Thursday, April 30, 2015

Malice: A Forethought

By the time you read this, I’ll be on a train to Washington DC, sleep-deprived, but ready to commit (to) Malice. 

The Malice Domestic writer/fan convention celebrates the traditional mystery, giving the “Cozy” its due in a world that sometimes seems to think that the darker and more inaccessible a mystery is, the better it must be.

This year, for the first time, I’m headed down on Thursday at a reasonable hour. 

For years, Malice competed with the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Awards (the Oscars of the mystery world), which were held on Thursday night. So, if you went to the Edgars, you missed part of Malice. Unless you stayed up and took the 4am train.

I did that once, when Death in Her Face came out. I was lucky enough to get a spot in the Malice Go Round, which gives authors who’ve had books published since the previous Malice a chance to meet a few hundred readers in a sort of speed-dating for authors.

There was not enough Refresh in the world to get the red out of my eyes. I looked like a character in a paranormal. 

This year however, the Edgars were held on Wednesday night. I think there might have been some confusion about dates on the part of the hotel. It would explain two bottles of free wine on each table.

The Edgar Awards are the culminating event of Edgar Week, which kicked off Monday evening with the launch of the Mystery Writers of America Cookbook at Mysterious Bookshop

“Wickedly good” recipes from dozens of celebrated writers. Here are two. From left, contributors Alafair Burke and Chris Pavone, with editor Kate White, and administrative director of MWA, Margery Flax. 

And here is non-contributor me, catching some cool air and outdoor conversation with the legendary Otto Penzler, Charles Todd (contributor), Judy Bobolik, Ruth Jordan and Crimespree Cats. 

Tuesday, it was the MWA Symposium, panels of really famous writers and the Edgar nominees (some of those are the same people) with cogent insights on the craft, business and heart of writing. That’s followed each year by a cocktail party for MWA members, with agents and editors as guests. That's followed by going out and staying out late in NYC with friends you haven't seen in months!

Then the Edgars. Repeat last sentence above.

Hence, my sleep deprivation.

But I'm looking forward to Malice, especially my panel.  Although there was a frisson of anxiety about that late last week.

The moderator had to bow out suddenly, and moderating is not a job just anyone can step into. It’s not simply coming up with a few questions that fit the topic and asking each panelist the same thing, and hope interesting discussion magically occurs. Not if you do it right.

But – sigh of relief – the excellent Marcia Talley, the author of the Hannah Ives series, agreed to step in. Here’s Marcia with her Agatha for Best Short Story a few Malices ago.

Actually BIG sigh of relief. I know I'm in excellent hands. And this has not always been the case.

I’ve attended dozens of different conventions all across the country and have had largely very enjoyable panel experiences. But I've had a few bad ones, and they haunt me and can cause nervous tics to develop just upon entering a hotel ballroom. Let me give you two examples.  

Second-worst panel I was ever on, the moderator let one panelist hijack the whole show, allowing him to go on and on for about 10 minutes to each question, while the rest of us politely confined ourselves to the 3 minutes that were the alleged maximum. I was halfway into answering only my second question when the timekeeper at the back of the room held up the Time for Q&A sign.

The worst was the one in which the moderator gave us no idea what she was going to do with the topic because she liked to “wing it” and thought that was a great way to encourage spontaneity. I think it's a great way to encourage stuttering and half-considered answers that can make a person look addled. Her focus and the panel topic bore no resemblance to each other. She talked about what interested her, not what the organizers thought might appeal to the readers. In addition, she apparently paid no attention to the bio I sent her, as her introduction got my series wrong; she had confused me with another convention attendee named Sheila.

So you can see how relieved I am that at 10:00 Saturday morning, I will be with Marcia and Alice Loweecey, Sara Paretsky, Lane Stone, and Elaine Viets chatting about “Cozy Noir?: Private Eyes”.

Cozy Noir? I can’t wait to see what we do with that one. 

"Traditional mysteries" – by Malice's definition – are "...mysteries which contain no explicit sex or excessive gore or violence."  For cozies, one would certainly add “no profanity". 

My best friend Kathy once described extreme noir as "never love; never hope."

So, we have quite a spectrum here, and I started thinking about where my series would fall on that spectrum from Cozy to Noir?

I don’t write explicit sex, though you can certainly guess what might have just happened or is about to between Lauren and Peter. It never felt right to make the sex explicit. Lauren’s a lady, a lady of the 1940s, circumspect about her personal life. She’s the first person narrator. I can’t imagine her suddenly being graphic with the reader about sex. 

I don’t do gruesome violence. A couple of people have been shot on the page, and plenty of bodies have been found after the killer was through with them. But my on-page violence is more like the time Peter took the security chief of a major studio and put him headfirst into a file cabinet because the guy had put Lauren in danger, and Peter thought it was a good idea to point out to the guy that he shouldn’t ever do that again.

My series does have some profanity. Occasionally characters who are the kind of people who would swear, do. Though nobody does it very often.

However, my series’ view of the world is considerably darker than a cozy. While the killers are always caught, I'm keenly aware while I’m writing of the difference between justice and the world being put right again. People die, and the lives of those left behind will be changed forever. Those who loved the victim and those who cared about or were betrayed by the killer. And there are some recurring unsavory characters (including one based on the most dangerous gangster in LA in the mid 1940s) who will never get their just desserts.

But I hope Lauren’s wry humor keeps the tone from ever settling in too dark a place.

Speaking of a darker place…  I was going to include a picture here of me and fellow panelists at last year’s Malice.  But I was sitting right under a super-harsh florescent spotlight. Turned to the sky, it could have signaled Batman. Photoshop doesn't seem to have an option for "Make top of subject's head look normal."

Note to self: This year, pick a seat more on the noir end of the spectrum.  

Sheila York

Sunday, April 26, 2015

A Mall Story

My parents were great fans of the Sunday drive.

We lived in variety of suburbs over the years and they all looked pretty much the same to me. We lived outside of Washington D.C. on several different occasions but we never went into the city because it would be dangerous. Aimless driving in housing developments just never appealed to me. Since I couldn’t read in a moving car without getting sick, I saw the whole venture as a colossal waste of time.

But one week we had a destination. We went to watch a mall being built. My heart did not race at the thought. We went to the construction site and it was clear that many other people had had this same idea for Sunday entertainment.

It was hot, crowded and boring. Nothing happened. Well, that’s not true. I think I watched paint dry. I fidgeted. I made tiny whining noises. Nothing happened. My parents seemed to be enthralled.

Finally, I whispered to my mother, “I want to be a strip-teaser.”

Her eyes widened. “Shush,” she said.

I went over to my father. “I want to be a strip-teaser.”

His eyes widened. “Shush,” he said.

I really didn’t understand why I had to be quiet about my career choice.

The mall construction didn’t get any more exciting. Nothing was happening. It was Sunday after all.

“I want to be a strip teaser.” I said.

My parents shushed me again and I earned a glare from a few people in front of them.


Things happened quickly and my father swept me up in his arms and he and my mother beat a hasty retreat to the car.

“What’s wrong with wanting to be a strip teaser?” I asked.

“Not one word until we get you home, young lady!” said my father.

This was serious. My parents rarely hit me but I was steeling myself for a spanking. I still didn’t understand why my career choice was so unpopular.

When we got home, my father started.

“Just where did you get the idea that you wanted to be a strip teaser, miss? It’s disgusting.”

“No, it’s not. It would be fun.”

“You think taking off your clothes in front of people would be fun?”

“I don’t want to take off my clothes in front of people!” I yelled.

“Then what are you talking about?”

I went over to the couch and picked up the Sunday comics and pointed to “Dennis the Menace.” “I want to do this. I want to be a strip teaser.”

I thought my interpretation of strip teaser made perfect sense. I didn’t get spanked. I did get sent to bed without supper. Now as I look back, I think I was being punished for not appreciating the mall.

And you know what? I still despise them.

© 2015 Stephanie Patterson

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Seven Lies

James Lasdun’s book SEVEN LIES (2006) is at once a political thriller and a meditation on desire, loss, betrayal and redemption, or perhaps the omnipresence of desire, which can lead to betrayal and the impossibility of redemption, accompanied by the loss of that thing most desired, or the failure to ever attain it.

The narrator, the perpetrator of those seven lies (Luther tells is in the frontispiece that “every lie must beget seven more lies if it is to resemble the truth”), is Stefan Vogel, who tells us the story of his lies knowing we, aware of his lying nature, will be wary even of his confession. And still, as the reader realizes Stefan really has nothing to lose, the power of his confession grows and takes on a convincing sense of dread and foreboding.

Stefan comes of age in the German Democratic Republic (what we would then have called East Germany) in the 1970’s. He’s a curiously fatalistic teen, given to feeling that those unfortunate things that happen to him have in some way already happened, that the feeling of déjà vu he feels is because somehow something in his character makes these things necessary, that they must happen now as they have always happened, and even if he doesn’t remember exactly when they happened before, they must have, so appropriate are they for someone possessing his unique gift, that of being a lightning rod for misfortune. A reader may think that Stefan’s feeling of fated-ness has led him to the passivity that in turn makes it seem to him as if life is happening to him more than he is happening to life.

The most salient feature of Stefan’s nature is his inability to act, to take any kind of initiative, to be what the self help gurus term “proactive.” He is not one to take arms against a sea of troubles, to be sure, or to plan against the storm that might occasion that sea of troubles—rather, he is more likely to get on a ship during hurricane season because he can’t think of anything better to do, and then find himself in a storm from which it is well nigh impossible to escape. And even then, his impulse would not be to directly confront the situation, but to try and trick and manipulate and deceive his way out of it.

Although some reviewers called this book a political thriller, I would call it a thriller in which some of the suspense is imbricated in politics. It does not pit East and West, Capitalism and Communism, against each other, but rather shows that in East Germany in the 70’s, one way you could climb the social and economic ladder was through political intrigue and trickery. It did not seem to be a denunciation of Capitalism or Communism per se, but a broader study of how you can get what you want if you betray your fellow man, and yourself. In this sense, it is universal. You can see a lot of Walter White (Breaking Bad) in Stefan Vogel.

One lie does lead to another for Stefan. Living a somewhat privileged life as the son of a minor party bureaucrat whose uncle is a well-placed party officer, he does not seem to want for much. But his mother, who was an aristocrat before the war, wants better for her family. She feels what is happening now runs counter to what should be because she is a displaced aristocrat, royalty in proletarian disguise. It is not just that she imagines she would be an aristocrat in West Germany, but that she would be a member of the ruling class anywhere. When Stefan’s father falls from favor with the party, Stefan’s mother decides that the family will now express its superiority through its intellect, and its artistic sensibility. To do this is difficult in a society where setting yourself apart and claiming for yourself more than the next person is frowned upon, but she manages to do it, to perform this bit of illusion while apparently deluding herself she is not being duplicitous.

Stefan, who unlike his brother Otto cannot confront things head on (Otto has a bitter and emotionally violent confrontation with Mom as a teen, and she writes him off, which is perhaps more a blessing than a curse), allows his mother to pass him off as some kind of artiste, a prodigy, a budding poet genius. To be this, Stefan decides not to dedicate himself to the craft of writing but instead to the art of plagiarism. He finds a book of foreign verse translated into German, taking those translations and transforming them into something he can pass off as his own. In fact, he takes Walt Whitman’s long lines and turns them into something anodyne and simple, pleasing to the poetic palate, simple nourishment not long providing sustenance. People fall for his con, and he revels in his false celebrity even as he undergoes intense anxiety about getting caught.

In order to access the books of poetry, young Stefan must bribe the building super with bottles of Aquavit he steals from his parents. In one scene, he must lie to Kitty, who is halfway between servant and step sister to him, in order to get her out of the way when he steals the bottles. Here, early on, we sense that the author’s attitude towards Stefan may be different than the attitude Stefan has towards himself. Stefan could have found other ways to have carried out his charade, but he doesn’t. He lies to Kitty, who completely trusts him, and he chooses a hurtful lie, one that can only mean pain to her. He gets her out of the way by telling her he has seen her “disappeared” boyfriend outside looking for her.

The lies do indeed multiply. Everything is done on a quid pro quo basis, even as people pretend it is not. People trade or sell what they can to get what they need. Kind of like Capitalism, or the way that any people behave under any political system, no matter what that system professes to be about. The currency Stefan deals in is deceit, both in East Germany and, after he manages to defect, in America.

The next thing Stefan truly wants is Inge, an actress who inspires a desire in him that strikes like a thunderbolt. She represents salvation from his mundane surroundings, and even from his banal self. He courts her, but can’t keep himself from his habit of subterfuge, telling bigger and bigger lies carrying with them bigger and bigger consequences. No spoilers here, but the question I bet you will keep asking yourself is “did he really have to say (or do) that?” Time and again he lies and tells himself he has to, that he is taking part in that quid pro quo, or maybe just trying to satisfy those who need his deceptions as much as he does, but you begin to question more and more whether he really has to. Eventually, he even begins to doubt himself.

Suspense is built into the tale right in the opening pages, when a woman throws a glass of wine in Stefan’s face at a New York party, as if she knew of his dark secrets, of all that led up to his and Inge’s escape to the US. Does she? And who from the past may prove to have been just as deceitful as Stefan? It is an intricately plotted tale, and the flashes forward and back are handled skillfully. And the biggest question comes at the end. Does Stefan finally meet life head on—is his final act finally an end to all the shirking and hiding and duplicity? Does he finally act, and act truly, or does he still see himself as victim, allowing himself the easy and deceitful way out? To the book’s credit, it portrays Stefan in all his complexity so vividly that I am still trying to decide.

2015 Mike Welch

Friday, April 24, 2015

Propaganda Posters from The Great War

In wartime, even more than at other times, the government is keenly interested in what the citizens believe.

During the First World War the Hun believed that Germany was a nice place, and it was honorable and fitting to fight and die for the Kaiser.

Food was short everywhere.  In fact food was critical to all parties' war effort. Neither Britain nor Germany grew enough food to supply their people, even before war broke out, but imported much of what they needed. The Canadians warned their people to refrain from hoarding.

For some reason corn was not considered good for shipping overseas—perhaps the Europeans didn't know how to cook it—so the home folks were encouraged to eat corn in preference to the more desirable wheat.

Saving food and buying war bonds were the activities most encouraged on the home front.  Here's a First Nations tribesman boasting about his investment in the Patriotic Fund. It's a crappy piece of artwork. I can draw better Indians than that, myself.

In reality the First Nations people had little money to invest in war bonds, but many were keen to go to Europe and fight. Some became war heroes. And speaking of ethnics tussling with the Hun, here is a poster from France depicting a happy African rushing to the fray.

I guess they don't call it a World War for nothing. By the end of it everybody was involved.

The recruiting posters urging the Irish to fight for England's King seem really strange to me. Here I was thinking they would have been just as happy to see him defeated.

But this was not true of all the Irish. A goodly number of Irish men were fighting in the trenches on the side of the Allies. When Roger Casement, that rabid revolutionary, went to Germany to ask for troops and arms to fight for Irish independence, the Germans said they would give him arms but no troops. However, more than 2,000 Irish men were being held in Germany as prisoners of war. If they wanted to fight against the English, they would be allowed to go back to Ireland with Casement.

Only three of these men volunteered. Quite likely they understood that if the rebellion failed they would be hanged, as was Casement, in the event.

Trench warfare was a nasty, futile, and frustrating business. Few were the comforts, what with the mud, the barrages, and the dead piling up, but one thing could always be counted on to bring a spot of relief: tobacco.

Aaah, nothing like a good smoke. And so it goes. More news from the Western front in later posts.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Millicent and Her Cockroaches

I met "Millicent" in my office at the Archdiocesan Vocational Services of NYC Catholic Charities where I was in a transitional job from private school administration to the vast ocean of Fortune 100 mile-high culture.

Millicent's outward appearance and demeanor hid the fact that she lived on the streets of Manhattan.

Our office counselled people and helped them find jobs. I never guessed this pleasant woman was just using us as a warm dry place to hang out. She looked normal. Her English was fine. She was polite and pleasant, even had a sense of humor. She often smelled, but so do some of my most elegant friends at times!

After a couple of sessions it dawned on me that maybe she could use a decent free meal. So I treated her to lunch. Then this became a weekly ritual.

After a few weeks I realized this was not so good. We did not have the budget to offer clients regular meals—but I didn't have the heart to turn her away.

After about a month, Millicent started talking about her son, a grown man who lived in a single room, somewhere on the lower east side.

And she began to tell me about his cockroaches…

As a former Girl Scout in the southern swamps, I had dealt with bugs—mosquitoes, etc. as well as water moccasins—but the idea of roaches in a Manhattan bed terrified me!

At first, I tried to change the subject at the lunch… but each time Millicent brought her conversation back to the cockroaches…

By then, I realized the lady might not be a serious job hunter…

Our little office on East 52nd street was warm, cozy and friendly. We dealt with a lot of walk-ins, so anyone could come in and be served by one of us.

We had become Millicent's security blanket, I was beginning to see…

When I checked her application form, the address, phone and references all sounded fine.

But after some light detective work it was evident that " Millicent" did not really exist. But the woman did come in weekly to work on a job search.

Only the help she sought was not for a job…

I finally took my concerns to my boss, a devoted churchgoing Irish Catholic from Westchester. (I'll call him Kevin)

After listening to my situation he looked at me with a kind smile.

"I've known 'Millicent' for some time", Kevin said quietly. "The cockroaches are real—but only in her mind. Her name isn't really Millicent. I'm not sure we know her real name."

I stared at him, aghast. Unable to speak.

"You wonder why I let you work with her, " he said. "This woman came here to be accepted as a human being, not to hunt for a job. She could not hold down a real job for one day.

"When you offered to take her to lunch, my superiors and I thought, not only was it a kind gesture, but it might really help her to live a small slice of life like a real person. If only for a little while."

I was angry and stunned.

"Why didn't you tell me?" I stammered. "I'm not just some dumb kid." I blinked away the tears.

"You were a person willing to see this woman as a regular human being," Kevin said. "We'll never know if Millicent is alive now or not… but for a few weeks she felt like she was a real lady. Who was invited to lunch," he added softly.

Sometimes, I look back and wonder what happened to Millicent. And her cockroaches…

And wonder, at times, who else in life is the person we meet in some group or life situation… a Millicent… looking only for validation as a human being… and a little invitation to lunch…

Did you ever meet a Millicent?

If so, did it change your life? Please share it with us here at Crime Writer's Chronicle.

Warmest wishes to you, dear reader.

Thelma J. Straw

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Sorry, Wrong Number

My Dad used to tell me about his love for old-timey radio shows like “Suspense” and “The Shadow” and “Inner Sanctum.” His claim was that the imagination could create images more horrible than anything special effects could manufacture for the movie or TV screen. He also claimed that there was more of an onus on the actors and actresses of these old shows to really carry their parts, as they had no computerized special effects geniuses to save them from mediocrity with their 21st century legerdemain (or to upstage them, for that matter, I could have said, but I wasn’t in the habit or arguing with my father).

When I saw SORRY, WRONG NUMBER (1948, Paramount) I got to thinking about his claims. The movie, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster as Leona and Henry Stevens, was based on a radio play written by Lucille Roberts. It was basically a one woman play, and Agnes Moorehead scared the pants off listeners so adroitly that Paramount asked Roberts to expand and rewrite the play for the big screen.

Sure, less is left to the imagination on the screen. With Moorehead, you couldn’t see her surroundings, you couldn’t see her, and in the movie we can see the posh, tony, chic bedroom Leona Stevens inhabits quite well (if in black and white) on the big screen, as well as the scale of emotions she runs up and down on her pretty, spoiled rich girl face. But this is still minimalist film making. Stanwyck’s portrayal of Leona has to carry the film, and it does. Most of the drama takes place in phone conversations. No fires, explosions, no trains disappearing into tunnels, no gun battles, aliens, slow motion Kung Fu Battles, death stars, no grand sets, epic scenes, no burning of Atlanta, nothing. Just a woman who, in trying to call her husband, gets cut into a call (this used to happen, I guess, party lines and all that) which she slowly begins to realize is about her own impending murder.

What a grabber, that first scene. Her own murder! And she’s an invalid to boot, and the servants are out for the night, and her husband is nowhere to be found. Alone in her bed, which is so nicely appointed with all kinds of frilly stuff, Leona sprawls in a nightgown that looks fancy enough to wear to a coronation. Poor woman, she can’t interest the police in her plight, and the phone company can’t trace the call after the party has hung up (I guess things have changed in that regard).

I read a NY Times review written shortly after the opening of this movie, and the critic cracked wise about not leaving women alone with their phones to whip themselves into hysterical frenzies (and run up the bill). That would go down as sexist today, and I think it is really true that men are on the darn cell phone as much as women are now, but it was a funny line. And Leona Stevens is a hysteric, and a hypochondriac, and a spoiled rich girl, so it is a little hard for her to get anyone interested in her case, or for us to care about what happens to her.

But slowly we do. Stevens gamely and doggedly pieces the wildly improbable story together, starting by tracking down her husband’s secretary, who leads her to her old college roommate (Sally Lord, played by Ann Richards), who is married to the DA Fred Lord, who just happens to be investigating Henry Stevens. Good old Sally (from whom Leona stole Henry at a college dance) decides to do an imitation of Nancy Drew and figure out why. Far-fetched coincidences, to be sure, but who cares? Suspend a little disbelief, ignore the minuscule chances you would get cut into a phone conversation about your own murder in a city of 8 million, and this movie is great fun, great thrilling and chilling fun, giving you that old frisson of terrified pleasure that good suspense movies do.

There are stunning revelations every time poor Leona dials that telephone. Leona realizes her husband is not who she thinks he is, and that even she herself is not, when her new doctor reveals to her that all her infirmity is in her head and not her heart. Spoiled rich girl or not, nobody deserves what she is going to get at 11:15 pm, a woman alone, who might as well be tied down to a railroad track with the hoof beats of Snidely Whiplash’s horse growing ever louder, ever closer.

And the way she must overcome herself, her own weakness and self-delusion, to save herself is classic. She must conquer her hysteria, get up and walk to the window, to scream for help, but she can’t. Perhaps she can’t give up the power her weakness has given her over her husband and father. She certainly bats them around with it. And maybe unconsciously she just can’t believe anyone will stay with her unless she stacks the deck in her favor, not only with her beaucoup bucks, but with her china doll fragility, her neurasthenia, and her poor weak heart. Doesn’t everyone leave? Didn’t her Mom? (Who died giving birth to her). Can she find safety, from herself, from heartbreak, from an 11:15 appointment with a murderer? It’s what you wish for, but this is noir, and like in any good noir, you are never safe, not from them and, in the end, not from yourself. The bomb ticks, and 11:15 awaits.

The movie flashes back and forth and sideways to give the back story, and it does a good job. Leona’s maiden name is Cotterell, and her father James has made a pile in pharmaceuticals. She meets Henry Stevens (Lancaster) at a college dance and asks him if he goes to Harvard. This starts her off on the wrong foot, as Lancaster is a hardscrabble guy from Grassville (great name for a down at heels town) who has only gumption and good looks going for him. She tries to cut in on him and Sally and he says no, but Leona doesn’t take no for an answer from anybody, but he’s not anybody, and you figure their back and forth, the sexual tension, will resolve itself into a nice romance, that he will tame the shrew and his real talents will be rewarded, a la Horatio Alger, and they will live happily ever after. HA.

They get married, but none of the above happens. He works for her father, in a kind of sinecure, and he calls himself the invoice king, the emperor of paperwork. With the help of the old man, Leona keeps Henry on a short leash, keeps him from taking a job anywhere else, and when Henry insists they move out of her father’s house, she has an “episode” and begins to manipulate him with her ailment as much as her money.

It’s classic. She doesn’t believe he could really love her, and so acts in a way that guarantees he won’t. And he, finding the yellow brick road to American success blocked off, decides to take a very illegal detour, which involves him with some very bad guys, who blackmail him for big bucks, which he can only get by knocking off his wife for the insurance money (and you wonder if he really minds knocking her off anyway—the moral ambiguity is great, classic noir stuff). And so he plans his lovely wife’s murder, but is nice enough to request that they make it quick and painless. If he can’t get by on a smile and a shoeshine, murder will do, especially for a kid from Grassville, from hunger.

Great tension, without any over the top FX type stuff. Could Arnold Schwarzenegger carry a film like this? Carry the whole movie with tone of voice and body language and facial expressions? I don’t think so.

And the great twist is that Henry Stevens has a change of heart, and confesses to Leona, from a pay phone, no less (she already knows, but he doesn’t know she does). He tells her to run to the window and to scream out, do it now (at 11:15 the El comes by and will drown out her screams) but can she overcome her psychological affliction, give up her whole flimsy persona, will she be able to lose her old self to save the new one? Nah. This is noir. Nobody saves themselves.

The movie gleefully fakes us out in two ways: As a thriller, where we think that the doughty Leona and her old college friend/rival will solve the crime and live happily ever after (they solve it, but no one finds happiness) and then with the standard romantic expectation that the lovers will be reunited, reconciled. She will save herself, won’t she? She must. She doesn’t deserve to die, we have found a kind of grudging sympathy for both of them in our hearts, there has to be a happy ending. Doesn’t there have to be a happy ending?

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, April 17, 2015

My Wife is Cheating on Me, But I Have a Job Offer in Bournemouth

I don't know where these people are getting my email address.

This morning I opened up my email only to be deluged with the usual flood of clickbait and spam. Five different people wanted me to know that my wife was running around behind my back. Their warnings were accompanied by a photo of a slutty-looking dame young enough to be my granddaughter in the arms of some guy. Click here to find out more. Luckily, I am not yet so far around the bend as to think I have a wife, even in the modern day when women are allowed to have them. Actually I have a husband. He’s not cheating on me. He knows it would hurt my feelings.

So I didn’t click on that one. Nor did I click on any of the emails that offered to spray away my baldness, two sprays every morning. Nor the cures for diabetes (a false disease, they claim. All you need is the right attitude. Click here and we’ll explain everything.) Nor yet on the promises to restore my eyesight. Throw away your glasses! Click here!

I have succeeded in automatically sending all the solicitations from the Party straight to my junk mail folder, ten or fifteen of them every day. The burden of their message is that the kabillionaire Koch brothers are buying up all the elections. To counteract the efforts of these evil men I must send the Party five dollars at once. Never mind how silly it is to imagine that the discretionary income of an old lady on Social Security is going to counterbalance the wealth of the Kochs. That’s not even why I won’t send them money. I won't send them money because I know they would use it to hire more people to bombard me with emails. If elections really are for sale, then I guess they’re going to have to go to the wealthy.

A number of years ago there was a congressman in a neighboring district who was plainly in the pocket of the pharmaceutical industry. I researched to see what Big Pharma had donated to his campaign, and it turned out to be $250,000. The value of our house. “How cheap!” I cried. “Harold, let’s sell the house and buy a congressman.” “What would we do with a congressman?” We decided we’d rather have the house. But I digress.

The daily job offer from Bournemouth is a curious thing. It's one of a number of solicitations that come to my mailbox from the UK. I once ordered a book directly from a British publisher. The book was great. It came in a big mailbag with customs markings all over it. But evidently the publishers sold my email address to various other entities in the UK, shopping and travel sites, even a newsletter for landlords on how to deal with government regulations and brutalize the tenants. All useless to me. I’m too far away to spend a weekend at a Scottish castle and I don’t deal in pounds.

I must confess that the reason I read my mail at all, aside from the occasional notes from relatives and friends, is to see the latest fashions being offered by the likes of Saks Fifth Avenue, Nordstrom, and Neiman Marcus. Most folks would probably consider that stuff to be spam. Still, by following it carefully, I can occasionally pick up a great bargain to swank around Lambertville in. Then there's Shoebuy, which has these great sales.

Shoes. Now you're talking.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Why Do Writers Like to Cook?

Yesterday a group of us got together to cook and eat and talk.  Oh, and drink wine.

I know a many writers who like to cook, so I invited a few over to do all of the above.

Here is a photo essay of how it went, pictures courtesy of Gerald Bartell.

The question arose, why do so many writers like to cook?  My quick answer—you do it standing up.

Another possibility, eating the resultant output often involves also drinking wine.

What do you think?

The festivities began with a trip to the fabulous DiPalo Italian grocery on Grand Steet.

Essential ingredients in hand

DiPalo Italian wine store--a great rose' frizzante and a nice Frascati

Gerald Bartell, he can write and take great photos,
but he can also sauté'!

Main course coming along nicely
Richie Narvaez and his fiancee Denise, he pours, she supervises, and bakes
sensational cakes

Treats to keep up the cooks' energy levels.

I demonstrate the old fashioned way to serve polenta.

The first of a several toasts!

Let the feasting begin, including Tim McLaughlin and Renette Zimmerly

Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Tale of Two Jacks: The Gangster and the President II

Denis Foley, a forensic anthropologist and historical archeologist, is author of the true crime thriller Lemuel Smith and the Compulsion to Kill (NK Burns Pub., 2006). He has a passion for researching the Irish in America whether they be gangsters, martyrs or rebels; most recently “On Tour and Exiled; James Connolly in America 1902-1905” in the 2013 issue of Saothar, the Journal of the Irish Labor History Society. He is working on his debut novel, Murder Most Irish, set in the Bronx and the Inwood Section of Manhattan. This is part two of his Tale of Two Jacks.

Robert Knightly

Part 2: A President Killed by Gangsters?

The Joe Kennedy-Dan O’Connell connection was cemented again in early 1960 when Joe called Dan to get his endorsement of his son’s run for the presidency during the Democratic Primaries. The two business partners came to an agreement and John F. Kennedy got Albany’s delegates. Later, JFK himself telephoned Dan at his home to say thanks. Robert Kennedy visited Dan O’Connell to get his blessing for his run for Senator from New York in 1968. In a lighter moment, Erastus Corning 2nd’s campaign manager once described the Albany Machine as an organization that would be prosecuted today under the RICO Act. Another Irish-American, Joe Kennedy, might also fall under the statute. Franklin Roosevelt when challenged on his appointment of Joseph Kennedy to the Securities & Exchange Commission reportedly said, “Sometimes it takes a crook to catch a crook.”

Although Joe Kennedy Sr. himself had been mentioned as a presidential contender, the business practices on Wall Street of Roosevelt’s former Ambassador to Great Britain and his isolationist leanings prior to WW II tarred his candidacy as not to be taken seriously. Yet, the senior Kennedy’s illicit contacts with alcohol distributors such as Dan O’Connell and the underworld lords in the Midwest and Middle Atlantic States served his son’s Presidential ambitions.

In his 2007 memoir Point to Point Navigation, published by Random house, Gore Vidal, Jacqueline Kennedy’s distant relative and Kennedy White House insider, repeats the idea of a Mafia conspiracy surrounding the death of JFK. Among the first to embrace this tale was Thomas Hartmann and Lamar Waldron in Ultimate Sacrifice: John and Robert Kennedy, The Plan For a Coup in Cuba and the Murder of JFK. Hartmann and Waldron tell how three Mafia godfathers, Carlos Marcello (New Orleans), Santo Trafficante (Tampa, Fla. and Havana, Cuba) and Johnny Roselli (Chicago), while in the employ of the Central Intelligence Agency, organized a plot to kill Fidel Castro, called Plan for a Coup in Cuba, code-named the C Day Plan. The three gangsters thought themselves immune from federal prosecution because they were working for the CIA.

During the 1960 elections, Joseph Kennedy reputedly paid off mobsters in Chicago and Philadelphia to deliver inner city wards to his son. Afterward, the gang leaders anticipated an unofficial truce between the new Democratic Administration and themselves. Attorney General Robert Kennedy broke that truce, as Gore Vidal saw it, to seek glory and self-aggrandizement; others believe Robert Kennedy had become genuinely outraged by the extent of mob corruption in American life when he was Chief Counsel to the McClellan Committee’s Investigation of Organized Crime. Naively, perhaps, Robert Kennedy decided to expose and prosecute the underworld as well as labor leaders like Jimmy Hoffa who had Mafia links. When he did this, he put himself and his elder brother in harm’s way. In retaliation, the mobsters initially decided to kill Robert Kennedy, but Carlos Marcello reportedly told Santo Trafficante: “When a dog bothers you, you don’t cut off its tail.” Thus, the murder plot against the Thirty-Fifth President of the United States was hatched. As early as 1962, Trafficante predicted the assassination during a meeting about a Teamster’s loan. Trafficante also told wealthy Cuban exile, Jose Aleman: “Mark my words, this man Kennedy is in trouble, and he will get what is coming to him.” When Aleman suggested Kennedy would be re-elected, Trafficante allegedly said, “No, Jose, he is going to be hit.”

The trio reputedly targeted the President twice before Dallas. Once on November 2,1963, in Chicago but the motorcade was called off, and again aborted in Tampa on November 18,1963, just four days before Dallas. The gangsters’ plot to murder Kennedy was incompletely investigated and subsequently discounted by the Warren Commission, the conspiracy theorists believe. They point to Commission member Allen Welsh Dulles, longest-serving director of the CIA (1953–1961), who had to be aware of the unsavory Mafia-CIA link, having orchestrated earlier assassination plots against Castro. According to biographer Evan Thomas, in Robert Kennedy: His Life (Simon and Schuster, 2002), Robert Kennedy reportedly told his closest aide that Carlos Marcello had ordered his brother’s death. The future Senator from New York and Presidential candidate himself could not reveal publicly the nature of The C Day Plan and Mafia involvement for fear that the Soviet Union would retaliate in kind. This is the substance of the claims of the conspiracy theorists.

America loves its presidents and gangsters. The Irish American community worshiped John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president, and vicariously enjoyed Legs Diamond’s exploits. Legs’ parents were born in Ireland. Gentleman Jack dated gorgeous showgirls and defied authority. He appeared immortal. The poor Irish exiles, experiencing the endless toil and low status of immigrants, arguably yearned for the independence, glamour and recklessness of the gangster and the legitimacy conferred upon themselves by having one of their own as President.

The deaths of the two Jacks, one shot at close range and the other from a distance of 531 feet, illustrate how America’s illusions can suppress the truth. Legs Diamond died in Albany, shot by the Albany police. Evidence that Dan O’Connell ordered the hit wasn’t revealed, although many in Albany knew, until Pulitzer Prize-winner William Kennedy published O Albany in 1983, and confirmed at length in a filmed interview in the WMHT documentary Prohibition Story: All Over Albany, in 2011. A dying Detective McElveney reportedly told his daughter Betty, when she questioned him as to the circumstances of the Legs Diamond murder: “Fitz knows and he ain’t talkin’, God knows and he ain’t talkin’, and I ain’t talkin’.” But he did talk, they say, when drunk and in the company of his friends at Albany’s Fire Engine Company Four.

Legs’ Watervliet policeman-bodyguard was tactful enough to be absent the night Dets. McElveney and Fitzpatrick executed Legs in his bed. Those who swear by the truism What Goes Around Comes Around wouldn’t blink an eye on hearing that, in 1945, McElveney shot to death his former partner Fitzpatrick, then the Albany Chief of Police, in his office on Eagle Street, over a long-simmering grievance. He pled guilty to Murder 2nd Degree and was sentenced to twenty years in prison, but only served eleven, pardoned by Gov. Averill Harriman in 1957. John McElveney died of cancer in 1968.
In 1977, the Congress set up the Select Committee on Assassinations to reexamine JFK’s murder in Dallas. The New York City Medical Examiner, Michael Baden, was picked to head a team of eight other vastly experienced pathologists. After months of reviewing the forensic evidence, the Committee issued a “hybrid report” (from which Baden dissented): three shots were fired by Oswald from the Texas School Book Depository and a single shot by an unidentified shooter from the grassy knoll above Dealy Plaza. Dr. Baden’s verdict: “People will go on believing what they want to believe.”

© 2015 Denis Foley, PhD, Curator, Lewis Henry Morgan Institute, SUNY-IT, Utica-Rome


Baden, Michael, M.D., Unnatural Death: Confessions of a Medical Examiner (Random House, 1989).
Hartman, Thomas and Waldron, Lamar, Ultimate Sacrifice: John and Robert Kennedy, The Plan For a Coup in Cuba and the Murder of JFK (Counterpoint Press, 2008).
Kennedy, William: Legs (Penguin Books, 1975); O Albany (Viking Press, 1983).
Leamer, Laurence, The Kennedy Men: 1901-1963 (Harper Collins, 2001).
Levine, Gary, Jack ‘Legs’ Diamond: Anatomy of a Gangster (Purple Mountain Press, 1995).
Robinson, Frank S., Machine Politics: A Study of Albany’s O’Connells (Transaction Press, 1977);
Robinson, Frank S., Albany’s O’Connell Machine (The Washington Park Spirit, Inc., 1973).
Thomas, Evan, Robert Kennedy: His Life (Simon and Schuster, 2002).
Vidal, Gore, Point-to-Point Navigation (Doubleday, 2006).
Foley, Denis: Field Notes (1981-2015).

Sunday, April 12, 2015

On Royalties for Library Books: A Fantasy

I browse the website for The Guardian quite a bit and am struck by how many articles there are on reading trends in the U.K. These sorts of stories about reading pop up occasionally in the United States. The news is usually gloomy. No one reads literary fiction or poetry. No one reads for pleasure. There are too many other ways people can be entertained and informed. Why bother reading a book?

What’s interesting is that many of the Guardian stories are based on what people borrow from the library, not what they buy. The latest of these stories appeared in January. There are no real surprises in the names of the people whose books are checked out most often: James Patterson, Dan Brown, Lee Childs, Harlen Coben. Mark Billingham, a writer probably better known in Britain than in the States, was also on the list. So we have the usual suspects or the usual creators of suspects. (Years ago I visited a book shop in Edinburgh and said to the bookseller, “Your bestseller list doesn’t look any different than the one in the States.” “How depressing,” she replied)

The good news for writers in the United Kingdom (and Canada and Scandinavia) is that royalties are paid when a writer’s books are checked out of the library. It’s known in the UK as the Public Lending Right. The most recent figures I could find indicated that a writer got about 8 cents per checkout and there was an annual cap of about $!0,000. Imagine the boost this gives writers. A perfectly wonderful, out-of-print book could continue to make money for its author.

I have been to many mystery conferences where enthusiastic, literate people come up to a mystery writer and say, “I just love your books; I always check them out of the library.” It’s always great to have readers and writers inevitably respond positively to people to love their work. But I’m guessing most of us would rather hear: “I just love your books. I buy them immediately in hard cover. And I give copies for my 50 closest friends, too.”

Of course, these programs in the UK and elsewhere are government sponsored. Alas, we know how people feel about government sponsored programs in this country (unless it’s Social Security or Medicare. Believe it or not some people are unaware that Medicare is a government program). But I digress.

And all is not skittles and beer in the UK. Libraries there are suffering from budget cuts. Some communities have established alternative libraries where it turns out the royalty arrangement does not apply.

It’s a shame that in the United States, people (or at least many people who pursue politics) think of books, plays, art and music as “frills.” I think a lot of the folks making policy in cities, towns, state capitals and Washington D.C. would find that their lives and their minds improved if they decked themselves out in more frills.

© 2015 Stephanie Patterson

****My information about Public Lending Right came from The Guardian, Wikipedia and the blog, Smart Bitches, Trashy Books.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

American Hustle

I was in my second year of high school in the late ‘70s when seven Congressmen (six Representatives and one Senator) were getting “stung” in the ABSCAM operation. I hardly paid attention. It’s like that, I guess, when you are a teenager. I was more concerned with whether this one particular girl I had a huge crush on would accept my invitation to the Prom, frankly, and my indignation was mostly centered not on official corruption, but on why I was not getting a chance to start on the basketball team, and also about how so many of my peers had succumbed to the tawdry allure of disco.

So the movie American Hustle (David Russell, 2013) was fun, nostalgic, and an eye opener for me in many ways. It was like a garishly colored newsreel documentary of the decade, and a funny, but still keenly acute, contemplation of the dark side of the American Dream. I had forgotten about all the good music the decade produced (excluding disco) and how bad the clothes and hairstyles were. And I hadn’t thought, all those years ago, about how the ‘70s were the end of the big economic boom produced by our victory in WWII. Yes, the ‘70s: A time of cynicism, inflation, hard times, the end of the ideal of peace, love, truth and beauty. The hippies and yippies still existed, but their dreams of utopia had been co-opted by the youth of the era as an excuse to get high and get laid, and the hell with social justice (what’s that? I imagine my callow self saying to anyone asking me that question at that time).

Times were hard, but I didn’t pay for anything but tickets to the movies, beer, the occasional Stephen King novel, and albums (Supertramp, Springsteen, The Eagles, et al), so I didn’t much care. But there were people who did care, cared very much, about the bottom line, about success, about having a lot of zeros at the end of their bank balances. And, like always, there were people willing to acquire those zeroes through means that were anything but cricket.

It seems to me that the American Dream is about, among other things, re-inventing yourself, and about living in a meritocracy where your talent and hard work will be rewarded. This reinvention in the classical model did not have to do with being a grifter, a flim-flam man or woman, but with throwing off your past, your mistakes, and getting a fresh start. Go west, young man, west from Europe, a less upwardly mobile place, to America, and then move west again across this brave new country. To some this was about new opportunities, but to others it was about selling snake oil. No luck stealing horses back in the old country? Move to New York and sell pieces of the Brooklyn Bridge. In danger of getting your legs broken from doing that? Move west and become a phony doctor or preacher or spiritualist, and just hope you hit it big before you reach the Pacific, and find yourself with your back to the ocean, faced with everyone who has been chasing you since your corrupt journey began.

To be a confidence man you have to have confidence. It is what gives others confidence in you, and what allows you to go ahead and make believe you are something you are not, not stopping to worry about getting run out of town on a rail, thrown in the slammer, or being fitted for a pair of cement overshoes. Confident is what Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is, and reinvention is what he is all about. The child of a failed Bronx businessman, he carries the scars from witnessing that failure into an adult life as con artist (or at least that is his excuse for what he does, and maybe he even believes it, after having told the story so many times). You get the impression all the fraud is more about identity than it is about real physical poverty, though. Even after his scams allow him to acquire some legitimate dry cleaning emporiums he is still always looking out for the main chance, the big score, the brass ring, the ultimate rip-off.

The opening of the movie establishes the vast distance between what he seems to be and what he is brilliantly, showing a pallid and overweight Rosenfeld doing a very meticulous combination comb-over and rug installation for his balding pate. He is going to try to entrap the Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (played by Jeremy Renner with an hysterical kind of mobbed up pompadour that belonged back in the ‘50s when he wore it in the ‘70s), into accepting a bribe from an Arab sheikh (an FBI agent with a Mexican background who knows no Arabic), as Polito peddles his political influence concerning the coming of gambling to Atlantic City to the ersatz King. Renner does a great job, convincing us that Polito is truly and utterly convinced that since some of his constituents will benefit from all this he is not a crook, but some kind of benefactor. It reminds one of the old saw about the guy from Tammany Hall who lectured about clean graft and dirty graft.

Then we flash back, and learn that Rosenfeld and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a hardscrabble kid from Albuquerque who has reinvented herself as an Englishwoman named Lady Greensly, have been nailed for fraud by Richie DiMaso, an FBI agent and ostensible good guy who cons himself into thinking he is saving America from the jackals, but who in his darker moments ruthlessly climbs up the ladder at work (the FBI) while paying no attention to those he hurts, or scams, on the way up. Part of the fun of the movie is the way appearance and reality coalesce. Prosser tells both Rosenfeld and DiMaso that she is playing the other of the two, and you don’t know who she is really allied with, if it is either of them. One of the more poignant parts of the movie concerns the “love” the two con artists may feel for one another—both Rosenfeld and Prosser know anything can be faked, and yet both still want to believe in each other, in love. In the “real thing.” Whatever that is.

DiMaso tries to con them into thinking he will let them go after they help him catch some bigger fish. And as they go trolling, they begin to catch bigger and bigger ones. The mayor of Camden NJ is a small fry compared to some of these, and certainly to the creatures still lurking in the depths. And some of those monsters down there promise not to come docilely into the boat. Richie knows this, and warns DiMaso that soon they will be playing with people who play for keeps, but DiMaso, blinded by ambition (and who puts his hair in curlers, in hilarious counterpoint to Rosenfeld’s rug and comb-over routine), is hearing none of it.

The movie, which turns at some point into a pretty benign shaggy dog story (I never really thought anyone was going to get whacked, and they don’t) about who can pull off the biggest con, has great acting. It must be hard to act like someone who is acting, but Cooper and Bale and Adams pull it off. Each one tells him or herself that what he or she is doing is really for someone else. And of course, they are full of shit. But like a good televangelist, they manage to delude themselves as well as those they are duping. And when Rosenfeld tells DiMaso that everything is grey, not black and white, you realize, uncomfortably, that most of the time that is right. Everyone is selling something, and the best way to get something for nothing is to take advantage of someone who thinks they are getting something for nothing. And this kind of deception is not the sole province of criminals. Even if we are not breaking the law, we constantly, even if we don’t realize it, adjust our image to reflect back to people what we think they need to see in us, to have them see in us what will allow us to get what we want from them. And the late 70’s were nothing if not superficial and glitzy, all about appearances. Studio 54. The Bee Gees (thank God for the divine counterbalance the Ramones and the Sex Pistols provided). The coming of Ronald Reagan, movie star, to the White House. Style over substance.

So, is life really all about who you are inside, or what you look like on the outside? Take a look at who goes to jail and who gets off in this movie. There may be some answers to that question found there.

© 2015 Mike Welch