Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Crime Writer in Italy:Week Two

Assisi is simply splendid!

Through the ages, all of its inhabitants have left their mark on it.  The site it occupies speaks of the Etruscans who built their stronghold towns on the tops of the steep thumbs of land that stick up high over the surrounding area, giving them a vantage point to warn them of an approaching enemy.

The Romans came next and built their town on the Etruscan site.  The Roman remains are visible in the temple of Minerva in the Piazza del Commune.  As with many other Roman temples all over Italy, this one was preserved by incorporating it into a Christian church.

Piazza del Commune
Closer look at the Temple of Minerva
But the Assisi one sees today is a medieval city.  It even lives within its old walls.  Its aspect makes sense since it owes its modern fame to St. Francis who was born there in 1182.  The son of a well-to-do draper, he literally gave up his goods to feed the poor.  His love of all living things pervaded the work of his followers and today makes him the patron saint of and his birthplace a mecca for environmentalists and peace movements.

The artists who came shortly after his death to build the basilica in his honor based their work on his reverence for nature, and in doing so they transformed western art.  The Renaissance reached its peak in Florence, but its seeds were first planted here.

The Rocca Maggiore, Assisi's medieval castle

Typical medieval hill street
The view from our room.
The Basilica of San Francesco

The cloister of the monastery attached to the basilica

The nave of the upper basilica

The upper basilica, looking toward the entrance

The Church of Santa Chiara
Detail of the facade of Santa Chiara, here because I love lions

Interior of Santa Chiara

Did I say that one eats extremely well in Assisi's restaurants and trattorias?  And its narrow streets are lined with marvelous shops with specialize in local sausages, salamis, and every form of the delicious black truffles of Umbria.  One sweet shop displays huge masses of chocolate that look like mortadella or gigantic Perugina kisses, but my favorite was this one--the Meteorite of the Mayans.  I assume the world did not end on 12-21-12 because the meteorite that was to have destroyed the planet was made of chocolate.  I bought a piece to take home.  Would it be too much to say that the Meteorite of the Mayans is to die for?

We arrived at home to see the full moon shining over the
Palazzo dell Signoria.  Here's the terrace view of it.
By the time you see this, I will have left for Rome.  Tuesday begins a three day sojourn there, only an hour and a half from Florence by fast train.  Stay tuned.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

It Really Does Take a Village…

A writer may win all the top literary prizes and/or lug a suitcase filled with $$$$$ to the bank… but every successful writer owes that success partly to the team who have coaxed, nurtured, coached, embellished his/her work as soon as it saw the light of day.

A writer needs a village - agents, editors, artists, craftsmen, publicists, readers, fans. Like raising a child, you need a village to publish your book.

As 2013 writers research all available information on the current industry buzzword "platform", we must be like the proverbial Arab: "If you seek wisdom, explore every tent in the bazaar."

Whether we sign on with the Big Six/Five/Four or the Independents, we must know the basics of this everchanging business.This is their business: Selling your book - selling YOU!

We need to cultivate people outside our intimate circles of first readers and social media followers.

We need to create a name brand for ourselves and our product.

Fans? We gotta develop 'em! And fan the fan flames!

We have to be flexible and bend with the market trends. We need another proverb at this point, one from Africa. "You cannot turn the wind, so turn the sail."

We need to develop novel ways of communicating, of bonding with potential fans and readers. Many successful bloggers interact with their commenters.

For hints on method, pull out that wonderfully chatty volume from 1936 – Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. He wrote that book for 2013 Platforming! Especially for you and me.

Today we can't lean back and expect "the Company" is going to do our foot work.

We've poured heart and soul into our masterpiece - we've proved we can write a damngoodbook!

Now we need to create other layers and levels - blogs, websites, online chats, photos, above all, a solid core of loyal fans, who like OUR writing, like US and reallyreallyreally want US to succeed in this maelstrom of publishing!

Be sure to stop by my next blog post and meet a man who works with some of our favorite crime writers, a publicist at one of the biggest companies on the planet!

Thelma Straw

Friday, January 25, 2013

This Way Lies Madness – A New Book for Your Reference Shelf

Somewhere in my wanderings through the internet last week I came upon a book recommendation that I was moved to follow up on. The book was The Writer's Guide to Psychology by Carolyn Kaufman, Psy.D. Whoever recommended it said it would help writers to depict body language accurately. It won't do that, but that's something you can do for yourself, if you have any sort of eye at all. What it will do is describe psychotherapists accurately, describe therapy sessions accurately, and describe the behavior accurately of people who are suffering from mental disturbances. Or not suffering, some of them, but causing those around them to suffer.

It's no exaggeration to say that this book belongs on every writer's reference shelf. I had to interview my friend the psychiatric social worker for half an hour or so just to find out a small part of what is offered in this book, the description of one disorder. Dr. Kaufman talks about every sort of psychosis and disorder from schizophrenia to Martha Mitchell syndrome (that's when your therapist thinks you're suffering from paranoid delusions, but the fact is you're being persecuted). The approaches to therapy, the prognosis for various conditions, the drugs, if any, a short history of treatment for mental illness; it's all here.

My favorite is Histrionic Personality Disorder (HPD). It makes you behave like a thirteen-year-old drama queen. We've all been there; most of us left.

Since Dr. Kaufman is also a writer, and reads a lot, every few pages she quotes from a book (or a movie, or a TV show) where the writer got it totally wrong, conflating two mutually exclusive conditions, for example, or having a therapist behave in a way that no reputable therapist ever would. Famous writers. That has to be embarrassing. So buy the book! Read it! Keep it on your shelf! The next time you have to write a character who is off the rails, you can do it with accuracy. Otherwise you might find yourself quoted in the First Revised Edition.

Kate Gallison

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Crime Writer in Italy: Week One

Winter dawn from my terrace.
I was AWOL last week.  I spent last Tuesday night and all day Wednesday delayed in Newark and Amsterdam airports waiting for broken planes to be fixed and dealing with missed connections.  But Italy makes that kind of thing up to you, and fast.  A splendid dinner and good wines shooed away the blues lickety split.

Lots more eating and drinking interspersed with visits to splendid monuments and wonderful exhibitions and time alone with the manuscript of my next book are making this sojourn quite happy.

The highlights so far:


On Monday, we invited our Italian friends to an American dinner to celebrate President Obama's second inauguration--mushroom soup, roasted turkey with all the trimmings (including cranberry sauce smuggled in in our luggage).  The dessert in the picture is a double brownie sheetcake topped with whipped cream and berries.  The Italians declared all delicious.  Whew!


This wonderful town in Umbria is very easy to reach from Florence by train.  The Duomo, its trophy church, was begun in 1290.  It took over a hundred architects, sculptors, painters, and mosaicists more than three hundred years to complete the masterpiece.  The weather was gloomy and photography of the interior not allowed, so the pictures here (most of them serruptitious) do not do the church justice.

The facade is remarkable for the color and richness of its design.  Lorenzo Maitani made the astonishing low relief sculptures that adorn the pillars.  They portray Genesis, the Jesse Tree, scenes from the New Testament, and the Last Judgment.  

Detail of the facade.  The lion, symbol of the Mark the Evangelist

Michelangelo admired these sculptures and wrote his father a letter about them while he was planning the Sistine Chapel.  When one sees the finger of God bringing Adam to life here, it is easy to imagine him in the lovely piazza of this church pondering these images and conceiving his unforgettable painting of the creation.

The interior is overwhelmingly elegant and powerful.  Take a look:

The town of Orvieto sits high above its surrounding plain.

 It is replete with historic buildings, artisans's shops, and wonderful food and drink.  In the dead of winter, the rain may pelt the visitor from time to time, but there are no throngs of tourists and the restaurants serve authentic Umbrian cuisine (wild boar---YUM!) and one of the best white wines in the world--Orvieto Classico.  Here is photo of the wall I faced while I enjoyed my lunch. 

We continue our travels, using Florence as our base.  Stay tuned for more.

Annamaria Alfieri 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

William E. (Bill) Chambers Recalls MWA Times Past

I met Bill Chambers at an MWA dinner in 2000 or 2001. Later I discovered we both grew up in Greenpoint, Brooklyn but at opposite ends. Bill was the Executive Vice President (EVP) of MWA then, and a wanna-be mystery author never got a warmer welcome at our meetings than Bill’s smiling Irish face. Bill had been an installer for Bell Telephone and Chief Steward with Local 1101 of the Communication Workers of America.

Bill is a doer who employed vision and smarts as our EVP. Witness the fact he persuaded the management of the Grand Hyatt Hotel on 42nd Street to host the Edgars at half their usual rates. “I liked the class of the place,” he says, “and I promised to pack the Dinner with celebrities.” Mary Higgins Clark, Mickey Spillane and Jerry Orbach attended, among others, and we’ve been there ever since.

Bill has published three novels—‘Death Toll’, ‘The Redemption Factor’ and ‘The Tormentress’—and a score of short stories in mystery magazines and anthologies here and in the United Kingdom. ‘If I Quench Thee…’, his story of an interracial murder, was re-published in 2008 by Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine as a Mystery Classic, and is required reading in the Middle Schools of Scotland and London.

–Robert Knightly

I want to thank Bob Knightly for giving me the opportunity to share some of my experiences as a mystery writer and an MWA member. My first encounter with MWA was in passing its headquarters at 151 West 48th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue with my then girlfriend—now wife of 48 years—Marie, back in 1962 or 63. It was a blistering Sunday afternoon in July and as I looked up at the second floor window bearing the caricature of Edgar Allan Poe and the insignia Mystery Writers of America, I said something like, "I hope someday to be able to belong to that organization.”

Little did I dream that I would one day be Executive Vice President of MWA: 2000-2002. Marie believes in destiny and skeptic though I am I suspect she might be right. If fortune does deal us a hand I think freewill allows us the right to choose whether we play it or not.

It wasn’t until 1968 that again something fateful occurred to put me back on the road to MWA. A neighborhood friend who displayed a similar interest in fiction writing as I did took a clipping from the New York Times Classified Section and showed me a fine print ad concerning a short story course offered by the Mystery Writers of America. The price back then was I believe $25 and you received a three month, once weekly, two hour evening course conducted by novelist, short story writer and former MWA President Herbert Brean. I couldn’t wait to sign up. But my friend dropped out so I went to MWA’s West Side headquarters nervous and alone.

My first evening in that class dispelled any and all jitters. Then like now the atmosphere was warm and friendly—Mr. Brean put everyone at ease—and by the end of the night all 12 or so of us students had become relaxed and well acquainted.

I took that course three years in a row because it took Mr. Brean that long to hammer the art of understatement so necessary to successful short fiction into my dense skull. But my instructor had hopes for me. When I showed up on year three he said, “Bill I know you’re going to succeed because you’re too dumb to quit.” He laughed, I laughed and I got published at the end of that course. My short story “Don’t Kill A Karate Fighter” was published by Mike Shayne’s Mystery Magazine and my membership was upgraded from Affiliate to Active before the year was over.

Back then the whole Times Square Scene was rough. Crime, prostitution, drug dealing and Three Card Monte games flourished openly. Cops played streetwise whack a mole; they would pull one bad guy off the street and before they reached the station house two replacements would show up. When I went to Haaren High School—now John Jay College—on 10th Avenue and 59th street I followed my curiosity about Manhattan through every neighborhood East Side/West Side from Hell’s Kitchen to Battery Park and I was quite familiar with the culture or lack of it permeating the West 40’s. So I had no qualms about attending the monthly parties at MWA Headquarters and neither did anybody else. We knew that if you avoided the bad guys—had no commerce with them—they generally left you alone.

The parties in those days had a two dollar entrance fee that helped support the organization and whichever member volunteered to bartend received free drinks all night long. Besides that the costs of the drinks were so cheap they barely paid for the bottle they came out of. While my nerves no longer rattled like the night I became a student they flared once again when Marie and I walked into our first MWA party after Mr. Brean explained to us that as aspiring mystery writers we were welcome to attend with or without our significant others.

Well the first person to greet us as we walked through the door was an MWA legend named Chris Steinbrunner. Chris worked for WOR TV Channel 9 as executive producer to the television show Journey to Adventure; published a science fiction series; wrote non-fiction; and long before MWA adopted Roberts Rules of Order and became a 501C3 corporation with stringent by-laws to guide board regulations Chris was our perennial Executive Vice President. He quickly advised me that if I wanted to really meet people I should tend bar.

“They all end up there,” he said. I immediately followed that advice and it paid off in network connections, close acquaintances and some lifelong friendships.

But getting back to that first party: It was with butterflies that I shook hands with the legends of the time. Michael Avallone—whose Ed Noon series rivaled Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer in the 1950’s—was second to greet us after Chris. When he found out my wife’s middle name is Antoinette he called her by the queen’s full name ever after. Next greeter was Ed Hoch, even at that time a legendary short story writer. We remained friends until his death in 2008. Then came Aaron Marc Stein who wrote best selling mysteries under the nom de plume George Bagby; Also Hillary Waugh, pioneer of the Police Procedural, most notably Last Seen Wearing. While there were too many others to mention in this blog I must say Marie and I left that party feeling we had gained a new family. True enough: That was 44 years ago and I’m still a member.

While I can probably recall more factual stories I believe I’ve already exceeded my word total. But I’ll try and squeeze in another anecdote. Gloria Amory was MWA’s secretary during the 60’s and 70’s and one night after a party I was walking her to the subway when she stopped to point out an incident on the opposite corner. Some John must have financially stiffed a hooker because he was imprisoned in his car surrounded by ladies of the night who were rocking the vehicle and screaming curses and threats. Meantime a few feet from us a beat cop was earnestly engaged in conversation with a charming young lady. I approached the enthralled young officer and said, “Pardon me. I think someone is being murdered across the street.” He ran right over but we didn’t stick around to watch the melee. So the ending to this tale will have to remain a mystery.

Bill Chambers

Friday, January 18, 2013

Revamping the Writing Space with Feng Shui

First of all let me acknowledge that I know how lucky I am to have an office. In other days, in a different house, I wrote in the kitchen, with a portable Underwood on my knees and a pot of spaghetti steaming on the stove. I have an office now in what was once the baby's room. (He will be thirty years old in a few months.) I have a dream of making my office a smooth-running machine for turning out deathless prose.

But my office has problems. The desk became so cluttered not long ago that I took to dragging my laptop downstairs and working on the dining room table. Then, since no one was working in there, I put stuff in the office that there wasn't room for anywhere else. A rack of disused clothing. Four or five bushels of unsorted documents, photographs, bills, DVDs, and mysterious machine parts.

The day I couldn't get the door open for the clutter I knew it was time.

One of the things about the office, which was once the baby's room, and then the teen-ager's room, was its location in the house, bagwa-wise. If you pay any attention at all to the tenets of Feng Shui you know that the northeast corner is the money corner. If you don't clear out the clutter and let the good chi flow smoothly you will be doomed to poverty. No wealth can flow your way. As proof of this, one time when I cleaned out the teen-ager's room and straightened it all up I won two hundred dollars in a football pool the following day. Things like that never happen to me. You may say, ha-ha, native superstition, but two hundred dollars is two hundred dollars.

In the belief that there must be something in it if the Chinese take it so seriously I went online and checked out what needed to be done with my office in order to sharpen up my writing career and attract money.

The Knowing Ones said, first of all, clear out the clutter.

I cleared out the clutter. Three bags of clothes have gone to St. Andrews' Thrift Shop. Five bushels of stuff have been sorted, identified, filed or discarded. You wouldn't believe some of the things I came across. Hey, there was a three-ounce bottle of cologne I brought back from Bouchercon in Madison, Wisconsin, in 2006. It still had half an ounce in it. I squirted it on myself. Nice smell.

Then they said, don't have your desk facing the door. But don't have it facing a wall, either. Well, the room is too small and the desk too big. Either it faces the wall or it faces the door. (You know I'm not turning my back to the door.) I opted for facing the door. If the bad energy gets all over me, so be it. I can always hang a crystal.

Then they said, put something like a mountain behind your desk, either a huge plant or a picture. Something. So I got a reproduction of an elegant old travel poster to hang up.

Then they said, put something in the money corner like a plant. That will attract money. And something purple. That will attract big, dignified money. I went to the florist and got this plant and a little purple pot to put it in. Right after that I found a dime in the street.

Then they said–and this is particularly important–make sure not to have anything blue, or watery, or metallic on your north wall, or all your fame will be quenched. Instead you want fire. Pictures of fire. Candles burning. Red. Orange. Hot stuff.

My whole office was painted blue. I figured this explained a lot about the way my writing career has been going, so I re-painted it a sort of greeny-yellow (that could be a fire color, depending on what's burning) and sent away for a poster of a Mexican volcano to hang on the north wall. And of course a candle. I light it on days when I feel that I have enough on the ball to remember to blow it out, because burning down the house will bring me more fame than I really need right now.

Kate Gallison

Sunday, January 13, 2013

So, How Did You Learn to Write Thrillers?

Our guest today is James (Jim) Hayman. When I read this post of his about learning to write thrillers on the Maine Crime Writers blog, I invited him to share it with our readers, not only because I make no secret of my own devotion to Maine–Prout's Neck, a tiny village on the coast near Portland, is one of my favorite places on the planet!–but because it's a thought-provoking and informative piece.

Jim Hayman began life in New York City, was educated at top schools in New England, and after a highly successful professional career in Manhattan moved to Portland, Maine, just before 9/11.

The Big Apple provided years of training that now serves him well as he pens spine-tingling crime novels. A star on Madison Avenue, as well as in TV production, his experiences in creative direction on famous accounts like Procter and Gamble, the U.S. Army, Lincoln/Mercury, as well as superb credits in The Sopranos, Law and Order and Murder One, provided this talented writer with material that brings out the fear and trembling in his increasing hordes of eager readers.

When I read his first book, The Cutting, I thought, "This guy HAS The Touch!" Then The Chill of Night made my little grey cells clamor for more! Now I anticipate Darkness First!

Thelma Straw

Whenever I give a reading in a bookstore or a library, I usually mention that when I began writing the first McCabe thriller, The Cutting, I had no prior experience writing fiction. I’d never written so much as a single short story. Not even as an exercise in a college creative writing class.

When I say this, someone in the audience, often an aspiring mystery writer, inevitably asks, “So, how on earth did you manage, first time out, to write a thriller that someone wanted to publish?”

“Well,” I respond truthfully, “I started by reading a bunch of how-to books on the craft of writing mystery fiction.” These included James Frey’s How to Write a Damn Good Mystery, Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel by Hallie Ephron and Write Away by Elizabeth George. All were helpful in teaching me the basics. How to structure a plot, how to build tension, how to shift point of view and a number of other writerly techniques. “But,” I tell the audience, “I can’t honestly say they gave me the skills I needed to write and publish The Cutting.”

“Okay, so what did?” my questioner asks.

“Well,” I say, “I’ve been a writer all my working life and managed to make a living so I guess writing comes naturally to me. It’s about the one thing I think I’m genuinely good at.”

The questioner still looks dubious. “What kind of writing did you do?”

I then describe how, for the ten years prior to sitting down to write The Cutting, I churned out an almost endless stream of brochures, newsletter and business press articles, web content, speeches and white papers that were written mostly for companies in the healthcare and financial services industries. I also mention the two non-fiction books I wrote, one a history of Banknorth Group, the other a history of Maine Medical Center.

“Do you think writing that stuff gave you the skills you needed to write thrillers?”

“Well, some,” I reply honestly, “But not all.”

At this point, my questioner usually gets a determined look in his or her eye. “Okay,” they ask, “so what did?”



“Yes. Advertising. Specifically television advertising. More specifically television advertising for clients who, back in the eighties and nineties, wanted and could afford to pay to produce big-budget movie-like commercials shot on location by top-notch directors like Michael Bay, Joe Pitka, Tony and Ridley Scott, Eddie Bianchi and others. Before going freelance, I worked as a copywriter and creative director at one of the top agencies in New York writing and producing those kinds of commercial for clients like the U.S. Army, Lincoln/Mercury and Merrill-Lynch.”

At this point there’s usually a joke from the audience. “Advertising?” some wag will say, “I thought you said you’d never written fiction before.”

Having just lived through a political campaign where nearly everything the candidates claimed in their TV commercials was exaggerated to the point of being flat lies, I can’t do anything but smile, nod and agree.

“However,” I add, when the laughter finally dies down, “that’s not really my point. The truth is writing mini-movies like TV commercials is great training for writing not just thrillers, but any kind of fiction.”

I believe that to be true, for three distinct reasons.

First, writing TV commercials teaches you to write dialogue. A lot of aspiring writers find creating believable dialogue to put in the mouths of their characters is difficult. But because so much of writing for film requires writing dialogue, that eventually, if you have any kind of ear for how people speak (and I think I do), it starts to become easy. All three of my books are dialogue-heavy. Most of the story is told through conversation. One character telling another what I want the reader to know. I imagine the same can probably be said about most of the books written by most of the other writers who have come out of ad agency backgrounds–James Patterson, Stuart Woods, Marcus Sakey, Ted Bell, Chris Grabenstein and many others.

The second important thing writing for the camera teaches you is to think visually. You have to know where the camera is in your scene and mentally write down exactly what it’s seeing. For example, when I was writing commercials, I might write a camera direction like: “Open on a a long shot of a white sand beach on an overcast morning in September. We can see a calm ocean behind it. Camera moves in to reveal two people, a man and a woman, walking along the waterline. They’re both wearing white. Continue to move in on their faces to medium close-up. Finally they stop walking and look at each other. Continue move to tight close-up of their two faces.”

In my first book, The Cutting, this kind of camera direction was translated into the opening two paragraphs of an important chapter: “Had anyone been watching, the two figures would have appeared almost spectral. A man and a woman, both dressed in white, moving together across a translucent, nearly monochromatic emptiness, where sand blended into sea and sea into overcast sky without perceptible delineation.

For a time, they seemed lost in thought, each looking down, each noting the prints their steps left behind in the sand. After a while they stopped and the woman turned toward her companion. She took one of his hands in hers as if willing him to move closer. He didn’t. She let go. A wisp of blonde hair blew across her face. She brushed it away.
” Seeing the scene in your mind as clearly as if you were watching it in person or on a screen, then writing what you see helps the writing succeed.

Finally, the third thing writing TV advertising teaches is to write tight. In a sixty second commercial you get a maximum of roughly one-hundred-and-twenty words to tell your whole story. Beginning, middle and end. In a thirty second commercial, you get sixty words. In either case, every word counts. Not a single one can be wasted. It’s an important discipline that serves one well when writing fiction. Or, frankly, when writing anything else.

Those are the primary skills advertising gave me that helped me write all three of my books, The Cutting, The Chill of Night and my upcoming thriller Darkness First. You don’t need to spend twenty years in an ad agency to get them. Just listen to how people talk, imagine what your scene looks like and don’t get wordy. Having said all that, I have to add it doesn’t hurt to have an active imagination and a natural affinity for the English language.

James Hayman

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The Sexiest Dance--Tango Redux

Blood Tango will launch on July 2nd!  In honor of having turned in the copy-edited pages yesterday, I am rerunning my earlier post on the dance that ignites the lovers in my story.

Setting a historical mystery in Buenos Aires means I have to do a lot of research. If that sounds daunting, don’t you believe it. It’s often pure pleasure — as with studying about Tango —the music, the dance, the culture that surrounds it. Lately, I have been watching a lot of dancing on YouTube. Today I want to share a few short films with you.

The first is from the movie Scent of a Woman, in which Al Pacino plays a blinded military officer. It's a good flick. Check it out if you haven’t seen it. Here is the scene where Pacino, in the Plaza Hotel in New York, dances the tango to “Por Una Cabeza," a melody by the incomparable Carlos Gardel:

This next is an amazing performance of a style of Argentine tango dancing called Milonga, characterized by the beat of the music and the double-time rhythm of the steps. The best and most delightful way to understand this is to watch this mesmerizing video clip. Get this:

Another style of Argentine tango music and dancing is Vals, where constant turning is the mode. This gorgeous young couple dance it in a Twenty-first Century style, but the picture on the wall behind them is of the great Gardel. These kids know and honor the past of the art they practice so beautifully:

Annamaria Alfieri

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Eighth of January

You'll be happy to know that today marks the 198th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, the last big battle of the War of 1812. The British sailed around Florida after being repelled from Baltimore – You remember that fight, it was where Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner – and attacked New Orleans. Little did the combatants know that a peace treaty had already been signed and the war was over. It proved to be another rout for the unhappy British, celebrated by the Americans in song and story. The Eighth of January pretty much tells it like it was, except for the part about the alligators.

Kate Gallison

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Oops! I Forgot to Pack my Brain

Shelly Reuben on herself: “I was born in Chicago and live now in Brooklyn and in Chenango County, NY. ‘Julian Solo’, my first novel, was nominated for the Edgar and Prometheus Awards. ‘Origin and Cause’ was nominated for a Falcon Award. I write a newspaper column for The Evening Sun and Huntington News.Net, and short stories for The Forensic Examiner. I have a pet ferret, and my latest book, ‘The Man With the Glass Heart,’ is a fable.”

I met Shelly in 1988 at 401 Broadway, a sturdy old office building just off Canal Street in Lower Manhattan stuffed full of lawyers and sundry other types none of whom you’d recognize by name. I knew Shelly from MWA. She and her husband, Charlie King, a retired Supervising Fire Marshal for the FDNY, operated their Fire Investigations business from an office on the seventh floor. I was a newly-minted lawyer/ex-cop so I’d heard of Charlie King in connection with a fatal fire in a supermarket in Brooklyn where six firemen died. I remembered the cops had arrested a suspect, extracted a confession, and got a conviction at trial. 

Then along came Charlie King who blew up their case by proving the true Origin and Cause of the fire, and got the innocent man freed from prison. Afterward, Charlie had no fans at the Office of the Brooklyn District Attorney or in the NYPD. It never fazed him. When I read Shelly’s arson novels–engrossing, dead-on forensic thrillers–the protagonist’s voice is Charlie’s and I’m back in their seventh-floor office listening to his stories of Fires Past and Good versus Evil.

Bob Knightly

I met Supervising Fire Marshal Charlie King when I was researching a book about arson. Two years later, we got married and started our own company. I got a few P.I. licenses, learned how to dig out a fire scene, and became a private investigator.

My favorite fictional detective has always been Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, because of his emphasis on the importance of “little gray cells.” My favorite real life detective had always been my husband … for exactly the same reason.

Charlie was the go-to guy for almost every major fire in the country. He taught fire investigation for the Attorney General of the State of New Jersey; he investigated the MOVE fire for the City of Philadelphia; he wrote articles for Fire Engineering Magazine; he contributed the first-ever chapter on evidence preservation for the Fire Chief’s Handbook.

When I recall the hundred of fires I investigated with him, the thing that stands out most emphatically in my mind is the almost physical way Charlie had of mentally processing a fire. In my novel Origin and Cause, attorney Max Bramble describes a videotape of Wylie Nolan (Charlie) investigating a car fire:

“The video footage…would have put an insomniac to sleep. Wylie Nolan standing with his hands in his pockets; Wylie Nolan staring through the window of the driver’s seat; Wylie Nolan staring at the dashboard; Wylie Nolan staring at the trunk; Wylie Nolan staring at the license plate; Wylie Nolan kneeling beside the right rear tire and staring at what was left of the rim.

“…Before and during any cause and origin investigation, Wylie Nolan stares a lot. And he thinks. He observes burn patterns. He notices a patch of unburned gray leather here. He sees a deep scar in the fabric there. Staring. Thinking. Staring. Thinking.”

One time, in the frozen tundra of an incinerated Greek restaurant, I remember huddling in front of the heater inside our car while, for over an hour, Charlie stood in the collapsed kitchen, studying, observing, photographing, and thinking, thinking, thinking.

After Charlie died in 2003, I got my IAAI Certification as a fire investigator, became a court-qualified expert, and took over the company. In response to clients who asked, “Are you as good as Charlie was?” I would always answer, “Nobody was as good as Charlie.”

He had taught me how to investigate a fire, and he set the standards. Yes, I read fire investigation books and manuals and continue to do so. But I learned how to investigate fire scenes in real world settings, populated by victims, cops, firefighters, fire Investigators, insurance adjusters, insurance investigators, attorneys, and arsonists.

With the explosion in civil litigation, the methodologies of investigating, photographing, analyzing, and training fire investigation have become a Big Business. As a consequence, three things have been happening lately, and I don’t like any of them.

One is technology. Two is Testing. Three is teaching. In all three instances, instead of the focus being on using these tools to assist in the brainwork of fire investigation, the focus has been on using tools to the exclusion of brainwork all together.

Starting with technology, one major change is digital photography. I happen to like digital cameras. Particularly because I am a terrible photographer. Fortunately, if I take enough pictures (and I do), I am always able to accurately document the scene. I, of course, am not the only investigator taking pictures at a fire. Increasingly, however, I seem to be the only one who bothers to PRINT them.

Why is this a problem? Two reasons:

One is blind trust in technology – that the photographs saved on CDs and hard drives are going to be there forever, that the disks won’t fail, and that the computers won’t become obsolete. In terms of evidence preservation, to not make Kodak-quality prints of digital photographs is the equivalent of keeping a record of DNA test results, but throwing out the physical evidence. A print picture exists in tangible reality; it can be analyzed without using a machine; and it is durable.

Print photographs can also be arranged sequentially to recreate panoramas of fire scenes, and they can be incorporated with photos taken by other investigators to produce a more detailed panorama of what a room (vehicle or structure) looked like before the scene was altered.

Although digital photographs are helpful when we want to magnify and isolate certain aspects of an image on a computer screen, after they are saved on a CD (and if they are not printed), they are rarely looked at again.

Testing is another change I observe with keen distrust. In an attempt to quantify fire investigation and make it seem more “scientific,” many indicators long held by investigators to point to the origin and cause of a fire are now being treated with scorn. Laboratory tests are being conducted by chemists and engineers on every conceivable surface using every conceivable combination of materials to evaluate 'V’ patterns, flammable liquid burn patterns, drop down fire patterns, and so on.

The problem? These tests do not replicate the real world. A fire being fought during a blizzard in a 200-year-old barn is not the same as a fire being tested on 200-year-old barn board in a lab. Any seasoned firefighter will tell that if you break one window anywhere in a structure, every variable changes. In a lab setting, every variable is controlled, outcomes can be predicted, and tests can be stopped when a desired burn pattern is achieved – often serving to validate the testers’ hypothesis and confirm their findings.

The last change I want to mention is how fire investigation is being taught.

I recently took a course on appliance fires. In order to teach how an accidental fire could start in a stove, instructors erected a cubicle and tried to make the product fail at a designated point. However, when they could not get a fire to start at that location, instead of moving on to a different product, they stuffed paper towels down behind the stove, set them on fire, and said, “this is the way a fire looks when it originates at a faulty connection between a flexible tube and a gas pipe.”

WRONG. This is how a fire looks when it is set in paper towels behind a stove.

This same technique is used to teach vehicle fire investigation. If the instructor wants to show you an engine compartment fire, he will use a torch to ignite, let’s say, a carburetor, and announce, “this is what a carburetor fire looks like.”

WRONG. This what a fire looks like when someone ignites combustibles in the area of the carburetor.

In the name of technology, science, and expediency, instead of becoming more rigorously committed to reality, fire investigation is becoming sloppy. If Hercule Poirot were assessing the situation, he might cry, “Mon Dieu. They rush here. They rush there. But they do not use their little gray cells.”

It’s almost as if, when going to a fire scene, contemporary investigators remember to pack their cameras, their measuring devices, their evidence bags, and their lithium LED flashlights, but in their rush to write reports, initiate lawsuits, and satisfy clients, they forget to pack the most important tools that they have.

Their powers of observation. Their analytical prowess. Their faculty for inductive and deductive reasoning.


Their brains.

Copyright © 2013, Shelly Reuben

Friday, January 4, 2013

Good Luck!

The new year is upon us, and for all us triskaidekaphobes and generally superstitious people it is a time of trepidation. We dodged the Mayan Apocalypse only to be cast into a year ending with the dreaded number thirteen. We must counteract this. We must strive to get lucky. (Not necessarily in the carnal sense.)

Not my office, but it would certainly be nice
Take steps! Attract good luck to yourself! The Chinese know all about how this is done. For example, in my (admittedly shallow) studies of Feng Shui I found that my little home office occupies the wealth area of our house. What this means is that I have to clean and organize my office before I can make a dime this year. I was going to show you a picture of what it looks like now, but I would have to kill myself for shame. It's that bad. So I'll clean my office and Feng Shui the daylights out of it. Plants that simulate mountains. Crystals that concentrate good energy. When it's nice again I'll post a picture.

When one does this, when one clears out the bad energy in one's wealth area, the Chinese say, the money comes rolling in. That would be nice. Of course the whole Feng Shui thing is an alien concept to my particular ethnic group, Anglo-Canadian-Wasp-Irish. My own family was as superstitious as any Asian, but they lived by different superstitions. Never put a hat on the bed. When you take off your shoes, put them together the right way 'round, right shoe on the right side, left shoe on the left. Otherwise all your luck will walk away from you. If a picture falls off the wall someone will die. If you spill salt, throw a bit over your left shoulder or you'll have a fight with a friend. Never work on your clothes while you're wearing them. Sew your clothes upon your back, poverty you'll never lack, goes the rhyme.

Actually that one is not so different from the stricture to keep your office neat and carefully-ordered. It's all about work habits. Good work habits make good luck. So keep the hat off the bed, folks, and put your shoulder to the wheel and your nose to the grindstone. May 2013 be the best year yet for all of us.

Kate Gallison