Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Writers Born Today - Franz Kafka

It's the birthday of Franz Kafka, born on July 3rd 1883 in Prague, now part of the Czech Republic. He produced disturbing fiction centered on alienation and psychological torture, and his protagonist often faced a bizarre bureaucracy which worked against him without explanation or guidance. One of his stories, The Metamorphisis, tells the tale of a man who awakes to find he has changed into an enormous insect. It's theme of isolation and eventual death was described by W.H Auden as "the predicament of modern man". Gabriel Garcia Marquez credited this story as inspiration for his decision to pursue a writing career. In an interview he stated "When I read the line I thought to myself that I didn't know anyone was allowed to write things like that. If I had known, I would have started writing a long time ago. So I immediately started writing short stories."

During his lifetime Kafka published little, but after his death he became one of the most influential novelists of the 20th century. Kafka burned much of his writing while still alive but fortunately his friend, Max Brod, ignored Kafka's request that the rest of his writings be destroyed.

His best known novel, The Trial, tells of the arrest of a man who is never informed what charges have been placed against him. Without this knowledge he is unable to defend himself against a faceless organization that leaves him in a state of ignorance and limbo. Its opening line is one of the most
famous and frightening in all of literature. "Someone must have been spreading lies about Josef K., for without having done anything wrong he was arrested one morning." It eerily foresaw the rise of the 1930s show trials in Stalin's Russia and Nazi Germany which destroyed countless innocent lives, many of whom were convicted on rumors and false confessions that were extracted by torture. His novels were banned in his native land until 1989. The Trial was made into a movie by Orson Welles in 1962 starring Anthony Perkins.

So well known is his style that his name has entered the lexicon as a description of inescapable obstacles created by an unknown entity. The word Kafkaesque is thus defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary:  having a nightmarishly complex, bizarre, or illogical quality <Kafkaesque bureaucratic delays>

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Writers Born Today - Ambrose Bierce

Lottery: A tax on people who are bad at math.
                                                                                                    - Ambrose Bierce

It's the birthday of Ambrose Bierce, born June 24, 1842 in a log cabin in Ohio. As a writer he is best known for his short stories of war and the macabre. His civil war story, An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge, is one of the most anthologized in American Literature. He also wrote a satirical lexicon famously known as The Devil's Dictionary. In it he skewers knaves, fools, and politicians with equal vigor and this work was in part responsible for his nickname, "Bitter Bierce".

His parents instilled in him a lifelong love of literature and words, and when he left home at age 15 it was to take a job as a printer's apprentice at a newspaper. When the Civil War began he enrolled and served in some of the most horrific fighting the nation had ever seen, including Shiloh and Kennesaw Mountain, where he was wounded. Much of his wartime experiences found their way into his stories.

After the war he traveled west and wrote columns for several newspapers. His reputation grew after he joined the San Francisco Examiner and wrote a column called The Prattle. He exposed a plot by the railroads to get a bill passed through Congress that would forgive millions of dollars in government loans. When the head of one of the railroads offered him a bribe and asked that Bierce "name his price" to keep quiet about the bill, Bierce declared the price was 130 million dollars, payable to the U.S. Treasury. His efforts killed the bill and established his reputation as an incorruptible journalist.

Even as his fame grew, Bierce suffered from tragedy in his personal life. Two of his sons died while young, one by suicide, and his marriage failed. In 1913 he traveled to Mexico to cover the revolution there for William Randolph Hearst. His last known location was the town of Chihuahua. He disappeared and was never heard from again.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Writers Born Today - Sandra Scoppettone

It's the birthday of Sandra Scoppettone, award winning crime writer born June 1st, 1936 in Morristown, New Jersey.

She didn't start out writing mysteries. Her second novel, The Late Great Me, dealt with teenage alcoholism and was made into a television special that won an Emmy Award. Her next book, Happy Endings Are All Alike was chosen by the American Library Association for its Best Young Adult list. It was one of the first young adult novels to depict a gay relationship.

After an initial burst of success as a young adult novelist in the 1970s, her career seemed to hit a wall. As she put it, "I couldn’t get arrested. So I went into a funk and lay on the couch reading one crime novel after another, mostly PIs. After about a month of this a male voice started talking in my head. I thought that either I was going crazy or he was my next protagonist. I decided on the latter."

Since the voice in her head was male, she decided to use a male pen name, Jack Early, to write a PI novel. At a time when most women couldn't get crime fiction published or reviewed, it was a stroke of genius. The result, A Creative Kind of Killer was nominated for an Edgar Award and won the Shamus Award in 1985 for Best First P.I. novel. She wrote two more novels as Jack Early, Razamatazz and Donato & Daughter before reverting to her real name.

In 1991 she published the first in the Lauren Laurano P.I. novel series, Everything You Have Is Mine. The series featured a smart and sassy lesbian private eye, one of the first to depict gay characters who work, fall in love, have affairs, and get mixed up in murder, just like "normal" people.  She followed it up with I'll Be Leaving You Always, My Sweet Untraceable You, Let''s Face The Music and Die, and Gonna Take A Homicidal Journey.

She also wrote two novels featuring a secretary who takes over her boss's P.I. practice while he serves in the armed forces during World War II. This Dame For Hire and Too Darn Hot featured a scrappy character named Faye Quick. These books were my first introduction to this remarkable writer, but certainly not the last ones I read. 

Sandra Scoppettone is one of the founding mothers of Sisters In Crime. The meeting which started the organization took place in her apartment in Soho.

To read more about her, check out these interviews, with Allan Guthrie, and Sarah Weinman

Many of her books are now available as ebooks. For a bibliography with links to purchase her novels, start here.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Mystery Weekend Roundup for May 31, 2014

How To Write The Great American Mystery Novel

If you're looking for clues on how to write the Great American Mystery Novel, look no further. Vicki Delany, C.B. Forrest, Hilary McLeod, and Rick Mofina, among others, peel back the secrets to successful authorship in this article from the Ottawa Citizen.

They're all highly successful writers, so their tips are sure to help as you stare at that blank screen. By the way, these writers are Canadian, but don't let that deter you. The advice is dead on, no matter what your nationality. Besides, we Americans know good advice when we steal it.

The House of Poe Has Reopened

The Baltimore home of Edgar Allen Poe has reopened after two years of repairs and renovations. The home is now under the management of  Poe Baltimore, a nonprofit group dedicated to preserving Poe's legacy in the coastal city.

It was here that Poe wrote one of his earliest works, Ms. Found In A Bottle, which helped get his writing career kick started.

For more on the Poe House including opening hours, check out the Style Blog in the Washington Post.

Mary Stewart, Suspense and Fantasy Novelist, Dead At 97

Mary Stewart, who wrote suspense and romantic thrillers, then made a successful switch to fantasy with novels about wizards, has passed away. Her novels included  Touch Not The Cat and This Rough Magic. She was among the first novelists to combine elements of mystery and suspense with romance. Her switch to Arthurian legends brought her a whole new generation of readers and proved that writers could jump from one genre to another (well, the goods ones, anyway). She was interviewed by Raymond H Thompson in 1989 as part of the Camelot Project in Scotland.

You can read her obituary in The Guardian. Although I did not read her much, she inspired a great many of today's writers, including mystery writer Julia Buckley, who penned this moving tribute to Mary Stewart on her own blog, Mysterious Musings.

What Sub-Genre Are You?

If you've ever submitted your story or novel to an editor or agent, you've no doubt gone over the submission guidelines with a microscope. If so, you may be more confused than ever. Agents aren't just looking for "mystery" novels. They want "thrillers", or "cozies", or only "noir". If you have any hope if  avoiding the slush pile, you need to get these categories defined so you can target your audience with your manuscript.

Award winning author Libby Fischer Hellman has a great article on her blog that will help sort out this confusing collection of categories. It was written for readers, but you'll find it invaluable. So, Choose Your Type.

Anybody Wanna Buy A Castle? Vampires Included

Spring is the time when house hunting heats up, so if you're in the market for a new home, you may want to check out some of these listings. They include the homes of Ray Bradbury, Norman Mailer, Ernest Hemingway, and a castle which was the home of the real Count Dracula.

The latter has 57 rooms in which to hide from your blood sucking host on an idyllic 22 acres. Happy Hunting!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Writers Born Today - Dashiell Hammett

It's the birthday of Dashiell Hammett, born 120 years ago today on May 27th 1894 in St Mary's County, Maryland. One of the finest writers of the 20th century, he invented the hard-boiled detective genre and inspired an entire generation of mystery writers. Raymond Chandler said of his prose, "He did over and over again what only the best writers can ever do at all. He wrote scenes that seemed never to have been written before". His work forced critics to treat mystery novels as a serious literary form. Red Harvest, his first novel, was named as one of the top novels written since 1923 by Time magazine (the publication's start).

 He grew up in Philadelphia and left school at the age of 13 to work in a series of odd jobs. As a young man he worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency as one of their operatives and later based much of his fiction on his work there.  As he put it, "All of my characters were based on people I've known personally, or known about".  He wrote much of his fiction while living in San Francisco after leaving Pinkerton's due to health problems. Many of his early stories found their way into the magazine Black Mask. It was here that Hammett perfected his style of the lone detective who stands up against an uncaring world, fortified by his personal sense of honor and a stiff drink.

Red Harvest was published in 1929 to immediate critical acclaim. It was quickly followed by The Dain Curse (1929), The Maltese Falcon (1930), and The Glass Key (1931). His last novel, The Thin Man, was published in 1934.

It was The Maltese Falcon which firmly established Hammett's reputation as a masterful writer, and was later turned into a movie three times, the last version starring Humphrey Bogart. Hollywood also filmed The Thin Man, and produced several film sequels.

Despite serving honorably in both world wars (he was 48 years old when he volunteered for service in World War II), Hammett was questioned by the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953. He refused to answer questions about his associations with civil rights groups. Two years earlier he had gone to prison for refusing to answer questions about a fund which provided bail money for suspects in a political witch hunt.  For a time he was blacklisted and unable to work in Hollywood or publish. Today, however, all of his works are back in print. A collection of his early stories was published in 2005.

Many of the locations in his stories and novels can still be found in modern day San Francisco, and the home he lived in still exists. For a peek at where Hammett lived, check out this article by award winning writer Mark Coggins.

Dashiell Hammett died on January 10, 1961. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Mystery History - Raymond Burr Born Today

It's the birthday of Canadian actor Raymond Burr, born May 21st, 1917 in British Columbia. He is most famous for his role as an incorruptible defense attorney for the downtrodden in the television series Perry Mason

But Burr was a versatile actor. Long before he gained national recognition for his role as Perry Mason, he had starred in numerous radio and film crime dramas. He not only played a defense attorney on Perry Mason, but also a police detective on the TV show Ironside, a prosecuting attorney in the movie A Place in the Sun, and a judge in the made for TV movie Perry Mason Returns. The only courtroom role he didn't play was that of a juror.

Early film roles often cast him on the other side of the law. He played a gangster in Desperate, made in 1947. Natalie Wood starred with him in A Cry In The Night, with Burr as a psychotic stalker. He portrayed a murderer in Rear Window and was even a murder victim twice, in The Blue Gardenia with Anne Baxter and again in Please Murder Me with Angela Landsbury.  No other actor portrayed so many different courtroom and crime roles in his career, let alone so successfully. When he auditioned for the new TV series Perry Mason, he initially sought the role of the prosecutor, Hamilton Burger. But when Erle Stanley Gardner saw him, he reportedly declared "There's my Perry Mason".

Burr beat out over 100 other actors who sought the role, including Mike Connors, Fred MacMurray, and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. His starring role as an attorney in the noir film, Please Murder Me, released only a few months before his screen test, may have helped him win the role.

The choice did not go over well with critics, who still saw Burr as an actor playing criminal parts. But he soon proved them wrong.  The show ran for nine seasons and earned him two Emmy Awards for Best Actor in a dramatic series.

After leaving the show he starred for 7 seasons as a paraplegic detective in the TV show Ironside. It was one of the first shows on television to star an actor portraying a handicapped lead character. He was nominated for six Emmys in this role but didn't win one. Raymond Burr later reprised his role as Perry Mason in several made for TV movies starting in 1989 with Perry Mason Returns, defending Della Street against a murder charge.

In 1981 Canada included him in one of the stamps celebrating Canadians in Film. He also appeared in a commemorative stamp series issued by the U.S. Post Office called Early TV Memories.

In 1986 Raymond Burr planted grapes on his property in southern California. The result was the Raymond Burr Vineyards, which still produces fine wines today.

His interest in orchids led him to create several new species, one of which he named after Barbara Hale, his Perry Mason co-star who portrayed Della Street.

Burr influenced dozens of actors and writers with his powerful screen roles. Read one example about how Raymond Burr inspired the crime novelist Joel Goldman in his blog post, Why I Write.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

True Crime Tuesday for May 20, 2014

Woman's Car Stolen, Later Found At Car Dealer For Sale

A woman who reported her car was stolen thought she'd never get it back as the months went by with no word from the police or the Department of Motor Vehicles. But she decided to call the DMV as a last resort, to see if they knew anything.

Their answer? Oh yeah, we know where it a car dealer. They put it up for sale!

Erica Battle wasted no time claiming her vehicle, but was shocked to learn that no charges could be filed against the dealer. The business apparently send her a letter after towing the abandoned auto, but it came back Return To Sender, so they decided to sell it.

To add insult to injury, the charges against the thief were dropped because he was a cousin of the woman's boyfriend, who had permission to borrow it. Blood, apparently, is thicker than evidence.

Read more about this shady outcome at Channel 6 in Portland, Oregon.

Sister Billed $56,900 dollars For Cleanup of Murder Scene

A woman whose sister was murdered signed a contract with a company that specializes in crime scene cleanup just hours after learning of the loss of her sibling, and later got another shock when the bill

$56, 909 dollars for the cleanup. When the insurance balked at paying the hefty bill, the company put a lien on the murder victim's home.

The company, Aftermath, has been fined numerous times in the past for violating consumer protection laws in Ohio, according to the attorney general, but apparently they haven't learned their lesson. The claim was eventually settled and the local police department has been instructed not to recommend the company anymore.

News Net 5 in Cleveland has more on this shocking story.

Payback's A Bitch

A rapist who fled the scene of the crime crashed his car and was killed after the victim managed to escape the car and alert police.

You're smiling aren't you?

Excuse me, I should say, alleged rapist. After all, the suspect hasn't been convicted in a court of law. Although I have a feeling that he'll be facing a higher court now, where the truth will emerge and all judgements are final. Read more about the case at PhillyConfidential.