Monday, December 30, 2013

Mystery Weekend Roundup for December 28, 2013

Crime Writers Who Left Us in 2013

2013 saw the departure of some truly fine mystery and thriller writers. Fortunately, they have left us a great legacy...their words and stories.

Robert Barnard, award winning British crime writer.  He wrote dozens of novels, most of them cozies. His work was described as maliciously funny and he poked fun at hypocrites and snobs in his writing. He explained his view towards his characters by stating, “All my characters are pretty awful in one way or another, partly because they are suspects in a murder investigation and I don’t really believe that nice people are potential committers of murder.”

In 2003 he was given the Cartier Diamond Award for Lifetime Achievement by the Crime Writers Association.

Jakob Arjouni, German crime writer who wrote a popular series featuring a German-Turk private eye. Most of his books were set in Frankfort's underworld. He was one of the first German mystery writers to reach international popularity in the post World War II era. At the time he started writing, private eye novels were practically unknown in Germany. He credited his hard boiled style to formative years hanging out in a pool hall, and also reading Red Harvest, by Dashiell Hammett, at the age of 12.

His last novel, Brother Kemal, was published just before his death.

Barbara Mertz (aka Barbara Michaels), known for her historical mysteries and extensive knowledge of ancient Egypt, she wrote over 50 novels and two scholarly works on ancient Egypt. She had a doctorate in Egyptology but could not find work in the academic world. She then turned to fiction and wrote about the ancient world she loved.

Tom Clancy, author of military and spy thrillers featuring Jack Ryan. His books have sold over 100 million copies. The debut novel, The Hunt For Red October, was so accurate and realistic that when the Secretary of the Navy read it, he demanded to know who had cleared the release of classified information. Yet Clancy peppered his novel with public information available at libraries and his own imagination.

Vince Flynn, who wrote a popular series of terrorist thrillers. His protagonist, Mitch Rapp, battled corrupt politicians, nuclear terrorists and oil-rich bounty hunters. Like Tom Clancy, he tried military service, but medical problems kept him a civilian. His writing was partly motivated by it.

Jack Vance, prolific writer of mystery, science fiction and fantasy. He wrote 11 mysteries under his full name and two others under the pen name Ellery Queen. The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America made him a Grand Master in 1997.

Elmore Leonard, mystery writer of such classics as Get Shorty and Fifty-Two Pickup. He began by writing westerns, and one of his first stories, 3:10 To Yuma, was made into a movie not once, but twice. He was named a Grand Master by the Mystery Writers of America and won a Peabody Award, as well the 2012 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in recognition of his fiction by the National Book Foundation.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Oh Manuscript, Oh Manuscript! (A Holiday Carol For Writers)

For anyone who has ever submitted a query to an agent in hopes of getting published, this song will ring true! Sing to the tune "Oh, Christmas Tree".

Oh manuscript, Oh manuscript,
I long for agents calling,
with hope that they will never say
"You're storyline's appalling!"
I edit you all day and night,
to prove that I can truly write,
Oh manuscript, Oh manuscript,
I long for agents calling.

Oh manuscript, Oh manuscript,
I long for agents calling.
Revisions done, it wasn't fun.
My fingertips are bleeding.
My query's sent with greatest hope
that it will show I'm not a dope.
Oh manuscript, Oh manuscript,
I long for agents calling.

Oh manuscript, Oh manuscript,
I long for agents calling.
My hopes and dreams wait anxiously,
Rejections can be mauling.
It's ramen noodles for my next meal
Until I snag that three-book deal.
Oh manuscript, Oh manuscript,
I long for agents calling.

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Writers Born Today - H. H. Munro (aka Saki)

It's the birthday of Hector Hugh Munro, born December 18, 1870 in Burma, son of a policeman. He wrote popular short stories which combined satire with the bizarre under the pen name, Saki (taken from a Persian poem, meaning "cup-bearer").

At the age of two, his mother was killed in an accident involving a runaway cow. He was sent to live in England with two aunts whose use of corporal punishment and strict rules inspired much of his writing.

He returned to Burma in his 20s and was a policeman, but poor health forced him back to England. After returning, he started a career as a journalist and began publishing his stories. His tales satirized the hypocrisy of the Edwardian society around him. Many of the best stories are still anthologized today, including Sredni Vashtar  and Tobermory. The Open Window is a classic tale using humor and the macabre to describe a nervous guest at a country estate and his young mischievous hostess. The surprise ending shocks the reader even today.

Although he was 44 years old and exempt from military service, he volunteered for duty when World War I broke out and was sent to France. He was promoted to Lance Corporal and served with distinction. Several stories were written while he was in the trenches. He died on the front on November 16, 1916.

In an ironic twist that could have come from one of his own stories, he was killed by a german sniper after barking an order at a soldier whose smoking risked revealing their position. His last words were, "Put that damned cigarette out!".

True Crime Tuesday for December 17, 2013 (Holiday Edition)

NY Times Urges Police: Bring Drunken Santas Under Control

Here's a headline you don't see everyday, but apparently, a tipping point has been reached. The unusual editorial appeared in the NY Times last week after a rash of bad santas got inebriated, picked fist fights and urinated on neighbors' lawns. Police are blaming the crimes on the annual event known as SantaCon, in which "revelers dress up as Kris Kringle (or, at least, put on a Santa hat) and participate en masse in an often literal bar crawl, cramming 12 nights of Christmas boozing into a single afternoon."

Yeah, that's gonna be trouble. In an effort to tone down the event, NY police lieutenant John Cocchi wrote a letter to bar owners urging them to stop serving any Santa who appears too drunk to crawl into his sleigh without falling out. The organizers of SantaCon have pledged to help by stationing several dozen "helper elves" at the event next year.

Santa Busted With Gift Wrapped Weed

Cops in Pennsylvania pulled Santa over on Interstate 80 after observing some suspicious behavior (as if a man driving a sleigh pulled by 8 reindeer wasn't odd enough?). But actually, Santa wasn't in a sleigh. He was in a minivan. No wonder they pulled him over.

Prancer and Dancer were nowhere in sight, but the vehicle did have a bunch of gift wrapped packages. Inside was twenty pounds of marijuana, and now Santa is sitting in the Centre County Correctional Facility. The stash was worth about 160,000 dollars.

That's an awful lot of Christmas cheer. Looks like someone's going to be getting coal in their stockings. Maybe next year, Santa will just spike the egg nog.

Candy Cane Thrower Banned From Santa Claus Parade

The fur is flying up in Canada after a member of Parliament tossed candy canes to the local children from a float during the annual Santa Parade. Dr. Kellie Leitch was told by the president of the Creemore Business Improvement Association that she'd be placed on the naughty list if she didn't stop throwing the candy, and has been banned from next year's festivities.

The BIA president said that kids could get hurt by chasing a piece of candy that might fall under a float, endangering them and he was concerned that the candy would not be picked up once it hit the ground. "Once candy falls on the ground the kids aren’t likely to pick it up and then you have a garbage issue."

I can tell you, that would never be a problem as long as I was there...five second rule, after all. (Actually, my rule extends to five minutes, depending on the situation).

Of course, there's also the safety issue of flying shards of candy cane...she could knock someone's eye out! My glasses in the stockings this year.

Reindeer Slashed By Grinch

The Cape Cod Times has reported a shocking crime against Christmas. Vandals destroyed thousands of dollars worth of Christmas displays, including an inflatable Santa, Reindeer and sock monkey. The display by the Thompson family has delighted neighbors for the past 8 years.

Then, like in the animated TV show featuring the Grinch, a miracle happened. "People dropped off Christmas lights, a new inflatable Santa and ornaments. It will become a community display,” Richard Thompson said.

It's good to see neighbors sticking together. As for the real life Grinch, no arrests have been made, but with any luck, they will be hunted down and punished. Force feeding three year old fruitcake comes to mind as an appropriate punishment.

Gun Toting Santa Urges Criminals: Be Nice

Santa is apparently taking drastic measures to insure that former criminals turn their lives around. In British Columbia, Police Chief Bob Rich dressed as Santa and sent out cards to urge the recipients to get themselves back on the nice list this year. Otherwise, there'll be nothing under the Christmas tree for them. The card says, in part, “I know it’s pretty likely you have had a much more difficult life than most of us. The hard truth is that nothing can be done about that. But it is also true that it is never too late to make a different choice about the rest of your life.” Apparently, it has made a difference to some, as the chief says at least four people have responded positively.

Merry Christmas To You and Yours!

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Writers Born Today - Shirley Jackson

It's the birthday of Shirley Jackson, born December 14th, 1916. The author of numerous stories and novels of suspense, horror and the supernatural, she gained international fame with the publication of her short story, "The Lottery".  The story takes place in a small New England town during an annual event. It ends with a drawing, in which the unlucky winner is stoned to death in public. After it's appearance in the New Yorker, the magazine received hundreds of letters demanding an explanation, canceling subscriptions or spewing abuse. Jackson claimed that some of the letters came from people who wanted to know where the lottery was held, so they could attend and watch. Today, the story is recognized as an American classic.

Ms. Jackson gave this explanation of the story in a newspaper article a month later, stating "I suppose, I hoped, by setting a particularly brutal ancient rite in the present and in my own village to shock the story's readers with a graphic dramatization of the pointless violence and general inhumanity in their own lives."

In hindsight, the answer made perfect sense. Only three years earlier, World War II had finally ended, costing 50 million lives, most of them civilian. The stench of the Nazi death camps was still a fresh memory. Even after the war, the globe was still in turmoil. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union had begun. Just days before the story was published, the Russians cut off access to West Berlin in an effort to starve out the allies, and America once again stood on the brink of war. To a nation looking to put the past behind them and restore a semblance of sanity, the story was an unwelcome reminder of what human beings were capable of doing to one another. The twist in the story was responsible for much of its shock. It started as cozy, but finished as noir.

The story made her famous, but Shirley Jackson did not stop there. She wrote a thousand words a day almost her entire life and produced novels of horror and the supernatural that were both popular and critically acclaimed. The Wall Street Journal called The Haunting of Hill House "the greatest haunted-house story ever written". Describing her inspiration behind the novel, Shirley Jackson said "I had no choice. The ghosts were after me."

In 2010, the Library of America published a collection of her novels and stories. In an LOA interview with the editor Joyce Carol Oates, a quote appears calling Jackson's novel, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, "a masterpiece of Gothic suspense...". You can read Ms. Oates' review in the New York Review of Books.

In addition to her fiction, Shirley Jackson wrote non-fiction memoirs detailing her family life with a household of children, including Life Among The Savages and Raising Demons. She died of a heart attack in 1965. She was only 48 years old.

After her death, more of her stories were discovered and published. In August 2013, the New Yorker published her short story Paranoia for the first time. In that same month, Ms Jackson's story Louisa, Please Come Home appeared in the suspense anthology Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives. Shirley Jackson won an Edgar Award for this story in 1961, and another in 1966 for the short story, The Possibility of Evil.

In 2007, the Shirley Jackson Awards were created in her honor to recognize writers who demonstrate "outstanding achievement in the literature of psychological suspense, horror, and the dark fantastic". The award is a small, polished, and engraved stone that fits comfortably in one's hand...perfect for throwing.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Mystery Weekend Roundup for Friday December 13, 2013

Fear of Friday the 13th Has a Long History

Today is Friday the 13th, a day so rooted in ancient fears and phobias, that even in this modern age, it paralyzes some people. According to an article in the National Geographic, fear of this date will effect at least 17 million people and cost the economy almost a billion dollars in lost productivity. One historian traces the fear to the number 13 and an old Norse legend. Other associations are rooted in religion. Judas, for example, is the 13th guest at the Last Supper and betrays Christ to the Romans.

In 1980, the teen slasher film Friday the 13th was released and has spawned an entire horror movie industry.

Even today, most buildings and high rises have no 13th floor, and your chances of being assigned room 13 in your local hospital or inn are practically nil.

In a bizarre coincidence, the Apollo 13 mission, which crippled the spacecraft and nearly cost three astronauts their lives, was launched on 4-11-70. The digits total to 13. The launch time was 1:13 PM, 13:13 in military time. The crew was scheduled to arrive at the moon on April 13th. The rest, as they say, is history.

By the way, the fear of Friday the 13th is known scientifically as  friggatriskaidekaphobia. Bet you can't say that fast three times in a row.

More Gift Ideas for the Holidays

Mystery Scene Magazine has a great book list out if you're looking for gift ideas. There's something in here for everyone, whether you've been naughty or nice, including a travel book by Agatha Christie and a bio of  Raymond Chandler. New works include a recently discovered treasure chest of Dashiell Hammett stories and a great anthology of female suspense writers put together by Sarah Weinman. There's even a collection of Christmas mysteries edited by Otto Penzler.

Need more ideas? Here are some additional "Best of" lists compiled by various websites, blogs and publishers.

Best Crime Fiction 2013 from down under by Fiona Hardy.

NPR Guide to the best Mysteries and Thrillers.

Best Books of the Year from the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

Best Mystery & Thriller List from Publishers Weekly.

Goodreads Choice Awards for 2013.

Top 100 Books from the Kansas City Star.

Creativity...It's a Good Thing! Isn't It?

An interesting article crossed my desk from Slate Magazine, suggesting that while we all crow about the importance of creativity in our lives and jobs, we really don't like it.

Could this be true? After all, every resume on the planet probably contains some reference to "thinking outside the box". But in the real world, we prefer risk averse behavior, and working with people who fit inside the box...and the cubicle.

A study from Cornell University confirms this theory. But in a surprise, according the author of the study, Barry Shaw, "The effect can liberate creative people from the need to fit in and allow them to pursue their interests."

This may not be as crazy as it sounds. Many a great work of art has originated from misfits and nonconformists. The very act of writing a novel to completion is a massive act of creativity that very few of us 6 billion people ever accomplish. How many times have you ever heard the phrase, "I've always wanted to write a novel"? And how many of those people ever do?

Perhaps that's for the best. Frankly, I don't have time to read the pile of books I've got on my nightstand now!

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

TRUE CRIME TUESDAY for December 10, 2013

Definitely in the Running For Worst Boss of the Year

You can be sure that car dealer Larry Barnett won't be getting any presents on Boss's Day next year, after he tried to hire a hit man to knock off a former employee. The almost victim discovered the plot quite by accident.  Mr. Barnett was on another phone hiring the assassin when he butt dialed the victim, who overheard the plot and called police.

This economy has been rough on the average working man and woman the past five years, but there was a time when the worst that could happen was being fired. Apparently, a lot has changed in the world of business. It's becoming a lot more cutthroat...literally!

U.S. and British Spies Infiltrate Middle Earth. Will Gollum Have His Phone Tapped?

You have to hand it to our spy agencies. They'll go anywhere to uncover a terrorist plot against America...even if that means chasing down suspects like elves, gnomes and supermodels, according to an article in the New York Times. Spies have targeted World of Warcraft and Second Life, and have gone so far as to create avatars to collect data on players and recruit informants. The theory is that the games may be hotbeds of communication between terrorists. According to one memo,  "Virtual games “are an opportunity!” another 2008 N.S.A. document declared."

It's an opportunity opportunity to play games and oogle girls (which your taxes are paying for, by the way). Yeah, I can see how super models might pose a threat to national security. Bet they watched the Victoria's Secret Fashion Show this year, too.

TSA Seizes Gun at the Airport...From a Sock Monkey

Seattle resident Phyllis May, who makes sock monkeys and sells them online, got a shock at the St. Louis airport recently when a TSA agent pulled her carry-on bag from the scanner.  The small business owner was told that she had a gun in her bag, and it was seized.

 The gun actually belonged to her sock monkey. The weapon is about the size of three quarters laid end to end. It weighs less than one ounce.

When Ms. May protested, the agent allegedly said, "If I held it up to your neck, you wouldn’t know if it was real or not...". The agent also told her to contact the police about the incident.

Her sewing supplies were also seized, although she got them back, minus the weapon (naturally).

No word on the whereabouts of the sock monkey suspect, Rooster Monkburn, and we have been unable to determine if he was arrested or if bail has been set.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Writers Born Today - Emily Dickinson

It's the birthday of Emily Dickinson, born December 10, 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts. Born into a prominent family, she was educated at Mount Holyoke College, but returned home to take care of the household, as was the custom of the day for unmarried daughters. She rarely left the house and saw few visitors, but wrote over 1800 poems in the years between 1855 and 1886. Only a handful were published during her lifetime. Most of her work was not discovered until after her death. In 1890 a volume of her poetry was published and was an instant best seller. More volumes followed, and today she is considered one of the greatest poets in the English language.

She never marries and although she gained a reputation as a recluse, she was not content just to dust and clean. “God keep me from what they call households,” she exclaimed in a letter to a friend in 1850. She preferred to keep her garden, bake bread and write. The home she grew up in is now the Emily Dickinson Museum.

Because of competing family interests, it took decades for her complete works to finally be published. Much of it can be found online. You can read some of her poetry here and here.