Thursday, July 30, 2015

My Grandfather's Influence

Crime Writers' Chronicle is happy to welcome guest blogger Lois Winston, USA Today bestselling and award-winning author.

Lois makes me look like a real slacker. She writes mystery, romance, romantic suspense, chick lit, women’s fiction, children’s chapter books, and non-fiction under her own name and her Emma Carlyle pen name. Her latest Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery,
A Stitch to Die For, has just been published.

Kirkus Reviews called her series, “North Jersey’s more mature answer to Stephanie Plum.” Lois is an award-winning craft and needlework designer as well, who often draws source material for both her characters and plots from her experiences in the crafts industry.

The inspiration for the series came from within her own family, as she shares with us today. 

— Sheila York

I started out writing romance and eventually also wrote romantic suspense and chick lit. Several years and seven books later I wrote my first mystery, settling into a genre where I discovered I felt the most comfortable. I’m not sure why I didn’t think to write mystery from the start. Given my family history, it should have been a logical genre for me, but I never gave it a thought until an editor asked my agent if she had any authors who wrote crafting mysteries. Based on my career as a designer in the crafts industry, my agent suggested I try my hand at writing a cozy mystery with a crafting protagonist.

What my agent didn’t know at the time was my familial connection to the world of organized crime. My grandfather spent his entire career as one of the good guys, working to bring down some really badass bad guys associated with Murder, Inc. Climbing his way up the ladder from patrolman to Detective Captain of Essex County, New Jersey, he spent the decades of the twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties on a quest to lock up many a name you might know from various gangster movies.

On October 24, 1935 he was the first officer on the scene when mobster Dutch Schultz was gunned down at the Palace Chop House in Newark, New Jersey. Schultz didn’t die on the scene. He lingered for nearly a full day before he eventually died from peritonitis. During that time, police questioned him at his beside in an attempt to obtain useful information about the shooting and his gangland associates.

I’m assuming my grandfather was one of those officers. I have no way of knowing. He died when I was six years old. I would have loved to learn more about his illustrious career directly from him. Most of what I know is secondhand from relatives or the little I’ve been able to discover on the Internet, such as the attached news clipping about a talk he gave in 1957.

My own personal memories are of a loving, gentle man who would read me the Sunday funnies. It was years before I had any inkling of his statewide fame, but I do have one memory of sitting with him front and center in the grandstand at a Thanksgiving Day parade. I was probably no more than three or four at the time.

New Jersey has always had the reputation of being a corrupt state. My grandfather spent his life countering that reputation. His own reputation was so stellar that he was often approached to run for office, but he declined each time. He felt he served his state much better doing what he did best—rooting out evil.

I’ve often wondered, had my grandfather lived longer, would I have chosen a career in law enforcement? Probably not, given when I came of age, and I’m not sure he would have wanted me to take that path. I doubt he was that forward thinking when it came to women in the workforce. Neither my mother nor my aunt attended college. Few women did back then. However, I hope my grandfather is smiling down from Heaven, watching me deal with badass bad guys in my own “novel” way.

Lois Winston

A Stitch to Die For

Ever since her husband died and left her in debt equal to the gross national product of Uzbekistan, magazine crafts editor and reluctant amateur sleuth Anastasia Pollack has stumbled across one dead body after another—but always in work-related settings. When a killer targets the elderly nasty neighbor who lives across the street from her, murder strikes too close to home. Couple that with a series of unsettling events days before Halloween, and Anastasia begins to wonder if someone is sending her a deadly message.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

What's In a Name?

"I would advise anyone who aspires to a writing career that before developing his talent he would be wise to develop a thick hide!"

(Nelle) Harper Lee

Recently I read in the NYT about Canada's Prime Minister — Stephen Harper — on the same day the air waves were filled with the new news of Harper Lee.

I wondered: Is there ever any connection between people who bear the same name?

Lee — to most Americans — means Robert E. Lee. ( My Tennessee born mother named my brother Robert, after the famous American.)

And many of us connect the name Harper to Harper's Ferry.

The name of Angela Merkel is in the news, daily — vast numbers of Americans (of a certain age) connect that name with Angela Lansbury of Cabot's Cove, Maine.

And many think — Jimmy Carter — when they see Ashton Carter on the news — and Ashton is a far cry from a peanut farmer!

The British Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, connects in my mind to Prince Philip and Hammond organs!

Elvira Nabiullina — the Governor of Russia's Central Bank — I can't imagine a Russian woman having the name Elvira!

And the name Brokaw will always be that famous nightly news anchor!

A quick glance at just one page of the daily Times shows a bunch of names with no hint as to their origin - Lebo, Kilgo, Morey, Capote, Nabel, Finch, Gettleman, Randle, Delzell — to name a few.

And who among us would name their kid… Tiger?

So, you ask, what does this have to do with crime writing?

Just ask any sober writer… "Where do you find the names for your characters?"

Not always an easy task… sometimes a writer takes days… or months… to come up with the perfect name…

And then has another problem… when you have the name in your head… can you find a story to use it in?

Today we are fascinated by the names Harper Lee used. And this interest brought me to her own life…

She accompanied Truman Capote to Holcomb, Kansas, to assist him in the research of what became In Cold Blood.

She also wrote part of a novel — The Long Goodbye — and of a factual book about an Alabama serial murderer.

She also researched a true-crime book — The Reverend. (Now that tickles my interest — was the guy the criminal?)

Speaking of names — Gregory Peck's own grandson is named for her — Harper Peck Voll!

In 2007, Lee told the audience of the Alabama Academy of Honor — "Well, it's better to be silent than to be a fool!"

In 2007 President G.W. Bush presented her with the Presidential Medal of Freedom — the highest civilian award in the USA!

In 2010 President Obama awarded her the National Medal of Arts.

In 2015 Harper Lee issued a statement: "I'm alive and kicking and happy as hell with the reactions to "Watchman"!

Way to go, Nelle… my kinda writer!

T. J. Straw

P.S. If you have followed news on the current publication of the Harper Lee book, you will find a piece by James Scott Bell of great interest.

Go to the blog — Jungle Red — for 7/18… to Lucy Burdette's referral to James Scott Bell's post on Kill Zone for 7/16. Then read Bell's post on Kill Zone.

Both Bell's ideas and his reader comments are excellent! This is the best I've seen anywhere.

I'd love to read your own comments on this topic! Hope you will share with us here at CWC! tjs

Saturday, July 25, 2015


In ELEGY FOR APRIL, Benjamin Black presents us with a noir mystery very much in the tradition of Raymond Chandler’s THE BIG SLEEP. The protagonist, Quirke, a troubled coroner who drinks way too much and then does things he regrets later, confronts a powerful family, the Latimers, which has some extremely nasty secrets that it wants to keep secret. Chandler’s Philip Marlowe was another troubled guy with a fondness for booze and a desire to set wrong things right. The rich and powerful family Marlowe confronts has a shameful sexual secret, and the Latimers, well, their secret is shameful too.

The nighttime Los Angeles Marlowe wanders through is sinister and dark. And of course the Dublin that Quirke wanders through in a kind of existential fugue and fug is sinister and foreboding and melancholy and…..foggy. I never knew that Dublin was foggy in February, but apparently it is, or can be. And of course the fog is a metaphor for the difficulty one faces when searching for the truth.

Everyone in the benighted city, circa sometime in the 1950’s, is lost in the awful fog: “the city seemed bewildered, like a man whose sight has suddenly failed.” And “Motorcars with their headlights on loomed like giant insects, trailing milky dribbles of exhaust smoke from their rear ends.” And finally, “the sun somewhere was trying to shine, its weak glow making a sallow, urinous stain on the fog.” A talent for simile, has this Benjamin Black, which is a pen name the literary novelist John Banville uses when he is writing noir.

Quirke’s (we never learn his first name) daughter Phoebe is sure something bad has happened to April Latimer. April is a junior doctor at the local hospital where Quirke works as a pathologist—he’s told by his step brother Malachy that he is called (behind his broad back, as we learn that Quirke is an enormous man, a man still smarting from the wounds of his childhood as an orphan in an industrial school/orphanage) Doctor Death. Quirke loves Phoebe, even though he gave her up to be raised by Malachy and his wife when his wife Delia died giving birth to her.

At novel’s beginning, Quirke is in a drying out place, what we would call a rehab now, run by the Christian Brothers. He’s told by the house psychiatrist that “with some, such as yourself, it’s not so much the drink that’s addictive, but the escape it offers.” And ironically, the more Quirke drinks, the more he has to escape from: “had he the heart to recount it all again, the shambles that was his life—the calamitous losses of nerve, the moral laziness, the failures, the betrayals?”

And so Quirke checks out to help his daughter (and maybe escape all that exhausting self-scrutiny). Quirke longs to be a good father, and to do so he must escape the demons that drive him to drink and the drink itself. Black does a great job of showing us the glittering allure booze has for our grim hero: "Yes, a smoky dive somewhere, with a turf fire and dim men talking in the shadows, and a tumbler of Black Bush in his fist, that would be the thing."

So, another drunk hardboiled investigator, like Wallander of the Henning Mankell series, and Patrick Taylor, Ken Bruen’s noir PI (I wonder if, all these years later, Taylor is frequenting some of the same bars that Quirke does in the 50’s?), struggling against the forces of darkness both within and without. But it is not old hat, not the way Black does it, with the stark originality of his language, and with his deft portrayal of the desperate longing for connection both father and daughter feel.

The relationship between Quirke and Phoebe is touching without being silly or sentimental. Phoebe is just as lost as her old man, trying to make her own connection to the rest of mankind by hanging out with an apparently merry band of five, including April, Isabel Galloway (a young actress with whom Quirke gets romantically involved, which ends up, or course, being a bad idea) Patrick Ojukwu, a Nigerian medical student, and Jimmy Minor, a reporter on the city’s paper.

As Quirke and Phoebe try to crack the case, Phoebe learns that she may not have known these friends at all, at least not in the way she thought she did. Her trust, already forever compromised by the way Quirke gave her up (and by his not confessing to having done it until she was twenty years old), is further damaged by the secret allegiances, lies and infidelities she finds within the group. She holds herself accountable, taking herself to task because she “did not care too deeply to see into other people’s business, into other people’s hearts. In that, at least, she was her father’s daughter.”

But in order to find April, they must both look into the business and hearts of others. If Phoebe is anything, she is a good and loyal friend, and Quirke wants to be a good and loyal father. The problem with that is his melancholy and backward looking nature (are all Irish characters like this?). His friend, Inspector Hackett, or at least the man who offers Quirke friendship, which Quirke kind of accepts, in his closemouthed, bearish way, says: “That was Quirke, looking back longingly to a past where he had been so unhappy.”

Can Quirke win out over his demons? He is game to try, at least. He tells his stepbrother Malachy, “you have to hold on, Mal, this is all there is, this life. If something has gone out of it for you, it’s up to you to replace it.”

And Quirke tries to replace the love he has lost so many times with Isabel. “You could—I feel you could—save me. Save me from myself.” But the booze sings its siren song for Quirke, and by the halfway point of the novel he is drinking again. The longing he feels for the drink almost made me want to switch from beer to whiskey: “there is, he was thinking, something special about the way light congregates inside a whiskey bottle, the way it glows there, tawny and dense, as it does nowhere else: something almost sacramental.”

There are, of course, shocking family secrets to be uncovered, but it is the way that Quirke and Phoebe try to be a family that really made the novel work for me. She is a great heroine, terrified, but determined to see justice done. And alternating the point of view between her and her father gives a depth of perspective on both that is truly impressive.

So is justice eventually done? Is it ever? In Dublin, like everywhere else, the right thing has its place, but only in a contingent and tenuous way. But like Quirke says, this life is all there is. As for April, I will leave you to read this skillfully wrought bit of Irish noir to discover her fate.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, July 24, 2015

Bienvenue a L'Hermione

L'Hermione came to Castine, Maine, last week, and we were there to meet it, along with a mob of other interested souls. It's a replica of the French Frigate that carried Lafayette to this country to bring George Washington the good will and material help of the French in our struggle for independence from Britain. The ship visited a number of historic U. S. ports on its tour. Castine was to be the last before moving on to Lunenberg, Nova Scotia.

We arrived at Castine in a school bus, the shuttle from Bucksport that off-loaded on the main street after a half-hour ride down the peninsula on country roads. The scene was very like Lambertville on Shad Festival weekend, the vendors, the crowd, except for the signs on the vendor tents proclaiming that ici on parle Francais. I fixed myself up with an ice cream cone and a can of Moxie. Then we went to find a spot to wait for the Great Ship to come in.

It was a long time coming. A fog bank rolled in and rolled out again, rolled in, rolled out. Kayakers gathered in the harbor. Small sailing boats moved here and there, though the air seemed too still to propel them. Dimly in the mist we could see shapes that might have been tall ships appear and disappear. At last it was unmistakable, bigger than any of the boats around it.

Outside the harbor, the frigate fired a twenty-one gun salute.

Then it was joined by a tugboat and came in with the sails furled.

The sailors, all in period costume, worked furiously in the rigging.

The crowd was very pleased to see her tied up at the dock.

To find out all about this remarkable ship and its journey, have a look at the web site:

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Norwegians Would

It occurred to me that while I have not seen anything of Europe other than a few airports, I’ve spent a lot of time in Norway. My husband and I both read Kristen Lavransdatter some years ago. The four volumes of The Master of Hestviken nestle in my Kindle. I’ve been working my way through Karl Ove Knaussgaard’s My Struggle (I’m about to start volume 4 of 6), and I’ve read many Jo Nesbo mysteries.

I should also mention that Edward Grieg is our house (and automobile) composer.

These are all fictional and artistic manifestations of Norway (though what Knaussgaard is doing and how well he’s doing it are open to debate).

Though Nesbo’s novels certainly suggest that all is not hunky dory in Norway, the story that Asne Seirstad tells in One of Us: The Story of Anders Brevik and the Massacre in Norway beats, in brutality, almost any murder mystery I’ve read.

The structure, dictated by the events as they unfold, is pretty simple. You spend the first half of the book learning to care about people and the second watching them die.

Anders Brevik murdered 77 people, most of them teenagers. He was responsible for a car bomb that exploded in Oslo and then the shooting deaths of dozens attending a Labor Party youth conference on the island of Utoya.

Brevik’s mother was born to a woman who contracted polio during her pregnancy and ever after blamed her daughter for her disability. She spends her early years in an orphanage When she is reunited with her mother, she becomes her caretaker. After finally escaping her claustrophobic existence she marries a diplomat, but they are soon divorced and she is left with a child she doesn’t seem to like.

Brevik’s school noted early that he had many problems and he and his mother were treated for quite a while at a child guidance clinic The clinic recommends that he be put “in another care situation.” But he remains with his mother and their difficulties continue.

As Brevik gets older he becomes obsessed about immigrants ruining Norway. He rants about multiculturalism and Islamization of Europe. Though he has a brief period where he becomes quite wealthy producing phony diplomas and certificates, eventually he moves back in with his mother and spends months in his room playing World of Warcraft.

His isolation and xenophobia contrast sharply with the openness and idealism of the young people he will kill. Seirstad focuses particularly on two young people: Simon, the son of Norwegian school teachers and Bano, a young girl who immigrates to Norway from Iraq. Bano, despite being teased because she is darker than her Norwegian classmates and can’t speak their language, becomes a sunny and engaging girl filled with ideas of how to make Norway a better place. She shares one dream with Anders Brevik. They both want to meet former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland.

Bano wants to shake her hand; Anders wants to cut off her head.

Brevik plants a car bomb and kills people near government offices in Oslo. Though the police get several tips, almost everything goes wrong. Even after they have his license number it takes the Oslo police hours to realize the significance of it. When they finally figure out he’s headed to Utoya, they discover that GPS cannot show them where this small island is.

The kids on the island know something terrible has happened in Oslo. But Brevik is clever and sews a police badge on his clothing. The kids come toward him expecting to be rescued and they are shot. Even when they figure out that they’re in trouble they have nowhere to go.

Brevik is caught and tried. He sees himself not as a murderer but as a political assassin. He was working to save Norway from the next generation of multiculturalism.

He is incensed that the first team of psychologists who evaluate him after his arrest want to seem him treated not tried. He fights successfully to get another evaluation--one that will confirm that he knew very well what he was doing. He’s now serving a 21 year sentence that can be extended.

Several reviewers found this book superior to In Cold Blood and The Executioner’s Song. However, it’s really hard to compare them. Capote and Mailer wrote “non-fiction novels.” They felt free to wax lyrical or shade the truth. Seirstadt has written a piece of scrupulous journalism. The epilogue of the book discusses her methods of research and reporting.

It’s a wonderful book. It’s especially compelling as one sees the indifference and hostility toward immigrants around the world. But is is a very difficult read.

© 2015 Stephanie Patterson

Saturday, July 18, 2015


Beyond the other complaints I have about it, ironies and contradictions abound in Elia Kazan’s 1947 film BOOMERANG!

Upright District Attorney Henry Harvey (played by Dana Andrews) goes against pretty much the whole town he serves in suburban Connecticut in order to keep young drifter John Waldron from being convicted of murdering the priest of the local Church, Father Lambert. Contradiction number one: District Attorneys are supposed to either prosecute crimes or not bring them for indictment in the first place, and yet Harvey brings the case to trial and then tries to plead nolo prosequi, reversing field and telling the whole courtroom why the accused man could not be guilty (and making himself look like an incompetent in the process). I just couldn’t see that happening, even though the movie is “based” on a real life case.

Contradiction number two: District Attorneys are the most political of animals, and yet Harvey stands up to the political fixers and brokers and kingmakers in town even though it is political suicide. He is backed by the “reform party” in town, the ones who have thrown out the “machine” hacks. The reformers are up against it when the cops, their cops, and their DA, can’t find the killer. The newspaper in town is run by the ousted machine, and so the longer the powers that be fail to find out who put a bullet in the back of Father Lambert’s head, the worse it looks for Harvey come next election time. I had trouble believing a District Attorney could be so principled and still have managed to become District Attorney in the first place (can anyone say Eliot Spitzer?)

And yet this guy Harvey takes on the whole town, including police Chief Robinson (Lee J. Cobb), who looks all during the movie like he just pulled on one of his boots and found out it was full of piss. And Harvey comes out not only smelling like a rose, but then goes on to become US Attorney General! Give me a break.

1947 was the same year Kazan won the Academy Award for GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT, one of the first Hollywood movies to directly confront anti-Semitism. I hope GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT was a better movie. In BOOMERANG!, Cobb is not the man or menace he was later in ON THE WATERFRONT (1954), also by Kazan, and Karl Malden, as Lieutenant White, is vapid, inconsequential, a milksop, not the hard-assed priest who takes a beer bottle to the head in “Waterfront.”

BOOMERANG!, like TWELVE ANGRY MEN and THE OX BOW INCIDENT before it, pits one rational and just man against a mob, some of whom may be well-meaning, but whose fear and bloodlust have driven them beyond reason. It takes guts to face down a mob, and Harvey’s supposed to be showing a real impressive set of cojones here, but I just didn’t buy it. No fire in the belly. Andrews uses the same expression to convey every emotion from joy to despair, steely determination to dyspepsia. He blows his couple of chances to shower himself with rhetorical glory by coming off as a blowhard. I went to the fridge for a beer for both his big speeches.

I didn’t like the documentary style (I prefer the way Woody Allen makes fun of such style in TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN). The style’s didactic, indoctrinating us into right thinking, feeding us a simplistic morality as if we were baby birds and truth could be dispensed with an eye dropper. That is irony number one: a movie about a guy who keeps his head and doesn’t follow the crowd force feeds its point to us. We are explicitly told there is a lesson in it for everyone. The town in Connecticut is never named, and the narrator tells us that the name doesn’t matter, that all American small towns are the same under the inconsequential surface differences. So pay attention, boys and girls, because this could happen to you!

The second irony has been pointed out many times by thinkers much superior to me—Democracy is created to give John Q Public civic freedom, and yet that gives good old John Q the freedom to take his own freedom away (can anyone say Patriot Act?) The movie is very clear about how we must rely on superior men to keep us from falling into this trap, to save us from the machines (which, interestingly enough, were started by immigrants who couldn’t access the political process any other way) and the crooked newspapermen and crooked cops. Henry Harvey is our man, then. And so is Captain Robinson, who flatly turns down the old Irish Bull cop who says to him, when the interrogation of Waldron is going poorly and slow, “you know, there’s a faster way to do this.” No beatings and a DA who really believes in giving the common man a fair shake? We’re not in Connecticut, Kansas or even the U.S. anymore.

Third irony. Kazan lionizes the common (although superior) man as some kind of torchbearer for democracy, in the mold of Mr. Smith (played by Jimmy Stewart in MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON in 1939, eight years before this movie, but on the other side of WW2), an exceptional everyday guy who uses his free speech to preserve our rights, and yet Kazan named names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Kazan, who was the child of Greek Immigrants, knew about political persecution, but played along to save his own skin. Yes, he allowed himself to be cowed by the mob, quite unlike Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) in “Waterfront,” who takes a beating standing up to a mobbed-up union so all the poor ham-and-eggers busting their humps just to put those ham and eggs on the table could get a fair and square deal. Kazan played along even though he knew full well that the people he named didn’t hate America, but had a different vision of how democratic ideals should be brought about.

Fourth irony-Jane Wyatt, Harvey’s wife in the film, was an outspoken opponent of McCarthy! You go, girl. And who says Father Knows Best.

The movie is ham-fisted in its approach. Harvey is asked if one man’s life is more important than the whole community, and he unhesitatingly says yes. I think of myself as a good liberal, and even I hesitate over that one, or see it as a more complex question than it appears. In a day and age where torture is being touted as the way to save the nation (and we only torture the bad guys, right, like anyone who disagrees with us) I question this tactic, but only because I think it endangers the community more than it does anything to save it. You can’t start torturing people and really think it is only going to happen to guilty people. If there was a way to know that only the terrorists were going to be tortured, that every drop of guilty blood spilled guaranteed innocent blood would not be, I would say torture away.

Kazan wasn’t brave enough to say that we have to protect the guilty from unfair treatment. He doesn’t really go out on a limb at all. Harvey protects a blameless man from a mob that is bound to come eventually to its senses (and he will always have Marge—who would have thought that Jane Wyatt was once so hot?) Big deal. Protect a child molester, or some other genuine pariah. If you really want to go to the wall for democracy, those are the ones whom you have to defend. Not because they deserve the benefit of the doubt, but because everyone does.

One last quibble with Kazan. He gives us a totally depraved real killer that confesses to Father Lambert about some other sin, but can’t get forgiveness (he probably went to a movie the National Legion of Decency didn’t endorse). Father Lambert is going to have said crook committed to a sanitarium (there’s some Christian forgiveness for you, but then again, it is a realistic movie). I didn’t know priests were trained in psychiatry, and that they were allowed to commit people. And the guy who confesses his unknown crime(s) to the good father has a furtive adolescent quality to him (along with eyes that don’t quite track together) that makes me think he should have hair growing on his palms. We never know what he has done, except kill the Father, but the imagined perversion of the crime to me speaks of a kind of unalloyed depravity to counterbalance Harvey’s solid-gold goodness. Realistic, my eye.

Finally (I know, I am really starting to sound like a whiner) the movie is touted as noir. This is not noir. Noir is about doomed losers. This movie was about hope, not doom. It trumpets about free will and American self actualization, and is not some exercise in existential despair. Saccharine and unrealistic, it is in no way noir.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, July 17, 2015

Twenty-first Century Summertime

And the livin' is somewhat difficult
Fish are struggling feebly to the surface
And the cotton is maybe up to your ankles

Oh, your daddy's got five dollars in his pocket on a good day
And your ma is kind of plain
So howl, little baby, cry all you want
Things can only get worse.

Kate Gallison (and her wacky cousins from Maine)
with apologies to George Gershwin

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Doug Brin, Renaissance Man for Our Time

As writer, artist, and diarist, with careers in advertising, public relations, fine arts, teaching, journalism—(he worked as feature writer of politics and show business for The Daily News)—Doug Brin has been called by Donald Rubin, the founder and Chairman of The Rubin Museum of Art, "A great, undiscovered American artist!"

And to thousands of Manhattan audiences Doug is a guru they flock to hear—especially his stimulating discussions on world and local politics!

Based in New York City, Doug seems bigger than life! No shrinking violet in person or stature, this creative artist also has a photographic memory for names—which endears him to his audiences in the Big Apple!

He has been called a Renaissance Man for the 21st Century.

Through July 31, 2015, his art works are presented at the Derfner Judaica Museum at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale, in the lobby gallery of the William Goldfine Pavillion. The free event is open to the public. (Tel. 718-581-1596.)

Doug's 17 illustrated journals were created between 1987 and 2013 and represent a selection from a larger body of writings begun at age 22. Brin, now 67, utilizes micrographic writing, abstracted drawing, and collage elements to explore topical, historical, and literary themes.

Filled with personal observations, plus cut and pasted excerpts from newspapers and magazines, the journals comprise a unique history of our times.

Brin's musings reflect a broad range of current events from the worlds of politics, entertainment, and literature.

He provides running commentaries on national elections, the aftermath of 9/11, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Tennessee Williams, and Mary McCarthy.

His imagery has been called "excruciatingly detailed, recording wide-ranging personal and popular interests."

Critics describe Brin's journals as an "obsessive-compulsive" nature to record a life that has included over 30 jobs, including independent school teaching and current events seminars for adults (some I have attended are delightfully hilarious—on American presidents and their wives).

Brin's novel THE SEVENTH SON, published by Electron Press, might be of interest to CWC readers.

"This is not a conventional crime novel, but it has several murders and a much-hunted down protagonist… I've always felt it could be a new Catcher in the Rye for the young folk who otherwise don't read!" (Doug Brin)

To his many friends and adoring audiences, Doug is NEVER dull! In 2007 he made NY headlines by losing his job as a volunteer docent at the Central Park Zoo—where he admits he was "perhaps the best guide there is!"—after making a crack to his listeners about the president!

A smiling Doug can be found on Facebook.

Shy and retiring—not at all adjectives for this talented New Yorker. Watch for his comments in the Grey Lady's letters to the editor and in his various lectures on topics such as "The Kings and Queens of England" (guaranteed to make you laugh!)

You can contact Doug Brin at—or ask me when he is scheduled to give a talk (always entertaining!) at the 92nd Street Y!

Some people make a lasting impression—either in person, by their work or by their art. Doug walks into a room and at once everyone notices him! You may want to look for his art, his writings, or, better still, try to attend one of his artistic, literary or world news lectures! I am delighted to share this fascinating, talented man with readers of Crime Writer's Chronicle today.

T. J. Straw

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Neeson is Not Our Scudder

Matthew Scudder, the private-eye protagonist of Lawrence Block’s series of mystery novels, is the alcoholic detective of the movie A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES, based on Block’s book of the same name. Alcoholic? Come to think of it, maybe Philip Marlowe and Sam Spade were too, although they never identified themselves as such, the way Scudder does. Maybe a lot of mystery writers are alcoholics, for that matter. You could call Hemingway an alcoholic (and a misogynist, but let’s not pile on), and he created the Nick Adams stories, and Nick Adams was another hardened, hard-drinking and disillusioned knight in tarnished armor, like a lot of private investigators are.

One of the things a hard-boiled detective story has to do is come up with a detective that is wounded, but in some novel way. Scudder is scarred by the loss of his wife, and the alcohol. Or not by the booze per se, but by how he screwed up his life and those of those close to him with his drinking. And so he must find a new way to deal with the darkness that surrounds him without going to a bar to make it go away. And like all good anti-heroes he insists on a moral code in a universe that seems to be completely unconcerned with any kind morality.

Maybe it is a sign of the times, to have a detective that struggles with an addiction, or some other problem that comes from within. And unlike when Chandler and Hammett wrote of Marlowe and Spade, the ability to consume large quantities of alcohol is no longer considered a sign of machismo. Nowadays, tough guys get help. Still, they sometimes get to kick some ass, too.

Some of the current, or at least relatively recent, private eyes have some other interesting pathologies. Mark Haddon gives us an autistic teenager as sleuth in THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME, and Jonathan Lethem gives us an orphaned, tic-ing and Tourette-ic one in MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN. On TV, we have “Monk” (OCD), “Ironside” (wheelchair) and probably the weirdest, and most chilling, “Dexter,” who is a serial killer who tracks down other serial killers and kills them.

I don’t think detective mystery writers keep imitating the formula of the flawed and hurting hero just because the two archetypes of the private eye story mentioned above were such. The flawed hero has been around for a lot longer than since the 1930s and 1940s—Achilles suffered from overweening rage and pride (and that unfortunate heel) and Odysseus was a little long on self-regard himself. As was Lucifer in PARADISE LOST. Love for a woman, the femme fatale (Cleopatra, Delilah, even Eve, in a way) is another common problem for the heroic and their existentially disappointed anti-heroic descendants.

Detective story writers have to stick to some of the conventions of the genre, but come up with some interesting variations too. In the book, Scudder has a high class prostitute for a girlfriend (but not in this movie), but she is anything but a femme fatale. In fact, as a fallen woman, she is the least compromised character Scudder encounters in his dark journeys through the rotten (Big) apple. She is a worthy companion for Scudder, and at times is the only thing standing between him and the bottle and the oblivion lurking behind it. In both book and movie, Scudder has a sometime side-kick, a teenaged kid with sickle cell anemia, a computer savant who lives on the streets, named Dante.

The kid is one of the best parts of the movie, a homeless kid who refuses to give in to his illness, or to allow anyone to pity him, who is an avowed vegetarian devoted to drinking a gallon of water a day, and who asks a waitress why she assumes he wants a soda just because he is a poor black kid. The kid is the one connection Scudder seems to have with the rest of mankind, and the two form a motley and misanthropic duo which nevertheless manages to invoke sympathy in the watcher. In good hard-boiled fashion, they take turns pulling each other out of the fire, without acknowledging either a debt or a sense of gratitude to one another. In what is perhaps the best scene of the movie, Scudder convinces the kid in a few tough sentences that carrying a gun around is the best way to get himself killed. Putting together that many words seems hard for the laconic Neeson/Scudder, but he does it because he can’t help but care for the kid.

The story in A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONES is not great, but then again, who can even figure out the plots in THE BIG SLEEP or THE LONG GOODBYE or THE MALTESE FALCON, much less miss the plot holes in them?

Early on, we learn that Scudder has a history with the sauce. He is approached by a young fellow from an AA meeting he attended whose brother’s wife has been kidnapped, tortured and killed by a couple of psychopaths. The brother is a drug dealer. The two psychos are floridly sadistic and unglued, which you might expect. Liam Neeson as Scudder goes wandering the city putting together the story on the dastardly duo, which has gone on to kidnap another young girl whom they plan on murdering after they collect a ransom on her. Pretty standard stuff, and without Block’s usual dark humor and Scudder’s acerbic wit.

Neeson is a somewhat menacing presence, but he doesn’t come across as particularly conflicted or guilty about anything, much less tortured. There are only a few scenes about AA, and these are pro forma. On the other hand, he doesn’t beat up an enormous number of guys in spectacular fashion like he does in those TAKEN action flicks, either. It’s kind of a tepid movie as a result.

There are other detective story staples too—there are a lot of night-time scenes, and the daytime ones are of a blighted city landscape, for one. And when Scudder meets and fights the killers in a cemetery there is a voice-over of the ten steps, which is particularly weird and ineffective (as is a scene where, in a departure from the dark, piano-bar kind of instrumentals we get through most of the movie, the killers sit in a truck salivating over a pre-teen aged girl walking her dog, to the tune of Donovan’s “Atlantis”). When one of the psychopaths gets the drop on Scudder, Scudder manages to kill him anyway, while the voice over talks about turning yourself over to a higher power. I am still wondering what the hell that was all about.

Anyway, from there it is pretty de rigueur. Gun battles, a cat and mouse chase, the young associate Dante in danger but managing to show pluck and ingenuity and to help save the day. The homicidal maniacs turn on each other (I guess the old lesson here is there is no honor among thieves, or between sexually sadistic serial killers either) and one offs the other before Scudder catches the survivor. Then, Scudder lets the drug dealer whose wife gets killed early on decide what to do with the remaining killer, leaving him alone with the brute to confront the humanity, or lack thereof, of the both of them. Is revenge justice? Yawn. I don’t know, and the scene was a cliché anyway. I would have preferred something weirdly and darkly funny to happen, but the movie was as serious as a heart attack.

Pretty standard stuff to that point. And then, of course, there is one more expected scene that is supposed to be unexpected. Why can’t anyone tie an effective knot in these movies? The last killer gets away. Temporarily, but he kills the drug dealer (I guess you can’t let a drug dealer live happily ever after, or even just live). Scudder and the savage then have the inevitable fight to the death. Ho hum.

The whole thing left me pretty unmoved. Even Scudder’s guilty past is pretty unimpressive. The guilty act that drives him to reform is a mistake he could have easily been made sober. There is no real moral ambiguity here. Scudder is a force for good, and it seems like Gotham is going to live happily ever after. To make sure we know this, the final scene is of Dante lying on Scudder’s couch as the sun rises in a beautiful, pink sky (over a nevertheless still crummy, scummy city).

Ham-handed, predictable. Neeson is the usual Neeson, which is to say not the Scudder I know from the Block books. That Scudder sometimes barely scrapes through a day sober, and lives in a much more morally ambiguous universe. And he is more of a wise guy, and a guy who is wise, than he is a tough guy. Tough is how Neeson plays him (and how Neeson has played everyone he has ever played) The movie would have made a pretty good movie of the week, maybe a scene from your usual detective TV show, but as a big screen production it was mediocre.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, July 10, 2015

Where to Hide Out

I'm in a good place right now.

As I may have mentioned, I'm trying to write a spy thriller, which is a genre outside of my usual field of expertise. I like to read them, but I've never written one. They need to be highly structured before they can actually thrill. This is a lot of work.

And it's all on spec. Nobody has asked me to do this. I haven't even got an agent, and if I did I would have nothing fit to show her yet.

The way to get things written, as we all know, is basically to apply the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. One of the reasons this is working for me right now is sensory deprivation. I quit the TV. We have no TV anymore. My Facebook presence is limited by the number of funny cat videos I can actually absorb. I watch movies only in my living room when we have guests over and get out the projector. As a result my main form of entertainment is making up stuff to go in this book.

And the dreams I have at night. Very vivid dreams, sometimes quite disturbing. I lost a good friend a few weeks ago, and when something as bad as that happens what I usually do is sleep a lot, lose myself in another time period, and write. So here I am, happy as a clam, completely split off from reality. Here's a picture of the model room of the New York Yacht Club, which has hardly changed since 1915. I might as well be there, sitting comfortably in one of those leather chairs, except that I don't think they let women do that.

Also I have new tools. Scrivener, for example, is turning out to be the most wonderful thing, especially for a historical work with a lot of real people in it. Instead of fumbling around amongst a whole file folder of documents looking for my World War I Sabotage timeline, and trying to remember what I named the file, I can simply scroll down the left-hand sidebar of Scrivener and there it is. Together with character notes and Wikipedia entries for Franz von Papen, Karl Boy-Ed, Guy Gaunt, and any number of other folks who were active on the New York espionage scene in 1915. As well as my fictional characters, of course.

Scrivener does wonderful tricks with the word count. You can set a target count for every session. You can set a target count for every scene. You can figure out beforehand where the plot points are supposed to go, mathematically. You want structure? This is structure.

You should try it. You get to play with it free for thirty days. So many bells and whistles! (A great mode for writing screenplays, too.) So far I've written six thousand words on the first draft, and going like a house afire.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Whistling Something Other Than Dixie

I spent some years of my childhood and adolescence attending school in Jacksonville, Florida. When I entered 7th grade, I attended school at Jefferson Davis Junior High School. I sang in a girls’ choir called the Confederettes.

After I finished at J. D., I enrolled at Nathan Bedford Forrest High School. Our chief rival in football was Robert E. Lee High School. Sports were big at Forrest. We had good football and basketball teams and many early school day pep rallies.

The pep rallies were popular. We would stand quietly as The Star Spangled Banner was played. Then the band would break into Dixie and the crowd went wild. Now I went to three different high schools and ten schools in all during my early life and so I was something of a particpant observer to all of this. I did wonder how black students felt about this glorification of the Old South but I didn’t interview them about it.

Nathan Bedford Forrest was a Confederate general who was reported to have killed black Union soldiers after they surrendered. He went on to become the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Forrest High School reportedly got its name because the Daughters of the Confederacy pushed for it. Other folks, including students, wanted to call it Valhalla High School. Wikipedia tells me that Valhalla is Old Norse for “hall of the slain.”

It also brings to mind Richard Wagner who appears to have had some odd notions about racial purity. In 2014 Forrest High School was renamed Westside High School. This might bring to mind the popular Broadway musical except that nothing about Jacksonville ever reminded anyone of New York City.

There is one other interesting fact. These pep rallies featured another song that students adored—Night Train. It was written by Jimmie Forrest and recorded by many people including Duke Ellington and James Brown.

It's Brown's version that you'll find below:

Stephanie Patterson

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Nostalgia, the Season Finale

One of my other quibbles about the current era is that childhood is disappearing. Kids don’t just get up on a summertime morning and get on their bikes to round up their friends and play ball, or go fishing, or to the movies. Everything is sponsored and supervised, chaperoned and “for the kid’s own good,” and development, which to me guarantees that it won’t do any good and will cause no development. My other nephew Kevin was on a travelling basketball team before he was even a teenager. Kids spend the summer practicing the violin or competing in swim meets, being tutored for the SATS, or working in a soup kitchen so it will look good on their transcript when they apply for college.

It seems there is something good about kids being removed from the world of adults for long periods of their adolescence. Let them figure it out for themselves. And let them critique us while they do so. Huckleberry Finn escapes from the “sivilizin” influence of Aunt Polly, and Holden Caulfield wanders Manhattan during the Christmas Season alone, his encounters with adults, teachers, nuns, and the mothers of classmates all comically absurd or tragic. He is only safe and happy with his little sister.

Let Ryan spend the hours I did on the playground, alone with my dreams except for the ghostly apparitions that defended me as I drove to the rim. What dreams do kids get now, except ones that are manufactured for them?

And what kind of world are we leaving them? Baby Boomers, what have we wrought? All that idealism, and sex and drugs and rock and roll, came to this? Dancing with the Stars? Survivor? The Biggest Loser? Obsessions with the Kardashians, and with Bruce Jenner as a woman? Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have gone on for ten years, with nothing to show for it and no one screaming about it because it is not their sons and daughters who are dying there, but the urban poor who have no better alternative than to sign up and take their chances? We are less concerned with feeding the poor than ever, and there are going to be a lot more poor as time goes on.

It’s not just the entertainment industry that has gone south. We were shocked by Watergate, at least a little, but now there are scandals worse than that in the news daily. The government continues to facilitate the sinful financial shenanigans of the rich. And a credulous country stands by—The S and L scandal, Enron, the subprime mortgage debacle. And the government keeps telling us that if it weren’t for the War on Terror we would all be blown to bits. And so they take more and more of our freedom away in the name of freedom. How do you argue against something like that? It is like George W Bush defending his service in the Texas Air National Guard by pointing out that the North Vietnamese never attacked Houston.

Everyone seems to be a fanatic, or has become fanatical in their opposition of those they would consider fanatical. Conspiracy theorists all—the vaccine naysayers, the ones who insist President Obama is not a citizen, those who state flatly that AIDS was created by white scientists in order to infect blacks. Then there is David Koresh, and Scientology, Timothy McVeigh, our unwillingness to restrict gun sales and ownership. And finally there are those whackos who put their faith in charlatans, those who spend all their time and money on doctrines that tell them how to succeed without spending any time and money on succeeding. It works, if you are the one selling the book.

I can’t help but think that everything now is bread and circuses. Distractions to divert us from what really matters. We even have gladiatorial combat, in the form of mixed martial arts, where serious and even fatal injury is almost a surety. Boxing is bad enough (although I am a fan) but letting guys and girls fight with what are basically their bare hands while using use their feet and elbows, and allowing them to “choke each other out” is so beyond the pale that I am disgusted.

And how about these gripes: Arguing about illegal aliens while our children are among the most poorly educated in the first world. Ignoring the fact that we incarcerate more of our population than any other democracy in the world. That we have the highest percentage of the obese and the highest infant mortality rate in the first world, and yet go on and on about how we are the best country on earth, as if being founded on democratic principles was a guarantee that you will remain a democracy, and that the above problems can all be ignored since we all still have the vote.

Yes, there are those who still cry out for social justice. But not as many and not as loudly as in days gone past. And more and more we are not marching to free others but to make sure that we get ours. In a culture of victimization, we are suing and whining about what we deserve. I swear that it is as if everyone feels that every time life proves to be not fair, it means that somebody needs to compensate you for that.

I was too young to have to fight in Viet Nam. So I don’t speak from a place of piety and righteousness. I sometimes smile sadly at myself when I make my meager contributions to the Sierra Club, Amnesty International, The Food Bank. But at least I recognize the value of sacrifice.

And what of the idea that this generation feels that it is owed a living. I don’t know if that is true. My niece and nephews compete for unpaid internships. All that education and they have less opportunity than we did. Will we reach the point where an education is no longer a guarantee of a middle class lifestyle? I think we will. When Ryan is 52 like me, I am afraid he will still be renting, or just going out on his own, having lived with my brother until my brother and his wife have moved on from this world. I hope not, but if he does, at least he will be entertained.

Yes, we had selfishness and shallowness in the mid 70s. In some ways, it was the bitter end of the 60s and to postwar prosperity. The return of Ronnie Raygun (Reagan) in 1980. Stagflation. Inanity on TV. But the news was the news, and it was separate from, and expected to be separate from, entertainment. Now I don’t see the difference.

OK, that’s it. It’s not that I think today’s youth are any less intelligent or compassionate or self-sacrificing than past generations were. But they need to be less distracted by what doesn’t matter, and more aware of what does.

© 2015 Mike Welch

Friday, July 3, 2015

Spanish Tortilla (Potato Omelet)

Harold took a picture of the dinner I gave him the other night, and when I asked him why he did that he said it was for his lawyer. Luckily, he was kidding. (Neither of us really wants to go through all that again, and besides, we still like each other.) No, he was taking the picture for the recipe database he keeps on his computer called "Kate and Harold's Recipes."

I wish I could hook you up with the entire database. Someday, maybe, when he installs a server in the house and I get a bit more technically sophisticated. (Hey, it could happen, even at my time of life.) Failing that, I'm going to give you my recipe for Spanish Tortilla right here, having had one or two requests for it. It's a great recipe for when you have nothing in the house to eat except eggs, onions, and potatoes. And olive oil and salt. Maybe a little pepper. It always takes half an hour longer to cook than you think it will.

Spanish Tortilla:

Heat in your trusty cast iron frying pan

Two tablespoons of olive oil


A big onion, sliced thin

Cook until soft, about twenty minutes, reducing the heat as they cook. Put the onions in a bowl.

Add to the pan and heat,

Three more tablespoons of olive oil

Put in the hot oil

Two big potatoes, or six little bitty ones, peeled and sliced thin. If the potatoes are small and the skins are tender you can leave the skins on. Cook, turning, until brown. Drain on paper towels.

Add to the onions,

Six large eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
Ground black pepper to taste

Sprinkle the potatoes with salt and ground black pepper to taste. Add to the egg mixture.

Heat the pan. When hot, put the egg mixture in and reduce the heat. Shake the pan from time to time but otherwise do not disturb the omelet. When it's cooked on the bottom—browned a little bit—put the pan under the broiler to cook the top. Cut in wedges and serve. Mighty tasty.

Kate Gallison