12/28/14: Stealing Shakespeare's Soul for Fun and Profit. Unlike literary types of today, William Shakespeare jumped genre lines fearlessly. He drew upon historical drama, war, suspense, horror, the supernatural, fantasy, and comedy without fear of labels. The scope of his work astounds. Which of course provides the basis of the post-Shakespeare, lucrative industry of “proving” his true identity.
These multiple claimed proofs yield a bounty of amusement (and annoyance). Self-styled scholars and hacks have proved, at least to their own satisfaction, Shakespeare to be over eighty different persons now. Serious scholars rightfully dismiss these claims as so much horse shit, but that doesn’t dampen the enthusiasm of revisionists.
Why do they do this, especially since no one in Shakespeare’s actual time doubted his authorship? The obvious answer is that because there’s no way this man of humble beginnings could really have been that smart, right? Seriously, that seems to be the main reason for all this nonsense.
So who has he been proven to be? Well, one of the most favored suspects is Sir Francis Bacon. Truly a brilliant essayist, philosopher, and statesman in his own right, and few would dispute that. Never mind that he never wrote a single play under his own name. So why would he scribble out these magnificent works of art and hand them over to some doofus in the theater? Because, his proponents say… drum roll… he was such a huge star he couldn’t risk not being taken seriously if he were unmasked as a lowly playwright! That’s right. His boosters think people would have thought less of him if it were discovered that he’d penned Hamlet, Macbeth, and The Tempest. Who’d want to be blamed for that? This argument is so monumentally idiotic it blows the rest of any arguments for Bacon right out of the water.
Another jaw-dropping claim is that Will was in fact none other than Queen Elizabeth. Wow. Much of the same arguments are made for her authorship as were made for Bacon. Too important, too royal, to be associated with something as silly as groundbreaking masterpieces, blah blah blah.
Ultimately, one could argue that this type of silliness gets back to elitism; never give credit for genius to someone not high-born. There’s a degree of that, to be sure, especially in England which has centuries of classism obscuring rational thought. But Americans fall for this stuff too, so, like with most things, it comes down to nothing more than some goofballs, who feel no obligation to the truth, trying to cash in.
And so, the easiest prediction one can make is: this isn’t going to stop as long as there’s a buck to be made.
12/12/14: The Past Writ Large: A Chat about History in Suspense Fiction with William Burton McCormick. I met the talented Bill McCormick a couple of years ago when we were co-panelists on an International Thriller Writers presentation. Karin Slaughter was the headliner, and the rest of us scrambled and fought over her glittering, perfect crumbs. McCormick is an amazing young talent; his novel, Lenin's Harem, brings to life an important and forgotten corner of the 20th century. I'll call this Q&A, "Spill, Bill. Volume 1." Because it's my blog and I can.
Welcome, Bill. Enough of that. Now talk about yourself and your work.
I’m from a small town in Nevada outside of Las Vegas, went to college in Providence, RI, and since have lived and worked all over the United States and in six other countries.
Why six countries? Well, if I do a little dime store self-analysis, I think that first move from the desert of Nevada to snowy New England at the age of eighteen was so illuminating, such a voyage of discovery, that it ultimately took me around the globe. All the Old World shadows in Providence, I guess. It was like going back in time. So, New England lead to “Old” England, then onto Continental Europe, and finally over to Eastern Europe. And, of course, it became quite natural to write about what I discovered there.
So, in short, I write thrillers and historical fiction set mainly in Eastern Europe. I report back what I learn (fact) or what I’m inspired to create (fact-based fiction). Everyone always accuses me of being a spy over here, it’s a running joke with my friends, but in a way I am spying, it all goes into my writing (though my work can be read outside of Langley, Virginia, I promise).
Maybe you are a spy. Even a double-agent… Anyway, your novel, Lenin’s Harem, gets to the heart of European ethnic divisions and animosities in the early part of the 20th century. Tell us about the genesis of the novel.
I was living in Washington, D.C. at the time and had dreamed up a rather generic thriller. I wanted to set it somewhere in Eastern Europe, but didn’t really have an idea where. I went to the Latvian Museum in Maryland and bought a few Latvian history books to sort of consider that country as a possibility. I read about the events that happened to the people in Latvia in the early 20th century, and what an important role Latvians played in the birth of the Soviet Union. They were kingmakers really, and their people were dreadfully punished by those same Soviets afterwards. I realized this was a more gripping story than my thriller. So I tore up the old book and wrote a serious historical novel.
“Lenin’s Harem,” by the way, refers to a group of Latvian soldiers that protected Lenin early in the Bolshevik Revolution. The book, as some will surely be disappointed to learn, has nothing to do with Lenin’s love life. It’s really about a young man and his family trying to survive the revolution and both World Wars and to find their own identity when the sides are changing constantly.
The World War I gas attack depicted in the novel is gripping, and the cloud becomes almost a living thing.
Yes, those were truly horrific events along the Daugava River in Latvia. I spent several weeks researching that one chapter. I wanted to show the conditions at Saulkalne accurately. Considering so many people died it would be a dishonor to do otherwise. Many readers mention those scenes as some of my best writing.
Lenin’s Harem became a bestseller in Latvia. Are you a rock star there? Literary groupies beating your door down?
Well, it was a good seller. I wouldn’t call it a bestseller. I’m not close to a rock star, I haven’t got the clothes or the big hair, or the musical ability (if that’s required) but I’ve been on television, the radio, and in print interviews over here. I’ve been recognized a couple of times on the street and in cafes, and many people seem to know the book.
I’m still waiting on the literary groupies. Should I give out my number? Hopefully they arrive by the time you publish this interview.
Being a small country sandwiched between powerful, aggressive neighbors kind of sucks, as Poland could attest. Are the national psyches of Latvia and the other Baltic states still defined by this situation?
Absolutely. You can still feel it in certain national attitudes, a cynicism, and distrust of foreigners, and the recent increase in tensions with Russia hasn’t helped.
The novel, if pigeonholed into a genre, would likely be “historical drama,” yet employs elements of mystery and suspense, and the war scenes remind me of Alistair MacLean’s early work, Hemingway, and most especially of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. What say you?
It is interesting you mention MacLean as he was one of my earliest influences. I can still remember being eleven or twelve and reading The Guns of Navarone at our hotel in Disneyland and thinking this was far more thrilling than any of the rides.
All Quiet on the Western Front was also in my mind when I was writing all the World War I scenes in the novel. I hoped to touch on a fraction of the “soldier’s view” the reader gets in that masterpiece.
On the flip side, your short stories plumb the realms of mystery, suspense, adventure, and thriller, but employ historical settings. The great challenge in historical settings is the research and getting it right. It’s one thing to look up details, and another thing altogether to understand them and how daily life went. You took the extraordinary step of moving to Latvia for the sake of getting it right.
Well, it started with the novel. Maybe other authors can do it, but I couldn’t live in America and write an accurate historical novel about a foreign country. I had to go there, absorb it, talk to the inhabitants, to the survivors and descendents of survivors of the wars and occupations, to see the culture then and now, the landscape, the architecture. Total immersion, I suppose. But it was worth it, I learned something every day useful in writing. And I still do. I’ve more ideas than I’ll ever get on the page.
And doing the research, to get the details of history, it’s obvious, of course, but the best source is personal accounts. I’ve worked with museum curators and historians in these countries, and they’ve introduced me to people who have lived through the events I want to describe, or for some of the older events at least their parents lived through them. Even if I am using a translator (as I usually do) you can still tell the emotions and the feelings. That’s what an academic history book can never really give you. It can tell you what happened, but not how it felt, not what people were thinking in the moment without the passage of time for perspective. Those you get from interviews.
You received a degree in Novel Writing in England, and England of course has an illustrious history of crime fiction. Did you lurk the streets of London, visiting Sherlock Holmes sites, and the like?
I didn’t really go to any Sherlock Holmes sites like Baker Street. But I did visit London’s East End and go to all the sites of the Jack the Ripper murders. It’s really disturbing when you go there and see how small an area we are talking about. All the killings were within a quarter mile of each other or so. When you actually get a feel for the scale, with literally a million people living there, it is even more amazing Jack never got caught. Still chilling well over a century later.
I also seriously researched the anarchist movement in early twentieth century England while living there. I’ve drafted a whole novel on it, just need to get about editing it.
What authors inspired your loves of suspense and history? What standout works pushed you in this direction?
Well, in crime fiction I’d say Hammett above all else, with a lot of Conan Doyle, Graham Greene, and James Ellroy, and more recently Ian Rankin, though none of them are really suspense writers in the modern Dean Koontz way. The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, The Thin Man, The Third Man, The Hound of the Baskervilles, L.A. Confidential, Black Dahlia, and Rankin’s Watchman, these are all major crime novels for me. But for real suspense, I look outside the medium to Hitchcock. I love his films, how he plays the audience like a violin, and preys on their expectations. When doing suspense, I try to translate his tricks and method to the written form. I’m not always successful, but a cinematic quality is something I consciously try to include in my writing. I envision how Hitch might shoot a scene, and do my best to describe it to my readers. Hitchcock is one of my primary influences without a doubt (or should I say, without a Shadow of a Doubt).
Also, sometimes I like my suspense to build slowly with the idea that the reader might be more aware of what is happening than the narrator. I love that feeling of helplessness when as a reader, I am fully aware that something dreadful is behind that door, but can’t stop the protagonist from opening it. It is often very subtle. For that I look to M.R. James and his wonderful Ghost Stories of an Antiquary and his later collections. Whether you are doing a ghost story or a conventional suspense story, he gives you the technique for the slow build. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” too, is masterfully suspenseful (as well as horrific).
I actually don’t read a lot of historical fiction. Instead I read and watch a lot historical nonfiction which in turn inspires my fiction. I am voracious in my history reading, everything from Livy’s The War with Hannibal, to The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, to Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives, to the Unknown War, to The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. Of course, in terms of weaving a historical narrative, Killer Angels should be mentioned too.
Are there other genres you dabble in?
I have a few “non-historical” writings. And, I have a farce/satire in my best P.G. Wodehouse-meets-Blackadder mode called “The Great Odessa Race of 1905,” but as the title suggest, it has a historical setting.
I also write video game dialogue scripts. Is that a genre?
We’ve joked that all Lenin’s Harem needed was a teen vampire to push it to the top. In all seriousness, the tone of your writing, as well as the settings, would lend itself well to horror. Any thoughts of giving that genre a try?
I have a paranormal mystery story that definitely could be called “soft horror” entitled “The Antiquary’s Wife.” As the title suggests, it shows the M.R. James influence I mentioned earlier. So, yes that is slowly building gothic horror. Not too interested in the blood-and-guts sort of thing.
If you were stranded on a desert island in the middle of the Pacific, with but one suspense genre novel or anthology to see you through, what would it be?
Well, the most suspenseful novel I’ve read was probably Jaws. I remember being unable to put that down (at least, until the last three chapters when Benchley rips off Moby-Dick). I read that book in one night. Of course, if I’m really stranded on a desert island, it may not be a good idea to ponder all the gigantic carnivorous fish close by. If that’s the case I’ll go with The Day of the Jackal.
What does the future hold for young Bill McCormick?
I don’t know about young Bill McCormick, but this old one has a few short stories coming out, including the 2012 Derringer finalist “Blue Amber” and a new one as part of The Prometheus Saga, a collection of interconnected historical fiction/science fiction short stories written by the authors of The Alvarium Experiment beehive (including you, of course, Ken). Hope to see that early in 2015.
Then I expect the second edition of Lenin’s Harem to be published in English. And I have some new longer fiction. A suspense novella called Mr. Humble which contains characters from “The Antiquary’s Wife,” and two new novels. One is a modern mystery set in Riga, Latvia, and another work of serious historical fiction on the Forest Brothers of Latvia/Lithuania, partisans who held out against the Soviet occupations well into 1950s. That should keep me busy until 2016 or so.
That and waiting on the literary groupies.
Thanks, Bill, and best of luck!
9/17/14: I Feel Your Pain: A Chat about Fictional Injuries with M.J. Carlson. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing science fiction author and Renaissance Man M.J. Carlson speak a couple of times on the topic of injury in fiction. Carlson—one of those rare individuals that might justifiably be called a polymath—brings a wealth of real-world experience and expertise to his writing. I’ve incorporated Carlson’s tips into my writing when trying to describe what happens when one of my fictional characters gets subjected to the physical abuse I love subjecting them to, so I coerced him into sitting down to an interview. Enjoy!
Describe your background, education, and experience, MJ...
Diverse. I’ve supported myself at different times by copy editing at a newspaper, doing pencil sketches of people, working on motorcycles, driving a truck, designing commercial building sites and power generation plants, and restarting the occasional heart. I’ve been homeless and taken strangers into my house because they were. I even studied and taught Okinawan martial arts for a few years. As for education, I’ve studied art, and have degrees in engineering technology, natural science, microbiology, and medicine. So, I guess you could say I get bored easily.
I became interested in this subject through conversations with a good friend. Our conversations gradually deepened and I ended up with enough research to put together a talk on the subject that I occasionally do for writers groups.
What does Hollywood get wrong about injuries?
Hmm, in most cases, almost everything. It must also be said that Hollywood is less concerned with “getting it right” than telling a story, maintaining the audience’s interest, and building tension, which is mostly as it should be.
Let’s set some parameters. What we’re talking about here is not the objective view of an injury (what another character would see), but the subjective experience of that injury to the character who experiences it. That’s vastly different and substantially more difficult to write about for a lot of reasons. Also, we’ll leave illness alone, because it’s a big topic and injuries are much more fun.
What does Hollywood get right?
Good question. The film Regarding Henry, written by J. J. Abrams, managed to tell an engaging story about a man who experienced brain damage from blood loss after being accidentally shot witnessing a robbery. It’s a wonderful story with an unexpectedly happy ending and I encourage anyone who hasn’t seen it to do so. There are many other instances where verisimilitude doesn’t hurt the drama or the tension, so clearly, it can be done.
The other thing Hollywood does get fairly closely, is the external experience, i.e. what we would see or hear from the vantage point of another character. In all fairness, it’s really hard to bring internal experiences to film. Generally, more recent (within the past decade) work is better.
What are some glaring or glowing examples of the above? Movies or TV… what makes you roll your eyes?
Glaring? Gosh. Short answer; American television. Long answer; American film, novels, and television. There’s one series that sticks out and that I use in a talk I do for other writers on this subject, and that I probably shouldn’t mention by name. Anyway, in one episode the main character, is, over the course of about four minutes, knocked unconscious, shot (either in the upper chest or shoulder, it’s never really clear), tied to a welded aluminum chair, which she wedges against a convenient protruding piece of steel and breaks, after said gunshot injury. Then, she wrestles a 70-pound compressed air cylinder into position on a pile of bricks, hammers the valve off with a wrench to blow a door open, runs up a flight of stairs, disables two trained men using hand-to-hand techniques, shoots a third with the gun she took from one, and escapes into a city at night, on foot––all after being shot, you’ll recall, and the response to this superhuman capability is––adrenaline. Don’t get me wrong, adrenaline is a wonderful drug, but come on.
Glowing? Several excellent examples come readily to mind. Generally, English literature, film, and television do a much better job with the subjective experience of injuries. The series Sherlock, for instance. Authors would include Terry Pratchett, Janet Evanovich, Sue Grafton, Dean Koontz, Richard K. Morgan, Steven J. Cannell, and Paolo Bacigalupi. Sorry, if I missed your favorite. It wasn’t intentional.
What common mistakes do writers make?
Single biggest mistake? Using an injury as a convenient plot device. Sometimes, it seems any time a writer needs a character silenced, moved, or subdued, they just “whack ’em on the head” with the proverbial blunt object, after which, the character is good as new. Another, and this is pure Hollywood hype, is the idea of “just winging” a character; that a character can be shot in an extremity and there will be no significant consequences––ever. In reality, there are some really big blood vessels and nerves that run through the shoulders and upper legs, and blood loss is still blood loss, bones do break, and paralyzed is usually forever.
Next is using the inaccuracies of other writers for research. I’m the first one to admit that medical text books are a great substitute for [insert your favorite sleeping medicine], the information is often buried under tons of material irrelevant for writers’ purposes, and the Internet is often no help. There is so much misinformation out there it’s impossible for the average person to separate the wheat from the chaff. If I can make a shameless plug here, I hope to have a book available on this subject, sometime in 2015. To the best of my knowledge, there’s currently no other similar work available, anywhere.
I’m buying a copy of that book when it’s out. Now then: do writers take their cues from Hollywood?
Often, I think that’s the case. There seems to be a pervasive attitude, especially in Hollywood, that the main character of any story must border on the superhuman (I’m lookin’ at you, Bruce Willis). I think that’s because Americans grew up surrounded by the “anything is possible,” “larger than life” Paul Bunyan myth. We often view historical figures the same way, when they were mostly ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances. That’s why I personally prefer to use regular people as characters. I find them more interesting. Besides, I have a low threshold for superhero stories, whatever the genre, after which I just find them tedious.
When does the writer cross the line of believability?
Whenever the truth takes second place to convenience. Superhero stories aside, if you find yourself writing a scene that involves a significant injury to your POV character and they’re still able to run from or chase the bad guy (I won’t mention any names), the scene has probably missed the mark. I was told once that fiction isn’t reality, but mimics reality––that is, to tell a story and be believable without being mundane.
What are some good resources for believable writing?
As I said earlier, most anything within the past 10 to15 years written in the UK. The Harry Potter series has some very believable injuries told from the character’s POV. Also, authors in the UK aren’t as hampered by the American “journalistic style” of writing. Their stories have much more individual voice.
What’s the most important thing for a writer to grasp about injuries to their characters?
That sometimes injuries to their characters have significant impact, not only on the character him or herself, but on the other characters and the story. While the body is resilient and pretty tough, we are still governed by physics and made mostly of squishy, brittle, vulnerable stuff, and a significant injury is nature’s way of telling your character to slow down, at least temporarily.
Which contemporary writer gets it right?
I can think of several that at least have perspicacious moments (wow, I thought I’d never work that word into sentence––that’s a check-mark on my bucket list). Anyway, the names I mentioned above are my go-to list. Except for Cannell, they’re all living authors.
Robin Cook. Michael Crichton. Tess Gerritsen. F. Paul Wilson… physicians have gone on to become bestselling authors in the various genres of suspense or science fiction. Have any favorites?
I’ve read and enjoyed all these authors in turn. The nice part for me, trained in science and engineering as I am, is that their backgrounds usually won’t let them stray too far from reality. Their characters mostly behave in believable ways, physiologically as well as psychologically. They often write darn good stories, as well. I would include Rivka Galchen. Her book Atmospheric Disturbances is based on Capgras Syndrome, a rare disorder where an individual believes his or her spouse has been replaced by an exact duplicate. There’s a long history of physicians and scientists being authors. I like to think it’s because we’re trained to think in terms of cause and effect, and to tell a story, albeit a very concise story.
Arthur Conan Doyle was a physician. I would count him, because the forensic methods he introduced in his Sherlock Holmes series bordered on science fiction at the time. As for science fiction specifically, the obvious is Michael Crichton, but there’s also David H. Keller, who wrote science fiction, horror, and fantasy under at least six pen names, and Alan E. Nourse. Alison Sinclair, Janet Asimov (yep, his wife), Alex Comfort, who also wrote The Joy of Sex, and F. Paul Wilson.
Do you suppress your science side for the sake of story?
I try not to. For instance, the main character of my first book is hit by two cars, shot (twice, actually) and incapacitated by a stun gun in different parts of the story. His natural healing time is altered considerably by nanotechnology he isn’t aware he possessed, but that was a topic of conversation over twenty years ago, when I was in graduate school. All of my stories are set in the future, and involve technology that today’s readers would recognize, but not necessarily understand, much like a person from the 1920s would recognize a modern car, but not know how to operate it. I like to use technology, in some form, as the central element of the story.
What scares you the most in the world today?
The steady erosions of personal freedom and privacy. We ignore things today with little more than a shrug that would have prompted Chekhov to write an 800-page novel. It’s a recurring theme in my writing, as well as other authors, like Dean Koontz.
What gives you hope in the world today?
The human spirit. Not in the religious sense, but the underlying thing inside people that make us strive to be better and to care about each other.
Any other thoughts?
Lots. Oh, you mean that anyone else might be interested in reading. In the end, a story carries an implicit contract between the author and the reader. It’s the author’s job to write an engaging story that encourages suspension of disbelief, transports readers to new places, introduces them to new characters, and provides them with entertainment and escape. The reader’s job is to find, enjoy, and share those works with others. It doesn’t matter how realistic a character’s experience is. Sometimes we strive for that element because the best lie is often the one with the most truth. However, if, by the end of the story, the writer and the reader have connected on an emotional level and shared an intimate view of the world, we’ve been successful.
M.J. Carlson is an award-winning SF author. Check out his new novel Changed.
9/15/14: Rod's Second Act. Everyone old recalls the early 60s TV series The Twilight Zone, and just about everyone young has at least seen episodes of the show replayed on cable. This is a good thing, for the most part, and Rod Serling will be forever remembered for his clipped, scowling, delivery as he introduced each segment, his unibrow clenching and flexing with great portent. And the intro music—doo DOO doo doo, doo DOO doo doo—is embedded in the pop culture hive mind as shorthand for spooky weirdness.
But for my money, Serling’s later and largely forgotten series, The Night Gallery, was as good or better than TZ. For some reason, the earlier series developed this aura about it, or at least a respectable patina. Certainly the black and white of TZ lent it an aura of mystery and noir atmosphere, something lost in the color broadcasts of the later series. But only some of that TZ love is truly deserved. Now don’t label me a blasphemer and gather with pitchforks in the plaza below. Rewatch the series and its unevenness jumps off the little screen. There were some terrific episodes, to be sure. There were also some terrifically bad episodes.
The similarities between the two series are obvious—an anthology series of short, unrelated stories about the macabre. To split hairs, TZ ventured more frequently into science fiction, whereas Night Gallery stayed firmly planted in the soil of horror and the supernatural.
Introducing each Night Gallery story, Serling would stroll through his spooky art gallery and pause before some impressionistic oil painting, usually featuring tormented souls screaming in an abyss, like a poor man’s Edvard Munch. Serling would scowl and give his trademark intro, replete with clever turns of phrase. And then we’re in the story.
An accomplished author, Serling himself wrote about a third of the episodes, including one which has stuck with me since the decades when I first saw it as a kid. That segment was “The Caterpillar,” oddly named since the bug in question was an earwig. Serling crafted a tale of treachery and deceit in the remote fastnesses of Borneo, in which the plot involves the planned placement of the little crawlie into the ear canal of a love rival. The idea being that it would eat its way through the brain, driving the hapless victim to howling insanity. Creepy stuff indeed.
It’s hard to find and view the episodes now, even in this uber-digitized, uber-piratized century, but fans of these kinds of stories should try. As in Twilight Zone, good acting and writing was frequently offered. Admittedly, it ain’t Shakespeare, but these are well-told stories with pretty good production values. Also as in TZ, the series featured both veteran actors and up-and-comers. Even from the start. The 1969 pilot featured one segment, “Eyes,” starring old Joan Crawford, and directed by young Steven Spielberg in his professional debut.
Anthology series ran aground on the rocky shoals of viewer taste decades ago. You rarely see a producer tackle the concept any more. It seems like perhaps one per decade has cropped up since the 70s and disappeared after a short run. Which is a shame. I suspect, though, that with the new avenues with which we experience mass media entertainment, and what with ever-compartmentalized audiences, some enterprising young producer will bring an anthology to life and find a profitable market for it. Economical CGI and home studio capabilities almost make this a foregone conclusion.
Let’s hope so. I miss the anthologized short story format. Being a time-hoarding curmudgeon, I don’t always want to invest my time and emotion in long single-story series.
8/28/14: What's In a Name? Part 7: Fence. Ah, the Fence. That shady fast-talker, the one wearing the cap. Always ready to do shady, fast-talking, cap-wearing business, performing a valuable public service among the underworld, buying stolen property and turning it around for resale. The entrepreneurial spirit! The noun, fence, even doubles as a verb: Let’s take this here stolen bag of golf clubs down to Freddy the Fence and fence it to him.
For its etymological source, the term fence conjures and suggests the idea of maybe conducting these illicit deals over or through a fence to the shady guy on the other side. That’s what you think. Has a nice, cinematic sort of imagery.
In truth, it’s less colorful. Around 1700, the term seems to have originated as a shortening of “under defence of secrecy.” In other words, keep your mouth shut. Kind of a lackluster explanation.
Of course you want to chuckle at the amusing Brit spelling of defense, with a ‘c’ rather than an ‘s’, but that’s the traditional spelling. All the major English speaking nations except the USA spell it ‘defence.’ But that doesn’t make it right.
8/26/14: The Father of Modern Police Work. Ask any professional who the founders of their profession were. You’ll most likely get immediate and glowing responses. Every profession has its pioneers, its guiding lights, and many criminal investigation pros today acknowledge the19th-century genius who cast aside the old and essentially invented modern police investigation. That man was a visionary, creating the art and science of evidence collection, of forensics, of seeing a crime scene with open senses and extracting and analyzing data before jumping to conclusions. He dazzled with the stunning scope and breadth of his new approach to crime-solving.
That man never existed, except as a fictional construct.
That man was none other than Sherlock Holmes, the sleuth that sprang from the imagination of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
This is not an exaggeration.
Consider what passed for police investigation when the first Holmes story, the novel A Study in Scarlet, was published in 1886. Envision that a crime, maybe a murder, is committed. The police arrive, look around a bit, stomp all over the crime scene, cart the body away, ask for eyewitnesses, and round up the usual suspects. Suspects in hand, they “interrogate” them (translation: beat the shit out of them) until someone confesses. It helps when the actual guilty party is actually the one to confess, but hey, you get what you get. As we now know, confessions beaten out of someone are not terribly reliable. Torture has a way of making you say anything to make it stop.
Typically, if you have no eyewitnesses or no confessors, the case is closed.
Again, this is not an exaggeration. Police investigation in the 19th-century, no matter where in the world, didn’t particularly require special training and coursework. It probably didn’t even require a level of literacy. It required a certain level of brawn and obstinacy.
Along came Sherlock Holmes. He’d snap at Inspector Lestrade for screwing up a crime scene by manhandling the body, tracking through blood, and ignoring stuff like empty bullet casings. Holmes would take note of every damned little thing, inspect the details of the victim and environs with a magnifying glass, gather samples of hair and clothing, sniff the body, and so on.
Back at his flat on Baker Street, he’d pore over what he’d observed and gathered, eliminating any thread he deemed false, piecing together the crime in his mind. In A Study in Scarlet, Holmes hits upon his long-sought discovery of a method to identify hemoglobin. This may not seem remarkable now, but this was absolute science fiction when Doyle wrote it. No one had ever even conceived of such a thing. Yet six years later, apparently inspired by the novel, researchers came up with a method of doing the same.
This is routine CSI today (we know because we watch TV), but absolutely radical before Holmes and Doyle invented it. To fully appreciate the Sherlock stories, you must keep this in mind.
Doyle’s readers loved it, and made him a worldwide celebrity and a rich man. Many real-life policemen (like the fictional Lestrade) were a bit put out by this fictional hooey, perhaps because Doyle portrayed them as bumbling fools and part of the problem rather than the solution. Yet the smarter among them recognized that Holmes’s approach actually made a lot of sense. It was ingenious, really.
What did Holmes pioneer? Among other things, the analysis of wounds, fingerprints, footprints, bloodstains, blood type, wheel tracks, gunpowder stains, tobacco ashes, dirt, poisons, and handwriting.
Holmes did not actually create fingerprinting as a method of identification. That honor belongs to Sir William James Herschel, a gent in British Colonial India who saw it as a way to keep his Indian laborers honest. And contrary to what Holmes fans claim, he was not the first to use it to solve a literary crime. Mark Twain has that honor. Holmes, however, brought the idea to the fore. Apparently, when a satirist like Twain is the originator of the idea, it’s not to be taken seriously.
Holmes even claimed that typewriting was as distinctive as handwriting. In “A Case of Identity” (1891), Holmes posits that each typing machine can produce a distinct and recognizable output. Three years later, this was proven to be fact.
The Frenchman Alphonse Bertillon, widely considered to be the originator of forensic investigation, readily passed credit on to Holmes, wishing that all criminal investigators employed Holmes’ scientific methods. Bertillon’s protégé, Edmond Locard, continued and expanded the new approach and was also an enthusiastic disciple of the great fictional detective. Similarly, the pioneering Austrian investigator Hans Gross acknowledged his indebtedness to Holmes’s methods. These real-life pioneers devoured the Sherlock Holmes stories.
So keep in mind when you’re reading your favorite mystery novelist or watching your favorite CSI television show, or marveling at the true-life crime investigations that hit the news every day, Doyle and his detective accomplished more than lay the ground rules and concepts for a genre of fiction. They laid the ground rules and concepts for modern crime investigation.
Fiction had invented the future.
5/21/14: What’s in a Name? Part 6: Thug. Everyone knows what a thug is. He’s the guy in movies with the broken nose and big muscles. He wears a cheap suit badly, and shoves around whomever ‘Da Boss’ wants shoved. He’s the punk on the corner who pistol-whips you for $4 bucks. Sometimes he’s just the rough-house guy on that basketball team you hate. “Thug” is one of those perfect English words that just fits. It’s almost even an onomatopoeia, a word that sounds like a sound associated with the object of the naming. When a thug smacks you on the head with a blackjack, the sound your noggin emits is thug!
But the word is not of English origin at all.
It refers to Thuggee, the secretive society of murderers that plied the pathways of India for more than four centuries, deriving from the original Hindi root, thag, or “thief.”
When the English, in their zeal for subjugating indigenous peoples, colonized India, they began to hear of Thuggee in whispered stories. These killers travelled in groups on the highways, taking fellow travelers into their friendship and confidence, and then ceremonially strangling them and robbing their corpses.
Because remaining unseen was paramount to Thugs, bodies were fastidiously hidden or destroyed. The society built hundreds of secret graveyards for the purposes of disposing of victims, and would often bide their time until they could murder conveniently close to one of the graveyards. But not always. Some confessed to merely throwing the bodies into wells. Think about that. Unaware villagers were drawing drinking water from these wells.
Thugs didn’t belong to any particular caste, rank, or religion. Some came from dirt poor beginnings, some from quite affluent beginnings. Some were Hindu, some Mohammedan, some Buddhist. They spoke different languages (as India had many). But they worked together, almost never in groups of less than four, and sometimes in gangs numbering in the hundreds. They shared the spoils of murder, they shared food, they shared common sign language. They shared the bloodlust, and talked about the vocation as if it were the noblest of pursuits. They disdained those that boasted of hunting lesser game, such as tigers.
They shared in the actual murders.
Essentially unknown outside India until brought to light in stodgy British Colonial documents, thuggery quickly captured the popular imagination of the West through lurid accounts, and “thug” and “thuggery” got absorbed into the language. To their credit, British governors attacked this vast and entrenched problem with the best police work methods of England, capturing key figures and coercing them into turning King’s evidence on cohorts. The confessions revealed the astonishing breadth and depth of thuggery, and the staggering numbers of how many victims were ceremonially strangled in a given Thuggee “season.” Some Thugs confessed to being personally responsible for hundreds of murders. Estimates of the number of Thug murders committed over four centuries run as high as a million. Often, thuggery was a family business, passed down from father to son for generations.
Armed with modern detective techniques (and of course a standing army), the Brits effectively killed the Thug establishment.
Despite varied religious backgrounds, the Thuggee seem to have adopted the many-armed Hindu goddess Kali as their object of worship. To this day, in popular media, you’ll find murderous Indian cults dedicated to Kali (also known as Bhowani or Durga), with all sorts of chanting and other mystical goings-on. Like the heart-ripping bunch of…well, Thugs, in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. These are all loosely rooted in the legends of the Thuggee.
In recent years, revisionists have gone to lengths to claim that Thuggee never existed, and was indeed a figment of fevered British over-imagination, an exaggeration of the highwaymen that every nation owns. A sort of fear of the great, mysterious Somewhere-Out-There. Or perhaps the Colonial masters needed an internal enemy of the people to defeat, thereby demonstrating to the locals that the Brits were benevolent masters. Certainly the Brits possessed more than a few Machiavellian strategies, and certainly colonial powers often went to disgusting lengths to rule unruly natives. But the enormous documented detail lends credence to the truth of the stories, and in fact more recent scholarship supports the original claims and casts doubt on the revisionist theory. And anyway, accounts of thuggery go back centuries before the British arrived. And anyway, the revisionist point of view is not nearly as interesting.
So go ahead and call a rival hoop team’s power forward a thug for setting a teeth-rattling pick on your team’s golden-haired star, but do so in the knowledge that a rough sports play is an incomparably weak comparison to centuries of brutal ritual murder and robbery on the jungle paths of old India.
5/12/14: Money, the Sea, and Death. In the horrifying disaster of the South Korean ferry Sewol, it looks more and more like old-fashioned greed is the culprit in the deaths of hundreds of innocents, most of them teenagers. The company operating the ferry had overloaded the vessel with more than double its limit of cargo, and had compounded that crime with wholly inadequate tie-downs and securing. The cargo shifted, fell, the boat capsized. And children died.
How does this happen? How do similar disasters continue to happen, across the centuries? How does the bottom line trump the safety of human beings? Yet continue it does.
In Following the Equator: A Journey Around the World (1897), Mark Twain fires this angry broadside in his account of an overnight excursion aboard the Flora, a ferry plying heavy seas off New Zealand, and the company that operates it:
It is a powerful company, it has a monopoly, and everybody is afraid of it—including the government’s representative, who stands at the end of the stage-plank to tally the passengers and see that no boat receives a greater number than the law allows her to carry. This conveniently-blind representative saw the scow receive a number which was far in excess of its privilege, and winked a politic wink and said nothing. The passengers bore with meekness the cheat which had been put upon them, and made no complaint.
…A few days before, the Union Company had discharged a captain for getting a boat into danger, and had advertised this act as evidence of its vigilance in looking after the safety of the passengers—for thugging a captain costs the company nothing, but when opportunity offered to send this dangerously overcrowded tub to sea and save a little trouble and a tidy penny by it, it forgot to worry about the passenger’s safety.
The first officer told me that the Flora was privileged to carry 125 passengers. She must have had all of 200 on board. All the cabins were full, all the cattle-stalls in the main stable were full, the spaces at the heads of companionways were full, every inch of floor and table in the swill-room was packed with sleeping men and remained so until the place was required for breakfast, all the chairs and benches on the hurricane deck were occupied, and still there were people who had to walk about all night!
If the Flora had gone down that night, half of the people on board would have been wholly without means of escape.
The owners of that boat were not technically guilty of conspiracy to commit murder, but they were morally guilty of it.
Just as in Korea, regulations were in the books more than a century ago to prevent this type of thing. Just as in Korea, regulations were ignored for the sake of pocketing a little more money. The South Korean government is coming down hard on the ferry company. Will it make a difference?
You wonder if numbers, rather than blood, pulse through the arteries of some businessmen and women. You wonder if they can sleep at night, and you realize that they can’t. Not for shame of their actions, but for worry of getting exposed and not beating the rap.
4/23/14: Invisible Killer. The recent Ebola outbreak in the western Africa nations of Guinea and Liberia caught my attention in a big way, while seeming to cause only the slightest ripple in the societal awareness of most Americans. I attribute my interest—and alarm—to a single, twenty-year-old book.
In 1994, Richard Preston, brother of bestselling thriller writer, Douglas Preston, released The Hot Zone, a non-fiction thriller of magnitude one. Or, to use the appropriate disease threat level, Biosafety Level 4.
Preston takes us first into Kenya, 1980, into the unorthodox, adventurous life of French expatriate Charles Monet. After an exploratory jaunt into a remote cave, Monet returns to the home he shares with his Kenyan girlfriend. With an unknown, deadly passenger in his bloodstream.
Within a week, Monet falls ill, and slides into one horrifying degradation of his body after another, ultimately succumbing to grisly, wet death, whole parts of his internal organs breaking down and dissolving, and exiting black and red through every orifice. No one understands the cause of his swift decline and death, and before it takes him, he infects others.
The lethal Marburg virus is the culprit. Its even more deadly cousin, Ebola, takes the stage from there.
Fast forward to 1983. America. Maryland. The suburbs of our nation’s capital. A primate lab of the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID, aka “you sam rid,” to the insiders). A minor accident turns the lab and environs into a “hot zone.” Zaire Ebola virus has escaped.
A team of specialists swoops in and contains the accident, placing themselves in mortal danger to do their jobs and prevent a catastrophe. The slightest break of one’s skin could spell death, and so they work in sealed environments, in full hazmat spacesuits. The threat is contained, but comes within an eyelash of escaping and crashing into the population.
Ebola is one of those things in life to take seriously. Forget royal babies. Ignore the salary disputes of pampered athletes. Forget Wheel of Fortune.
Pay attention to Ebola. Very close attention.
Among the infected, the mortality rate is 90%. Think about that for a moment. If your entire family became infected, chances are that your entire family will die. And soon, and horribly.
The good news is—and this is good news indeed—Ebola is not easily acquired. It isn’t passed on as readily as, say, influenza. The bad news is—and this is goddamn bad news indeed—viruses mutate and evolve a hell of a lot faster than we do. Multiple strains of Ebola have emerged, and more will.
The Hot Zone reads like a novel. An edge-of-your-seat novel, a palpitating, classic nonfiction thriller. Academics might dismiss the tone as unscientific, but they’d be missing the point. No one actually reads science journals, and the few that do would not grasp the gravity of this thing. The many thousands that read The Hot Zone get it. Preston performed a public service, and did so in a thrilling way.
In my novel, Brigands Key, I used the threat of a deadly epidemic as a catalyzing event. The inspiration for that (and the source of more than a little of the requisite research) was The Hot Zone. For that, I owe Preston a debt of gratitude. Some years after I first read his brilliant book, it still haunts me.
And when I hear the words “Ebola outbreak” on CNN, I lean a little closer, and wonder how well stocked our pantry is.
4/9/14: The Pioneer of TV Pathology. Ah, TV forensics shows. A role call, if you please. CSI: Crime Scene Investigators. CSI Miami. CSI Las Vegas. CSI New York. CSI Akron (just kidding). NCIS. Cold Case. Without a Trace. You can’t swing a dead pathologist in Hollywood without crushing its skull against the set of a forensics-focused TV fiction. I recently read a piece comparing these shows against each other, and claiming that CSI: Crime Scene Investigators is the groundbreaking granddaddy of them all, a forward-thinking true original, which introduced us silly rubes to the art and science of forensics in criminal investigation.
I righteously and gleefully call, “Bullshit.”
Decades before CSI coursed through the cable-wires and became a franchising Frankenstein, with big-chinned, glowering, super-serious hemorrhoidal actors mumbling and grimacing their ways through humorless, heavy-handed dialog, there was Quincy, the charming, unassuming, and homely medical examiner played by Jack Klugman. Quincy dissected gnats, strained at molecules, isolated microbes and whatnot, and sent bad guys packing off to prison after everyone else failed. Quincy, M.E. ran from 1976 to 1983, the perfect vehicle for Klugman’s post-Odd Couple days.
Unlike latter-day forensics tight-asses, Dr. Quincy--the clever producers never letting on what his first name was--prowls the city, bumping heads with dimwitted cops, attorneys, and bureaucrats, solving case after case they invariably bungle.
Though many of the storylines were played tongue-in-cheek, Quincy follows his instincts in pursuing this or that tiny shred of forensic evidence, aided by his straight-man pals back at the lab, hindered by his anal-retentive boss and everyone else, reconstructing a murder from nearly invisible hints in the bloodstream or any other component of the human body.
To decompress and brood over troubling clues, Dr. Quincy hangs out and drinks at his favorite bar-and grill, Danny’s. Of course he always takes the departmental fleet vehicle, a creepy black hearse—a meat wagon--and parks it right in front of Danny’s, much to the chagrin of Proprietor Danny.
After a few seasons, the series began to lose its bearing and resorted to tackling “issues”, a bit of a reverse shark-jump. Which would be fine in some shows, but perhaps not the wisest choice in a mystery series built on a foundation of wit and personality. But heck, shark-jumping is a TV traditional bridge (or shark) that must be crossed (or jumped).
I quibble, of course. TV shows sag and suck as the writers reach in order to avoid repeating themselves. That law of diminishing returns doesn’t diminish the fun of the series’ better episodes. So next time someone oohs and ahhs over exaggerated science in the latest forensics whodunit, just smugly say, “Big forensics deal. Dr. Quincy did it first, did it better, and did it funny.”
2/19/14. Unintended Consequences of Fiction. Being a worry-wort by nature, I give considerable thought to the possible consequences of what I write. I realize of course that I’m not responsible for the actions of others, but certainly all writers are responsible to a degree for the thoughts of others. It’s why we write, but I don’t want someone thinking a particularly nasty fictional event is cool enough that he or she might try to replicate it. Words, fictional or not, carry weight and force.
Albert Einstein, the iconic genius of the 20th century, was perhaps as well-known for his outspoken pacifism as his mind-bending theories. Indeed, people revered him for it, because people actually understood what he was talking about then, unlike when he discoursed on the relativity of the cosmos.
He was dismayed upon hearing in 1945 of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, particularly because he knew he had a hand in it.
Concerned over the developments threatening Europe in August, 1939, mere weeks before the German blitzkrieg of Poland, Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard enlisted Einstein to send a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt. Reluctantly, he agreed. The letter explained that recent research demonstrated that the splitting of a uranium atom nucleus could result in a chain reaction, releasing enormous energy. This, in turn, meant unspeakably powerful weapons might soon follow, and that it was imperative that the United States possess such a weapon before Nazi Germany. Indeed, German physicists aggressively pursued research into nuclear fission.
Roosevelt took note, and the top-secret Manhattan Project sprang into existence and barreled ahead, with vast resources thrown into it, all unbeknownst even to Einstein.
Years later, Einstein said that letter was the greatest mistake of his life. The hundreds of thousands of dead in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were the devastating end result of a string of occurrences, the little things that shape the world. One of the connective strings was his letter.
Did this string begin with a tale of fiction?
In 1914, just months before the outbreak of the Great War, H.G. Wells wrote a novel titled The World Set Free. He describes a horrific future war fought with a horrific weapon, a bomb. An atomic bomb. No one had even conceived of this before. Wells—another committed pacifist—illustrated how close to global annihilation technology could and would bring civilization. Reaching the brink, the fictional nations stepped away from it, and the world was set free at last from its destructive bent.
Wells, considering the physics of the day and the slow radiation release of some materials, imagined the rapid forcing of that release. In a work of pure fiction, he envisioned a radioactive bomb which could be induced to explode again and again. And really, apart from the multiple explosions, that’s what a nuclear bomb does, though no one in 1914 had the slightest inkling of nuclear chain reactions.
Until 1933. With Adolf Hitler recently installed as Chancellor, and setting disturbing events loose in the land, the German physicist Dr. Leo Szilard, while waiting for the bus, had an epiphany. The key to a chain reaction lay in finding a radioactive element with enough mass in the nuclei of its atoms to absorb a proton and spit out two protons. The recent discovery of the neutron made this theoretically possible.
Envisioning another world set free, a world of limitless energy resources, Szilard tackled the idea. And it occurred to him the unimaginable destructive power the research could lead to. Szilard worried over the thought of Hitler coming into ownership of such technology.
Here’s the confounding part. Szilard had read Wells’ novel in 1932, a scant year before he envisioned nuclear chain reactions, and was greatly impressed by the novel’s scope and hope for a better future. Yet he later stated the novel had not influenced his science and work. It was, after all, fiction.
But did it? Or, more to the point, how could it not?
Words have great power to move and inspire, to crush and devastate. The written word worms its way deep into the brain. Certainly, Wells’ notion of the atomic bomb had nested in Szilard’s brain.
Wells died in 1946, one year after The Bomb exploded over Japan and exploded into the collective psyche of the species. Did he suspect that his fictional invention may have kick-started the actual weapon? I don’t know; I rather hope he didn’t. That sort of thing on his conscience would have killed him.
Maybe it did.
1/21/14: Poe's Prose. The top award in mystery fiction is without doubt the Edgar Allen Poe Award, more commonly known as the Edgar. Readers scan bookshelves for Edgars. Publishers trumpet the acquisition of Edgars. Mystery writers have been known to sell their firstborn, or occasionally a testicle, for an Edgar. So why is this most coveted of mystery awards named for an author who was not really even a mystery writer? Poe wrote prose and poetry definitely on the macabre side, and would today undoubtedly be labeled a horror writer.
Poe gets to be the Father of the Mystery for a scant three short stories featuring the archetypical, unofficial detective, Monsieur C. Auguste Dupin. Dupin loves analysis and puzzles, and systematically breaks down insoluble mysteries through his coldly analytical approach.
The first of these stories, “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” also introduces another mystery story staple, the “locked room” mystery. Horrible murder, upper floor apartment, locked room…no suspects. No answers. Yet Dupin quickly deduces the impossible: the grisly murders, it turns out, were committed by an angry, bloodthirsty orangutan, escaped and on the loose in downtown Paris. Spoiler alert! Damn it. Too late. Note to self: spoiler alert goes before spoiler.
A toothy, dismembering ape? That’s what you’d expect from Poe! Almost every modern mystery writer would have plugged in a cunning human villain, and avoided at all costs a borderline horror element. Any honest editor today will tell you he or she would have rejected this story immediately. It doesn’t fit what the genre has become.
Poe’s successors weren’t quite so finicky. Arthur Conan Doyle readily acknowledged that the inspiration for the great Sherlock Holmes was Dupin, and the parallels to Dupin that Agatha Christie draws with Hercule Poirot are glaring. Certainly, from those two sprang the genre as we know it today.
In short, then, Poe invented the mystery genre, went back to other things, and left its evolution to others. Horror--or “Gothic” in the proper parlance of his day—was his bread-and-butter, his go-to play, but he refused to be limited by that, or any other, approach. Unbound by rules and labels, he gave the Gothic tale a major contraction, and birthed a whole new genre in so doing. To wit, he also flirted with themes that might later be termed science fiction in his an all-hands-on-deck adventure tale, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (which greatly influenced Jules Verne, aka Father of Science Fiction).
The great lessons from Poe becoming the Gothic Father of the Mystery are these: writers, don’t be afraid to veer out of bounds once in awhile. Readers, don’t limit your tastes in literature…I know you don’t watch just one movie genre. Publishers, quit pigeonholing readers and writers into neat little boxes. We aren’t neat by nature.
1/6/14: Alfie's Anthologies. Overlapping fictional genres fascinate me. I get bored when I read too much in any given clearly-defined genre for a while, so those works of fiction (and even nonfiction) that spill sloppily over boundaries hold a special appeal.
As a teen, I stumbled happily onto an Alfred Hitchcock anthology of short stories. Can’t remember which one, because I read a number of them. Now Alfie didn’t write these stories, of course, and I suspect that the great, twisted director was involved only peripherally in the selection and editing. He possibly only lent his name to the projects.
The anthologies centered on straightforward mystery fare. You’d have your classic whodunit, then maybe a humorous piece told from the criminal’s point of view, and then—wham! You’d read something totally unexpected, something outside the mystery genre.
In 14 of My Favorites in Suspense (1960), Alfie surprises with “The Birds” (1952), by Daphne Du Maurier. In the English province of Cornwall, inexplicably, birds turn on the local residents. Ferociously and lethally. The story ends without clear resolution, leaving you to wonder if the story is over, or if civilization is about to crumble. Published originally in 1952, Alfie adapted the novelette to film in 1963. In one fabulous scene, Tippi Hedren sits nervously outside the schoolhouse while children sing, the birds gathering unseen behind her. Eye-peckingly good stuff.
Similarly, in 14, you come across “They Bite” (1943), by Anthony Boucher. Straight-up horror story, and quite a good one. Nasty critters in the American desert, barely visible because they’re so damned quick, harangue the unbelievers.
More Stories for Late at Night gives us two that straddle the line between science fiction and horror, Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life” (and indeed was adapted to the small screen The Twilight Zone series in 1961, and later in 1983 in the The Twilight Zone movie), and the scary classic novelette “The Fly” (1957). When I was but a wee shaver glued to the TV, the tiny fly with the human head squeaking “Help meeeee…” as the spider approached, was trouser-soiling scary.
Hitchcock got it, in other words. He understood that the goal was suspense, not labels.
12/9/13: The Death Rattle of Bertillonage. The great dirty secret of measurement is this: there is ALWAYS error in measurement. Always. Surely, you snipe back, measuring can be an exact science. And you’d be wrong. But, you argue, if 2 + 2 = 4 is demonstrably correct, ergo, 2” + 2” = 4”. Yes, that is correct. Pat yourself on the back. But that’s not measurement. That’s math. Math can be exact. Measurement cannot. Trust me when I tell you you cannot measure 4” with absolute accuracy. There is ALWAYS error.
And so the flaws with any system of measurement will eventually appear.
Bertillonage grew in success and popularity among crime-fighters of the late 19th century, but then the 20th century rolled around, as it always does, and flaws started to show up in the system. Lo, you couldn’t count on two different people to take measurements of the same person in the same way. Human error, laziness, instrument differences, bad eyesight, bad attitude, whatever. Persons began to come up with inconsistent measurements.
Still, it was a pretty good, well-thought out system. Certainly it had some validity.
But in 1903, Bertillonage suffered a metaphorical kick in the nuts.
In Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas, an inmate named Will West was imprisoned. West was photographed, measured, given the whole Bertillon anthropometric going over. Wait, said the guard types, we already have this cat in prison here. And surely enough, they trotted out another inmate, eerily named William West. The two looked just alike and had the same measurements. But they both swore they didn’t know each other and were most definitely not related.
At this point, fingerprints were taken of each, and were shown to be distinctively different and easily identifiable.
Bertillonage, for all intensive porpoises, died then and there. Fingerprinting was the new star.
The weird part is, much later, in 1980, it was discovered that the two actually were identical twins, and possibly unaware of each other’s existence. So that's vindication of sorts for Bertillonage.
11/16/13: Bertillonage, the Foolproof Perp ID. In 1882, low-level French policeman Alphonse Bertillon, twirling his mustache in classic French fashion, introduced his system of “anthropometrics” into law enforcement. Bertillon’s epiphany was that all persons could, without fail, be reliably identified through an exhaustive measuring of physical characteristics. Once a person was arrested, the idea went, he or she would be photographed and measured in finest detail…arms, legs, eyes, ears, nose, pretty much everything. Bertillon asserted that the odds against any person matching the same dimensions as any other person were 286 million to one. How he arrived at that number is anyone’s guess, although it sounds rather like a number he pulled out of his ass. Recidivism, as Raising Arizona fans will tell you, is one bonehead word, and would be dealt a crushing blow by the dispassionate hand of science. Or almost-science.
To be fair, Bertillon’s method (aka, Bertillonage, of course) is partly still in use today, in the form of mugshots, height, weight, and other basics. And its successor was fingerprinting, which indeed Bertillon improved upon with his famous 16-ridge characteristics. Crime-scene photography was also a coup for him (I’m still waiting for a 19th-century CSI Paris…a much cooler idea than the current menu of TV criminologists). Furthermore, Bertillon pioneered techniques such as making molds of footprints and whatnot. He deserves credit for steering police work away from spur of the moment perpetrator identification, which was more commonly based on emotion and bias than anything else.
Bertillon was riding high when his method nabbed a thief named DuPont with the same anthropomorphic measurements as another crook named Martin, and DuPont ultimately confessed to being Martin. Okay, French accents now, everyone: Voila! J’accuse! Haw haw haw!
And then came the Will and William West case…more on that later.
11/8/13: The Scotland Yard Murder. Ironically, when the decision came to move Scotland Yard from 4 Whitehall Place to the Victoria Embankment, also in Whitehall, it coincided with one of the great unsolved mysteries of London.
In 1888, as construction got underway on the new Scotland Yard HQ building, laborers discovered a bundle that contained the dismembered corpse of a woman on the site. Completely dismembered, including the head, so that all that remained was a torso. This ran concurrent with the horrific serial killings in the Whitechapel district by the monster popularly known as Jack the Ripper. The police expressed confidence, however, that the Whitehall murder was unrelated to the Ripper killings.
Me, I’m not so sure, not being a big believer in coincidence (although coincidences do coincidentally happen). London has always (compared to the appallingly bloodthirsty United States) had an astonishingly low rate of violent crime. Then suddenly murders of the most gruesome nature happen The Ripper spree ran from August through November of 1888. The Whitehall murder happened in October. There were key differences…the five “classic” Ripper killings all fell within the impoverished Whitechapel area. Heck, that’s only three miles from the scene of the Whitehall killing (or at least from the location of the remains). Granted, three miles in 1888 is a lot farther than three miles now, but it’s not like it was on the other side of town, or Timbuktu, or changing planes and getting cavity-searched in Atlanta. Londoners routinely walked miles through town every day.
Could it have been the work of a copycat killer? Those psychos skulk about out there too. But if it was, that’s not exactly unrelated, is it? It’s directly related, just not done by the same perp. Still, my instincts and extensive knowledge of such things (derived and cultivated through thousands of hours of TV and movies) tell me the Ripper was responsible for both his (or her) classic five murders, plus the Whitehall murder, and probably more. The differences could be explained that he (or she) was branching out from his (or her) usual killing grounds, and varied also in his (or her) techniques, the stylized ritual seemingly absent in this one.
No one will ever truly solve either the Ripper or the Scotland Yard murder (barring time-travel technology), but this has never discouraged persons from making a buck by doing so. I understand that the identity of Jack the Ripper has been proved beyond a reasonable doubt to be over five-hundred suspects.
For shits and giggles and tormented dreams, see the short story “The Wreck of the Edinburgh Kate” for my take on the end of the Ripper’s reign of terror.
10/29/13: The Yard. London’s Metropolitan Police Service invokes legend in the collective mind, wholly springing from the unlikely and unofficial name given it, Scotland Yard. “The Yard” as it’s commonly referred to by the hippest law enforcement types, apparently is quite mobile. From its creation in 1829, the actual address was 4 Whitehall Place. The back entrance was off a not-so-great street called Great Scotland Yard. In 1890, the growing administration moved to a new building on Victoria Embankment, and took on the name “New Scotland Yard.” In 1967, the administration moved again to Broadway to produce lavish show musicals. Just kidding. Not the one in New York.
It didn’t take long for the unofficial name to become THE name, and big signs still make that abundantly clear. The Brits aren’t stupid (about most things, but black pudding comes to mind). There are tourist dollars to think about. No one visits London and makes a side trip from the Tower of London to a dull building with the dull name “Metropolitan Police Service” dully announcing it. Many would love to visit “The Yard” and imagine Sherlock Holmes outwitting dull-witted yet tenacious Inspector Lestrade, the most famous Yard Man who never lived. By the way, the London police employ a data management system called Home Office Large Major Enquiry System…or HOLMES. You have to admire the greedy stretch for that somewhat redundant (“Large Major?”) acronym.
And “The Yard” is moving again. In 2013, it began relocating back to the Victoria Embankment, albeit to a different building. Not exactly as impressive a building as the first two, but hey, it’s got the name.
10/23/13: What's in a Name? Part 5: Stool Pigeon. Ah, the beloved mystery fiction archetype, the stool pigeon. You know this guy in the movie the minute you see him. He’s the smallish, wormy, shifty guy you immediately dislike. Usually is in the act of drinking. Always in the act of making smart-alecky remarks. Probably wearing that little cap that makes you dislike him even more. He's the police informant. He’s the stoolie.
How he got that label is a little unclear. There was a 1915 Lon Chaney-directed British crime movie, The Stool Pigeon, about, well, a stool pigeon. So we know the term is at least that old. The movie no longer exists, sadly. And in 1851, there was an American newspaper reference to spies and stool pigeons, describing the latter as informants. An earlier published reference (1815) seemed to connect the term to criminals, though not necessarily informants.
Apparently, the metaphorical stool pigeon derives from actual stool pigeons. Hunters used dead, or sometimes live, birds attached to “stools” (probably stumps) as decoys to attract other birds. The trick worked excessively well in the wholesale slaughter of the passenger pigeon, a glorious, beautiful bird that once filled American skies by the millions, before being hunted to extinction. But that’s another story, and a very disheartening one.
Somewhere along the line, someone made that linguistic connection between a bird used to catch and kill other birds to a crook who would rat out (wait, that’s a rodent) other crooks. He’d sing like a canary. Darn it. I was trying to keep this simple.
10/21/13: What's in a Name? Part 4: Bobby. The somewhat less than intimidating nickname of London’s finest, “bobbies”, dates back to the early days of the formation of the police force as a professional organization. One has to assume that before they became “professional” they must have been—essentially—poorly trained goon squads.
Anyway, Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel pushed for and got the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829, creating the police force. The force headquartered at 4 Whitehall Place, with a back entrance on an obscure street named Great Scotland Yard, which didn’t have a yard and wasn’t in Scotland, but those are minor details. Peel demanded accountability and responsibility of his men, who soon came to be known as “Peelers” or “bobbies.” Issued badges, they were schooled in “Peelian Principles” of accountability and ethics, as well as skilled police work.
Got to admit, Sir Robert was ahead of his time. Police forces the world over have often gone unregulated and uncontrollable. Bobbies didn’t carry weapons until 1994, and even then only a handful did. The vast majority still carry no weapons, but could probably issue seriously painful head-butts with those funny domed hats.
10/18/13: What's in a Name? Part 3: Cop. "Cop", as we all know, is short for "copper," the name applied for close to two centuries to policemen, and originating in London. Slang for policemen well known for the shiny copper buttons on their uniforms, right?
That's the common explanation, and woefully inaccurate. "Cop" is indeed short for "copper," but has nothing to do with utilitarian clothing fasteners. Jeez. No, etymologists tell us, "copper" was in fact derived from the shorter form "cop," and not the other way around. The word dates to the early 1700s and means "capture" or "seize." "Capture" most likely evolved from the French caper, which arose from the earlier Latin word capere. The meaning has remained the same from the Latin, to seize or capture. So London police going around nabbing and copping mischief-makers became coppers, and later, cops.
It wasn't always applied with admiration, and sometimes was a pejorative for the police. Over time, the label gained respect. Like three other things John Huston claims get respect with age in Chinatown.
10/10/13: What's in a Name? Part 2: Gumshoe. I've always loved the slang term "gumshoe" for a private detective. The image it invokes of the cynical, wisecracking detective, alone in the shadowy street, standing watch on some creep's dingy hotel room, gum sticking to his shoe, just fits to perfection.
Turns out my assumption for the origin of "gumshoe" is wrong, as are most of my assumptions. In reality, many shoes manufactured in the late 19th century were made from gum rubber. These babies, like the tennis shoes and sneakers of later years were rubber-soled "gumshoes", ideal for skulking quietly about. So they were loved by skulk-happy private detectives. Also, it seems that "gumshoe" was slang for "thief" before it was applied to detectives. Come to think of it, "sneaker" probably came about because these things are good for sneaking, and generally enabling criminal behavior.
Good stuff. Not as good as a wad of chewed gum stuck to Philip Marlowe's heel as he waits and watches all night in a cold drizzle, but whatever.
10/4/13: What’s in a Name? Part 1: Shamus. Labels applied to law enforcement types abound in literature. Many, like “cop”, are in common use and feed the language with ever-expanding meanings (cop out, cop a plea, cop a feel...heh heh…). Others, like “shamus” seem to have fallen out of favor.
And that’s unfortunate. Shamus is such a cool word. It was routinely applied to private detectives in the 1950s in movies and fiction. But how the heck did it ever come about? Why, you ask, is a shamus a private eye?
Near as I can tell from my research, the origins are iffy, but here’s the most likely answer.
Shamus is a variation on Seamus, a typical Irish male name. Both are pronounced the same (but with the Irish, who can really tell?). Shamus—or Seamus—is the Gaelic derivative of the ancient Hebrew name, James. The name means “supplanter.” Good thing they decided to stick with Shamus, or James. It’d sound just stupid to be called Supplanter Jones.
Now, everyone is familiar with the stereotypical Irish immigrant policeman of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, and other great American cities. It’s a stereotype because it was real. Police forces heavily filled openings with Irishmen eager for work in the 19th century and early 20th century. So much so, that the nickname for a cop became “shamus.”
Early on, it was understood that a shamus was a policemen. Gradually, it came to mean a police detective, and for some reason, evolved into the common understanding that it referred to a private detective by the 1950s.
9/24/13: Banned Books Week! It's that time of year again, the American Library Association's BANNED BOOKS WEEK, in which we celebrate those works of literature that are good enough to piss people off and get banned.
I give a writers' workshop, on writing from the characters' viewpoints, on occasion, and it occurs to me that a good number of the books I use for examples have been banned at some time or another, so I thought I'd list 'em here:
Dracula, by Bram Stoker; Night, by Elie Wiesel; 'Salems Lot, by Stephen King; Sherlock Holmes, by Arthur Conan Doyle; Johnny Got His Gun, by Dalton Trumbo; The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood; The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett; and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt. Good work, people!
9/7/13: SF vs. ST Throwdown! Of the many thriller subgenres, if you put a gun to my head and forced me to label the lion’s share of what I write, I’d say, “Science thriller. Please don’t kill me.” And no, I don’t like that label, but it does come closest to being accurate. And after all, you had a gun to my head.
So if a thriller is fiction (it usually is, but not always), and it’s got science crammed into it, what, you demand, is the difference between that and science fiction?
Not much, really, and there’s certainly overlap. There are science fiction novels that are thrilling, such as…well, such as…okay, I can’t think of any because you’ve put the gun away, but surely there must be some. In a nutshell, the science thriller usually takes place in the current day (although some are set squarely in the past), and use contemporary cutting edge science as the gimmick to cut to the chase.
Science fiction, on the other hand, hangs its hat on science, or an alternate reality.
One could easily call H.G. Wells’s science fiction classics, The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Invisible Man science thrillers. They used the cutting edge (literally, in the case of Moreau) science of the day to frame the story. Okay, maybe not in The Invisible Man… we’re still not close to achieving invisibility, but at least we understand the physics of light a lot better now. But both novels built the suspense around the science. Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and A Journey to the Center of the Earth, if written today, might rightly be labeled science thrillers, rather than science fiction, whereas From the Earth to the Moon would be science fiction.
I think, anyway. The difference is more or less one of those “you know it when you see it” things.
8/12/13: The Play's the Thing. As I mentioned in the earlier Grand Guignol post, live theater has this image (or stigma, even) of being all talk and no action. It’s not an undeserved observation; it’s exceedingly rare to see a live theatrical performance which veers from chattiness to physical, demanding action.
It wasn’t always so. William Shakespeare, that greatest of playwrights, was unabashed about putting his characters in situations of danger. Shakespeare was of course pragmatic. He earned his pay at this, and there were no violent television shows or movies for the masses. He had to put asses in the seats. The asses of the masses. The masses actually went to see Shakespeare. Envy them.
Some years back, I went to a theater-in-the-park performance of Macbeth. The show started and I saw that there were plenty of empty seats in the front row, so I moved up.
Wow. The scene arrives for the final confrontation between scheming, climbing Macbeth and his enemy, Macduff. The threats spiral and Macbeth at last shouts “Before my body I throw my warlike shield. Lay on, Macduff, and damn’d be him that first cries, “Hold, enough!” And they hurl themselves into the fight.
Now I’ve seen plenty of period piece fights in film, lots of swordfights, garrotings, stabbings, beheadings, maulings, maimings, face-eatings, and other rambunctious behaviors. But you know even as you witness the spurting blood, it can't wet you. You have a comforting layer of unreality between you and all the mayhem. It’s film.
With Macbeth and Macduff literally right over me, that layer is stripped away. These guys are using real steel swords (not Christmas wrapping paper tubes), and they are swinging with abandon, the steel clanging and sparking, sweat flying. Makes me flinch, again and again.
It is breathtaking.
So color me confused as to why modern playwrights shy away from this kind of thing. Do they fear not being taken seriously? Do they think Shakespeare was worried about that? Is Shakespeare such rotten company to keep?
8/10/13: The Thriller Ghetto. Okay, I write thrillers. I read thrillers. I’m a member of International Thriller Writers. You’ll find my stuff in the thriller lists in Amazon. But I’m not fond of labels in general and I’m not that enthusiastic about the term “thriller” in particular to describe the genre. It makes it sound like a lurid pulp novel of the ‘30s or 40s (or the pulps’ progenitor, the penny dreadful of the 19th century). The kind of book with cover art featuring a leering fiend clutching a buxom Caucasian beauty.
Then there’s that overblown Michael Jackson song and John Landis video…must we be forever branded with that? And did Landis ever direct anything that wasn’t overblown?
I suspect the term was first applied by a literary critic in full sphincter-clench, in order to satisfy that urge to label everything and thereby make his or her job a bit easier. Shorthand, you know.
Of course, I’m not sure what term I’d recommend for my work. Let me float a few…
“Action.” This suggests a male-oriented shoot-‘em-up with mannequins in lieu of characters, and it sure as hell isn’t specific. It also suffers from the Hollywood devolution into “action” films so over-the-top they’re not remotely believable.
“Adventure.” Now there’s a term I like, and it still retains a shred of literary respect, invoking Moby Dick, Two Years Before the Mast, White Fang, Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, and Heart of Darkness. Good company to keep.
“Action/Adventure.” Just couldn’t stop at either “action” or “adventure,” could you? Had to do a mashup and insert the slash. In virtual protest, I’m impaling/goring my soul/self on my sword/machete/pen/laptop. Seriously, who talks like that?
“Techno-thriller.” A bastard term if there ever was one, and I shudder when I realize that someone is going to eventually slap that label on my work. Can we possibly make a genre sound any more soulless? And then there are medical thriller, science thriller, spy thriller, legal thriller, military thriller, political thriller, and on and on.
“Suspense.” Not bad. Not bad at all. But it has already been appropriated by mystery writers that throw a few more corpses into the mix than do their more timid brethren. And suspense is being subdivided into romantic suspense
“Mystery.” Very broad genre, with more specific sub-genres such as detective, cozy (I want to nap just hearing that term), police procedural (even worse), hardboiled (which suggests there must be a softboiled option out there, a lily-livered yin to Sam Spade’s bare-knuckled and hairy-chested yang).
There is even a cat detective genre.
“Crime fiction.” This trendy label bugs me in particular. Suddenly, every mystery out there is “crime fiction.” J.K. Rowling wrote a new mystery? No! It’s crime fiction. As if the mystery story ever involved something other than crime.
Now, before fans of any of these genres gather in the square below my ivory tower, pitchforks, nooses, and torches in hand, let me hastily point out that it’s not the writing in these genres that bothers me. I’ve read and continue to read in all of them, and I may dabble in writing them. My issue is with labels. We feel compelled to label everything and pretend that the label defines it.
Fiction shouldn’t be bound by labels. If the story is helped, the writer should be free to borrow from any genre, including mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, horror, and any of their ever-growing subdivisions. Overlap is a good thing, and keeps literature alive and well and evolving.
8/4/13: Fall of the Cat. Perhaps the real life cat burglar that seemed to come closest to the idealized cat burglar of the movies is John (Jack) MacLean. As it turns out, he falls far short, too.
MacLean, armed with his good looks and an IQ in the 160 range, became an expert in all sorts of high-tech security gadgetry in the 1970s in South Florida. He generally had better, smarter equipment than the police, and could get through and around most any security system, and was so successful he could live an extravagant lifestyle. In his memoir, Secrets of a Superthief, he claims to have stolen $133 million, and it’s likely that’s not much of an exaggeration. Dude had expensive homes, cars, boats...even his own helicopter.
But again, real criminals aren’t Cary Grant. MacLean was suspected of being much more than a dashing cat burglar, and indeed, in 2010 investigations into cold cases, DNA evidence linked him to three rapes in 1976. He is suspected now in rapes numbering in the hundreds.
He left that out of his book. Serial rape doesn’t fit the renegade folk hero image he so cultivated and enjoyed.
7/30/13: Go, Cat, Go! Let’s be honest. Most criminals are violent and stupid. It’s bad that they’re violent, good that they’re stupid. Only in film and literature are they popularized as something better, and of all these lovable, fictional rogues, the cat burglar seems to occupy the highest caste.
Used to anyways. Back in the 1950s and 60s, the cat burglar was the criminal of choice, but has fallen out of favor in more recent decades. Later audiences preferred that dispensed mayhem and splatter and snappy one-liners. But the classic cat burglar, like Cary Grant in To Catch a Thief (1955), was the essence of cool. The fictional cat was suave, articulate, dashingly handsome, and somewhat noble (unlike real cat burglars). Okay, David Niven played his share of cat burglars (unless I’m imagining this, which isn’t beyond the realm of possibility), and yeah, he was impeccably dressed, and suave beyond words. But pretty wormy-looking. Seriously, how was he ever cast as a sex symbol?
A cat burglar could shimmy up any wall in Paris like nobody’s business, unlike real cats. Maybe they should be instead termed “monkey burglars.” And if burglary is a “gateway crime,” perhaps the killer ape in Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” actually began as a monkey burglar. But I digress.
The movie cat burglar would liberate the snobbish elite from their diamonds (usually the world’s largest diamond—there were lots of them lying around). And usually Mr. Suave Cat Burglar would meet his match in thievery (and love) in an outlandishly sexy, snake-hipped lady cat burglar, in black tights. It was a great time to be a master criminal.
You could count on a few things: there was no lock the cat could not pick. Kicking in a door or smashing a window was right out, the very thought being abhorrent and barbaric to the cat. “Home invasion” meant slipping in and out, quiet as a shadow. Or a cat. Or a cat’s shadow. That’s how quiet they were.
I don’t think I ever saw one carrying a weapon. They were there to skillfully nick, filch, lift and pilfer, not bash and trash, or even cause unnecessary fretting. As they grew more sophisticated, though, they brought in high-tech gadgetry to get past lasers, poison darts, rabid Doberman pinschers, and sharks with frickin’ lasers.
7/25/13: Theater of Fear. Movie-goers today have this view that the live stage is the bastion of sedate, talky productions, with little or no action. And certainly no venue for gruesomeness. To a large degree, that view is correct of contemporary theater. But from the close of the 19th century to the mid-20th century, the stage--or at least, one stage--far exceeded movies in the depiction of blood, guts, and depravity. Le Theatre du Grand-Guignol, a small playhouse in Paris, may have even exceeded the goriest of movie productions of today.
Grand Guignol (pronounced Grahn geen yol, sort of, with a nasal French twist) gripped audiences. The theater's name translates to “Theater of the Big Puppet.” But this was no puppet show, unless the audience members were to be considered the puppets. The theater owners hit upon the idea in 1897 of offering “naturalism”, a high-sounding excuse to shock the crap out of patrons, and bring ‘em screaming back for more. Throat-slashings, eye-gougings, rape, decapitations…nothing was off-limits or out-of-bounds. Likely as not, the horrible goings-on escaped punishment.
Fainting and vomiting in the audience was a common occurrence, as grim stories were performed with horrifyingly graphic and realistic scenes. The theater closed in 1962, but the term lives on, and the content moved into splatter films of little value. For a little taste, Time Magazine ran some photos of the Grand Guignol back in its heyday.
7/21/13: That Most Desirable Whatever: Another plot device, considerably less well known than the red herring, is the MacGuffin. The origins of the term are vague, but probably sprang up as insider jargon in 1930s Hollywood, although the idea has been around a long time. It was popularized by Alfred Hitchcock in his discussions about movies. A bit hard to spot sometimes, but the MacGuffin is an object of desire that a plot is built around. The object is seemingly of the utmost importance but may actually be unimportant in itself. Imagine Frodo venturing into Mordor, bearing not the One Ring, but the One Pastrami Sandwich, which legend holds has the power to rule over all pastrami sandwiches. The ring could be anything, when you think about it. Of course, Samwise would have eaten the sandwich before they even left the Shire, so a ring perhaps makes more sense.
The quintessential MacGuffin, to me, is the Maltese Falcon. Murder, thievery, double-crossing, punk-slapping, and sex all revolve around the efforts to possess the fabled black bird. Once finally possessed and revealed, it turns out to be not that important after all. Yet it immediately inspires the characters, undaunted, to embark on yet another obsessive quest.
7/20/13: Thrown Off? Not so Fast. Okay, so we understand the red herring misdirection. What if it turns out that the red herring wasn’t a red herring after all? Just made to look that way, to cover up his or her or its guilt and complicity all along? It's the reverse red herring, and some clever writers can pull this off convincingly, casting the harsh light of suspicion onto Creepy Guy then shifting the focus onto Clean Bill as evidence begins to clear one and condemn the other. But lo! Turns out Creepy Guy was guilty all along, and we had good reason to suspect the bastard.
Heck, why stop there? A really skilled writer could do the double-reverse red herring. First Creepy Guy, then Clean Bill, then Creepy Guy again, and then back to Clean Bill, or some other character, maybe Sweet Sue. Now my brain hurts.
By the way, it occurs to me that “The Red Herring” would be a great name for a super-villain.
7/19/13: Thrown Off! One of the oddest terms in mystery and suspense literature is “red herring.” Everyone knows what it is, a misdirection or false clue intended to throw the reader off or send them off on a wild goose chase (another odd term). Few fans give the term much thought. Of course, a literal red herring thrown into any situation—say, asking for mint chocolate chip ice cream and being served an oily crimson fish instead—would certainly sidetrack the usual course of things. Imagine the disappointment of the little children! So perhaps it makes some sense in that way (I’m also reminded of Monty Python’s Knights Who Say Ni, demanding that King Arthur chop down the mightiest tree in the forest with a herring).
The herring itself is not naturally red, but is a silvery thing. Red herring, or kipper, refers to the fish when it’s cured and smoked, and the flesh turns a gorgeous red. So yeah, it’s a real thing.
The commonest explanation of “red herring” as a plot device is that it dates back to English fox-hunting days of yore, and a smelly red herring could be used to throw the hounds off track. Aha! Now we see the connection! Too bad the story is apocryphal (or bullshit). Apparently, that practice has never been a part of fox-hunting. No, the connection as we know it most probably can be traced to the fiery writings of William Cobbett in 1807. Cobbett wrote that he’d once used a red herring to throw dogs off the scent of a hare, much like his peers in the contemporary press had been thrown off course by wrongly reporting the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte. Scooping the journalistic competition has always been a problem, apparently. Cobbett grew fond of his turn of phrase and began using it repeatedly, so much so that the public adopted it as the common meaning of a misleading or false clue.
7/17/13: Smile Real Pretty. Ah, yes, the Joker and his smile. The old Batman comics state that the Joker’s endless grin was affixed by strychnine, and that he would craft the same hideous grin onto his victims by administering toxins.
There’s a name for the Joker’s condition, and it’s a real thing: risus sardonicus.
“Sardonic” is defined by Merriam-Webster’s as “disdainfully or skeptically humorous” and “derisively mocking.” The word probably has roots in ancient Sardinia, where a hemlock was used as a neurotoxin for ritual killings in the days before the Romans.
So you get an idea of the affliction of risus sardonicus. The facial muscles contract into a perpetual, malevolent grin. Tetanus—the dreaded lockjaw—is the usual cause.
The condition was the basis of Ray Russell’s 1961 short story, “Sardonicus”. It’s a creepy yet elegant story in which a rich baron (or something) robs his own father’s grave, and his facial muscles lock as terror overwhelms him.
Mr. Sardonicus, the film adaptation of the story, appeared also in 1961. I swear, I don’t understand why Hollywood producers so often change great fiction titles to worse movie titles. An ego thing, I guess; they think they can do better. I’ve never seen the flick, but from what I gather, they did not.
7/14/13: Lights! Camera! Action! Strychnine! The last of the Big Three of literary poisons is strychnine. And it’s the most visual of them all. The victim of strychnine poisoning undergoes quite a grotesque physical episode. The poison is a neurotoxin that goes after motor nerves that control muscular and spinal function. The result is uncontrollable muscle contractions fifteen minutes to a half-hour after a lethal dose. The victim twists and arches and convulses agonizingly as the muscles lock up.
Hollywood, of course, puts every poisoning victim through similar reactions, and usually instantly, no matter the source of the poisoning. I guess they can’t have everyone sitting around waiting a half-hour while the stuff kicks in, and furthermore can’t do something as un-cinematic as simply expiring quietly and without histrionics.
By the way, the permanent unchanging grimace/smile of the Joker, in the original Batman lore, is attributed to the contracted musculature caused by strychnine poisoning from a failed suicide attempt.
7/12/13: That Cyanide Smell. Back to the almond odor. In Guns, Germs & Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond discusses how we made the jump from hunter-gatherer societies to agrarian societies, using almonds as an example.
In the wild, the almond is an extremely bitter, even lethally poisonous nut, due to the chemical amygdalin. In their own arms race against the animals that eat them, many plant species around the world have evolved bitter taste or toxicity as a deterrent. However, as all species incur random gene mutations, wild almond trees were bound to produce an individual now and then that had the mutation that prevents it from synthesizing amygdalin. These individuals are quickly culled from the wild because animals and birds then consume the edible seeds.
When a human society stumbled upon a mutated edible almond, they likely collected and planted them, passing on to future generations of the plant this lack of amygdalin. Hence, an inedible, poisonous plant becomes a favored food source.
Amygdalin, of course, breaks down into cyanide. Hence, the famous literary “bitter almond smell” associated with the poison. We'll know we'll have taken a wrong turn as a culture when we start referring to almonds as having "that cyanide smell."
7/11/13: Number Two on the Poison Big Three: We already talked about arsenic. The second of the classic poisons of literature is cyanide. This seems to be the toxin of choice of spy novels and anything involving Nazis. What self-respecting spy doesn’t have a cyanide capsule embedded in his or her tooth in case he or she is captured?
Anyway, cyanide is the one associated with a bitter odor of almonds. In fiction, death is almost always instantaneous upon ingestion (or injection, or absorption, or inhalation, or rectal insertion…name your poison). In reality, only gassing is immediate, and that’s for unconsciousness, not death. Death takes longer, maybe one to fifteen minutes for inhalation. If a lethal dose is ingested in the movies, you keel over dead. If ingested in real life (or real death, as it were), death takes up to twenty minutes.
Antidotes must be administered within thirty minutes. That’s barely enough time to rummage through the medicine cabinet, looking for the bottle labeled “cyanide antidote”, believe me. And then you have to read the label carefully, because the antidote is also poisonous. That’s just wrong.
7/10/13: Pulp to Paperback: During the heyday of the penny dreadful in England, a competitor sprang up in the “yellow-back.” No, it was neither a racist epithet nor a superhero; it was in fact an early form of the paperback, as early as the 1840s. These inexpensive books foresaw the marketing of the next century, and publishers focused on the railway passenger, much like publishers later focused on airline passengers.
The books were successful, but the modern paperback really got going in 20th century Germany. The Germans fiddled with the form, and in 1931, Albatross Books became the first producer of what became known as the mass-market paperback. Britain’s Penguin Books followed in 1935, and in 1939, Pocketbooks in America. Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth was the first American paperback.
The paperback really was bound for success (pun intended). It opened book-buying to the masses, who otherwise probably had to wait for books at the library.
The eventual demise of the tawdry pulp novels paved the rapid way for paperback genre fiction. Readers had a taste and wanted more. And they got more, with a higher standard of writing. Genre fiction flourished in paperback, and no longer were paperbacks just reprints of earlier hardcovers. Paperback originals became common.
The paperback was (and is) truly democratic. I suspect most voracious readers, like myself, acquired their appetites through paperbacks. As a kid, I simply didn’t have the money to buy a hardback, and neither did any other kids I knew. It was paperback or nothing. Even then, it was mostly secondhand paperbacks for me, but I did save my nickels to buy brand new copies of my favorites. To this day, nothing feels quite as natural for reading as a worn copy of a good paperback. My only issue with the format is internal; my eyes get crummier but the type size doesn’t change, and many paperbacks are notoriously small-fonted (is that a word?)
But don’t let me catch you bending the cover all the way around to the back. I’ll smack you if I see that. I will.
7/8/13: Beaten to a Pulp: In 1896, enterprising publisher Frank Munsey hit upon the idea of quick, cheap production of mass market fiction relying on cheap writers and cheap paper, or “pulp.” He converted his magazine Argosy to the new format he envisioned, and the pulp magazine era was launched. In a handful of years, circulation spiraled from a few thousand to a half-million. Later pulp publishers eclipsed that by far, some issues each selling over a million copies every time out.
The market grew and so did the scope. By the 1930s, pulps had spread into genre magazines, and pretty much defined the genres as we know them today. Virtually everything had a representative magazine: adventure, crime, horror, western, science fiction, sports, war, romance, and tons of what can only be called erotica. Stories were plot-driven. You wanted characters with great emotional depth? You got the wrong room. If you wanted characters that leered and slurped and slouched and carried your girlfriend off, then the pulps were for you.
Although a lot of the writing was bad, some talented authors found it to their liking, as they could now make a decent living at it, and so-so authors were able to hone their craft and eventually blossom into so-so-so authors.
Okay, there’s no point in beating around the 800-pound white elephant in the bush. What the pulps are most remembered for are the sensational, often lurid covers. They were never going to be confused with fine art, and some were hideous. But by and large, they were huge improvements over the earlier dime novel illustrations, which were most usually quite laughable (I found one dime novel cover with a guy looking over his shoulder at trouble on the way…his head was turned a full 180 degrees, like some sort of freakish human owl). Some of the better pulp covers demonstrate excellent composition and detail. And large-breasted women.
A look at the pulp covers…
7/4/13: Brother, can you spare a dime? Some years after the advent (or onslaught, detractors might say) of Britain’s penny dreadfuls, the American counterpart, dime novels, came into being. A pair of enterprising publishers, the Beadle brothers, Irwin and Erastus (yes, parents actually once named their spawn “Erastus”) published the first of Beadle’s Dime Novels in 1860. Quite possibly causing the Civil War.
Beadle’s were a runaway success, financially if not artistically, and other publishers (or purveyors, detractors might say) sprang up, churning out affordable stories for the working classes. Dime novels tended toward melodramatic tales of the vast American frontier, as it loomed large in the public imagination as that dangerous and mysterious land out there, a land quite different from the $8 coffee shops and hipster dreadlock hangouts of the Modern West. And though tales of the West dominated, many of the stories delved into history, detective, and urban crime, building the foundation for the mystery and thriller in later years.
An inordinate number of dime novels had so-called double titles, the kind where they stick an “or” in there. A real example, from “Rough Rider Weekly,” is King of the Wild West’s Cattle War, or Stella’s Bout with the Rival Ranchers. Imagine putting that on an ebook postage stamp-sized cover. That yarn features, in addition to the lovely branding-iron brandishing Stella, a hero named Crack Skull Bob. Now there’s an action hero name if I ever heard one (that particular story, by the way, appeared in a later evolution of the dime novel, the “story weekly”, which was a weekly newspaper type thing of stories rather than a self-contained and complete novel).
Another character I came across is Dick the Engineer Boy. That one’s just too rich a vein of comedy gold for me to mine.
Like the penny dreadfuls in England, dime novels were a boon to literacy among the working classes of America. Sure, the writing was derided by critics, and after having read a few excerpts, I can vouch that the writing tended to vacillate between “bad” and “gouge-your-eyes-out-with-a-pencil-bad”. The term “dime novel” came to be used as a pejorative, but so what? It got people reading, and stuff like this built the sophisticated, educated populace that now can intelligently discuss Glenn Beck’s abduction by aliens.
7/1/2013: Prelude to Pulp. Everything has a lineage. In popular fiction, long before American paperback books there were the American pulp magazines. Before the pulps, there were the American dime novels. And before the dime novels, there were the "penny dreadfuls" of 19th century England. As the name implies, they were frequently dreadful, as far as literary quality goes. And they cost a penny.
And they helped reform the empire.
'Round about 1830, there appeared a cheap publishing alternative to the contemporary literature of luminaries such as Dickens. Class-bound British society didn't allow for widespread wealth (or literacy), so most of the public had neither the money nor the ability to read Dickens, at the high price of 12 pennies. But lots of people had a penny to spend on entertainment.
What they got was not Shakespeare, but a great deal of adventure, crime, and gore (which, come to think of it, was found in a great deal of Shakespeare...but I digress). The dreadfuls became so popular they spurred more and more of British youth to reading. Lurid stuff like Varney the Vampire and Sweeney Todd hit the unwashed streets, to be devoured and passed around among friends.
Naturally, the explosive popularity of the penny dreadfuls alarmed hyper-sensitive Victorians, who generally fainted at the drop of a hat. The industry was excoriated for immorality, but by then it was too late. People were reading and loving it, and building a more literate nation.
Maybe that's what truly alarmed the Victorians; it simply won't do when the underclasses acquire a little education and begin to question the status quo. What's more, the Victorians were reading the dreadfuls too (but lied about it) when they were not having sex, which was all the time. They were convinced by the gaudy, crime-ridden, blood-spattered stories that the world was appallingly unsafe, and that belief contributed greatly to a collective sphincter-clench that resulted ultimately in a calamitous incidence of hemorrhoids. And more fainting.
6/28/13: More Exploding Beaches. A suspected World War II-era mine was detonated off the New Jersey shore just a couple of days ago. Believed to have been uncovered by Superstorm Sandy, the mine conceivably posed a serious threat to beach-goers and Donald Trump's hair.
These things keep turning up. In 2011, an ancient Navy training mine--still explosive--washed ashore onto condominium-covered Miami Beach, throwing quite a fright into the beach-combing blue-hairs.
In 2012, officials in Britain's Guernsey gleefully exploded antitank mines found on the beach. These were planted to thwart German invasion plans. One would think the locals would have remembered these things as soon as the war ended in 1945, but oh well.
I came across a 1966 news article from Australia about another mine that washed ashore. The accompanying photo is priceless. It shows an Aussie Navy expert, knee-deep in the surf. He's wearing a tee-shirt and a bathing suit. And safety goggles! He's smacking this rusting mine with a steel rod, trying to knock the barnacles off. Oh, those Aussies.
6/27/13: More Summertime Threats: Exploding Beaches. It's debatable which beach around the world would be deemed the most deadly. Certainly Aussie beaches are up there with their myriad dangerous creatures. And those frigid shingle beaches where Orcas have learned to belly-slide right out of the water to snag foolish seals is worthy of at least an honorable mention.
But can any of them top the tropical paradise of the Bikini Atoll?
An atoll is a ring of coral reefs that encloses a lagoon. Some are high enough above sea level to be habitable. Bikini is one such habitable atoll, or was, until1946, when the U.S. evacuated the indigenous population to Rongerik Atoll, and conducted 23 nuclear bomb test explosions, ending in 1958. Among those tests was project Castle Bravo, the first hydrogen bomb test, in 1954. The magnitude of that blast was greatly underestimated by test planners, and the resulting fallout drifted to and settled upon the relocated population on Rongerik Atoll. The official explanation was: "Oops! My bad!"
In the 1970s, Bikini was declared habitable once more, and the U.S. began returning some of the displaced population back to their Bikini home. Until 1978, anyway, when it was discovered that dangerous levels of strontium-90 remained in the soil, and the population was evacuated once more. Official explanation: "Ha ha! Guys, you aren't gonna believe this, but—"
The atoll of course inspired the name of the scandalously revealing and explosive two-piece bathing suit unveiled by French designer Louis Réard in 1946.
The soil remains radioactive to this day. I suspect it might be the only beach on the planet where you could lie on the sand on your back and get sunburned on both sides without ever turning over.
6/25/13: Yet Another Summertime Threat: Exploding Emperors. As if the heat and the bugs weren't bad enough, imagine the summertime blues of England's King William I, a.k.a. William the Conqueror, a.k.a. William the Bastard. Sure, he won the pivotal Battle of Hastings in 1066 and changed the course of history, but he can't shake the ignominious doings of a miserably hot summer day in 1087. After winning a small battle in Mantes, France, Big Bill sits astride his horse, inspecting this and that, when the horse, spooked by a burning ember, bolts, and the king's famously prodigious gut gets snagged on the iron pommel of the saddle. His intestine is torn internally and his body poisoned from the wound. Pus swells his intestines. After five weeks of agony he dies.
It gets worse.
At the funeral, Bill is brought inside a church at Rouen. The sun beats relentlessly down, heating the church like an oven, and his body swells and swells. As mourners try to squeeze the bloating carcass into a custom-made sarcophagus, the body bursts, spraying everyone with the reeking putrefaction and pus. Screams. Gagging. Running. More gagging.
So ends the story of William the Conqueror, one of the most influential men in history. And thus does summer make even the mightiest among us suffer the final mightiest insult and stick a putrid footnote onto one's legacy. It's just not conducive to nice, neat deaths.
6/23/13: Mysterious Things About Beaches: Almost everyone loves the beach, and those that don't are beneath contempt. Most love beaches for the interplay of sun, surf, and weather, and so do I. But the beach touches something primal. If it's a beach on the coast of an ocean, it really is the edge of a continent. You're standing on the continent one moment, you take a step into the ocean, and you've left the continent. The symbolism is powerful; the ocean you've entered is the gateway to the world, to the Orient, to Africa, to the ice caps, to India, to Australia. To the world.
The ancient idea of the message in a bottle is real (Nicholas Sparks' drivel aside). A desperate explorer shipwrecked in the Straits of Magellan could attempt to raise an alarm by casting his plea adrift. Indeed, messages in bottles have been recovered long after they were cast adrift. A British soldier in the war-torn Europe of 1914, Private Thomas Hughes, hurled a message into the sea for his beloved wife, two days before he was killed in France. The message was found in the River Thames in 1999, and delivered to Hughes' 86-year old daughter in New Zealand. You can't write a story better than that.
NASA cast space-age messages in bottles into the infinite ocean of the cosmos with the Pioneer space probes of 1972 and '73, and Voyager probes of 1977, bearing messages from the human race to whatever sentient beings might be able to intercept and decipher them. The Voyager spacecraft have become the first to leave our solar system. It's a splendid idea, this deep-space message of peace, but I suspect that the first species to intercept it will be our own, once we've achieved the technology to venture swiftly that far afield. You just know someone couldn't resist tracking down such a historic artifact.
6/21/13: Summer is officially here! Today is the solstice, June 21st. Longest day, shortest night of the year. So get slathered with tanning butter, suck in that gut, and get into those beach reads, people!
Here's a snippet of beach fiction. In H.G. Wells' The Time Machine (1895), after the Time Traveler escapes the future of some 800,000 years hence, and its two human species, the beautiful, childlike, and feeble-minded Eloi and the brutish, predatory Morlocks, he despairingly races ahead to witness the end of the world, many millions of years distant. Human beings and their degenerate lines have long since disappeared. There is no such thing as a day (and therefore no equinox or solstice); the earth's rotation has ceased, and the planet turns one face only to the bloated, dying sun, much like the moon turns only one face to Earth.
I cannot convey the sense of abominable desolation that hung over the world. The red eastern sky, the northward blackness, the salt Dead Sea, the stony beach crawling with these foul, slow-stirring monsters, the uniform poisonous-looking green of the lichenous plants, the thin air that hurts one's lungs... I moved on a hundred years, and there was the same red sun--a little larger, a little duller--the same dying sea, the same chill air, and the same crowd of earthy crustacea creeping in and out among the green weed and the red rocks. And in the westward sky, I saw a curved pale line like a vast new moon...
So I traveled, stopping ever and again, in great strides of a thousand years or more, drawn on by the mystery of the earth's fate, watching with a strange fascination the sun grow larger and duller in the westward sky, and the life of the old earth ebb away. At last, the huge red-hot dome of the sun had come to obscure nearly a tenth part of the darkling heavens. Then I stopped once more, for the crawling multitude of crabs had disappeared, and the red beach, save for its livid green liverworts and lichens, seemed lifeless.
... I saw nothing moving, in earth or sky or sea. The green slime on the rocks alone testified that life was not extinct. A shallow sandbank had appeared in the sea and the water had receded from the beach. I fancied I saw some black object flopping about upon this bank, but it became motionless as I looked at it...
A horror of this great darkness came on me. The cold, that smote to my marrow, and the pain I felt in breathing, overcame me. I shivered, and a deadly nausea seized me. Then like a red-hot bow in the sky appeared the edge of the sun...
So grab some flip-flops enjoy your day at the beach while you can!
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