Sunday, August 31, 2014

An Urban Experience

In the late 1980s I lived in a efficiency apartment in Center City Philadelphia and was mere blocks away from the beautiful Academy of Music which was then the home of The Philadelphia Orchestra and The Opera Company of Philadelphia. I came home from work one evening feeling especially festive because I had managed to get a ticket to a production of Tosca starring Eva Marton and Sherill Milnes.

I entered the elevator. WHAM! In a heartbeat I found myself on the floor. I had slipped on some oily substance. The left side of my face was stinging and the left earpiece from my glasses had broken off.

I picked myself up and went to have a quiet word with the apartment manager.

“What the hell is on the elevator floor?” I shouted.

Carla, the young receptionist, wasn’t really looking at me.

“One of our tenants works in a big office building on Walnut Street. He said he found this great treatment for wood.”

“Did you tell him that the walls of the elevator are genuine faux wood and would not absorb whatever precious oils he rubbed on them?”

Carla looked up and gasped.

“Gosh, what are you going to do? The side of your face is swollen.” She looked closer. “Your glasses are broken. You can’t go out looking like that.”

“Just watch me.”

I put ice on my face for a while and, stuffing and two aspirin into my mouth, left for The Academy.

If the woman at the ticket office or the usher who showed me to my seat noticed anything, they didn’t mention it. I squeezed into my amphitheater seat. The gentleman next to me did a double take.

“You’re missing your left earpiece on your glasses.”

I just looked at him.

“I guess you know that. And your left cheek is bruised.”

“Yes, I fell.” I told him the story.

“These aren’t good seats,” he said. “I got them at the last minute because my wife took forever deciding she didn’t want to come.”

He got up from his seat and looked over the railing.

“You know the plot of Tosca?”


“That’s good because you’re not going to see much tonight.”

That was a bit of an exaggeration. I didn’t see Scarpia breathe his last, but I didn’t miss much else. Clearly many people had come to see Sherill Milnes because once Scarpia died, they headed for the exits. I said goodbye to my neighbor.

After Tosca threw herself from the parapet (though from where I was sitting it looked like she hopped over a fence), I left and walked out onto Broad Street.

A man fell into step with me. When you walk as slowly as I do, you have to decide whether to talk to strangers or ignore them. I was happy the guy wa walking to my right. I didn’t want to answer questions about my face or my glasses.

The man himself was a sight. He resembled an Elvis impersonator. He had elaborately coiffed black hair and wore a black jumpsuit that featured a sequined dragon coiled around his leg. I decided I would talk if he did, but not much.

“You limp,” he said.


“I had a girlfriend who limped like you.”


“Yeah.” He waited a beat or two. “She’s dead.”

I decided not to ask for details.

“Am I making you nervous?”

“No,” I lied.

“Oh, you live here.”

We had turned onto Spruce Street, the gay corridor of Philadelphia. There were always people out. The folks on the street made for an entertaining and very effective Neighborhood Watch.

“Well,” he said. “I gotta go.”

Relieved of my burden of vigilance, I asked a question.

“Were you at the opera?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Milnes sucked. Give me Gobbi any day.”

I was wrong about Elvis. He was not Las Vegas; he was La Scala.

Stephanie Patterson

Thursday, August 28, 2014


All computer systems totally FUBAR. Macbook dead, desktop PC hijacked. Will explain further a week from Friday, if I can.

Kate Gallison

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Kenya 2014: The Drive of a Lifetime

On Day Four of the Old Africa Magazine tour of the World War I Battlefields of Kenya, we went in  search of a church an a house that figured in the life an amazing and scary character named Vladimir Verbi, who plays a colorful part in the war between British East Africa and German East Africa.  I will tell more about him soon.  In the meanwhile, here is a glance at the incredible scenery of the peaceful Bura Valley where Africans farm terraces and live surrounded by splendid vistas. 

Add caption

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, August 25, 2014

P.I. Philip Marlowe, My Hero, in THE LONG GOODBYE

Mike Welch continues his ruminations on Raymond Chandler’s Immortal Private-Eye.

My cousin Jamie has a complicated attitude about God: “I don’t know if he exists,” he says, “but if he does, he’s got some explaining to do.”

I think Philip Marlowe has a similar attitude. He finds himself wanting to hold on to something of real value in a universe where everything is worthless. He is at once an existentialist who would, like Ahab, strike through the mask, and a romantic who would bring back chivalry. In fact, that gesture, that thrust through that mask, is at once a kind of defiance—a cry in the wilderness against a creator who makes chivalry impossible—then a chivalric gesture. I think Marlowe would like to imagine there is some kind of malevolent, or at least indifferent creator hiding behind that mask, and that, with a bit of luck, he might poke him or her in the eye.

Marlowe is a hero, or at least an anti-hero, and as such he defends the values of community, is a bulwark against the raging chaos lying in wait outside the city walls; or in his case, within the city limits of a malignant L.A., a tropical paradise where the golden fruit on the trees is poisoned. He is to be admired.

But can you both admire, and have sympathy for a hero? Can you feel his loneliness, his isolation, at the same time you marvel at his ability to risk everything for values you only pay lip service to? Why not? Most heroes I can think of are lonely. Even if they have a chance at Love and Friendship, it is ultimately thwarted: King Arthur betrayed by Lancelot and Guinevere, Jesus by Judas and Peter, Aeneas by the Roman destiny that awaits him as he sails away from Carthage, even as Dido’s funeral pyre illuminates the wine dark sea.

Great heroes are lonely figures. If they bring civilization to us, if they bring law and order, peace and prosperity, they suffer for it. And part of that suffering is their solitude. Of course, the trio above got something for their efforts: Arthur brings civilization to the savage Britons, Aeneas turns Troy’s tragedy into Rome’s triumph, and Jesus, well, all he does is save mankind from eternal damnation.

In Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, Marlowe gets nothing. He invests something in his friend Terry Lennox, or at least he invests in the idea of friendship, only to be disappointed. And he finds deceit and murder underneath the glamorous surface of the Wades, a couple he befriends in spite of himself. And finally, a beautiful and rich woman, Linda Lorring, the sister of Sylvia Lennox, the one whose murder kicks off this carnival ride of homicide and deceit (not necessarily in that order), offers herself to him, offers him a way out of the solitary drunken asceticism (if there be such a thing) he has held to since The Big Sleep—holds to still at age 42—as he turns her down.

Is there some kind of personality flaw in Marlowe? Can’t he be a hero and a happy family man, or at least the kind of guy who will have more than a gravedigger witness his burial? Or maybe only someone like Marlowe himself would turn up at that graveside, someone who didn’t really know how to be a friend, but wanted to make a friendly gesture, to affirm the idea of friendship, to say in some symbolic way that someone like Marlowe, someone who stood for something, should be acknowledged.

Chandler lets us know precious little about Marlowe. We know he once played football, he knows fighters and fighting, he plays solitary games of chess against the great masters. He is cultured, but not in a hurry to let everyone know it—in The Long Goodbye, he mentions Kafka and Dante, Toscanini and Hindemith, but only in asides to the reader, or in response to people who would try to get an intellectual leg up on him.

Solitary drinker, chess player, thinker, mensch. And yet, he calls himself a native son, both parents dead, recipient of an high school football injury. Just a regular guy, but you wonder what turned him sour and angry. What great ache or rage drives him?

Lost love? The loss of his parents? Was he a veteran like Terry Lennox, carrying psychological wounds that will never heal? At one point, Marlowe does say, when referring to the corrupted and corruptible world he finds himself in: “We have that kind of world. Two wars gave it to us, and we are going to keep it.” But it’s better that Chandler not make the hurt explicit, so we can project our own great hurts onto Marlowe. And maybe it isn’t something specific anyway, but just that Marlowe sees this ugly world too clearly.

It’s not the plot of The Long Goodbye I find most compelling. You know all along that pretty surfaces will be penetrated only to find ugly depths, and they are. Everyone ends up somehow culpable, except perhaps the writer Wade, who is duped into thinking he may have killed Lennox’s wife, Sylvia. Of Wade, Marlowe says to his wife Eileen, “Your husband is a guy who can take a good hard look at himself and see what is there. It’s not a very common gift.” Perhaps a kindred spirit, this Wade, and so he comes a cropper.

And Terry Lennox, whom Marlowe helps to escape to Mexico, whom Marlowe later thinks is dead and may have been framed for the murder of Lennox, shows up at the end of the novel, having not been killed or committed suicide, instead having escaped into a new life, selfishly. Lennox could have helped bring the real killer to justice, but did nothing. Marlowe says to him: “You had standards and you lived up to them, but they were personal. They had no relation to any kind of scruples or ethics. You’re a moral defeatist. I think maybe the War did it and then again maybe you were born that way.” And so, Lennox has not lived up to Marlowe’s standards, does not have a Code to live by, in spite of the absurdity of having a code in an absurd universe.

Perhaps the closest thing Marlowe has to a friend is Bernie Ohls, the cop who is always threatening to throw him in jail for good, “… a tough hard cop with a grim outlook, but a very decent guy underneath.” Maybe he is the guy who will show at the graveside, which even Marlowe knows will be sparsely attended: “I’m a guy, who if he gets knocked off in an alley somewhere, nobody will feel the bottom has dropped out of his or her life.” In spite of his anger at Marlowe for taking the law into his own hands, Ohls saves Marlowe from being killed (in both The Big Sleep and The long Goodbye. As people on both sides of the law seek to take Marlowe down, Ohls respects his nemesis-gumshoe for living by his Code, consequences be damned.

At novel’s end, Linda Lorring, sister to the murdered Sylvia, has an assignation with Marlowe. Of course, there is a lot of yakking about what they are doing there, and what they want, and Marlowe has to get her good and pissed off before he beds her—this is the Marlowe M.O. with his women—but the bottom line is he respects her. Maybe she is one rich broad who is not all shiny on the surface and all tarnish underneath. He says: “You’re spoiled a little—not too much—by money.” It’s about the nicest thing Marlowe ever says to a woman, but he goes on about his independence, about the illusion of love, and finally, “I pulled her close and she cried against my shoulder. She wasn’t in love with me and we both knew it. She wasn’t crying over me. It was just time for her to shed a few tears.” And so Marlowe turns down her millions and keeps his integrity, and stays alone at an age on the precipice of permanent bachelorhood.

Some critics see misogyny in Marlowe’s (and perhaps Chandler, if there is no ironic distance between author and narrator) treatment of women, and perhaps they are right. More to the point, however, it is sound authorial plotting and believable characterization. Marlowe’s mistrust of women allows Chandler to keep his hero solitary. Heroes have to be single-minded and separate from the community they protect, never to completely belong. As Marlowe says when he contemplates living the quiet suburban family life: “You take it friend, I’ll take the sordid, crooked city.” And I’m glad he does.

Mike Welch

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Murder at the Crime Writing Awards

Mistress of Comedy Hails from Oakville, Ontario

When I first read Melodie Campbell's humor I laughed so loud the Mayor of New York yelled over from the Mansion on Gracie Square to pipe down! I love people who can write " Funny." They rank a seat on Mt. Olympus! I can't write "Funny" too good, so I really bow to this gift!

The top Exec Director of Crime Writers of Canada and winner of the 2014 Derringer for Best Crime Novella, she has been called "The Queen of Comedy" by the Toronto Sun.

Her 7th novel,
The Artful Goddaughter, comes out this fall.

 Her words poke you in the jaw: Here are a few samples:

"Comedy is not languorous. It does not usually come from elegiac sentences and glistening prose… it hits and jabs and takes you by surprise."

"The purpose of crime fiction should be to Entertain, and nothing should come before that… Put me in the mind of a serial killer for a few hours. Let me know what it feels like to experience the overwhelming greed of a con artist. Dress me up as a torch singer, with a black heart and a gun in her stocking."

"Let me discover something about how other people think, if only for a little while. But above all else, entertain me."

"Just tell me a damn good story, thank you. Take me out of the real world for a few hours."

"An early mentor, a guy, once called me a Literary Slut, when referring to my tendency to write in several genres—and sometimes several genres at once!"

"It could be that men and women read the same novels for different things. Or maybe… we just all need escape… Reality TV doesn't do it for many of us. Who the heck needs more reality?"

"Bring on the fantasy, I say! Make my suspense sizzle!"

Please welcome Melodie Campbell!

Thelma Jacqueline Straw (who would love to write like Melodie when she grows up!)

Murder at the Crime Writing Awards. Okay, I haven’t done it yet. But I may soon.

I’m the Executive Director of a well-known crime writing association. This means I am also responsible for the Arthur Ellis Awards, Canada’s annual crime writing awards night, and the resulting banquet.

I’ve planned hundreds of special events in my career as a marketing professional. I’ve managed conferences with 1000 people attending, scarfing down three meals a day. Usually, we offer a few choices, and people choose what they want. They’re pretty good about that. People sit where they want. Simple.

Granted, most of my events have been with lab techs, doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals.

It is not the same with authors. Nothing is simple with authors.


A can’t sit with B, because A is in competition with B for Best Novel. C can’t sit with D because C is currently outselling D. E can’t sit with F because they had an affair (which nobody knows about. Except they do. At least, the seven people who contacted me to warn me about this knew.) G can’t sit with H because G’s former agent is at that table and they might kill each other. And everyone wants to sit with J.


The damned meal is chicken. This is because we are allowed two choices and we have to provide for the vegetarians. We can’t have the specialty of the house, lamb, because not everyone eats lamb. We can’t have salmon as the vegetarian choice, because some vegetarians won’t eat fish.

So we’re stuck with bloody chicken again.

P writes that her daughter is lactose intolerant. Can she have a different dessert?

K writes that she is vegetarian, but can’t eat peppers. Every damned vegetarian choice has green or red pepper in it.

L writes that she wants the chicken, but is allergic to onion and garlic. Can we make hers without?

M writes that her daughter is a vegan, so no egg or cheese, thanks. Not a single vegetarian choice comes that way.

I am quickly moving to the “you’re getting chicken if I have to shove it down your freaking throat” phase.

Chef is currently threatening the catering manager with a butcher’s knife. I am already slugging back the cooking wine. And by the time people get here, this may be a Murder Mystery dinner.


Nobody got murdered, but a few got hammered.

Melodie Campbell

Billed as Canada’s “Queen of Comedy" by the Toronto Sun (Jan. 5, 2014,) some folks would say Melodie has had a decidedly checkered past. Don’t dig too deep. You might find cement shoes.

Her crime series,
The Goddaughter, is about a wacky mob family in Hamilton aka The Hammer. This has no resemblance whatsoever to the wacky Sicilian family she grew up in. Okay, that’s a lie. She had to wait for certain members of the family to die before writing The Goddaughter.

Her other series is racy rollicking time travel, totally scandalous, hardly mentionable in mixed company. But we'll mention it anyway.
Rowena Through the Wall. Hold on to your knickers. Or don’t, and have more fun.

The Goddaughter’s Revenge won the 2014 Derringer (US) and the 2014 Arthur Ellis Award (Canada) for Best Crime Novella. Melodie got her start writing comedy and seems to be firmly glued there, after 200 publications. But others know her as the Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Last week I went to Salem, Finally

My mother told me many years ago that I ought to visit Salem, home of my 6-X great grandmother, Rebecca Nurse, and sign my name in the book. Not the devil's book, I hasten to add, but the book of great-granny Nurse's descendants, who are as numerous as the sands of the sea. Harold and I finally had a chance to go there last week on our way home from Maine. It was… interesting.

The seaport town of Salem is something of a zoo nowadays. We encountered a wild-eyed, hairy docent leading a troop of quivering tourists from attraction to attraction, while he amazed them with a Pagan spiel.  At one point he chased us out of the garden of one of the old houses, the Witch House, I think it was called. It was a lovely old garden with a pear tree laden with fruit. I don't know what his problem was, or even whether he was authorized to chase us. Surely the pagans aren't in charge of Salem now. Or maybe they are.

For myself, I'm a Christian, as was Rebecca Nurse. I shudder to think what she would make of all the witch kitsch in Salem. But I have no business professing to be shocked by all that, since I knew what to expect beforehand.

I did not realize that Nathaniel Hawthorne's House of Seven Gables was in Salem, right on the harbor. We found a caterer in possession and a wedding going on out behind under a big white tent. Have your wedding at the House of Seven Gables!

We had a delicious dinner at the Captain's Waterfront Grill, looking right out on the dock where the Friendship of Salem was moored. That's the same square-rigged ship depicted on my dinner plates. I was very pleased to see it, a little bit of home.

But all this was hours after we visited the actual home of Rebecca Nurse.

The Nurse homestead is not in Salem itself but in the town of Danvers, called Salem Village in 1692 to distinguish it from Salem Town. It is being maintained as an historic farmstead, an oasis of stillness in the middle of an ordinary suburban town. We went down a dirt driveway and parked in front of the fence, as the sign instructed. Then we walked on to the house. No one was there.

As luck would have it, the Nurse house closed at three every afternoon, and whatever docents we might have encountered had fled away by 3:05. All the same it was nice. Quiet. Dignified. The way I like things. It's not as if I didn't know the story, or needed someone to tell it to me. Here was the rolling, fertile acreage coveted by the evil, posession-shamming Putnam family. There was the upstairs window, the window of the very bedroom where the wicked bailiffs came and dragged that sweet old lady, and she not feeling well, off to the jail for refusing to confess that she was a witch.

We wandered all over, taking pictures. I had an odd feeling. No one knows where Rebecca Nurse's grave might be, for the family cut her down from the gallows and buried her secretly, perhaps somewhere on her own farm. The secret location was not passed down in my mother's family. I might have been walking over her remains. I didn't think to say a prayer for her. Surely she's at rest in the bosom of the Lord.

Since we couldn't get inside, the house being all locked up, I never did find out whether there was actually a book for me to sign.

©  2014 Kate Gallison

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

“An e-book should cost 50 cents,”

Tomorrow I head out for three weeks in Kenya, Tanzania, and London--researching and allowing my soul to grow in Africa and then hawking my latest at the Historical Novel Society conference in London.  To the extent that my internet connections allow, I will apprise you of my progress as I go along.  In the meanwhile, discussions I have had with readers and writers in the last couple of weeks have encouraged me to return to this post from three and half years ago.  As predicted, the situation is worse now than it was then.  The US government has sued publishers, giving even more power to Amazon, and Amazon is "renting" ebooks of current novels free of charge to their "Premier" members.  The members pay Amazon $75 a year for the privilege and, of course, pay Amazon for the Kindle on which they read.  Authors and publisher get zilch.  OY. OY. OY!!!

…the woman at the gym said to me and a couple of others. We had just taken an exercise class together and were chatting as we changed to go out into cold and windy mid-February New York. “I mean,” she went on, “it doesn’t cost anything to produce.” The person who was speaking is a grownup who lives on the Upper Eastside of Manhattan. She reads a lot, so presumably she is capable of more subtle thought than she was displaying at the moment. She had been touting reading on a Kindle to one of our group who was about to head out on a vacation away from the sleet and slush. The main advantage the speaker saw in the electronic book reader was that one can carry so many books so easily. That e-books cost less than print copies made up for the cost of the Kindle, she thought. Then she dropped that bomb about 50 cents being the appropriate price for an e-book.

I spoke up to defend the rights of the writer. I even defended the right of the publisher to make a profit for taking the considerable trouble to publish the book. Once I pointed out that a writer had probably spent two years working on the book and deserved get more recompense than such a price would afford, and that publishers had to maintain offices and pay editors, the 50-cent-lady changed her tune. The discussion then turned to an even more difficult subject. One of the company had heard that only the most successful authors make more than a pittance for their work. Why do they do it, they asked me. By then I had revealed my profession.

Fact is that if authors don’t get a decent cut of the income from the sale of electronic books, our plight is going to get worse and faster than was predicted even just a year ago. A couple of days after that discussion at the gym, I received an email from The Authors Guild outlining the impact of e-book sales on authors’ royalties. The story isn't pretty. Quoted here is what the Guild said:

E-book royalty rates for major trade publishers have coalesced, for the moment, at 25% of the publisher’s receipts. As we’ve pointed out previously, this is contrary to longstanding tradition in trade book publishing, in which authors and publishers effectively split the net proceeds of book sales (that's how the industry arrived at the standard hardcover royalty rate of 15% of list price). Among the ills of this radical pay cut is the distorting effect it has on publishers’ incentives: publishers generally do significantly better on e-book sales than they do on hardcover sales. Authors, on the other hand, always do worse.
How much better for the publisher and how much worse for the author? Here are examples of authors’ royalties compared to publishers’ gross profit (income per copy minus expenses per copy), calculated using industry-standard contract terms:
“The Help,” by Kathryn Stockett
Author’s Standard Royalty: $3.75 hardcover; $2.28 e-book.
Author’s E-Loss = -39%
Publisher’s Margin: $4.75 hardcover; $6.32 e-book.
Publisher’s E-Gain = +33%
“Hell’s Corner,” by David Baldacci
Author's Standard Royalty: $4.20 hardcover; $2.63 e-book.
Author’s E-Loss = -37%
Publisher’s Margin: $5.80 hardcover; $7.37 e-book.
Publisher’s E-Gain = +27%
“Unbroken,” by Laura Hillenbrand
Author’s Standard Royalty: $4.05 hardcover; $3.38 e-book.
Author’s E-Loss = -17%
Publisher’s Margin: $5.45 hardcover; $9.62 e-book.
Publisher’s E-Gain = +77%
So, everything else being equal, publishers will naturally have a strong bias toward e-book sales.

We can suppose that the future will belong more and more to e-book formats. If publishers continue find them so much more profitable than printed books, they will push change even faster.

Much as I love the tactile experience of reading what I still call “a real book,” I have begun to buy e-books too and to read them on an iPad. I like it that the device is backlit, which allows me to read in the dark, since I am often awake in the night and turning on the light would wake my husband. I love it that if I am reading to research a story, I can highlight and write notes on the text quite magically. And I have to say, that I do like the lower price.

But now having seen the Authors Guild’s numbers on the subject, I feel guilty depriving my fellow authors of a fair share of the profits from their work. Predicting how all this will work out is a favorite game in every corner of the publishing industry these days. For my part, I am counting on organizations like the Guild, Mystery Writers of America, and other author advocacy groups to press for authors' rights. In the meanwhile, I am grateful to the Guild for giving me information to set the record straight when the subject comes up, even if it's just in response to uninformed opinions in casual discussions at the gym.

By the way, the following week, one of the other people who overheard our conversation brought in a hardcover copy of one of my books and asked me to autograph it. Now there is something you can't do with an e-book!

Annamaria Alfieri

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Mom and Gail

My mother was a very smart woman who, in high school, pursued what was then called a “commercial” course of study. It prepared young women to become clerical workers and secretaries. The other option was the academic track which would lead to a college education that few families in my grandparents’ circumstances could afford.

In her senior year my mother took shorthand. One of her year long assignments was to become a pen pal of another student. Mom’s pen pal was Gail and the two of them wrote to each other in shorthand. I don’t know how many of my mother’s classmates maintained their relationships with their pen pals beyond graduation, but my mom and Gail dropped the shorthand and wrote to each other for almost 50 years.

They never met nor did they discuss the possibility of meeting and came to be like strangers on a train (though not in the Patricia Highsmith sense of that term). While I doubt that they were candid with each other by contemporary standards—my mother always believed that there were certain things you just didn’t tell other people—I know they told each other a lot that I doubt they shared with family or friends closer to them.

I came to love Gail’s letters as much as my mother did. They were warm, bubbly novellas of acquisition and material content. Gail married the kind of guy who went out for a pack of cigarettes and came back with a Cadillac. Each of their three children had a television set in a time when parents were not as indulgent of children as they are now. Gail did occasionally allude to the possibility of overspending but these hints of unease were buried under detailed descriptions of appliances, curtains, clothing and cars.

There was some discussion of books in these letters and Gail would send my mother books that were “just too weird for me.” Thus did I first read Flannery O’ Connor (Everything That Rises Must Converge) and Joyce Carol Oates (Expensive People).

I still remember being enthralled by the first line of Expensive People: “I was a child murderer.” I read on to find out if this meant the narrator was a child who murdered or an adult who murdered children. I was hooked and read Joyce Carol Oates for years, though I now realize I can never keep up.

I never saw my mother’s letters to Gail except in one circumstance. A professor of mine with whom our family was friendly called to see if he could borrow my mother’s typewriter. He had something important he had to work on and his typewriter had died. I told him he could use the typewriter without asking my mother. I could tell she wasn’t entirely pleased to lend her Olivetti, but the man asking for it was a college professor and she both liked and respected him. He assured both of us that he would have it back in a tick. He kept it for three weeks. My mother said nothing.

When the typewriter was finally returned, my mother set to work on a letter to Gail. She left the letter in the typewriter. I happened to read the opening paragraph. My mother was very angry at me and displeased that I had loaned her typewriter without asking her first. I couldn’t discuss this with my mother because I would have to reveal that I had read the letter, but my mom had the satisfaction of letting me know how she felt without having to provoke a confrontation.

A few years later when my father abruptly left the family, I also got another glimpse into what my mother said to Gail. I was filled with advice for my mother after my father left. We were both distraught, but my mother seemed paralyzed in a way that threatened every aspect of her life. She hated my advice, but she read me a letter of Gail’s which said, “I know it’s hard to take advice from someone you remember as a baby, but Stephanie sounds sensible.” While my mother didn’t hang on my every word, we had an easier time discussing unpleasant topics.

In later years, Mom reported that she heard less from Gail. Then one Christmas she got a card from Gail’s husband. The card had some cheery family scene on it, but inside Gail’s husband had written “Bonnie, I am sorry to tell you that Gail has Alzheimer’s Disease and never wants to do anything anymore.”

“Now I guess I’ll never get to meet her,” my mother said.

© 2014 Stephanie Patterson

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Miss Bacall

She hated being called a legend. 

And by the standards of performers who began their careers in the golden age of film, Lauren Bacall didn't do that many movies. She married a legend, and her career suffered. She lost her Svengali, Howard Hawks, after the marriage, and he sold her contract. Movies fell on hard times — middle class flight to the suburbs, TV. And movies in the 1950s wanted voluptuous, not-too-bright blondes. So why do we film fans recall her with such deep admiration and affection? It starts with her first movie, To Have and Have Not

You have to see that movie to understand what a sensation she caused. It was not only because she was gorgeous. It was because of the way she played Marie. Sultry, yet somehow innocent, teasing, playful. And the repartee between her and Bogart is, well, legendary. Finally you’ll understand why film buffs like to say, with a wink-wink to each other, “You know how to whistle, don't you?”   

And she was only 19.

But while I thoroughly enjoyed How to Marry a Millionaire and Designing Woman, by my teens, I had moved on to other movies, “younger” movies. British movies.

But I found Bacall again when I was in college, when she starred in Applause on Broadway. I was living in Tennessee. Didn’t matter. I was studying theater, and I was captivated by a musical version of All About Eve

I wore out that album (although I still own it!). I took it to Saturday set-building sessions at my undergraduate university, and we’d stick it on the hi-fi and turn up the volume so we could hear it onstage. And sing along. Well, at least I did. I thought it would be the best thing in the world to be on stage. 

With Bacall.

So of course, when it came time to name my heroine, a tall blonde with a snappy attitude, there was only one first name I could give.


Sheila York
Copyright 2014

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Nazis Nuns in Paraguay

I wish I could write short stories. I very much admire the form and stand in awe of writers who can produce those small jewels—like the tiny towns, churches, images of the saints sculpted in gold and silver and placed on medieval reliquaries.  It takes a magnifying glass to see their exquisite beauty and the perfection of every detail.

My imagination and level of skill require large blocks of literary marble, a sledgehammer, and sharp chisels.  I have had exactly one piece of short fiction published.  Every once in a while, I get an idea for another, but by the time I have thought about it for forty-five seconds, it begins to expand with plots and characters and scenery and grows into a gargantuan epic that, if I took the time, I might be able to cut down to the 70,000 words or so that my publisher might be willing to print as a book.

A couple of months ago, a fan of my second novel Invisible Country gave me an old, brown newspaper clipping about something that had happened in Paraguay—the setting for that book.  At first, I thought I might use the information as the basis of a short story.   It has all the elements of a perfect background.  I will share it with you here verbatim:

From The New York Daily News- 5 May 1989

Alarmed by gruesome reports of excessive discipline at a convent school, a concerned priest investigated—and discovered the “nuns” were a gang of bloodthirsty ex-Nazis in disguise! 

             For decades the Hitler henchmen hid beneath black habits to escape justice for their barbaric crimes, while torturing orphan pupils and plotting world domination!  (The exclamation points are The Daily News’s, not mine—except for this one!)
            “It’s an abomination,” cries Father Juan Escalpa, “that these 14 men of darkness could masquerade as sisters of light.  It is a desecration of the church.”
            Instead of religious training, students were a taught a hateful mixture of racist bigotry.
            The Nazi nuns drove their points home with various instruments of torture.   “Their favorite was the ruler rapper,” notes battered student Miguel Parraiba.


“They strapped your hand into a machine, and the steel ruler beat your knuckles bloody.”
            Father Juan, a priest in Asuncion, Paraguay, heard horrifying stories from shattered orphans about the convent and traveled into the jungle to investigate.
            “When I spied on then later that night, I saw them goose-stepping around the convent and singing Nazi songs,” recalls Father Juan.
            An elite army corps raided the convent, where they discovered a large cache of guns and explosives, along with Nazi literature and regalia.
            “We’ve been able to establish that they were all high-ranking S.S. officers,” notes Police Sergeant Jorge Ciminado.
            “Their leader was Colonel Klaus Van Roeppelgang, who was also their Mother Superior.”
-Ben Snark

Immediately on reading this,  I imagined the germ of a story.  An old man had gone to visit the grandson of his deceased best friend.  The boy had been cared fro by his grandfather, but had been taken to an orphanage after his grandpa died.  As soon as the friend arrives, the nine-year-old begins to complain about the treatment the children receive.  Abuelo, Sister Superior is so nasty.  All the sisters punish us too much.”  The old man gives the child the same argument he had gotten from his parents.  (The same one I got from my own if I complained about my treatment in school.)  “You must listen to your teachers.  They are trying to help you grow up to be good people.”  But when the old man looks at the scars on the child’s hands, he wonders.  He thinks it over the bus home.  When he gets back to Asuncion,  he calls his parish priest Father Juan.

At this point, the ballooning of the story begins.   Chases through the jungle.  Neo-Nazis in high places.  The lost gold of Paraguay.  The investigation of the deaths of the real nuns who ran the orphanage before the Third Reichers took over.   It all becomes too daunting, and my enthusiasm disintegrates.

And so my best-bet short form remains the brief essay.  That’s why I enjoy writing blogs.

Annamaria Alfieri

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

How Much Sex is Too Much?

Today's guest is a writer of bleakly noirish tales with a bit of grim humour. Graham Wynd can be found in Dundee but would prefer you didn’t come looking. An English professor by day, Wynd grinds out darkly noir prose between trips to the local pub. Wynd’s novella of murder and obsessive love, EXTRICATE, is out now from Fox Spirit Books; the print edition also includes the novella THROW THE BONES as well as a collection of short stories. ‘The Tender Trap’ appears in EXILES: AN OUTSIDER ANTHOLOGY from Blackwitch Press and the short story ‘Kiss Like a Fist’ appears in NOIR NATION 3.

We know what they say about us crime writers: better a bullet than a kiss. I don’t want to say that we’re puritanical, but you should see people’s faces if you suggest something like Fifty Shades of Miss Marple (though I bet the old gal had a lot more going on than we might want to guess). Across the border over in thriller territory, James Bond is getting it on. But the crime scene tape keeps those shenanigans at bay.

Mysteries tend to appeal to the intellect; our investigators might develop a patchy romance with a colleague or even a criminal, but anything between the sheets happens offstage. But I write noir. Noir is a bit different: it’s all hard men and femmes fatales, who seem destined to use that allure as a weapon. The sexy is out there in the open, but it tends to be a tease. The most we get is Chandler allowing Marlowe a brief indulgence with Mrs. Grayle: “She fell softly across my lap and I bent down over her face and began to browse on it.”

The novella Extricate which opens my collection from Fox Spirit Books features a pair who fall into what folks would now recognize as a BDSM sort of relationship. They don’t have a name for it: they’re just stunned to find a kindred soul. Of course the choices they make so they can be together are not so smart, which is noir in a nutshell: things fall apart. But things do get a bit steamy.

Is it too much? Your mileage may vary, as they say. The crimes are the main focus in the narrative, but sex is the engine that drives it. Don’t you want to peek at what’s under the hood now and then? Go on. No one’s looking.

© 2014 Graham Wynd

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Reckless or Risk-taker?

Sailing Writer, Christine Kling…

Circle of Bones, Surface Tension, Cross Current and Bitter End are a few of the suspense novels this “sailor-writer-dreamer-nomad” has published. Seychelle Sullivan, a salvage tugboat captain, the heroine of some of Christine's nautical suspense novels, has been compared to Kinsey Millhone, Kay Scarpetta and V.I. Warshawski.

I got to know Christine at Sleuthfest several years ago and have followed her career with great zeal. Christine has spent over twenty years on and around boats, has cruised the waters of the North and South Pacific, the Atlantic and the Caribbean. Her vast experience has enabled her to create unique suspense novels — tying mysteries of the land to the sea.

For her heroines, life is all about making a living, making love and solving puzzles of murder and corruption.

In her post today, Christine shares with us a new life — which most women only read about… and hers is now real… in a new life on a 52-foot sailboat with her new husband!

Christine, I'm SO happy for you and hope you and he always share “Fair winds!”


I write nautical mysteries and thrillers with strong female protagonists mostly because those were the books I wanted to read years ago, and I couldn’t find them out there on the shelves. I’ve lived aboard and sailed on boats for most of my life — for the last several years as a singlehanded woman aboard my 33-foot sloop plying the waters of the Bahamas and the east coast of the US. As crew, I’ve crossed oceans. Taming a ballooning sail on the tossing foredeck of a small boat thousands of miles from land in the dark of night is my version of normal. But when my first book was published, I discovered that putting my words out there for the public to judge was one of the greatest risks I’d ever taken.

I’ll never forget the afternoon I was invited to an author’s tea at the Don CeSar, a great pink confection of a hotel on St. Pete Beach in Florida. Each author was seated at a round table piled high with plates of scones and those tiny little crust-less sandwiches. You may well be wondering what such a function could have to do with risk-taking, but for a woman who has spent so much time in sea boots and oilskins, I felt a bit like a pelican in a flock of peacocks — especially when they seated me next to this tiny lady in a gray lace dress with perfectly coifed white hair. I introduced myself to everyone at the table, and my seat mate leaned in to me. She whispered in my ear, “I’ve read your book, and your character Seychelle?”

“Yes?” I said eagerly.

The lady sniffed and said, “She’s reckless!” Then she straightened back up, put a lovely smile on her face, and began chatting with the lady on the other side of her.

Of course, as a relatively new writer, I was startled and hurt. Our books and characters are our babies, and it wounds when someone criticizes them — especially when a character is so much like oneself. But I tamed my wobbly chin, put on a smile and made it through the rest of the luncheon.

Later, when I got home I looked more closely at the word “reckless.”
Merriam-Webster: “marked by lack of proper caution: careless of consequences.”
Oxford dictionaries: “Heedless of danger or the consequences of one’s actions; rash or impetuous.”

What is “proper caution”? The female protagonists of both my series are women willing to take risks heedless of the consequences to themselves. And I choose to write about women like this because that is how I live my life. I call that not reckless, but daring to take risks.

So after I was very fortunate to have the first four books in my Seychelle series published by Ballantine, I took the risk and self-published my first thriller in early 2012. At that time, I reckoned self-publishing meant I would never have a traditional contract again, but I wanted to get that book I loved out there. Seven months later after the book had done remarkably well, I received an email from Thomas & Mercer, and my thriller series has a new home at a non-traditional publisher now. Certainly, it was a risk to go with that controversial publisher, but I’ve now sold far more books with them than I ever did at Ballantine.

Just a few months ago, though, I took the biggest risk of my life. I was working on the final edits of Dragon’s Triangle, my second thriller for Thomas & Mercer, and I had to write a blog for my weekly spot on a group blog called Write on the Water. It was late at night and I didn’t feel like writing anything, so I grabbed my iPad and used a funny little app called My Talking Pet to produce a video of my dog Barney explaining why I was unable to write a blog that week. I posted the video and in 15 minutes, I was done and ready for sleep.

The next day, I discovered a comment on the blog from a singlehanded sailor fellow on a boat out in Fiji. He said he too had a dog, and he wanted to know what software I had used to produce the video. I answered him with a quick note explaining how I had made the video. A few hours later, I got a response thanking me for sharing the info. Now, as a writer of nautical thrillers and a sailor, I get quite a bit of email asking me questions. The majority of the people I answer never write me back. They never say thank you. This guy did, so I found myself sitting up and taking notice. I wrote him back and told him a little more about myself and the book I was working on. Soon the emails were flying back and forth, and I learned he was on his 52-foot steel motorsailor in Nadi, Fiji preparing to sail to 2200 miles north to the Marshall Islands. We had so much in common, we decided it was time to “meet” virtually. So just like something out of a romance novel, I fell in love at first Skype.

Wayne was 60, I was 59, and we had both been divorced for many years. Neither one of us was searching for a partner at that point. We were happy and fulfilled with lives full of friends and this sailing thing we both loved. But when my silly Barney video brought us together, we found ourselves staying up all night chatting and laughing virtually from opposites sides of the world. Three weeks into this friendship, he invited me to sail with him on the passage to the Marshall Islands and I said yes.

During those three days of packing, presents and preparation, I had occasion to meet with several friends. Of course, many of them thought I was nuts flying half-way around the world to take off on a small sailboat to cross 2200 miles of empty ocean with a man I had never really met. They warned me — said I wasn’t taking “proper caution” or that I was being reckless. Is it really reckless to take the risk of finding the love of your life?

So I left 3 days later, arriving in Fiji one week before Christmas. Our “first date” was a three-week passage on a small boat during which the rudder failed, we blew out a sail, and we entered the Majuro atoll’s lagoon steering the boat with ropes wrapped around the rudder.

Now, over eight months later, I am so glad I was willing to take that leap heedless of the possible negative consequences. During a two month trip through Europe, Wayne proposed to me in a field of flowers on the island of Malta, and I said, “Yes!” I’ve sold my boat and his big motorsailor just happens to have a desk and book shelves in the forward cabin. That is my new office where I will continue to take the risk of writing my stories about strong, and yes reckless women who are willing to risk danger for the causes and people they love.

Women like me.

Fair winds!

Christine Kling

Friday, August 8, 2014

Happy Birthday, Mister President

The Democrats hounded me mercilessly last week to sign a birthday card for Barack Obama.

I got four or five emails a day, some of them vaguely menacing, as if I were going to lose out on something personally important to me if I didn't step forward and sign. "You haven't signed." "Kathleen, Don't forget to sign the card!" "Some people won’t sign President Obama’s birthday card…" "Kathleen, I don't want to make this awkward, but… It looks like you haven't signed the birthday card for President Obama yet." Now, I respect the office of president, and I still rather admire Barack Obama, though I get a bit nervous about his foreign policy from time to time. He should live and be well. But I don't feel that he and I are on greeting card terms. Does he send me a greeting card on my wedding anniversary? Not even my husband does that. So how is it that I owe him a birthday card?

All this is yet another feature of the hated twenty-first century. My touchstone for these events is simple. Would Eleanor Roosevelt have done this sort of thing, hounding me to sign birthday cards for Franklin? "Kathleen, if you don't sign this birthday card, Franklin will think you haven't got his back!" Hardly.  In the old days when we sent people to Washington they did the work we sent them to do (as far as we knew) and left us the hell alone.

I knew perfectly well what would happen after I signed the "card." Another screen would pop up and badger me to give the Democrats five dollars.

Whatever happens, the Democrats are after me for five more dollars. Boehner is triumphing over us! Give us five dollars. Boehner is weeping in rage! Give us five dollars. We're winning! We're losing! Send five dollars. I read recently that the Republicans' absurd lawsuit against Barack Obama is causing torrents of money to flow into the Democratic coffers, mostly donations from women. Women! What kind of suckers are we?

As I understand it, Karl Rove collected untold billions from those who could afford it (Let's face it, I can't) and poured them into the last election, whereupon his candidate lost just the same. So how is my five dollars going to improve the country? Here's what you people in Washington should do:  Fire the social media hounds and hire someone to fix the bridges. Pay attention to your work. Take time off from running for office and produce some useful legislation. Improve the country. We could use some help here.

© 2014 Kate Gallison

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Report on Deadly Ink 2014

Guests of Honor Donald Bain and Renee Paley-Bain
interviewed by Toastmaster Donna Andrews.
Ultra-gracious, all three!

It’s not the biggest mystery conference of the year.  One of the smaller ones, actually.  But this is a blessing for the writers, aspiring writers, and fans who attend.   The information flow is constant and the level of discourse high, but there is no standoffishness among the participants.  Openness is one of this mystery conference’s greatest assets—no matter whom you want to talk to about writing the genre—everyone is right there and willing to engage.

Just one of score of panels featured the attending authors.

A particular benefit for the members of the New York Chapter of Mystery Writers of America is that this meeting of the tribe includes quite a few of us, so the mix of people offers quite a few familiar faces.  This is not to say that people don’t travel from afar.  Last year I made friends with a mystery novelist from Arizona.  This year I met a fellow writer of historicals from Louisiana.

The atmosphere at Deadly Ink is casual, and there are plenty of opportunities for one to one and small group discussions.
How the sky looked from my room.

The weather last weekend was quite awful, which gave us all an excuse to remark that it was no sacrifice to stay indoors on that particular summer weekend.  But everyone I met also said they would not care.  We were making our own sunshine, regardless of what was going on outside.

Unlike most such conferences, meals are almost all included.  So it is easy to sit with different people for each one and get to know many of the attendees.
Dinner entertainment.

Sherlock Holmes tests his Truth-o-meter on Terry Irving

This year during the banquet, a troop of local actors performed a comic whodunit, with audience participation.

E.F. Watkins, happy David Award winner!

Each year, the people attending choose the winner of the David award, for the best mystery of the previous year.  This year it went to E. F. Watkins for her Dark Music.

Annamaria Alfieri highly recommends that you attend next year!