11/2/15: Fawcett and the Lost Expedition. I’m a sucker for adventure stories, real and fictional. It’s been a romantic obsession for as long as I can recall, one that I think infects most boys, and one that thankfully most outgrow. Or do they? I didn’t, and I suspect that those that profess not to care about such things do so out of fear of being seen as childish. Seriously, how many of us didn’t hang on every rip-roaring moment in Raiders of the Lost Ark?
In his marvelous book, The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (2005) David Grann paints a full picture of Percy Fawcett, the British explorer famed in his day almost as much as Shackleton and Byrd. Yet were it not for his ill-fated final trek in 1925 into the darkest Amazon, Fawcett would almost surely be a nearly forgotten man. We seem drawn more to the mysterious fail than the successful exploration.
Anyway, I’ve known about Fawcett since picking up a musty old book about lost treasure in my father’s collection as a little boy. Of all the sundry true-life adventures and treasure seekers described in the book, the one that captured my imagination was Fawcett. I’ve since read bits and pieces on Fawcett over the years, and even sneaked a mention of Fawcett into my novel, Brigands Key. But Grann’s book finally brought it all together.
Fawcett was bitten by the exploration bug while serving in the British army in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), abandoning his post to set off on a treasure hunt upon hearing rumors of hidden wealth. He first hit the South American rainforests in 1906 on a successful mapping expedition of the border between Brazil and Bolivia. He would venture into the South American interior on eight more expeditions, pushing his luck often. His philosophy of small ball—putting together very small, mobile teams, rather than the large cumbersome groups favored by his contemporaries—seemed to work well. He reasoned that he could cover more ground, draw less attention and ire, and avoid much of the headaches of logistics and provisioning by going small.
He was right, but it probably also proved his undoing.
Fawcett’s greatest strengths were also his greatest weaknesses. He was stalwart, single-minded, relentless, and domineering. This led to marvelous feats and discoveries. It also led to his presumed death. Not only his but his son Jack’s as well, and Jack’s best friend, Raleigh Rimell, as he dragged them ill-prepared deep into uncharted Amazonian wilderness. There can be no excuse for that.
Although he could be a pushy jackass among his own kind and toward his expeditionary colleagues, Fawcett treated the Amazonian Indians with respect and kindness. Give him credit; a colonialist and bigoted mindset accompanied many Western explorers to the remote corners in the 19th-century and early 20th-century, but Fawcett intuitively—and perhaps because he eschewed large numbers in his group—found begrudging acceptance among many of the tribes encountered, if not exactly open arms.
Cultural differences are wide and on display even among the advanced nations, and they are on display tribe-by-tribe in the Amazon. Just because Group A is warm and peaceful and friendly, doesn’t mean the next one, just miles away, isn’t warlike and bloodthirsty. Fawcett encountered the bad ones just as he encountered good ones.
He was entering the country of one of the bad ones when he was last seen.
His disappearance has never been solved. He simply went into the trackless forest and never came out again. The reasonable assumption is that his small band was attacked and killed by hostile warriors, and possibly even eaten by them since he entered a territory of known cannibals. But it can’t be known for certain. Illness, starvation, dehydration, lots of things can kill even the most experienced adventurers into the Amazon, and do so in a big hurry. However, the fact that not one of the three returned tilts suspicion toward violent deaths.
Tragic though that expedition was, the greater tragedy is that more than a hundred persons died while trying to locate and rescue Fawcett and his party. Fawcett was a rock star who went missing. His exploits had been followed globally and his disappearance was big news. So, it seemed to many, to rescue him would be to plaster one’s heroic face on newspaper covers all over the world. Instant celebrity. Riches would probably follow. After all, didn’t Stanley become just as famous as Livingstone for finding him? But being brave and well-intentioned doesn’t make one fit to hack hundreds of miles into the greatest rainforest on the planet.
Did Fawcett find his fabled Lost City of Z? Yes and no. He most certainly didn’t find a ruined city of stone and gold, which is what he’d clearly hoped for.
Yet archaeology at long last vindicated Fawcett. He’d pieced together tantalizing clues of a lost civilization, long thought impossible by archaeologists and anthropologists. The Amazon forest, they explained, simply isn’t fertile enough to support anything more than small clans of hunter-gatherers. They had made this declaration based on the model of civilizations elsewhere in the world, where great tracts of friable earth and farmlands may be had. True, the Amazon is not a fertile ground; the incessant rains leach much of the nutrients needed for agriculture. But the place is teeming with fish, bugs, snakes, lizards, fish, turtles, and fish. And there are more fish where those come from. So food abounded, and even if agriculture was lacking, aquaculture was not. This civilization didn’t build great stone temples and palaces in the interior for the simple reason that native stone for construction is just not plentiful there. Instead, they constructed city complexes of earth and wood, connected by a great network of canals and causeways. What Fawcett did find were traces of a sophisticated and sprawling civilization, one that simply vanished and was consumed by the great rainforest.
If this civilization once existed, where did it go? Did its people wander off like Fawcett into the jungle and disappear? No. The accounts of early Spanish explorers into the region tell of this great jungle empire. Indeed, these accounts helped convinced Fawcett that there was indeed a lost city to be found. But as in all of the Americas, wherever early European explorers reached, disease quickly followed, decimating and often wiping out cultures across the continents. Disease most likely swept aside the great Amazonian empire, leaving only the scattered tribal fragments we see today. Given the nature of the structures, the rampant vegetative growth of the rainforest needs only a few years to reclaim and erase the evidence of what existed.
Decades after his death, Fawcett’s vision, the very vision that killed him, is vindicated. He swore that a civilization had thrived deep in the Amazon and he was right. The history of the Americas became far more subtle and complex than the establishment had imagined. Give the great explorer his due and his respect.
* * *
Readers of thrillers and adventure tales owe another debt to Fawcett. As I said, he was globally famous in his day, and his exploits deep in the Amazon inspired Arthur Conan Doyle to write The Lost World (1912). Descriptions of the towering tepuis—sheer-sided mesas rising high above the steamy rainforest—seemed to Doyle the perfect evolutionary lab for remnant populations of dinosaurs, and even proto-humans. And just as later archaeologists vindicated Fawcett’s lost civilization, so too did later biologists vindicate Doyle’s imaginative vision of a lost world, discovering many species atop the tepuis which could be found nowhere else. No dinosaurs, though. Not yet.
10/28/15: Spies Like Us: Ian Fleming Blows Up. You think spying is big now? Pffft! During World War II, it was systemic and vital. Indeed, Great Britain might have perished without its elite class of intelligence warriors. Luckily for civilization, it did not. And luckily for fans of suspense fiction, three former officers of the British spy services--Graham Greene, John LeCarre, and Ian Fleming--came out of the war with their hides intact and a trove of experiences to write about.
Greene and LeCarre went on to become critically acclaimed writers of serious fiction, with LeCarre in particular defining the literary possibilities of the spy novel. Both are great men of letters.
So let’s talk about Fleming instead.
Fleming served in Naval Intelligence for the UK during World War II, so he knew whereof he spoke when he tackled writing about spies. His duties sent him globe-trotting and drew him deep into critical operations of spy craft. After the war, having fallen in love with Jamaica during a stationing there, Fleming returned to the island to live and write, and in 1953, published his first James Bond novel, Casino Royale. Thirteen more Bond books followed. After a while, the Bond novels began to find traction with audience in Britain, but not much elsewhere.
Critics frequently bashed Fleming as a writer, some of it deserved, some of it not. The chronically thin-skinned have painted him as a misogynistic racist, vastly overstating the charges. Certainly, Fleming harbored a certain cultural elitism and a disdainful view of most non-Brits, including Americans. His attitudes were neither extreme nor out of step with the day or his cohorts, so give him a pass on that.
Fleming never pretended to be attempting Great Literature. No, he was shooting for escapist entertainment. What surprises, however, is the quality of the line-by-line writing. Fleming was no hack. If not an artist, he was at least a craftsman. Consider this passage from Doctor No:
The long, straight road is cool and quiet and withdrawn from the hot, vulgar sprawl of Kingston where its residents earn their money, and, on the other side of the T-intersection at its top, lie the grounds of King’s House, where the Governor and Commander-in-Chief of Jamaica lives with his family. In Jamaica, no road could have a finer ending.
Early on, British critics seemed to be okay with Fleming’s work. But around about the middle of the series Doctor No received a particularly mean-spirited review, and critics took it as a signal for the kill. Fleming came out of that a bit shell-shocked and unsure of himself.
But fortunes change. A chance encounter between Fleming and an ambitious American senator named John F. Kennedy changed Fleming’s fortunes dramatically. Fleming was invited to the dinner party of a wealthy socialite, and Kennedy was in attendance. The two hit it off. Later, as president, Kennedy was asked by an interviewer about his choice of reading material, and Kennedy responded by saying he liked the James Bond series. Kennedy even labeled From Russia, with Love (1957) one his top ten books by anyone (and the consensus seems to be that FRwL ranks as Fleming’s best). Boom! Sales exploded.
That caught the attention of Hollywood and a multi-generational blockbuster franchise was born, the first big release coming with Dr. No in 1962, starring Sean Connery. Fleming died in 1964 so he had no idea of the money-making endurance of his superspy. Would he have approved of what his character became? His literary Bond had self-doubts, weaknesses, anger, tenderness, darkness, petty dislikes, and suspicions towards his boss. In other words, human. He never struck me as smug, which is what the cinematic Bond quickly became. Nevertheless, and despite initial misgivings, Fleming rather liked Sean Connery in Dr. No and indeed changed Bond’s personal heritage to Scottish after that, and even imbued the previously humorless Bond with a bit of Connery’s impish take.
The big-screen Bonds were forever defined by Connery, the franchise guy. Roger Moore and Pierce Brosnan fit the look, but lurched through the roles like Frankenstein monsters with corncobs stuck up their asses. No one remembers David Niven in Casino Royale (1967), perhaps the worst casting decision in the history of film (although in Niven’s defense, the movie was constructed as light comedy, in yet another bad decision). No one remembers George Lazenby for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, (1969), even though he gave us a serviceable Bond.
Of all the Bonds, Timothy Dalton comes closest to Fleming’s literary hero. Daniel Craig, perhaps, is second. The franchise moved on beyond increasing self-parody with these guys and wisely chose to take itself seriously.
* * *
Quick, which actor first played James Bond? Tick tick tick… time’s up! “Sean Connery,” you shout. WRONG! American actor Barry Nelson played Bond for CBS’s 1954 TV series, Climax! Mystery Theatre. Use this knowledge wisely, say, as in to win a drink at a bar.
Okay then, who was the next guy to play Bond? Sean Connery? Wrong again. A guy named Bob Holness played 007 in a radio play in South Africa in 1956. Sure, that was a trick question. Nobody said it was a film role. Sue me.
Alright then, who was the first actor to appear as Bond in 1962’s Dr. No, starring Sean Connery? “Sean Connery!” you scream, exasperated. Wrong! In the opening credits, during the famous aim-down-the-barrel sequence, the guy playing Bond is Bob Simmons. Connery is Bond in the rest of the movie. Don’t ever challenge me for a drink in a bar.
9/17/15: Bare-Knuckled and Hardboiled. Along with Dashiell Hammett and James M. Cain, the author that grabbed a nice literary mystery world by the lapels and shook it like a dog shakes a rat, pretty much defining the hardboiled mystery, was Raymond Chandler. To truly know the genre, one must know Chandler.
Much like Cain, Chandler hit the ground running at full gallop with the release of his first novel, The Big Sleep (1939) , introducing us to emotional and physical pain through his gristly private detective, Philip Marlowe. An overnight success, it appeared, but of course “overnight success” is almost always a misnomer in any artistic field. After seeing combat in the trenches of France in 1917, Chandler had dabbled in business and journalism and poetry, to varying degrees of success. A high-paying job as a corporate executive fell to his inclinations to drinking and womanizing, and his thoughts of suicide. The hard-scratch times of the Depression pushed him to try his hand at writing for the pulps, and he published his first in 1933 in Black Mask, featuring his hardboiled detective, Mallory. Through short stories, he honed his craft before trying novels.
Chandler’s mastery of phrase and description makes you shake your head in wonder sometimes. And his use of simile and metaphor comes quick and deadly, like the strike of a cobra (see what I did there?). It became the trademark of the hardboiled detective, so much so that it’s become worthy of parody. The snappy patter, the quick use of the gun, the cynical outlook. To be sure, it is a rich comedy vein, begging to be mined, but that doesn’t minimize the art and impact when used by a master.
Chandler’s debt to the minimalist prose of Ernest Hemingway is clear. Sharp imagery and short sentences abound. Amusingly, in Farewell, My Lovely, Chandler gets in his digs at Hemingway when Marlowe tells a goon to stop repeating himself, and nicknames him “Hemingway.” The goon doesn’t get it but is pissed anyway.
Chandler cared about craft and honesty, and wasn’t a huge fan of the polite drawing-room mystery or simple puzzle mysteries popularized by Agatha Christie and others. Honesty requires an unflinching look at the dark side of human nature and an admission that it lives in us all. He drew up his Ten Commandments for mystery fiction:
1) It must be credibly motivated, both as to the original situation and the dénouement.
2) It must be technically sound as to the methods of murder and detection.
3) It must be realistic in character, setting and atmosphere. It must be about real people in a real world.
4) It must have a sound story value apart from the mystery element: i.e., the investigation itself must be an adventure worth reading.
5) It must have enough essential simplicity to be explained easily when the time comes.
6) It must baffle a reasonably intelligent reader.
7) The solution must seem inevitable once revealed.
8) It must not try to do everything at once. If it is a puzzle story operating in a rather cool, reasonable atmosphere, it cannot also be a violent adventure or a passionate romance.
9) It must punish the criminal in one way or another, not necessarily by operation of the law…. If the detective fails to resolve the consequences of the crime, the story is an unresolved chord and leaves irritation behind it.
10) It must be honest with the reader.
With the exception of #5 (“essential simplicity”), Chandler holds true to his commandments. Complexity of motive, however, often overrides simple explanation in his novels, but maybe it was clearer to him than to the reader. Give him a pass on that one. Nevertheless, any writer of suspense would be wise to keep this list handy.
Note that he ends his commandments with #10, honesty. Don’t bullshit your readers. They’re pretty damned sharp.
9/13/15: Heir Apparent to the Great Detective. Sherlock Holmes looms large in mystery fiction, and indeed in Western culture. His uncanny gifts of observation and deduction, though perhaps unrealistic and fantastical, remain entertaining and engaging. In homage—or desperation, perhaps—writers ever since have created fictional sleuths with similar powers. Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe. Peter Falk’s Columbo. Even Dr. House, as played by Hugh Laurie. When you get down to it, most fictional sleuths are smarter or at least more insightful than the rest of us. Heck, it wouldn’t be much fun if the hero were a dimwit, unless played for laughs like Inspector Clouseau. But being smart and a step ahead does not a Sherlock make. Not in itself. To be truly Sherlockian one must possess quirkiness or oddness of character. Obsessiveness helps too.
In our time, the guy that comes closest to Holmes is FBI Special Agent Pendergast, the creation of Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child.
I love Pendergast. But it wasn’t love at first sight.
Pendergast debuted in Relic (1995), the authors’ first collaborative novel. He was cast as brilliant and enigmatic (and odd), but seemed a bit of a drag in an otherwise gripping novel. My least favorite among the characters. He struck me as vague, not fully drawn, two-dimensional, while the other characters were fleshed out.
That was intentional. The problem, I realized, was not on Pendergast or the authors. It was on me. The guy was truly built as a series character, a long-term project, one which gives up more glimpses inside with each novel. Peels off an onion. You don’t even learn his first name (Aloysius) until several books in.
He possesses the requisite oddness of a Holmes. He cuts a gaunt memorable figure, dressed in his tailored, expensive black suit, emotionally aloof, pale almost to albinism. I imagine he scares the shit out of little children. Fabulously wealthy, hailing from an old-money, weird-as-shit New Orleans family, the source of his honey-toned drawl. Exquisite tastes in food and the arts. Lives in the Dakota.
Why does someone with a vast fortune in pocket agree to be a working stiff for the FBI? He could buy the Bureau. Well, with his brains and money he can do whatever he wants, and what he wants is to solve intractable mysteries. For its part, the FBI seems to let Pendergast work on whatever he feels like, whenever he feels like it. He’s that good and that brilliant, so no one knows quite what to do with him.
Did I mention his family? It seems that nearly every family member has been blessed with brilliance, but is either good or bat-shit crazy. And homicidal.
One of the appealing things about the series is how the authors handle Pendergast in narrative point-of-view. The other characters are rendered through with third-person subjective viewpoint, and scenes which involve Pendergast with other characters are always told from the other characters’ points of view. Often even from the viewpoint of cameo characters. In the occasional scene in which Pendergast is alone, the scene is in third-person objective. You aren’t privy to his thoughts and motivations because your head would explode if you were. You only see him move through the scene in typical wraith-like style. The genius of this pulling-back to a camera’s eye viewpoint is that it protects—and enhances—Pendergast’s enigmatic nature and untouchable intelligence. Much in the way that Doyle only allowed Sherlock Holmes’s adventures to be recounted by his sidekick, Doctor Watson, and never directly from Holmes himself.
Sidekick? Yes, that’s covered too. Pendergast is helped along by down-to-earth New York cop, Vincent D’Agosta.
Bit by bit, over time and novels, the fuller picture of Pendergast emerges. And each new revelation leads to new questions. He’s rather addictive.
In a tip of the hat to Holmes, in White Fire (2013), a young Arthur Conan Doyle figures into the background, and the reader is even treated to an “undiscovered” Sherlock story.
As Doyle felt the need to invent in Professor Moriarty a villain equal in smarts and cunning to Holmes, so have Preston and Child invented villains to counter Pendergast, among them his own brother, Diogenes. Along with arch-villains, plausible science (or at the least, plausible-sounding science) underpins the stories, so each novel assumes an out there feel, straining the limits of the everyday. The reader is rewarded with a Sherlock for the 21st-century, one with all the smarts and an extra helping of weirdness, but one also armed with and facing an extra century of cutting-edge technology and nastiness.
Doyle would be quite pleased.
* * *
Relic was adapted into a bad movie, The Relic, in 1997. Inexplicably, Pendergast is absent from it. All the inventiveness, all the chills…also absent. Skip the movie, read the book. Seriously.
9/1/15: Grave Robbing for Fun and Science.
“…the moon gazed on my midnight labours, while, with unrelaxed and breathless eagerness, I pursued nature to her hiding-places. Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave…”
--Frankenstein: Or the Modern Prometheus, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, 1818
Looking back, it may seem that Victor Frankenstein’s late-night grave robbing activities—skulking about in misty cemeteries and foul charnel houses, scrounging for body parts for his little science project—were an inspired bit of imagination on Shelley’s part. To the contrary, although the novel as a whole was indeed inventive and revolutionary, grave robbing was widespread in the 18th and 19th centuries. And though the chief practitioners were ruffians and scoundrels, the chief beneficiaries were medical students (although very few succeeded in reanimating dead tissue). Medical science was on the march; in 19th century America alone, medical schools grew in number from four to one-hundred-sixty. Raw materials were needed for teaching this new army of students.
Historically, before the demand for bodies for medical study became prevalent, any self-respecting grave robber would dig up a corpse for the actual loot to be had. This time-honored tradition dates to at least ancient Egypt, and probably much earlier. A well-to-do Egyptian might be laid to rest with gold, jewels, weapons, wine, grain, carts, mummified baboons, tickets to Cats, you name it. Those kinds of riches were hard to resist. A few millennia later, one might still find good pickings such as pocket watches, eyeglasses, silk handkerchiefs, interred with the deceased of even modest means. May not sound like much, but this was before Walmart.
In 2006, archaeologists studying graves associated with the London Hospital realized the extent of grave robbing by finding coffins with bodies containing more than the usual numbers of arms and legs. Apparently, once dissected, the medical students didn’t care too much about the way the once-used corpses were returned to the earth. (The question is begged, are archaeologists somehow different from grave robbers? That’s another ball of wax, and Native Americans fought for and won a 1990 federal law—the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA—requiring the return of cultural artifacts and human remains).
So when public outcry against grave robbing for medical science reaches a fever pitch, what do you do? You pass laws to snatch bodies legally. This has gone on since at least 1540, when Henry VIII provided doctors with the bodies of executed criminals. That was a nice start. Boston did something similar in 1641. England’s Murder Act of 1752 (say what you will about their cuisine and dentistry, but the Brits know how to name a law), which required that the bodies of all executed killers be made compulsory to dissection. But this didn’t yield enough bodies. Not even close, so more laws followed. England’s watershed body snatching law, the Anatomy Act of 1832, allowed the bodies of lots of criminals (not just murderers) and the indigent poor to be claimed for dissection. Yay! A legal source for the bodies of those we don’t care about! Yet the number of medical schools in Europe and America ballooned, and the demand for cadavers still outpaced the supply. The illegal snatching continued, right into the 20th century. Market economics, baby. In a bit of irony, some grave robbers in England that were caught and executed for their crimes had their own bodies turned over to medical schools for dissection.
Public relations shills have been with us since day one of civilization, and the kindhearted doctors and medical students didn’t like being called body snatchers and grave robbers. They referred to themselves as “resurrectionists.” Yeah. Almost sounds like something miraculous.
As one would imagine, stealing the bodies of the recently deceased was a touchy subject. In New York City, when the extent of grave robbing came to light in 1788, the public simmered, but remained compliant as long as only the bodies of blacks and the poor were being used. When the body of a white woman was snatched from her grave, the anger boiled over and 5,000 angry citizens rioted for three days, chasing doctors and med students and grave robbers alike. As many as twenty persons died. Seventeen similar incidents erupted in other American cities.
So common was body snatching, there was even an anti-snatching, locking casket patented and sold, but only the wealthy dead could afford it. Families of lesser means often would post family members to stand watch for several days after a burial to prevent the removal, yet industrious grave robbers were known to even tunnel from nearby into a grave to remove the body. Another anti-theft device was the “mortsafe,” a cage of iron bars erected over a burial site. “Morthouses,” a further elaboration, were buildings in which you allowed your loved ones to rot for a few days before burial, thus rendering them useless for dissection.
Bribery almost always accompanies any self-respecting corrupt industry, and cemetery staff, watchmen, or public officials were often paid to look the other way. But not all body snatching was grave robbing. The local poorhouse could be counted on as a good supply sources so body snatchers, upon hearing of a death at such an establishment, sometimes hired women to show up as mourners and claim the deceased.
Hanging over it all was the central moral dilemma. The motivations of med students and their hunchbacked henchmen were lofty. How do you teach and learn anatomy—and thereby save lives—without carving up dead persons like Thanksgiving turkeys?
You don’t. Years ago, my wife Laura, studying for her occupational therapy degree, attended “Cadaver Lab” in the creepy, dungeon-like basement of the University of Florida’s Shands Teaching Hospital for the invaluable training that comes from dissection of corpses. There was no getting around it. Now although Laura once famously keeled over in a dead faint while observing surgery on a living subject, earning a stern rebuke from the hotshot doctor in charge, she held up well when working with the dead. I’m so proud.
But those were volunteer corpses. Once the idea of “donating your body to science” came into vogue, raiding the graveyard at midnight faded into memory. We hope. Yet the shortage of good stiffs for doctor practice remains, although rapid advances in 3D virtual dissection as a teaching tool may make the chronic shortage disappear in the near future. The Grave Robbers Union will be fighting that, though.
* * *
Not all grave robbing was intended for the betterment of humankind, of course. Historically, it was all about a payday, or occasionally politics.
Even Abraham Lincoln was almost body-snatched. In 1876, a gang of counterfeiters headed by Big Jim Kennally, chagrined that their ace counterfeiter, Benjamin Boyd, was imprisoned, hatched a plan to steal Lincoln’s corpse, ransom it for $200,000, and use it to leverage Boyd’s release. They should have stuck to counterfeiting; they were infiltrated and apprehended by police and Secret Service agents during the attempt.
Interestingly, to protect Lincoln’s body from further attempts, he was secretly buried in a shallow grave in the basement of his tomb. I didn’t even know tombs had basements. In 1901, he was moved to a vault ten feet below ground, with tons of concrete poured above him.
Grave robbing hasn’t quite disappeared. In recent decades, there have been attempts to steal the bodies of Charlie Chaplin and Elvis Presley for ransom. Even in 2015, German silent film director F.W. Murnau’s head was stolen. They stole his frickin’ head! And not even for science, so let’s quit pretending we’ve come all that far.
8/4/15: Hemlock: Poison of Choice for the Classically-Minded
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk…
—John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale” (1819)
Arsenic, cyanide, and strychnine are at the top of the pop charts of poisons, at least in the imagination of the modern. Down the musty, bloodied halls of civilized history, however, one would have to agree that hemlock holds the championship belt.
Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum) is a flowering plant, and a somewhat pretty one. But beware of pretty things (one of the great lessons you get from TV). Although it’s been distributed widely across the globe, it originated in Europe, North Africa, and West Asia, and so the cradles of civilization had easy access to it. The nasty ingredient in the plant is an alkaloid called coniine, which attacks one’s central nervous system and causes paralysis.
TV poisons are quick and, supposedly, dramatic. Hemlock, being classical, assumes a more stately procession. Symptoms show in a half-hour. Usually takes five to ten hours to kill, but interestingly, the victim is clear of mind the entire time. Once the paralysis reaches the lungs, you die.
Poison hemlock is said to impart a “mousy” odor to its victims. I don’t know. I’ve never sniffed a mouse. If someone smelled mousy I wouldn’t know and couldn’t tell them to get their ass to the hospital.
Socrates remains the most famous victim. He was convicted of “impiety” and sentenced to death by poisoning. Jeez. Impiety? Ninety-five percent of us could be drummed up on those charges, and the other five percent would bore you to death. What kind of a jackass authority rubs out the greatest thinker of his time, and one of the greatest of all time? Anyway, Socrates took his sentence like the great man he was. Plato, Socrates’ protégé, attended his mentor’s death and wrote: The chill had now reached the region about the groin, and uncovering his face, which had been covered, he said – and these were his last words – "Crito, we owe a cock to Asclepius. Pay it and do not neglect it." So in his last minutes, Socrates reminds an associate that he owes a guy a chicken, and to be sure and pay off the debt. Is that the way an impious guy acts?
Painter Jacques-Louis David captured the event in his gorgeous composition, The Death of Socrates (1787).
7/29/15: The Darkness of Cain. Imagine Ernest Hemingway chucking it all and devoting himself to the mystery novel. One salivates at the thought. It never happened, but the next best thing did.
In 1934, journalist James M. Cain published his first novel, a slim, gritty volume titled The Postman Always Rings Twice, and in so doing created a whole new subgenre, the roman noir. The form has nothing to do with caesars or spaghetti or Mussolini. It’s French; “roman” for novel, and “noir” for black, or dark. The black novel.
Why is it a French term if an American invented it? Well, Cain didn’t invent the term, only the subgenre. As early as the 18th century, the French applied “roman noir” to a certain style of storytelling, most commonly the British Gothic. No one uses it for that now. Once the hardboiled school of crime fiction emerged in America in the first third of the 20th century, the French cried sacre bleu! and mon dieu! and fell all over themselves in fits of blissful discovery and attached the label. Kind of like when they discovered the genius of Jerry Lewis.
Surprisingly, the term “noir” wasn’t even used in America until 1968, and didn’t come into vogue until the 1970s, when film noir (the phrase coined in 1946 France) became the preferred label to describe American movies such as Double Indemnity (1944, based on a 1943 Cain novel) and The Big Sleep (1946). These black-and-white films revolved around crime and employed the stark interplay of light and shadow to dramatize the distasteful underbelly of modern society. Mostly, it’s the shadows that grab you.
Although noir is bandied freely about today in reference to literature of a certain bent, it wasn’t until 1984 that this was the case in America. Previously, “hardboiled” was the blanket term. Noir became a subgenre of the hardboiled. This may be all a matter of splitting hairs, but I suspect that “hardboiled” seemed a bit lurid and therefore not intellectual enough for some critics, and they took it upon themselves to rename an entire genre. Now, of course, noir gets appropriated for anything now that’s even a bit darkish.
Near as I can tell, Cain never used the term. In fact, he hated the labeling of fiction.
As a fine distinction, roman noir refers to a work in which the main character is not a cop or detective, and focuses instead on someone central to the crime, typically the victim or perpetrator. That fits Postman to a tee, and doesn’t really align with some of the giants of the broader hardboiled genre. The tough, cynical private eye is a staple of the hardboiled, although regular law enforcement charcters make themselves scarce.
Sex, or the intense desire for it, is almost a given in all hardboiled fiction.
Cain’s novel revolves around an ill-fated trio of Depression-era blue-collar types. Frank Chambers, a ne’er do well drifter, blows into town and stumbles into a job (the idea of which is poisonous to his very being) in the kitchen of the Southern California pit-stop diner of Nick and Cora Papadakis. He is immediately smitten by the time-stopping hotness of Cora and decides to hang a while. For her part, Cora loathes her husband and is desperate to be free. Sparks ignite, and a smolder billows into a pyre. Frank and Cora launch into a rough-handed and steamy affair, and the plot to knock off Nick is hatched. The fact that Frank actually likes Nick doesn’t seem to bother him much.
Once the deed is done, life and the law continue to claw at Frank and Cora. Much as they are drawn to each other, Frank’s itchy feet compel him to drift away. Greener pastures, and all that, but her sexual hold on him pulls him back.
These are not good people. And yet, you still glimpse fleeting moments of goodness in them, and you see glimmers of hope for them in their desire to become better persons.
Cain writes economically yet vividly, and this book, barely more than a hundred pages, packs more wallop than most highly regarded novels many times its length. His dialogue is concise and knife-edged; Elmore Leonard would slit his wrists in despair after reading this. As Cain himself said, he didn’t intend to write tough and hardboiled, he just committed to writing in the voices of common folk on the cusp of becoming the down-and-out. From this honest, terse style, the urgency and darkness in the human animal emerges.
Why the title? Postman? What postman? No one goes postal. You have to read the novel to get it. The title hints at the seediness of an at-home affair between a housewife and a caller, but the bigger picture is that the Postman is Fate, and Nick dodges his fate in his first go-around at murder, but not the second.
All labels aside, it’s a hell of a novel.
7/8/15: Enrico's Head-Scratcher Paradox. The Milky Way Galaxy is mind-bendingly, incomprehensibly huge. It’s believed that there are some two-hundred to four hundred billion stars in our galaxy alone. Revolving around those suns are an estimated one hundred billion planets. We now have catalogued about two thousand exoplanets (planets not in our own solar system), and it’s only been a couple of decades since the very first one was discovered. Even so, the Milky Way is a mere speck in the Universe. Estimates are that there are one hundred to two hundred billion galaxies beyond ours.
Given that vastness, in 1950, physicist Enrico Fermi posed the big question about extraterrestrial intelligence. In brief, the question was, “Where the heck are they?” If there is intelligence out there, why hasn't at least one made itself known to us?
Here’s the conundrum. Most stars are billions of years old. If an intelligent civilization is a mere thousand Earth years more technologically advanced than ours, they should be plying the interstellar spaceways with ease, with technology we can’t even imagine. It’s been estimated that, even with much-slower-than-light speeds, a civilization could build self-replicating robot craft (called a Bracewell-Von Neumann probe) that never stop multiplying, and expanding the reach of exploration, and would visit every system in the galaxy within four million years. Sounds like a hell of a long time, but our galaxy is more than ten billion years old.
So if we haven’t heard or seen them, the Fermi Paradox suggests that we may be unique or nearly so. Alone. Now that’s depressing.
Lots of credentialed and accomplished notables (i.e., scientists, philosophers, and thinkers, not Internet wankers like me) have come up with plausible explanations. The truth of the matter is probably a combination of all. Rather than going into each of them, and being pessimistic by nature, I offer my humble resolutions to the Fermi Paradox. There are several parts; pay attention, people.
First, most of the intelligences out there don’t give a rat’s ass about us. Why should they? We kind of suck. They downloaded a couple of episodes of Three’s Company and said, “This is bullshit. What else you got?”
What could we possibly offer that would amuse them or improve them?
Blood sport, maybe. I’ll grant you that. A Predator motive. Wishful thinkers have argued that any species advanced enough to cross the vast distances of the stars would clearly be morally advanced as well. This is laughable in the extreme. It presumes that we have some sort of understanding of alien philosophy and biology. We don’t even understand the motivations of different cultures here on Earth, and that’s among our own species. Look at an ant colony. There’s a certain kind of collective intelligence going on there, with each bug carrying out a function. What motivates them? Survival, of course, but colonial expansion seems to be the unreasoning, collective strategy of survival.
Another argument against the lovable ET variety of alien is brain evolution. Are we top dog on Earth because we like our vegetables? No. Human beings are omnivorous, consumers of both flora and fauna. Plus some other phyla, such as fungi. Look at different species; intelligence seems to be highest among those that are both social and predatory. Wolves. Orcas. Dolphins. Chimps. Us. (Just being a social species alone doesn’t cut it; cows are both social and stupid). Brain development is accelerated among populations which hunt, and more importantly, hunt together. Why would we not expect intelligence to follow predation in alien species?
This begs the question, if aliens come a callin’, should we answer? Luminaries such as Stephen Hawking emphatically say “no!”
Maybe intelligent beings are doomed by their own brilliance to bring their own civilizations crashing down. If you can build nuclear weapons, are you bound to use them? The nuclear club continues to grow on Earth. Unstable nations like Pakistan have The Bomb. Others will undoubtedly have it soon enough. Even if we don’t have all-out nuclear war (and I don’t think we will), lots of experts believe that a limited exchange of a couple dozen nuclear weapons would be enough to bring civilization to its knees. It wouldn’t wipe us out, but would set us back a few centuries, and in a few more we’d be right back to the same edge of annihilation (Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz explores this brilliantly).
Perhaps even more likely than death by nukes is the intentional or accidental release of civilization-canceling disease. Many nations have bio-weapons and are probably willing to use them if push came to shove (the deterrent being the likelihood of infecting themselves as well as their enemies). More likely still, the use of such a weapon would be caused by fanatics and terrorists who come into possession through the collapse of an unstable government. Nah, that’s unlikely… there aren’t many fanatics and unstable governments in the world, are there?
It’s hard to imagine that other intelligent species are eager to have us spread our filth and disease beyond our planetary system. Look at our own terrestrial explorations; typically, when a culture spreads out to contact cultures which have been isolated, the results are typically catastrophic for the isolated one. Disease overwhelms them. If a being a thousand light-years from us is a bag of bones and goo like us, it will also be susceptible to disease. Even if you’re the most fastidious human being alive, approximately one to two percent of your body weight is bacteria. Disgusting as that sounds, you can’t live without them, and if you’re visiting another world, you’re bringing those bacteria with you. It may be that once a culture reaches a certain level of technology and the ability to move out amongst the stars, the others say, “Not so fast, hotshot. That’s not how we do it out here. Galactic quarantine rules are in effect.”
Population crashes happen in nature. When a species exceeds in number of individuals its ability to find or make food, it tends to collapse. Collapse would be magnified in human societies, because we have the cleverness to stretch food production far beyond what should naturally be expected, and because the production of food has been relegated to a smaller and smaller percentage of individuals. This approach yields inherent benefits, but also is swimming in inherent risk. Catastrophic risk. Environmental change, crop diseases, human diseases, war, natural disaster… a multitude of things can break production and delivery of food and bring it to a screeching halt. Grocery stores in the U.S. would be pretty much empty within a few days of a stop in delivery. Then what? Take a giant step back, O People of Earth.
Perhaps there’s a happier explanation of the Fermi Paradox, one in which a benign Federation of Planets, like in Star Trek, has a “do-not-interfere, do-not-contact” policy in effect concerning planetary backwaters peopled with hillbillies like us. And when we discover warp drive, they decide it’s time to welcome us with open arms and tentacles into the circle of love among space-faring species. Wouldn’t it be nice?
It would. But don’t hold your breath.
6/23/15: Bio-Weapons of the Ancients. We tend to think of biological warfare only insofar as it is currently imagined. Lethal viruses such as Ebola or influenza or polio, unleashed. Bacteria such as anthrax slipped into a food supply sprinkled from above. Fungi, such as “rice blast,” introduced to crops to incite failure and subsequent starvation.
But bio-warfare runs sad and deep in our history.
The germ theory of disease didn’t gain widespread traction until the late 19th century. Nevertheless, although peoples before that may have not known or understood the actual causes of so many diseases, they could observe the tendencies of disease spread. In fact, they were far more acquainted with disease and death than the typical civilized person of today. Being what we are, some (many) apparently turned this knowledge into new ways of killing.
Bubonic plague, the terrifying “Black Death”(caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis) scourged Europe in the 14th century, not as a weapon but as a natural, particularly vicious, plague event. Or was its catalytic event an artificial one? An Italian notary, Gabriele de’ Mussi, witnessed the 1346 siege of Caffa, in the Crimea, and wrote that the invading Mongols hurled the corpses of plague victims into the city, thereby unleashing the plague upon its inhabitants. Many fled and unwittingly spread the disease outside of the region. Although the original point source of the Black Death remains unknown, it seems likely that Caffa played a part in its spread, at least in the region.
So of course the knowledge that bubonic plague is a nasty thing led others to see it as a promising weapon. Centuries later, in 1940, the Japanese dropped bags of Yersinia-infected fleas on China, touching off a plague.
In 1763, British colonial troops in North America gave Ottawa Indians blankets that were infested with variola, the smallpox virus. Native Americans had no immunities to the disease and it burned through the population with a terrible effectiveness. This was the brainchild of Commander Sir Jeffrey Amherst. How does one look oneself in the mirror after such an atrocity? This is the kind of service that’s deserving of knighthood?
Around 400 BC, the Scythians, a nomadic people that ranged far and wide across the cold, windy steppes of central Eurasia, had archers fond of dipping arrow points into the rotting flesh of the dead before shooting them at enemies. Sometimes they smeared the points with manure. Either method could inject a victim with all manner of harmful microbes.
Not to be outdone, ancient Romans, Greeks, and Persians were not above contaminating drinking water supplies by dropping dead animals into wells. Much later, Barbarossa found this strategy much to his liking, and dropped dead soldiers into wells in the 12th century AD Battle of Tortona.
We’ve all seen movies in which some dastardly Third-World fiend slips a venomous snake or scorpion into the sleeping hero’s room. This begs the question, why not just walk up and stab him to death? Okay, it’s a plot device, I get it, and I’m certainly not above it. Anyway, in 190 BC, Hannibal had his men hurl clay jars full of venomous snakes onto enemy ships in the Battle of Eurymedon. Naturally, he won the battle. Elephants in the Alps, snakes on boats… Hannibal thought of everything.
These are just a few of the recorded examples. No doubt, the number of incidents of biological warfare in the distant past went unrecorded. Indeed, it would be shocking if this type of killing didn’t stretch far back even into prehistory, into the Paleolithic era. Furthermore, one must suppose that a lot of the ancient practitioners of biological warfare, not knowing much about what they were dealing with, also fell ill and died. That’s the nature of the beast. It’s lethal, it ain’t rocket science, it’s difficult—if not impossible—to control, and it inspires panic and terror. It does, on the other hand, inspire very little confidence in the human race.
6/19/15: A Real-Life Locked Room Mystery. Sure, it may be a literary gimmick, but the locked room mystery has even popped up a few times in real-life criminal cases. As the theory of Occam’s Razor suggests, the simplest explanation is usually the correct one, and in the real-life cases the simplest explanation turned out to be suicide, rather than murder. But that doesn’t make such a great plot line. Most notably, the 1929 case of Polish immigrant, Isidore Fink, baffled the police and remains unsolved.
Fink owned a laundry service. Lived in a heavily window-barred and locked New York apartment. One day, screams and sounds of struggle were heard, and when police investigated they found Fink dead of gunshot wounds in a locked room. A transom window over the door seemed the only point of access, and police fitted a small boy through and had him unlock the door from inside. Fink had suffered three gunshot wounds, two to the chest, one to the wrist, which also showed powder, evidence of a close-range shot. No fingerprints, other than Fink’s. No gun, so no suicide.
It seems that Fink must have been shot from the transom, but that doesn’t account for the close-range shot, nor the sounds of struggle. Nothing makes a lot of sense in the case, but there you have it. Given Fink’s reclusiveness, penchant for high security, and his mysterious death, I suspect that there was a lot more to the man than a simple laundry business. The circumstances surrounding his killing seem so unlikely, they point to a professional hit. And a professional probably don’t go gunning for laundry guys for no reason. Unless Fink's usually excellent laundering skills took a holiday and he subjected his customer to a hell of sartorial shame. That’s actually a good reason, especially in the Big Apple.
6/17/15: Wonders of the Locked Room. When Edgar Allen Poe launched the mystery genre with “Murders in the Rue Morgue” (1841), he also created a subgenre, the “locked room mystery.” A crime (almost always a murder) takes place in a locked room, and the possibility of it even have occurred defy logic and. In other words, the victim is found in a place where a perp could neither get in to kill him or her, nor out to escape detection. It’s a great extra layer of mystery, solving the howdunit as much as the whodunit.
The locked room mystery can be narrowly or broadly interpreted. In the broader sense it doesn’t necessarily require the presence of an actual locked room, just an inaccessible setting. Or not even that; it could be in an accessible place, as long as the scenario defies logic and the mechanism of the crime appears insoluble (my own novel, Brigands Key, involves a bit of locked room mystery… in this case, the “locked room” is a cave at the bottom of the sea, previously undiscovered, but containing a fresh murder victim at the very moment the cave is discovered).
In Poe’s story, the locked room was indeed a locked room, inaccessible, or so it seemed to the lesser criminal investigators. Impossible to solve, except to Monsieur Dupin, who quickly saw that it offered little resistance if one set aside one’s prejudices of method and motive.
As one would expect, Doyle gave Sherlock Holmes a go at the locked room in “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” (1892). Another early example, among the first in novel form, was The Mystery of the Yellow Room (1907), by Gaston Leroux (of Phantom of the Opera fame). A sizable portion of Agatha Christie’s most popular works revolve around locked rooms.
Many contemporary crime writers eschew devices like the locked room, and focus on the psychological aspects of crime. “Too clever,” they say. “Too gimmicky.” That’s all well and good, but why can’t the two work together? Puzzles constitute hooks, and layer in a form of intellectual suspense, which is at the heart of the traditional whodunit. Novelist Donald E. Westlake speculated that the appeal of the locked room puzzle is that it reassures us that there are logical explanations for everything. In a horror story, the locked room would be no problem; you just have an evil spirit pass through the wall, perform its fiendish deeds, and drift away again. That’s unnerving, being presented with the premise that there’s no safe place. Westlake of course knows full well the illogical and irrational nature of the human mind, and therefore he’s correct about the appeal; we know how terrible and demoralizing we can be, and we fear the unknown, so it’s comforting to set that aside and let the joys of an intellectual puzzle take us out of that.
6/10/15: Launch Platform of the Hardboiled. Mystery, as a literary genre, had bounced around a while, mostly in the clean, well-lighted parlors of the English mystery, when young writers of the early 20th century began to study the dark, gritty world all around and decided the genre needed to get down and dirty. They did and it did, and hard-hitting, hardboiled crime fiction broke into the staid drawing rooms and smashed the fine teacups. Damned Americans.
Surprisingly, H.L. Mencken, the acerbic journalist and pundit from Baltimore, played a major role in getting hardboiled, well, boiling. Mencken, along with fellow highbrow George Jean Nathan, launched the pulp magazine Black Mask in 1920. Honestly, Mencken is the last person one would have guessed started the genre…except for perhaps drama critic George Jean Nathan (the man with two first names sandwiched around a girl’s name). It’s unclear whether they had any actual interest in this stuff; they created it as a money-maker to support their money-hemorrhaging literary magazine, Smart Set.
In its infancy and in the spirit of commerce, Black Mask tried to cover many genres, perhaps too many, not just mystery. And the mystery was modeled after the English style, all prim and proper, with plenty of waxed mustaches to go around. It did okay, so you can’t fault the founders. After publishing a mere eight issues, Mencken and Nathan decided they’d made a decent profit, and sold it. The magazine continued without them, and editorial focus slowly sharpened toward grittier crime fiction. By 1927, savvy editor Joseph Shaw, who came on board in 1926, had steered the magazine almost solely into detective fiction.
Like so many pulps, Black Mask gave up-and-coming writers a chance to hone their craft and make a little money. Good ones emerged from the ranks, among them, heavyweights such as Erle Stanley Gardner, Raymond Chandler, Max Brand, and John D. MacDonald (on a side note, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, revered in my home state of Florida as an early champion of the Everglades, published in Black Mask).
To underscore the magazine’s growing quality, Dashiell Hammett’s classic, The Maltese Falcon, first appeared as a serialized story in 1929. Hard to apply the label “pulp” as a pejorative when it’s responsible for such enduring and influential work.
The typology of the hardboiled (which fashionably later gave us noir, a French word handy to film critics that allowed them to warm up to genre and claim it as their own), pretty much was born in Black Mask. In 1923, author Carroll John Daly cast the mold for the bare-knuckled private eye with Terry Mack and followed him up with the even harder-boiled Race Williams. Tough bad guys. Tougher good guys and gals. Terse, sharp dialogue. Cynicism, seediness, and darkness. The language of this new world set it apart from the polite drawing-room world of fictional crime, and made it a world of squalor and need and violence and passion, a world hinted at by Charles Dickens and subsequently ignored.
But all good things must end. Black Mask peaked in the 1930s and began a long, slow slide into the grave, finally ceasing publication in 1951, the victim of changing tastes, increased competition from film and radio, and climbing production costs. Thirty-one years, not a bad run. One might imagine its founder, Mencken, admiring its growth and influence from the sidelines, happy to have birthed a whole new genre, even if unintentionally.
6/4/2015: Setting as Character...The Parker Francis Interview. One reads a lot of novels and short stories which could be set any old place without affecting the story. They can be well done, of course, but I’m drawn to literature in which the setting is a big part of the story. Novelist Parker Francis, talented writer and master of fictional setting, agreed to shine a little light on this topic.
Welcome, Parker! Give us the nickel tour of your background and work.
Ken, thanks for letting me share space on your multifaceted blog where readers can get a peek behind the dark curtain of the Pelham mind—which is a scary thing. You asked for the nickel tour, but with inflation you only get three cents worth. I’m retired now and a full-time writer/volunteer/house husband/cat wrangler. My career was in broadcasting, public relations, and special events. Even while producing live events like the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, TV documentaries, and special programs, I always considered myself a writer. So when I retired thirteen years ago, my first task was to complete a novel I’d started several times and discarded. I did that by tossing out everything but the title and starting from scratch. That novel was the first in the Windrusher trilogy, three adventure/fantasy novels with a feline protagonist. Yes, a real four-legged cat. Why? It’s a long story, but at the time our house was dominated by a herd of the furry creatures and it seemed like the right thing to do.
I made the leap to hard-boiled mysteries in 2011 with the first Quint Mitchell Mystery, Matanzas Bay. The book had a long incubation period and won several awards before it was even published, including Florida Writers Association’s 2009 Book of the Year in the Unpublished Category. Quint has gone on to take the lead in two more mysteries, including Bring Down the Furies, the 2013 Gold Medal winner in the Florida Authors & Publishers’ President’s Awards competition. My most recent release, Hurricane Island, is off to a fast start and picking up steam as the Gulf waters heat up.
I moved from Windrusher to the Quint Mitchell Mysteries because I’ve always been a reader of mysteries and thrillers and wanted to try my hand at writing what I loved to read. It took some time to learn the ropes as mysteries are more convoluted and layered, and I’m still learning as I go.
Our backgrounds and experiences of course inform our writing. How do yours fit in, not so much in character development, but in setting?
I believe setting pulls the reader into the story, giving them an experience as close to reality as possible. Reading is a Zen-like experience where we lose ourselves in the fantasy world the writer has created, and live vicariously through the character. Let’s face it; what we do as writers is a lot of smoke and mirrors, which is why a good story is a form of magic. Does that mean we don’t really know what the hell we’re doing? Or as Homer Simpson said about jazz musicians, “Those guys are just making stuff up.” But when all the stars align and the suck gods are feeding on someone else’s soul, feathering in vivid setting licks at the proper time can make a story come to life.
I’ve always had an interest in history, which I’ve tried to weave into my stories. Setting is a part of that history since environment helps to shape the community and the people who live there. So when reading fiction I want to be able to see, smell, hear and feel the place where all the action takes place.
Is Quint Mitchell inspired by anyone, real or fictional? Do you become Quint when the police commissioner shines the Quint signal in the night sky?
Isn’t it obvious that I am Quint Mitchell? Of course Quint is younger, better looking, more athletic, smarter, quicker with a quip, and braver than me. But those are only minor points since I know what makes Quint tick—his writer, and that’s me. The truth is that I love John D. MacDonald and his Travis McGee novels. Travis wasn’t a licensed private investigator like Quint, but listed his occupation as “Salvage Consultant,” yet managed to get himself in a lot of hot water helping others—like Quint. MacDonald was one of the first crime/suspense writers to point out the impact of development on Florida’s environment. Many writers were influenced by MacDonald and the Travis McGee character, and you can see this in books by Randy Wayne White, James W. Hall, Carl Hiaasen, and many others. So I’m sure there’s a bit of Travis in Quint.
Hold on, there’s the Quint signal. Gotta go.
Sit down, you’re not going anywhere. Now then… Matanzas Bay hit all the right notes that make up St. Augustine. The heat, the sweat, the history, both ancient and not-so-ancient… The town itself becomes a vital character.
I was very familiar with St. Augustine, as we live only 25 minutes away from the Old City. It seemed the perfect place for Quint’s first mystery, a city where ghosts seemingly hover near the ancient buildings, where tourists walk brick streets, dodging slow-moving (could they go any slower? I think not) horse drawn carriages, where a violent history could be put to use in a contemporary novel. I used that history, both ancient and more recent, to fuel the conflict in the story. Many of my readers have commented on how large a part the setting played in their enjoyment of the story.
Have you ever tried to write a locale that you hadn’t visited before? How’d that work out?
Bring Down the Furies, the second Quint Mitchell Mystery, is set in a small town in South Carolina. I’d never been to Allendale, SC. Never heard of it before finding it online. Why Allendale? Quint’s hobby was archaeology, and that played a major part in Matanzas Bay, the first in the series, since it opens with Quint helping his friend, St. Augustine’s city archaeologist on a dig where he proceeds to unearth the body of the vice mayor. I was hunting for a story idea for the second book and searching the Internet for archaeological sites in the Southeast when I happened upon the Topper site outside Allendale, South Carolina, where they’ve discovered artifacts made by the pre-Clovis people dating back thousands of years. Claxons began ringing in my head, and I asked myself what if a Creationist minister feuded with the archaeologist and it boiled over into a tension-packed media circus. Now I felt I was onto something that could explode from a single idea into a longer, more compelling narrative.
With more research I learned that General Sherman’s troops had burned down the original town of Allendale during the Civil War. This bit of historical news tripped another set of creative neurons and I decided fire would play a major role in the story. That led to the idea of a serial arsonist at work in Allendale.
I’d never been to Allendale and did all my research online, including checking out Google Earth to peer at the streets and structures through the Google lenses. It seemed like your typical Southern small town. I had written maybe six or seven chapters in the book when my wife and I visited Charleston, where I’d been invited to speak to a writers group. Checking the map I saw Allendale was about two hours west of Charleston, so we took the long way home so I could scope out the town in person. I’m glad I did, but what I discovered was one of the most pathetic little towns I’d ever seen. Half the storefronts were boarded up, a motel falling in on itself, a building gutted by fire. Everything was closed that Sunday afternoon except a Hardee’s. We went there for lunch and I struck up a conversation with one of the few customers there. Turns out he was a long distance trucker, so I asked him what had happened to Allendale. He said the Interstate system happened. When I-95 and I-10 were opened, many small towns along Route 301 and the other “major” highways of the time simply dried up. Of course, when I returned home I worked this angle into the story.
Wow, that illustrates how vital knowing the locale up-close is. How about time period? Your short story, “The Strange Case of Lord Byron’s Lover,” feels atmospheric and real. Perhaps we underestimate you, but the general assumption is that you haven’t invented time travel, and yet…
“The Strange Case of Lord Byron’s Lover” was a kick to write. Getting inside the heads of famous folk like Mary Shelley, Lord Byron, and Percy Bysshe Shelley is what writers crave—or am I confusing writers with brain surgeons? This short story was part of The Alvarium Experiment, which gave rise to The Prometheus Saga anthology. All of us were working from a single premise of an alien race leaving behind a humanoid probe to track the progress of the human race over the course of 40,000 years. We could set our story at any point during that time span, and I settled on a singular historic event when the three creative icons came together in the summer of 1816 at Lord Byron’s rented estate in Lake Geneva. From that week of what has been reported by some as alcohol and drug-fueled debauchery and literary experimentation, came Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Fortunately, I found a great amount of material online about all of the principals, and various reports about the place and time of their celebrated holiday, including the fact that a massive volcanic eruption in Indonesia in late 1815 had plunged the northern hemisphere into a freakishly cool and sunless summer. This forced our characters to stay indoors and find other outlets for their energies. The gloomy atmosphere became part of the setting for the story. For the most part, all the pieces came together for Lord Byron, Mary, and Percy, along with the other characters involved, including our alien probe, Anastasia, who played a major part in helping Mary develop Frankenstein.
Fast forward now to Cedar Key and Hurricane Island…
If you’ve ever been to Cedar Key, you know it’s a pleasant enough little town on the outskirts of nowhere on the Florida Gulf Coast. Cedar Key bills itself as the little town where time stands still, and it does have the look and feel of Old Florida, if you disregard the tacky souvenir shops on Dock Street and the rows of condos.
My first visit there was about seven years ago during a high school mini-reunion with about 30 other classmates from the Jurassic Period. Unfortunately, it was a cold February weekend, but we enjoyed sitting in the waterfront restaurants, watching the sunsets, and maybe drinking a few adult beverages in the process. I immediately saw the potential in Cedar Key for a future mystery and put it in my file marked “Possible Potential Settings for a Mystery.” After Furies was published and I was casting about for the next Quint Mitchell Mystery, I decided Cedar Key was the place Quint would find a heap of trouble, since being the hero of my books brings with it both awesome responsibility and a lot of pain.
As I thought about Hurricane Island, I wanted to add some new wrinkles (and believe me, I have plenty to spare). First, there’s no direct archaeological link in the story as there were in the first two. I wanted to inject more of the elements of a thriller into this book, making it a non-stop roller coaster ride. And I think it does that since all of the major action takes place in twenty-four hours.
Another difference between Hurricane Island and the others in the series is the point of view. If you read either of the first two books, you know they’re told solely from Quint’s point of view in first person. We’re inside Quint’s head the entire time, and the reader knows everything that Quint knows, hears, and sees. That makes it the most intimate of viewpoints, but it’s also very confining staying with one character for the entire book. Hurricane Island is still Quint’s story--he’s the main character, after all--but there are also sections where we see through the eyes of the other major characters.
Hurricane Island starts innocently enough with Quint and Serena Howard in Cedar Key. Serena is Quint’s on again, off again girlfriend from Matanzas Bay. They’re visiting Woody Carpenter and his wife Kate. Woody is Quint’s old Navy buddy from the first Gulf War, a former Atlanta police detective who now captains a charter fishing boat in Cedar Key. So the expectation is for a leisurely weekend of fishing and relaxation. Reconnecting with an old friend, and enjoying a few margaritas as they watch the Gulf Coast sunsets. As you would expect, though, things don’t turn out that way. In fact, they go horribly wrong and all four of them are soon caught up in murder and kidnapping.
Two of three Quint Mitchell novels are anchored firmly in Florida, and the state produces a disproportionately high number of good suspense writers. Any theories about that?
Have you watched the news lately? Florida is the home of the weird, the incorrigible, the bizarre. The Sunshine State is where you’ll find the world’s biggest scammers, high stakes con men, and low-life grifters. You can’t make this stuff up. So it’s a free-flowing feeding ground for writers who are naturally drawn to a state where there’s no state income tax, the weather is better than decent most of the year, and we have a surplus of promising premises thrown at us every day from all corners of the peninsula, including the state capitol.
A writer can also overdo it with setting, belaboring beautiful descriptive details, piled on at the expense of story.
As in preparing and serving a good meal, you have to be careful how much sauce or gravy you ladle on or it can turn an exquisite dinner into a soggy mess. It’s always best to use a few pointed details to highlight a scene rather than try to convey too much descriptive information. Those long chunks of gray copy can send a reader scrambling for the comfort of white space. Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules for Good Writing” offers practical advice from a master. One rule tells us, “I leave out the parts readers tend to skip.” Old Elmore was probably talking about those overdone descriptive passages.
Sometimes a writer may feel he’s gone to all this trouble to research a setting, digging up a wealth of fascinating trivia, and by God, he’s going to use every detail whether you like it or not. This is the writer’s ego in control. The truth is, you don’t want setting to read like a Chamber of Commerce brochure. A few graphic details will go a long way in helping to bring the setting to life. Plus, you want the reader to invest herself in the story, and she does this by using her imagination to fill in the rest of the details.
Where will Parker/Quint be taking us?
I’m juggling a few ideas for another Quint Mitchell Mystery, but I’ve actually started on another story that might either be a stand-alone or turn into another series. It’s too early to tell, but it’s a thriller set in the near future. In my spare time, I’m working on that time travel thing you mentioned. I think I have it figured out if I can find enough plutonium.
Thanks, Parker. Please put my silver ware back in the drawer.
After a career in broadcasting and special events, in which he produced the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, Vic DiGenti turned to his first love—writing. As Parker Francis, Vic writes the Quint Mitchell Mystery series. Other writings include the short story collection, Ghostly Whispers, Secret Voices. His short story, “The Strange Case of Lord Byron’s Lover” is part of The Prometheus Saga anthology. Visit him at www.parkerfrancis.com.
5/28/15: Science vs. Mysticism in Fiction. After reading my novel, Place of Fear, a couple of reviewers clucked in disappointment that I had glommed supernatural or mystical aspects onto it. Such comments left me scratching my head and wondering if they read the same book I think I wrote.
The novel is out there, to be sure. But every far-fetched detail resides within the bounds of scientific theory, if not the current applications as we grasp them. So perhaps one’s viewing it as mysticism and the supernatural depends on how one defines those things.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary yields the following definitions for “supernatural:”
1: of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; especially: of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil
2a : departing from what is usual or normal especially so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature
2b : attributed to an invisible agent (as a ghost or spirit)
Most of us would agree with those, but the inherent flaws bubble to the surface. What exactly is the “visible observable universe?” Astronomers and physicists believe that we can’t even see most of the stuff that makes up the Universe. Is dark matter “supernatural?” We think it exists primarily because that’s what the math predicts. What about gravity? Is it “observable?” Gravity is measurable, but that’s not the same thing as observable, and physicists admit that we know little about what gravity actually is. So by broad definition, is gravity supernatural? If so, we’re all witches or warlocks or demons, practicing and invoking gravity with such gleeful abandon.
The second part of Definition #1 gets all religious. But don’t gods, demigods, spirits, or devils then require defining? If such beings or critters exist, maybe they’re natural denizens of a parallel universe. Guess what? Parallel universes fall within the realm of possibility of quantum physics (mind you, not all physicists agree on the existence of parallel universes; as yet, it’s not a testable premise).
Definition #2—departing from what is usual or normal so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature— is pretty open-ended. When the double-slit experiments were performed, and caused photons to seemingly exist simultaneously as both particle and wave, it appeared to transcend the laws of nature. But rather than fall down and rend their garments out and sacrifice a goat or two, physicists reexamined and rewrote the laws of nature. Voila! Quantum theory was born.
Certainly nowhere in my novels is there anything so preposterous as flying about on a broomstick, but we don’t bash Harry Potter for the use of magic and such. This is not a rip on Harry or his creator. J.K. Rowling did her job as a writer in building a real and consistent world for Harry and Ron and Hermione, with its own rules and internal logic, and she doesn’t violate them.
How about mindreading? No one has ever demonstrated it in a believable manner, much less proven it. Every self-proclaimed psychic you see on TV or in shows is an out-and-out fraud, using tricks that are nothing new, and are easily exposed as such. Some psychics are bigger, better frauds than others. Call them mystics if you will, but in reality they’re first-magnitude bullshitters. Yet physics doesn’t specifically preclude mindreading or telekinesis from the possible. Brain waves occupy a small range of the electromagnetic spectrum, just like visible light, infrared light, ultraviolet light, and radio waves. And waves can be detected, and even manipulated.
Now, there are physics problems with brain waves as a vehicle for telekinesis and such. Brain waves are exceedingly weak, and can only be measured to a few millimeters outside the skull. Big problem, that, with manipulating things at distance. I sidestep this by invoking quantum entanglement of particles. When particles become “entangled,” they interact with each other, no matter the distance. How they become entangled is another problem, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
A few of my characters have a limited ability to glean an inkling of the future. Again, highly unlikely, but possible. Einstein demonstrated that time and space are not separate, and are in fact parts of the same thing, space-time. Space-time is stretched and warped around all things of mass. Some physicists believe that all time exists simultaneously, or even that time itself is an illusion that doesn’t exist at all. Within these parameters, a connectedness exists between all moments already, meaning that information can pass between moments, even those that reside in our “future.” Indeed, there is some evidence suggesting that we can actually sense the future to about three or four seconds ahead in time.
The point is, most of what can be imagined is possible, and with a scientific basis. The mathematics can’t be undone; two plus two still equals four. But give Harry Potter the right technology, and he can fly on a broomstick and zap his enemies with energy fields from a stick. Put my fictional characters in touch with the right wavelengths, and they can read minds. So when I read a criticism that I’m relying on the mystical and supernatural, I settle back in smug satisfaction and cluck that the reviewer is scientifically illiterate.
All that said, an essential skill in a modern world besotted with self-proclaimed mystics is skepticism (Carl Sagan provided a primer on the “fine art of baloney detection” in his marvelous book, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, so there’s really no excuse for gullibility). The world is lousy with frauds and charlatans and self-deluded nutjobs. If someone shows up on TV claiming to possess the powers or events I’ve written in my novels, I laugh my ass off and turn the channel. Hypocritical? Not at all. The difference between fiction (an openly asserted pack of lies) and fraud (a pack of lies asserted to be the truth) matters a lot, and one might happily enjoy the first while heaping scorn upon the latter.
4/29/15: Syndromes and Sleuths. In light of current medicine and psychology, it’s safe to say that many great fictional characters clearly fall within the parameters of syndromes outside the “norm.” Is there any doubt that Sherlock Holmes, with his antisocial, obsessive, yet brilliant behaviors could be anything other than an Aspergers’ Syndrome case? Asperger’s, a high-functioning and mild form of autism, shows up in many creative persons, as it focuses an individual on certain habits and tasks, allowing them to avoid the distasteful distractions of society.
Of course, some psychologists (as well as Holmes fanatics) argue that Holmes was not an Asperger’s at all, but rather, someone with schizoid personality disorder (PD). Schizoid, for the uninitiated, is not the same as “schizophrenic.” Not even close; the latter is the famous split-personality disorder, whereas schizoid is associated with, among other things, lack of interest in social interaction, lack of interest in sex, and emotional detachment. Certainly, those could be applied to Holmes. But even with my admittedly superficial knowledge of such things, I’d wager that he was an Asperger’s.
More interesting than the correct diagnosis of Holmes’s personality disorder is that so many fans seem to obsess and debate these points with vehemence. Holmes is a fictional character, after all. Indeed, some are amazed that Doyle could write an Asperger’s character at all, many decades before Hans Asperger even diagnosed and described the disorder in 1944. Why a reader would find that surprising is a mystery. Just because the label didn’t exist doesn’t mean the syndrome and the individuals with it didn’t exist. Doyle observed real persons with specific personality traits and built a character around them. It’s called “writing.”
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