Saturday, November 28, 2015

Writers Born Today - Jack Harris

It's the birthday of Jack H. Harris, born November 28, 1918 in Philadelphia. A film director, producer and writer, he made his start in vaudeville at the age of six. He started distributing films and this helped him learn the movie business from the inside.

He decided that producing movies was where the real money was, and produced numerous successful sci-fi and horror movies, including The Eyes of Laura Mars, Dinosauris!, and Equinox.

But he is best remembered as the man who created The Blob. Today it's recognized as a cult classic that has thrilled baby boomers for over 50 years. Made on a shoe string budget (with one shoe missing), the movie grossed 4 million dollars and made an enormous profit for Mr. Harris. The theme song, which is rather jovial in tone, was written by Burt Bacharach.

Jack received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2014 in recognition of his contributions to show business. At the age of 96, he is the oldest recipient of the award.

Jack Harris talked with radio personality Joseph J. Airdo on Breakthrough Entertainment radio about his career and how he came up with the idea for The Blob. To listen to the interview, clickety-click here.

The original theme song can be heard here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Mystery History - The Edmund Fitzgerald and the Witch of November

It was forty years ago today that the Edmund Fitzgerald, carrying 26,000 tons of iron ore, floundered and sank just north of White Fish Bay on Lake Superior, taking with it 29 sailors. There were no survivors. To this day, the exact cause of the sinking remains unknown.

It was not the first ship to sink on Lake Superior, nor the last. Storms are common on Lake Superior in winter, and the weather turns ugly in fall. Not for nothing is this period referred to as the "witch of November", when winds approaching hurricane force winds rage across the Great Lakes.  In the past three centuries, over 10,000 vessels have sunk on the Great Lakes, with 30,000 lives lost. 40 % of these wrecks occur in November, more than any other month.

But no one could have conceived this fate would befall the Edmund Fitzgerald. Known as the "Queen of the Great Lakes", the Edmund Fitzgerald was one of the largest ore freighters ever built, 729 feet long. It had made hundreds of trips across the lakes in all types of weather. Launched in 1958, the ship had set cargo haul records six years out of 17 that she plied the lakes. The captain, Ernest M. McSorley, was an experienced pilot.

Another ship, the Arthur M. Anderson, was following the Edmund Fitzgerald that night and received several radio messages from her. They had taken on water, but their pumps were keeping up, and the ship was holding its own. The winds were gusting up to 86 miles per hour and the waves topped 35 feet. At 7:10 PM, both ships were in radio contact but at 7:15 PM the Arthur M. Anderson lost radar contact with the Edmund Fitzgerald. The radio operator on the Anderson tried to contact the Fitzgerald, but there was no response. It was the last anyone ever hear from the ill fated ship. No distress signal was sent.

By 8 PM the Arthur M. Anderson had contacted the Coast Guard and reached port in Whitefish Bay. The Edmund Fitzgerald had not, and a massive search was soon underway. Several life jackets and other debris were found, but no crew members.

On November 14th the U.S. Navy discovered the Edmund Fitzgerald in 530 feet of water about 15 miles west of Deadman's Cove. In the past thirty years several dives with submersible equipment have surveyed the wreckage, but to this day, the exact cause of the sinking remains a mystery.

On July 4th, 1995 the bell from the Edmund Fitzgerald was brought to the surface. It now rests in the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum at Whitefish Point. A replica copy of the bell, inscribed with the names of the lost crew, was taken down to the wreck and placed in the pilothouse, as a grave marker.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

TRUE CRIME TUESDAY - Feds Asked to Prosecute Man Who Killed Thousands of Horses. Their Response? Neigh!

Between 2008 and 2012, the Bureau of Land Management, which is responsible for the care of wild horses across the western U.S., sold 1,794 wild horses to a Colorado rancher named Tom Davis, according to an article by Lisa Rein in the Washington Post.  Mr. Davis said he would find homes for the wild horses, descended from Spanish stallions brought to America hundreds of years ago. He even signed a legal contract agreeing to the terms.

Instead, he sold them to slaughterhouses, where the animals suffered under inhumane conditions before being butchered for their meat. When the first reports of his horses being sold to slaughterhouses were made, the law enforcement arm of the Bureau (OLE) investigated and during two separate interviews Davis lied and said the animals went to good homes. Much later, he confessed that the animals were sold for slaughter.

Wanna hear the worst part? (or the best, depending on your point of view). Tom Davis paid just $10.00 a head for the horses. Quite a bargain. Of course, it cost $140,000 dollars to transport the horses to Davis's ranch, so he could turn the animals over the the slaughterhouse buyers. That's a lot of money.

But he didn't have to foot the bill for that. The taxpayers did it for him. That's right. The Bureau paid the expense to transport the animals into the hands of their killer.

Is this a great country, or what? Well, I guess it is if you're a wealthy rancher who violates a legal contract to make a few bucks ($200,000 dollars profit, actually).

To their credit, the Bureau asked federal authorities to prosecute Mr. Davis after their investigation uncovered the truth. But...they declined. I guess they have more important things to do.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Writers Born Today - Linda Rodriguez

It's the birthday of poet and mystery writer Linda Rodriguez, born October 24th in Fowler, Kansas. Her first novel, Every Last Secret, won the Malice Domestic Award for Best First Traditional Mystery Novel in 2011.

It features a Cherokee police chief named Marquitta "Skeet" Bannion who leaves her career in a big metropolitan police force for a small town. She soon finds herself embroiled in a murder on a college campus and tangling with some pretty powerful people who don't appreciate her efforts.

The novel won praise from readers and writers alike. Best selling author Julia Spencer-Fleming called it "a triple crown winner; superb writing, hell for leather plotting and terrific characters."

Linda has published two more novels in this highly acclaimed series, including Every Broken Trust and Every Hidden Fear.

In addition to the Malice Domestic Award, she has won the ArtsKC (Kansas City) Fund Inspiration Award, an Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, and a Midwest Voices and Visions Award. Linda has also served as President of the Sisters In Crime Border Chapter and Vice-President of the Latino Writer's Collective.

Her poems, including The Sun Grows In Your Smile, have been read by Garrison Keillor on The Writer's Almanac. They appeared in her poetry collection, Heart's Migration. You can listen to them here.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Writers Born Today - Helen Nielsen

It's the birthday of Helen Nielsen, born October 23, 1918 in Roseville, Illinois. She studied art and drafting before the outbreak of World War II. During the war she worked in a California airplane factory helping to design bombers and fighter planes, including the P-80, one of the first jet fighters.

After the war she stayed in California and wrote for several television shows, including Perry Mason and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. As a way to amuse her nieces and nephews, she would sometime use their names in a TV script to delight the kids.

When not penning scripts for TV, she wrote short stories and novels. Her first novel came out in 1951, The Kind Man, and her second, Gold Coast Nocturne, was made into a movie called Murder By Proxy.

Thanks to the growing interest in the mystery genre Domestic Suspense, some of her work is coming back into print. Two of her novels were reprinted by Black Lizard, Detour and Sing Me a Murder. Prologue Books has made many of her novels available as ebooks.

Her short story, Don't Sit Under The Apple Tree, was included in the widely praised anthology Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives, edited by Sarah Weinman.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Don't look away from Blind Spot

Odell DeCruz (aka Dingo), fancies himself a criminal mastermind with great ambitions, a modern day Moriarty. Marshall Quinn, a college professor, lives comfortably in his insulated world with wife and child. One day the lives of these two men intersect, and nothing will ever be the same again. And not just for these two polar opposites. Odell is not the only criminal and Marshall not the only victim in this tense drama.

Tom Kakonis has written a suspense thriller packed with desperate hopes and stolen dreams. The reader sees, hears and smells the blue collar bars that pepper industrial Chicago, its bucolic suburbs and sad, gray police stations where detectives pursue dead end leads in a desperate search for a little boy. Kakonis uses his brush with expertise to paint a startling canvas that reveals the hidden world of child trafficking.

When Marshall Quinn takes his toddler to an amusement park he doesn't expect his day of relaxation to turn into a nightmare. But that's what happens when little Jeffie disappears. It's every parent's worst fear. Driven by guilt, Marshall canvases the city with posters and pictures of his stolen son. After weeks turn into months it seems futile. Then a chance encounter at a freeway toll booth give Marshall and his wife hope. A woman in a Mercury next to his glances at the poster in Marshall's window and with widening eyes mouths the words, "I know that kid."

The car vanishes, but Marshall is now convinced that someone has seen Jeffie. Using a partial license plate, a bumper sticker and a description of the vehicle (not enough, according to the detective working his son's case), Marshall combs the industrial parks and factories on the tough side of town as his wife Lori begins to emerge from the paralysis of her grief. Marshall's out of his element, but a brutal beating by one of Dingo's henchmen isn't enough to dissuade him.

What he doesn't bargain for is the fact that the Norma and Buck, the couple that adopted Jeffie on the black market, may not want to be found, even as their suspicions are awaken. They've already lost one child. They're not going to lose another, regardless of who gets hurt.

As for Dingo, this may be just a business deal, but in his line of work, there are no refunds or returns. He'll do whatever it takes to remove this "little problem" that could land him behind bars for a very long time.

As these three forces threaten to collide in a final confrontation, you'll be holding your breath until the very end. Just don't take your eyes off the page. Blind Spot packs a punch that strikes you right in the gut.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Writers Born Today - James Thompson

It's the birthday of James Thompson, born October 16, 1964 in Kentucky. In his short life he wore many hats, one of the reasons his writing has such an enormous impact. He knew his characters, both the mighty and the fallen. His Inspector Kari Vaara novels have set the standard for Finnish Noir. They explore the dark side of Finnish society that few see; topics like prostitution, racism and alcoholism.

Before publishing his first novel, he was a bartender, a soldier, a construction worker, a coin dealer and a photographer. In 1998 he moved to Finland and got his master's degree. He learned Finnish and spoke other languages as well. But it was Finland that changed him, and where he gained his success as a writer.

A chance encounter with a major European publisher in 2008 lead to his first contract and first published novel. In 2009, his second novel and the first of the Inspector Vaara series was published. Snow Angels became his breakout novel, and was nominated for several awards, including the Edgar Award.  Thompson's fictional hero has been compared to Harry Bosch and John Rebus.

Thompson followed this up in 2011 with Lucifer's Tears, which proved that he was no one-hit wonder. It garnered multiple starred reviews. Booklist declared it was "impossible to put down", and Kirkus called it one of the best novels of the year.

And yet, it almost didn't make it to the printed page. No one knew it at the time, but Thompson was suffering from crippling migraines. A doctor suggested a change of scenery with more sun. Thompson left Finland for Spain, where he plugged away at the novel. Halfway through, he tossed it in the garbage and started again. The climate in Spain didn't help his illness, but he forced himself to continue on the new draft.

As he put it, "The number of hours I was well enough to sit at the keyboard and write was limited, so I would lie down and imagine the next scenes, and write them out when I was able. The worse I got, the worse Kari got. I wrote in long bursts. The last fifteen pages were typed in one day. I remember typing THE END, and feeling both relieved that it was over, but it’s a harsh novel. I was afraid I had gone too far. I had, however, for good or ill, written the book that I wanted to write.

I sent it to my agent. He told me it was a huge step forward in my growth as a writer. There’s a lesson in there, but I don’t know what it is."

More Vaara novels followed, Helsinki White in 2012 and Helsinki Blood in 2013. His works have been translated into twenty languages and are available around the globe. He also edited and contributed to Helsinki Noir, a collection of noir short stories published by Akashic Books.

Tragically, he passed away in 2014.

“Finland, the myths and truths. Internationally, it has a reputation as perhaps the best place in the world to live. A great economy. A low crime rate. There is some truth to this, but like every country, Finland has many truths . Finland is, like the theme so often explored in Star Trek, a parallel universe in which, on the surface, all seems normal, but under that shell lie vast differences . . . "

- James Thompson, Helsinki Noir