question, from a reader in Holland, so that's worth at least ten, surely. One of the beauties of the internet is that the whole world is accessible. No national or continental boundaries. My books all have decent ratings and reviews, and although reading reviews is often upsetting (we only ever see the negatives), I am grateful to everyone who takes the time to post.

My informal survey suggests that Goodreads is an increasingly important and powerful tool for both readers and authors.  It used to be that authors (and publishers) fretted about the number of Amazon reviews, but I think Goodreads now has a far greater reach. Anyone who signs up can review a book on Goodreads, whereas only Amazon purchases can be reviewed on Amazon, which limits the numbers. For example, my latest book FIRE IN THE STARS has 86 ratings and 29 reviews on Goodreads but only 9 reviews on Amazon. So a reader looking for the most information on a book will probably check out Goodreads. I'm well aware that it is owned by Amazon, and thus is ultimately a tool for Amazon to sell books, but it's certainly clever. And judging from reader engagement, it's providing a real service.

My conclusion... I need to step up my game. I enjoy Facebook and will continue to share news and nurture friendships, but I need to find room in my day for this new player. For a start, I will try to link my social media sites together so that each pushes the other, and I will start a dialogue in the Q&A section. I will "like" and comment on some of the reviews.  I'm not sure I will review any books myself, unless they are written by total strangers, but I may make a few book recommendations and put a couple of books on my shelf. But in that, I must tread carefully, and still save most of my day for writing my books. And walking my dogs, and seeing my friends and family. And having a life...

What are your thoughts? Your experiences, good and bad, with social media and the ever-growing reach of Goodreads.

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Could this mean the end of crime fiction?

by Rick Blechta

I meant to write about this last week. In fact, I had started writing this post the day before, but last Tuesday sideswiped me, and all of a sudden it was eight in the evening. My posting day was irretrievably gone. I can take comfort that I seldom miss a week, and honest, my intentions were of the best, but, well, things happen sometimes…

So on to my explosive title for this week’s offering. It is definitely on the hyperbolic end of the spectrum (to get your attention), but indulge me for a moment.

The idea comes from a radio interview I heard on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s excellent daily current events show, amazingly called The Current. The interview was so arresting that I sat in my car in the driveway to finish listening to the end. Here’s the link: The Morality Pill. I’ll wait while you listen – and it is worth a listen.

Okay, so would you take a pill that could do this? Would you support giving it to people who are deemed to need it, say, prison inmates? What if a government forced you to take it – assuming this could be done by putting it in drinking water?

Certainly a more empathetic society would be less violent (and from violence comes the grist for the crime writer’s mill). Changing humanity into something more moral would be a huge step, though. As stated in the interview, there would be massive blow back to overcome if it were to be universally used. I doubt there’s anyone who would disagree that our planet would certainly benefit from less violence, but I’ll bet that everyone would already view themselves as being very moral. (Most would be wrong.)

In order to make our planet a better place, would you take a pill like this?

Monday, April 03, 2017

Crime as Social History

I've gone on a jag recently of reading Golden Age crime novels that I read years ago.  I wondered how they would stand up to the test of time.

Some emerged triumphant.  I still find Marjory Allingham clever and witty and I was still gripped to the end by The Tiger in the Smoke with its sinister characters - surely one of the best of all time.

I was always a great fan of Dorothy Sayers and with my own novels being set in Galloway, I picked out Five Red Herrings.   That was a real disappointment.  It was, I'm sorry to say, plain dull: the characters unconvincing, the twist in the plot based on railway timetables.

Agatha Christie fared better.  She was always readable and her intricate plotting is superb, even if the characters often seem about as alive as the pieces on a Cleudo board.

It was only when I was reading Vicky's post about all the descriptions of food in the modern equivalents that it occurred to me how much they said about social history.  I can't really remember any descriptions of food at all in these.

But then. of course, you wouldn't talk about what was put before you on the table - unless to remark that cook had had a disaster with the kitchen flue.  Praising a dish you were eating would be shocking bad form.

 'The butler did it' may be no more than a joke, but in these books, written between the wars, household servants underpinned the whole edifice. They were a feature of even modest middle-class life.  Even Miss Marple, an elderly lady of limited means who relies on a generous nephew to pay for her holidays, has a maid;  Lord Peter Wimsey has Bunter; Albert Campion has the glorious Magersfontein Lugg.  Meals magically appear, house parties are arranged for the convenience of the villain without any of the boring details of shopping, cleaning or cooking having to be considered. 'Snobbery with violence', Alan Bennett once called it, but the books were the product of a time, when debutantes not 'celebs' were the pin-ups.  

And now, considering the TV schedules - wall-to-wallshowings of Masterchef, The Bake-Off, Ready Steady Cook, Nigella and all the rest - a twenty-second century social historian would probably say the crime novels that double up as recipe books are merely doing the same thing - making a record of life  as we live it today..

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Guest Blogger: John McFetridge

Type M would like to welcome our guest this weekend, John McFetridge. He’s written a very interesting piece about the “fiction” surrounding the brutal murder of Kitty Genovese in New York in 1964.

John McFetridge is the author of three Constable Eddie Dougherty novels set in Montreal in the 1970s, where he grew up, and four novels in the Toronto Series, where he now lives. John will be appearing at the ImagiNATION Literary Festival at the Morrin Centre in Quebec City on April 9th, 2017.

 Based on a True Story

By John McFetridge

Pretty much every crime novel, every novel, every piece of fiction, has some real event as its inspiration.

My own novels have gone from having only a slight connection to the real events that inspired them to containing many specific details about real world events. And often I wonder if I have any responsibility to these events. Do I need to get them right?

The short answer is, of course, no. The first priority is always the story.

But sometimes I wonder how big a gap should there be between the first and second priorities? And third and fourth?

Because how real events are portrayed in fiction has a very big effect on how they’re remembered. If the fictional accounts are wrong it can have serious consequences.

In recent history maybe the best example is the Kitty Genovese murder in New York.

“37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call Police.”

That was the headline on the New York Times article. That’s the way the story was told, in journalism and in fiction. In making the story the number one priority, that was very successful.

But it wasn’t true.

In fact, the newspaper article with that headline wasn’t published until a few weeks after the murder. There had been small stories about the murder in newspapers after it happened but none mentioned witnesses not coming forward. It wasn’t until the Police Commissioner talked about the story while having lunch with the New York Times city editor and said, “Brother, that Queens story is one for the books. Thirty-eight witnesses. I’ve been in this business a long time, but this beats everything,” that the story of the witnesses first appeared.

As Kevin Cook writes in his book, Kitty Genovese: The Murder, the Bystanders, the Crime that Changed America, the editor, “felt a spark running up and down the back of his neck, the spine-tingling sense that he was onto a story readers would never forget.”

The story wasn’t the murder, the victim, or the perpetrator; the story was the witnesses. That’s the story that got told and retold for decades. It even led to something called the Bystander Effect or the Apathy Effect.

Thirty-seven people were aware that a woman was being brutally murdered and chose not to do anything about it. Not to get involved. Not to even pick up the telephone and make an anonymous call to the police.

That’s the story that was accepted uncritically.

Does it matter that it wasn’t true?

The first fictionalized account I remember was a made-for TV movie in 1975 called Death Scream starring Cloris Leachman and Ed Asner. The imdb description says it’s about a murder committed “while nearby residents watched but did nothing to help.” The story had already been used for the basis of an episode of Perry Mason in 1965 called, “The Silent Six,” in which a woman “is beaten within an inch of her life while her neighbors sit and do nothing.” The TV show Law & Order has used the story more than once.

Harlan Ellison wrote a short story called  “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” in 1973 and wrote in a number of articles that thirty-six people, “stood by and watched” Genovese “get knifed to death right in front of them, and wouldn't make a move.” (the difference in number of witnesses is an odd minor point. Sometimes it’s 37, sometimes 38, Ellison uses 36 and later research discovered the police had taken statements from over 40 people).

The story has been retold in novels, comic books, and in movies made in France and Denmark.

It seems that witnesses knowing a murder is being committed and not doing anything about it is a story that we can easily believe.

Does it matter that it wasn’t true?

Background and context are important. We say things like, “I just like a good mystery,” and don’t want there to be too much politics, which I certainly understand, but if we’re going to use real world events in our fiction maybe we should be a little concerned about the context. In 2015 Marcia M. Gallo published a book called, “No One Helped”: Kitty Genovese, New York City, and the Myth of Urban Apathy.

As the publisher, Cornell University Press, says about the book, “No One Helped places the conscious creation and promotion of the Genovese story within a changing urban environment. Gallo reviews New York’s shifting racial and economic demographics and explores post World War II examinations of conscience regarding the horrors of Nazism. These were important factors in the uncritical acceptance of the story by most media, political leaders, and the public despite repeated protests from Genovese’s Kew Gardens neighbors at their inaccurate portrayal.”

In 2015 Kitty Genovese’s brother Bill Genovese was the subject of a documentary film, The Witness, and he says, “I think we now know for certain that this description was inaccurate. Most people were ear-witnesses rather than eyewitnesses: They didn’t see what was going on in the dark parking lot, and they didn’t realize a murder was taking place. A neighbor named Karl Ross called Kitty’s friend, Sophia Farrar, who ran down as fast as she could to help my sister. So the reality of Kitty’s death was substantially different than the description in Gansberg’s report. We now know that Ross also called the police shortly after Moseley left, but it was too late… The police log only showed Karl Ross’ phone call, but maybe other neighbors called. A woman named Patti said to me that she called the police that night and was told that they’d already received a call about this case. Another neighbor wrote an affidavit later on, claiming that his father called the police around 3:30 A.M., but this didn’t appear in the official police records. So who do you believe? Did the police operator forget to log some phone calls or simply ignore them, thinking it was just a ‘lovers’ quarrel’? Eventually, the New York Times’ inaccurate report shaped the collective memory of this event as ‘38 saw murder and did nothing.’”

In 2016 the New York Times finally called its initial story flawed. “While there was no question that the attack occurred, and that some neighbors ignored cries for help, the portrayal of 38 witnesses as fully aware and unresponsive was erroneous. The article grossly exaggerated the number of witnesses and what they had perceived. None saw the attack in its entirety. Only a few had glimpsed parts of it, or recognized the cries for help. Many thought they had heard lovers or drunks quarreling. There were two attacks, not three. And afterward, two people did call the police. A 70-year-old woman ventured out and cradled the dying victim in her arms until they arrived. Ms. Genovese died on the way to a hospital.”

How different would things be now if the true story had been the one told over and over? How different would it be if we didn’t believe so easily that all of our neighbours would turn a blind eye?

When I made the move from writing novels vaguely inspired by real events to novels that include some detailed descriptions of the real events I never even thought about the need to get the facts straight. The story is always the number one priority.

But is the fictional story the only priority?

What are some of your favourite novels based on true stories? And do they get the facts straight?