Friday, January 30, 2015

Nameless in Maine

A startling story appeared in the Bangor Daily News this morning. A school crossing guard in Presque Isle, Maine, was run over and killed by a woman who had fled to Presque Isle—the back of beyond—to hide from a violent stalker in another state. Because the woman had signed up for Maine's Address Confidentiality Program, the police would not say who she was, leaving the dead crossing guard's family angry and frustrated. No criminal charges were filed. The woman is the subject of a civil suit concerning the matter.

What fascinated me about this story wasn't the death of the crossing guard, which is too sad, but the existence of a state program that enables people to move to Maine and disappear. I, for one, never heard of it. The Address Confidentiality Program has been around since 2005, when it was enacted into law. According to the BDN 172 people are currently enrolled in the program, 87 of them children. A referral from a professional counselor is required before you can get in; you can't just show up in Augusta and say, "I can't stand Albert another minute, tell me where I can hide out with the children." Or maybe you can. Maybe it just hasn't caught on. All those divorcees who take their children to Florida to get away from the ex-spouse. Could it be that they're fleeing in the wrong direction?

Family law is such a morass. What a simple solution. "Albert is beating me! Find me a job as a waitress in Vanceboro." Or maybe, "Phyllis is beating me! Tell me where to go with the children." Are there men in the program? If a man tried to get into the program and was rejected, would he have grounds for a discrimination lawsuit? Can you get into the program and escape your debts as a result?

It seems to me that this law, once people everywhere start hearing about it, must result in a huge jump in the Down-East population. Like the discovery of gold in California, it must attract droves of people seeking the last available thing of value in modern society: privacy. There's not a lot of work in Maine, and the winters are beastly, but so what, it's freedom. Forty years ago that law would have occasioned the founding of many a hippie commune of the abused and stalked. The Tomah Woods would have been full of them. 172 people? Bah. The needy are waiting out there in their millions, in Texas, in California, even in New Jersey. All we need is for the word to get out. Come to Maine. Leave your name behind.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Recipe for Surviving a Blizzard (Especially a Blizzard That Wasn’t)

Sheila York

The Blizzard of 2015 just clipped us here in North Jersey: we ended up with only about 6 inches. I do not blame the meteorologists for any of it, not the cancelled train service, not the closed roads, not the fisticuffs at the dairy case. I was very briefly a weather reporter – back in the days when the guys running the TV stations thought it was just fine to call us Weather Girls – and, yipes, is it hard to predict the direction of certain kinds of storms, more so when they’re coming off the water. 

As I was writing this blog, on Tuesday, I watched a car spin a couple of 360s at the bottom of my street. And my street had been plowed. I pictured the Garden State Parkway lined with stalled cars and stranded citizens if we had got any kind of real storm and the roads had been left open. It’s freakishly dangerous when it’s dry, given too many Jersey drivers’ challenged understanding of the rules of the road. (Yes, when the YIELD sign is facing you, it means you have to do it.)

In expectation of the blizzard, David and I meticulously rehearsed our well-considered plan for being cabin-bound for days.

We have natural gas, so we were unlikely to lose heat and the ability to cook. David and I both had fully charged Kindles, so we could read even if the electricity went off. And we had plenty of food and booze. I think we could have been dug out in April and been found fat and happy.

To test Part 1 of our plan: Monday night as the temperature plummeted, the wind rose and the snow became horizontal, we invited neighbors over to share a pot of spicy vegetarian chili — warming, delicious, easy to make.

Vegetarian Bean Chili
From Martha Stewart Living’s cookbook Meatless (2013)

What you’ll need (measure out all ingredients before you begin; things go much faster)
2  tablespoons olive oil
1  large onion, chopped
1  poblano chile, ribs and seeds removed, chopped
4  garlic cloves, minced
Coarse salt
1  can (4 oz) diced green chiles
1  tablespoon + 1.5 teaspoons chili powder
2  teaspoons ground cumin
3  cups good quality canned kidney beans, drained and rinsed
3  cups good quality canned pinto beans, drained and rinsed
1  can (28 oz) diced tomatoes, with juice
2  cups water
Assorted toppings such as toasted/thinly sliced tortillas, chopped avocado, sliced scallions, grated cheese, sour cream or yogurt

What you’ll need to do
1.    In a large Dutch oven or other heavy pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. 
Add onion, poblano and garlic; season with some of the coarse salt
Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent, about 4 minutes.
2.   Stir in green chiles, chili powder and cumin; cook, stirring frequently, till spices are darkened and fragrant, about 3 minutes.
3.   Add the beans, tomatoes and their juice, and the 2 cups of water; bring to a boil over high heat.
4.   Reduce heat to a simmer and cook until vegetables are tender and chili thickened, 20 to 30 minutes
5.   Remove from the heat. Season with salt. Ladle into bowls and set out the toppings.

For Part 2: We served plenty of Blizzard Margaritas, which can be made in advance and stored in the snow if the power goes out. Hey, the roads were closed. We weren’t going to drive.

Blizzard Margaritas (David's recipe)

What you’ll need
1  cup tequila (David recommends using one of good quality)
1/4  cup triple sec
6  ounces frozen limeade
3  tablespoons lemon juice (doesn’t have to be fresh lemon; bottled juice is fine)
Crushed ice, if your blender is powerful enough to do that; Otherwise, you can serve on the rocks.

What you’ll need to do
1.    Place the tequila, triple sec, limeade and lemon juice in a blender; blend.
2.    Pour into pitcher and set aside
3.    Crush ice cubes in the blender.
4.    Scoop crushed ice into the margarita pitcher, stir
5.    Serve 

6.    For a salted rim, pour an even layer of coarse salt onto a plate. Wet the rim of the glass with water and dip lightly into the salt.

For Part 3: I finished these books, and recommend them to be added to your plan for the next blizzard warning. Or your celebration of living in a part of country that doesn't get them.

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

Rachel, whose drinking lost her a marriage, continues to ride the train to London every day, to avoid telling her new roommate she’s also lost her job. Every day, through the window during the train’s daily delay on the line, she sees an attractive young couple in their back garden, and day after day fantasizes, or more accurately obsesses, about their perfect life together, just paces from where her former husband has set up housekeeping with a new wife and a baby (into whose lives she continues to insert herself). Then the young, perfect woman disappears, and Rachel's spotty memory suggests she might know what happened, and might even have been involved. Her self-deception will frustrate the heck out of you (no, showing up drunk on your ex-husband's doorstep again is not a good idea), but despite her considerable faults, you pull for her and remain terrified she won’t make it, right to the whiz-bang finish.

The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown
The story of the young Americans from the University of Washington who won rowing gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. They weren’t rich or privileged, but instead struggled to keep their heads above water during the Great Depression. Most of them had never rowed before. Brown creates riveting portraits matched by exhilarating descriptions of what was once one of the most popular sports in America, and provides a sharp history lesson about a time when Americans wondered if their country would ever recover from the crushing economic collapse and Germany prepared for the next horrific war. The young men’s story is triumphant, but you will also mourn that they were all gone before you knew they ever lived.

Copyright 2015 Sheila York

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Writing a Series: The All-Important First Novel

Je suis Albert… (with many thanks to news worlds of Paris and New York!)

I often get a good sense of a novel by reading the first and last lines. Recently I revisited Al Ashforth's superb spy novel
The Rendition.

Page 1: "It was just before 2400 hours, and it was the kind of chilly night you get in the Balkans in late March."
Page 334: "Her mascara was smudged and there might have been a tear on her right cheek."

Al capably blends the shadowy world of black ops, gutsy men and terrorism—with the deepest human emotions in this novel of suspense. A rare gift!

If you have not read this prize-winning novel—do. It packs a wallop on many levels—and makes you feel a foot taller.

Amazon ranks it # 1 in the Historical Thrillers category.

A distinguished member of MWA and ARIO (Association of Retired Intelligence Officers), Al's short stories have appeared recently in
Crime Square, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Hardboiled and KWIK KRIMES.

I am proud to welcome back an old friend and colleague of Bob Knightly and myself to Crime Writer's Chronicle.

T. J. Straw

I am writing a follow-up to my novel The Rendition. One interesting challenge is finding a role in the second book for some of the people who helped out Alex, the hero, in the first book. Events in the second book kick off in Afghanistan while events in The Rendition began in the Balkans. Is anyone around in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, who was around in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo? These countries are so disconnected that it’s unlikely, but if so, I’d like to hear from you. Maybe I can fit you into the new story. In uncovering a complex international conspiracy in The Rendition, Alex had help from his partner and fellow case officer, Buck, and from an old girlfriend, Irmie, who was a homicide detective in Germany.

Is it too much to again ask Buck to come to the aid of his old sidekick? Buck now works for a defense contractor and Alex is an old friend, so maybe he can swing it. But to ask Irmie to take time off from a demanding job and travel all the way from Europe to Afghanistan seems more than a little unreasonable.

“The first book in a series is crucial,” Reed Coleman, who has created half a dozen series characters, said when I asked. “That’s because you have to create your protagonist’s universe from scratch and you have to live with the decisions you make for the remainder of the series.” Reed, who has written 22 books and is the author of series featuring Moe Prager, Dylan Klein, Jesse Stone, Gulliver Dowd, Joe Serpe and Gus Murphy, speaks from wide experience.

Another critical factor that Reed mentioned is “the manner in which time will elapse.” I became aware of this when it seemed that some of the events that tangled up Alex’s life in The Rendition, were very nearly simultaneous with events that are taking place in Afghanistan in the second book. A famous critic, Samuel Coleridge, once said readers will grant a writer a “willing suspension of disbelief,” but I think there are definite limits to what authors can ask of their readers—and having one’s character existing in two places at the same time would definitely be high on that list.

A writer who is very precise where time and her heroine are concerned is Patricia Gussin, the author of four books about Laura Nelson, who is introduced as a student at medical school during the 1967 Detroit riots. In Shadow of Death, the first book in the series, Laura’s first patient involves her in a life-changing situation that shows her to be a resilient and able to handle the tough decisions she will face not just as a doctor but in the succeeding books in the series. In the second book, Twisted Justice, Laura is seven years older, married to a TV newscaster and already has five children. Despite these changes in her life, she is very much the same person readers came to know in the first book.

“In the final two books in the series, Weapon of Choice and After the Fall,” Ms. Gussin said, “I jumped ahead seven years between each. So Laura, a twenty-seven year-old medical school graduate in Shadow of Death, is now a forty-eight year-old pharmaceutical vice president of research and development in After the Fall.”

Ms. Gussin is not contemplating a fifth book in the series. “Following the seven-year scheme,” she says, “Laura would be fifty-five in the next book. A bit on the older side, so I think she’s phased out.” Fifty five old? I recently learned that Vanna White, the glamorous and vivacious star of TV’s Wheel of Fortune, is fifty seven.

Only time will tell whether Laura Nelson is really “phased out.” As a fan of Laura’s, I hope she isn’t. In any case, I’m reminded of Conan Doyle’s feelings toward Sherlock Holmes, who Doyle hoped was phased out but wasn’t. After letting Holmes perish at the Reichenbach Falls in “The Final Problem,” the roar of disappointment from readers was so great Doyle was obliged to resurrect Holmes for more stories and another novel.

There is no question that Conan Doyle got everything right in A Study in Scarlet, the novel which introduces Holmes. Watson first encounters the detective in a laboratory where he is working with blood stains. Right away readers learn that science can be employed to fight crime, an insight that is fundamental not just to the stories but to our modern way of thinking. When Dr. Watson, recently returned from Afghanistan, discovers both he and Holmes are looking for living quarters, they take rooms together in Mrs. Hudson’s Baker Street lodgings, and the all-important relationship between the two men is established. It would not change over the course of four novels and 56 short stories, nearly all of which are narrated by Watson.

When I spoke with Bob Knightly, the author of two well-received books about NYC cop Harry Corbin, he voiced sentiments similar to those of Conan Doyle toward Holmes. “Pretty much all I had to say about Harry got put into the first book, Bodies in Winter. The second, The Cold Room, revolved around the NYPD’s reaction to him and Detective Hansen Linde, Harry’s new partner.” According to Bob, “The plot alone dictated what was new. I didn’t want to write another book just for the sake of developing the character, so I have begun a series of legal thrillers about Frank Borowski, a lawyer working in the NYPD’s Advocates Bureau.”

Another problem an author of a series might face, subsequent to the first book, is repetition. Parnell Hall tells a story of what happened during the writing of his fourth book in the Stanley Hastings series. While working as a detective for a negligence lawyer, Stanley calls on a prospective client in Harlem and finds the man strangled.
“I’m writing this,” Parnell said, “and I suddenly realize I’ve written the exact same scene in my second novel, Murder. I’m devastated. I’m repeating myself. So what can I do? Do I throw it all out and start again? Instead, Stanley being Stanley, I had him say, ‘Wow! Déjà vu…. A case two years ago exactly like this one. I think we’re dealing with a serial killer.’”

Although Stanley knows his theory is laughable, when Sergeant Clark calls him into his office in Chapter 8, he says he believes a serial killer is on the loose. How Stanley wiggles out of the jam he creates for himself becomes a major plot line of Strangler. Mr. Hall’s twentieth book in the Stanley Hastings series, A Fool for a Client, comes out later this year.

I once remarked to mystery writer Shelly Reuben how much I’d enjoyed her novel Julian Solo, and when I asked why she hadn’t made Dr. Solo into a series character, she said, “Dr. Solo was destined to be his own victim. If you kill off your main character, your series is over before it begins.”

Although that is mostly the case, it is not always the case. Ask David Morell, author of First Blood, the book that introduced Rambo. Rambo dies at the end of First Blood, but when the book was made into a film, the original screenplay was rewritten so that Rambo could survive and fight on. Because Sylvester Stallone gave a memorable performance as the traumatized Green Beret vet confronting his personal demons, audiences wanted more. As a result, three more Rambo films followed the first.

Not only does Rambo live on in films, he lives on in books as well. After the success of First Blood, Morrell resurrected Rambo and wrote two subsequent books about him. The only guy harder to kill than Rambo is Dracula.

When writers consider how involving for readers some series become, they realize why they should try to get all the details of their stories right—and, of course, to make the all-important first book as good as they can get it. As Reed Coleman says, “It’s hard to get anyone to pay attention to a second or third book, if they didn’t pay attention to the first.”

© 2015 Albert Ashforth

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Bernie (the movie)

BERNIE is a very funny movie. Not in the way of a movie like JACKASS where those with little in the way of worthwhile genetic material do things like trying to skateboard along a metal rail, falling on said metal rail in such a way that they are unlikely to ever be able to transmit that genetic material, although I do admit to having laughed at those movies, or in the way of a teen summer movie, where most of the jokes are about farts and masturbation and you get to see some guy make love to a cherry pie ( a pretty nice looking cherry pie, to be fair), or even a movie where the plot is merely a vehicle for a pretty funny guy or gal to deliver a bunch of funny one-off one-liners.

No, it is more thoughtful than that. The very idea of “Bernie” is funny, and while it is first and foremost a funny movie, it manages to, or even does so against its own comedic will, to raise very interesting questions about justice, guilt, innocence, identity, whether or not a whole town or society can be crazy, whether there is such a thing as collective guilt, and finally, whether Easterners like us are really that much smarter, more sophisticated and moral than Texans. Or at least East Texans.

East Texas is where Carthage is, and where the real life Bernie Tiede killed an aging widow named Margie Nugent. Young gigolos scheming on old lady-money is nothing new, God knows, and even young gigolos killing old ladies for money isn’t, but when the whole town gets behind the killer, either denying he did it, or excusing him for it, you’ve got something new.

The reason they excuse him is because, as one of the townspeople interviewed for the movie says, Margie is the type of person who would just as soon “rip you a double wide, three bedroom, two bathroom asshole” as look at you. And because they just love Bernie. Bernie manages to be loved by everyone in spite of being a twinkle-toed, limp-wristed double order of fruit salad. He is so over the top in his seeming gayness, going to the opera, doing interior decorating, and acting in the town plays, that everyone wonders what desires might be lurking beneath his ultra-Christian surface. But since he never expresses those desires, he is not held to account for them. Only the District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) accuses him of being anything other than someone East Texas could be proud of. He tells us that Bernie would hold a man’s hand too long when they shook, that he subscribed to Men’s Fitness even though he didn’t work out, and he was known to wear sandals.

These kind of straight lines are what make the movie so funny. But the movie does not merely indict East Texas, I don’t think. Bernie is every grandmother’s wet dream of a good Christian man, and as such he really has no balls. Or ovaries either. In being a good Christian man, he seems to have conquered his id with his superego, with his sexual desires dying in the process. Not only does he feel no passion, he seems to have no covetousness of any kind. He doesn’t want anything but to be liked, as one of the more astute townspeople points out.

At first, as I sat here taking notes while watching the movie, I wrote things like Jimmy Swaggart, Tony Roberts, Tammy Baker, but as the movie went on I realized that this guy was supposed to be for real. He really was a Christian, really put his fellow man before himself, was self-sacrificing and humble, and really saw the best in everyone. He wants everyone to like him, and Margie Nugent (Shirley Maclaine) is the toughest sell in town, so he goes after her. And at first it seems like he has won her over. They become a weird kind of sexless couple. Bernie is in charge of her finances. And she is in charge of Bernie. For a time she acts out of character and opens up to him. But then she goes back to her default setting—bitch. And after putting up with that for longer than even a stout-hearted Christian man could stand, Bernie shoots her in the back in what is as close to a fit of rage as he can muster.

It is a tribute to Black that he is convincing as a character not in it for the main chance. He doesn’t dispose of the body, which he could have easily done. And he spends all Nugent’s money on the people in town. When I say the whole town is culpable, I mean in the way it is complicit in this idea of male Christianity. And how much is Tiede responsible? How much are we to be held accountable for our own self-delusions? For it is that self-delusion that drives him to murder, I think. He eats a lot of shit in his lifetime, but remedies that by insisting everyone love him. And he wins everyone over but one very mean old lady. She signs over all her money to him, but in return he becomes her perpetual emotional concubine and punching bag. Would he have killed her if just once during his life he had been able to say shit when his mouth was full?

The movie doesn’t delve into the childhood or parentage of Bernie at all, and I think that was a wise choice on the part of director Richard Linklater. To have to decide what wrought such a man, nature or nurture, would be too difficult a task. Let us just assume that a man who wanted to be liked in that part of Texas had an impossible ideal to live up to, and he lived up to it until the moment he pulled the trigger.

And don’t think that only East Texas is being indicted. There are right wing conservative evangelicals all over the land who think that their town, and their country, and their God, is the best. And don’t think that jingoism and chauvinism are only the province of Red States. Of course, the kind of moral even-handedness I am invoking now is an old standby of the sneakily intolerant liberal, and serves as absolution for laughing at all those “you know you’re a hillbilly when” jokes. And finally, I must indict myself, for believing immediately that Margie Nugent’s meanness was never a cover for anything more human or humane, while it took me most of the movie to start to believe that Bernie was not a con man. If she had any goodness, and he had any evil, it was buried so deep within each it was lost forever.

The final irony, for me at least, and the most delicious one, is that the DA Davidson, who has to get the trial moved not because Bernie will get railroaded in Carthage but because even with a confession he will get off, is much more morally objectionable than Bernie. He gives lip service to justice while sticking it up anyone’s ass he can. I wrote in my notes about him “phony prick.” And then I had an unsettling thought—he might be so self-deluded that he thinks he is serving justice and not his own sadistic impulses. Bernie wants everyone to like him and so becomes a super Christian, and good old Danny Buck Davidson wants everyone to suffer, so he becomes a law man. The stated intentions of both are muddied by un-self-acknowledged self- interest. It’s an unsettling thought, to think that these two men, who exhibit such disparate symptoms, suffer from the same disease—being bat shit crazy. Still, as crazy goes, I would much rather hang out with Bernie.

At the end, we get a townsman singing an East Texas Bernie-ballad:

Oh Bernie, Oh Bernie, what have you done,
You killed poor Miss Nugent, and never even run.

No, he didn’t run. He does go off to prison, though, where he becomes the leader of the choir. And I bet most of those prisoners love him. And if they don’t, they better watch out.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Blue Rose—Excellent Show

You may or may not have heard me raving about Acorn TV. This is where you can find all those great British shows you remember from years ago on PBS—Poldark, for example, I, Claudius, or Jeeves and Wooster—and also some new crime stories that you may have missed. Things that were produced in, say, New Zealand, such as the show I've been binge-watching for the last couple of days.

The Blue Rose is a rip-snorter. It takes place in Auckland, NZ. Unlike with some of the offerings from the UK, the dialog is perfectly easy to understand, only slightly accented; New Zealanders say "dith" for "death" and "suspict" for "suspect." I'm not going to fill you in on most of the plot because much of the pleasure comes from the dizzying twists and turns. But the basic premise is as follows: Young Jane reports to the sinister law office on Monday to work as a temp, or "timp," as they say, only to find that Rose, the woman she's replacing, was found drowned over the weekend.

Rose's associates turn up at the office, fight with each other, and express interest in the contents of her desk: her ex-husband, her biker-chick bist frind, the Indian IT guy from his grubby office in the cellar. Everyone seems guilty of something. Jane herself has an ulterior motive for taking the job. Rose, of course, was murdered. Who dunnit? Villains appear only to morph into good guys. Good guys turn bad. It's hard to know who to trust, but eventually a cadre of trustworthy friends shakes out and forms a society: The Blue Rose. Everybody gets matching tattoos. They pledge themselves to right wrongs as well as finding Rose's killer, and goodness knows there are plenty of wrongs to be righted.

It's not your average legal thriller. $4.99 a month gets you membership in Acorn TV. All their offerings are worth watching. I mean, compare that to cable. If you're into chucking the cable and relying on the computer this can be part of your strategy.

© 2015 Kate Gallison