Friday, January 31, 2014

Mystery Weekend Roundup for January 31, 2013

New Years Resolutions For Writers

Is the ink dry on that list you've made for the coming year? If not, consider adding a few resolutions from my bucket list, 101 Things To Do Before You Die (For Crime Writers). It's lots of fun and may just be useful (though I make no promises). Some of my favorites:

#19. Contact your local coroner and ask to witness an autopsy. Go on an empty stomach and take nose plugs.

# 52. Make a movie trailer for your first/next book release and post it on your blog.

#73. Go into the attic and dig out an old family photo that has a scene or family member who no one remembers or can name. Study the photo. Write their story. Include a crime.

#90. Listen to some Crime Jazz while you write. Click here for a good example, from the original movie version, The Taking of Pelham, One, Two, Three.

Visit The Poe House in the Bronx...In The Spring

You may not want to visit this week, but as the weather warms up, consider a pilgrimage to one of the lesser known Poe homes, located in the Bronx. I didn't know it still existed. Smithsonian Magazine has a great article on the home that Poe occupied from 1846 until his death three years later.

At the time the cottage was in a scenic woodland, and Poe rented it for 100 dollars a year. It served as the inspiration for the final story published during his lifetime, published on June 9, 1849. You can read the story here: Landor's Cottage.

Writer's Conference Update

Brave souls are traveling to Chicago next week for the Love Is Murder Writer's Conference. Lots of great authors will be there, including Marcus Sakey, Heather Graham and Shane Gericke. Even if you're not going, check out the website for some great news in the world of mystery, including Weird Writing Rituals, (example, Vladimir Nabokov liked to write in a parked car).

If you like a warmer setting, try the SleuthFest 2014 Writer's Conference, taking place in Orlando, Florida at the end of February. Laura Lippman, Ace Atkins and Hank Phillippi Ryan will be there.

Murder, She Won't

NBC has announced they are cancelling plans for a new version of Murder, She Wrote, which would have starred Octavia Spencer as the amateur sleuth. The original series ran for 12 years from 1984 to 1996. NBC may revive the idea at a later date.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

TRUE CRIME TUESDAY for January 28, 2014

Kidnapping For Ransom - An Unexpected Discovery

“Mr Ros, be not uneasy, you son charley bruster be all writ we is got him and no powers on earth can deliver out of our hand.”

It's not what Rebecca or her mom expected to find in a pile of hand written letters they discovered tucked away in their attic in Germantown, Pennsylvania. They weren't love letters. It was something more sinister, and it turned out to be a lost piece of American Crime lore.

The first kidnap ransom notes in U.S. history.

Long before the Lindbergh kidnapping, there was the story of Charles Brewster Ross, a four year old boy taken from the streets of Philadelphia and held for ransom.

It was July 1, 1874 when two men lured Charley Ross, 4 years and Walter Ross, 6 years of age,  into their horse drawn buggy with the promise of candy. Walter was abandoned by the kidnappers at a merchant store. Charley disappeared. Their father, Christian Ross, at first got little help from the police, who assured him that Charley would turn up. The first ransom note appeared a few days later.

The kidnappers demanded 20,000 dollars, worth $400,000 today. The police urged Christian not to pay, "for fear it would inspire copycat crimes". They had no expertise or experience with this sort of crime. In fact, it was a crime unheard of in law enforcement. But the police did post handbills up and down the east coast, alerting other police departments to be on the lookout for the kidnapped boy. Telegraphs spread the news and soon all of America was helping in the search. In a sense, it was the nation's first Amber Alert.

Ross communicated with the kidnappers by means of ads in the Philadelphia Public Ledger, a local newspaper. The distraught father spent thousands of dollars on futile leads. Private detectives from the Pinkerton Agency were hired, and even the Secret Service got involved in the hunt.

New York police finally identified two suspects, but in a dramatic turn of events that sounds like a chapter from a James Patterson thriller, the suspects were shot during a robbery. Both men died, but not before one of them confessed to kidnapping Charley Ross. Sadly, the child was never found.

In 1875, Pennsylvania became the first state to change kidnapping from a misdemeanor to a felony crime.

Read more about this tragic crime, and the discovery of the ransom letters 138 years later, at the Smithsonian, Historic Germantown, and Penn State University.

Son of Nazi-era Art Dealer Willing to Discuss Restitution for Looted Masterpieces

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, Hannes Hartung has reversed his previous stance and says he is now willing to discuss returning any looted artwork found by Munich police in his father's apartment.  The article quotes him as saying "we are trying hard to find fair solutions for looted works in accordance with the Washington Principles"... referring to international guidelines that Germany signed in 1998. But obstacles remain. A law written to provide restitution to Jews forced to sell artwork during the 1930s has expired.

In other news, an Austrian museum has pledged to returned thousands of books and religious objects that were plundered during World War II. The Salzburg museum housed items of historical interest to the Nazis, including items used to buffer the nazis' belief in the superiority of the Aryan race. Some of the loot included African hunting trophies, such as lion skins and stuffed animals.


Tuesday, January 21, 2014

TRUE CRIME TUESDAY for January 21, 2014

Thieves Uncover Massive FBI Domestic Surveillance

They were the most unlikely team of burglars ever assembled. One was a college professor, another a cab driver. They surveyed the neighborhood, and one of them even entered the target, a small office building in Pennsylvania, to case the joint while posing as a college student. Finally on March 8, 1971, while the country watched the Frasier - Ali boxing match, they struck. With a crowbar and a lot of nerve,  they broke into the office and filled several suitcases. They rendezvoused at a small barn in Pottstown to divide the loot and then split up, never to meet again as a team. They were never caught.

It was the perfect crime.

What's more, it change the course of U.S. history, blowing the lid off a secret spy empire built by the most powerful man in America.

It wasn't gold the thieves were after. Not cash, jewels or negotiable bonds. The burglars were looking for something far more valuable - information. Information about the FBI's massive domestic spying program on ordinary Americans, whose only crime in most cases was exercising their civil rights. Some of the revelations included a shocking attempt by the FBI to blackmail Martin Luther King, Jr., in order  to discredit the Civil Rights movement.

Many of the memos and documents were mailed anonymously to major news organizations, including the Washington Post and the New York Times, who published front page articles about the scandal. Hearings in Congress followed, headed by Senator Frank Church, whose final report from the Church Committee declared "Too many people have been spied upon by too many government agencies, and too much information has been collected."

Now, several of the men involved in the burglary have stepped forward to tell their story. The statute of limitations on their crime has long expired, but the changes they initiated survive. In light of the latest domestic spy revelations by Edward Snowden, their story is even more important today.

“We did it … because somebody had to do it,” John Raines, 80, a retired professor of religion at Temple University, said  in an interview with NBC News. Some of the agents involved in the original burglary investigation disagree. According to one FBI agent, the burglars “are criminals, not patriots.”

Personally, I think the men and women involved in this burglary did our nation a great service. But decide for yourself. Watch the NY Times video here:

Then read more about this story at the New York Times and NBC.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Writers Born Today - Patricia Highsmith

It's the birthday of Patricia Highsmith, born January 19, 1921 in Fort Worth, Texas. She resented being categorized as a crime novelist. Although most of her stories involve a crime, psychological thriller may be more accurate in describing her work. A common theme involves the fate of average men and women thrust into circumstances that require desperate measures to survive. Many of her characters were amoral figures who ultimately escape punishment and even thrive, despite their crimes. In this regard, her fiction can be considered more honest and realistic than many popular mystery and detective novels, and thus far more disturbing.

She had an unhappy childhood, shuffled between her home and life with her grandmother. She once wrote in a notebook, "One situation—one alone, could drive me to murder: family life, togetherness." Despite numerous relationships, she never married (partly because she couldn't, more likely because she wouldn't) and was not overly fond of children. "“I am married to my mother", she once said. "I shall never wed another."

After graduating from Barnard College she lived in Greenwich Village while writing. (Click here to see an interactive map of her neighborhood.) Her first novel, Strangers on a Train was published in 1950 to good reviews and after Hitchcock made a film version, Highsmith's reputation soared. The plot centers around two strangers, Guy Haines and Charles Bruno, who met through a chance encounter and casually discuss people they'd like to see dead. One of the men, Bruno, follows through on this and kills Guy's wife. He then pressures Guy to uphold his end of the bargain by killing Bruno's father. Threats and blackmail soon follow and the pressure builds as Bruno's obsession and Guy's guilt threaten to destroy them both.

More novels followed including The Talented Mr. Ripley, and several of them were adapted for the screen. She also wrote short stories. You can read a review of one of my favorite Highsmith collections on the Friday Forgotten Books List (inspired by Patti Abbott), The Animal Lover's Book of Beastly Murder.

Patricia Highsmith moved to England and France before settling in Switzerland. She died in 1995. You can read an excerpt from Joan Schenkar's excellent biography, The Talented Miss Highsmith, in which she prints one of the many lists the writer was fond of creating, called Little Crimes For Little Tots (example, 'Replacing roller skate on stairs, once mother has removed it'). You can also listen to an audio lecture on Patricia Highsmith, given at the Greenwich Village Society For Historic Preservation.

Of course, you could also read her books. I think she'd be pleased.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Mystery Weekend Roundup for January 18, 2014

Flowers In The Attic Returns to Television

When V.C. Andrews wrote her novel, Flowers In The Attic, there were few hints that it would become a cult classic with readers around the world. The shocking themes of  child abuse and incest were unknown in teen horror novels at the time. It's popularity has a lot to do with the pains of adolescence, as teens, particularly girls, struggled with new feelings as they grew into adulthood. And who can't sympathize with children locked in an attic by a cruel grandmother? The storyline could have come from the Brothers Grimm (and it some variations, it does).

Quite a number of writers who are publishing today have mentioned the strong impact this novel had on them, including Megan Abbott and Sarah Weinman.

Despite its popularity with readers and writers, acclaim has not been universal among the critics.  A reviewer for the Washington Post described the novel as "deranged swill", and a television review in Slate magazine describes the upcoming Lifetime movie remake as "smut for pubescent girls".

The new movie version of the novel premieres tonight on the Lifetime Channel at 8 PM EST. Click here to read an interview with Megan Abbott on the new movie and how the original novel influenced her.

Mary Shelly Letters Discovered

A historian has made an incredible once in a century discovery in England. Professor Nora Crook stumbled across a cache of never before seen letters written by Mary Shelly, the author of Frankenstein. In the letters, Ms. Shelly talks about her son, current events and family. The intimate letters help round out the portrait of the author, but do not touch on her famous novel. The later letters show the progress of a brain tumor that ultimately killed her, as the handwriting deteriorates, and she apologies for memory lapses. You can read more about this remarkable discovery at The Guardian.

New Year's Resolutions For Writers

Even if you already made your New Year's resolutions, it never hurts to see what other writers have on their list. Probably the best compilation I've seen comes from J. A. Konrath, author of numerous novels of terror and the famous Jack Daniels detective series.  His books are laugh out loud funny page turners. Every year he posts his resolutions, and the list continues to grow. You can review it on his blog, A Newbie's Guide to Publishing. It's well worth the time. I know a good resolution when I steal...uh, see one.

And when you're done with that list, find out if you're really a true fan of this writer by taking the Konrath Quiz!

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

True Crime Tuesday for January 14, 2014

Woman Arrested For Drunk Driving After Driving To Police Station

A woman who drove to the Meadville Police Station was arrested after cops determined that she was soused to the gills. Kimberly Joy Flick was taken into custody, even though she'd been warned not to drive under the influence of alcohol.

And the reason for her appearance? She showed up to pick up her husband, who'd been arrested earlier that evening. His crime? He'd been arrested for drunk driving.


You just can't make this stuff up. Even if you could, no one would publish it.

Chess Match Turns Deadly

Everyone knows that chess can be a competitive sport, but it usually doesn't get you killed. Unfortunately for one Dublin man, his playing days are over following a match with a man from Palermo. It appears there was an argument over the movement of a piece on the board. After the crime, the suspect then took a page from the Hannibal Lecter playbook (or cookbook), cut out the victim's heart and tried to eat it.

This gives new meaning to the phrase, "Checkmate".

Mastermind of The Great Train Robbery Dies

In 1963 Ronald Biggs, a small time crook, and 11 other men robbed the Glasgow to London mail train and came away with 2.6 million British pounds, equivalent to 65.3 million U.S. dollars in today's money. At the time it was the greatest haul in British history. He was convicted and sentenced to 30 years in prison, but escaped using a rope ladder 15 months later, fleeing to Brazil. For the next two decades, Scotland Yard made numerous attempts to capture or extradite him, including a bizarre kidnapping plot. They all failed.

Biggs became a celebrity of sorts in Brazil, posing for photos with tourists and bragging about his exploits. But illness finally accomplished what law enforcement could not, and Biggs returned to Great Britain in 2001 to serve out his sentence. He was released from prison in 2009 and died in December, 2013. You can read his obituary here.

Murder Rates Down in 2013

There's some good news on the crime front to report. The murder rate in the five largest U.S. cities declined in 2013. According to the Wall Street Journal, Chicago and New York experienced the largest declines. Los Angeles had a 17 % drop, while Philadelphia's homicide was down 26 %. Chicago's Chicago Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy credited the decline in his city to "more intelligent policing" along with the use of business management strategies and "gang audits".

Happy New Year, indeed.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Mystery Weekend Roundup for January 12, 2014

Edgar Allan Poe Birthday Bash!

Got plans for the 18th of January? Head on over to the Edgar Allan Poe Museum in Richmond, Virginia for the 205th Birthday celebration of the founding father of American horror and mystery.  Starting at 12 Noon, the schedule is packed with discussions, readings, a murder trial and a tour of the museum. The cake cutting is at 6 PM and at midnight, participants will raise a glass in a toast to Poe. Authors from the new Anthology, Virginia Is For Mysterieswill also be there to discuss their new book. All this for only five bucks!

Well, what are you waiting for? Click here to see the full schedule.

Rest In Peace, Poe's Deadly Daughters

We are saddened to report that a popular mystery blog, Poe's Deadly Daughters, will cease publication on January 19th, the anniversary of the birth of Edgar Allan Poe. On that day, their last blog post will be published. For seven years, these "daughters" of mystery and suspense have entertained and enlightened us with their comments, interviews and reviews. Library Journal placed them in its Top Ten List of mystery blogs.

Julia Buckley had this to say about the blog: "It's been wonderful to work (virtually) alongside some terrific mystery writers and to explore some interesting ideas about writing, reading, and publishing, as well as sharing little tidbits about ourselves. We're most grateful to those who were readers and left comments that provoked such great discussion."

One of my first interviews as a newly published writer occurred here with Julia.  Along with Sharon Wildwind, Sandra Parshall, Elizabeth Zelvin, Sheila Connolly, Jeri Westerson, Darlene Ryan (aka Sofie Kelly) and Lonnie Cruse, they will be missed. But the blog will remain, for writers and the curious to stumble across and discover anew.

Anniversary of the Death of Agatha Christie

It was on this day in 1976 that Agatha Christie passed away at the age of 85.  She is of course one of the top selling mystery writers of all time. The last novel she wrote, Postern of Fate, was published in 1973, though it was not the last to be published. She also wrote romance novels under the pen name, Mary Westmacott. 

Just a few months ago, the estate of Agatha Christie announced that a new Hercule Poirot novel would be written by author Sophie Hannah in Christie's style.  Think you could write like Agatha Christie? The estate is accepting submissions for Chapter 4. You can read the details at Agatha Christie's home page. Why not give it a try?

A Fracking Good Story - Writers Enter 2014 Armed With New Words

Writers struggle to find just the right word to express their ideas, emotions and stories. As Mark Twain said, "'The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug."

We have a bevy of new words to add to our literary arsenal, including bitcoin, selfie, fracking and twerk, to name just a few (oh, wait, three is a few, isn't it?).

Well, you get the point. Some of these have actually been around for decades (ie: twerk), but have only now gained popularity.

So bone up on these new offerings. You can find a great list of recent words that have entered the English language in the Oxford English Dictionary. Check out more references by clicking here, and here. Or as Irish crime writer Declan Burke would say, clickety-click here.

The Worst Reads For 2013?

By now you've probably been blinded by the "best-of" book lists that every publisher, book reviewer and blog poster has thrust at you like a red hot poker. So I thought you might find this list amusing. Posted on Beneath The Stains Of Time, its the Worst Mystery Reads of 2013. You'll be surprised by who made the list. And if you're a writer, have no fear...all of these were written decades ago. Enjoy!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Writers Born Today - Patricia Carlon

It's the birthday of mystery writer Patricia Carlon, born January 9, 1927 on a small farm in rural Australia. During the 1960s, she wrote some of the most suspenseful novels ever produced in her native land. Publishers Weekly said in one review, "Carlon is an absolute master of wringing every drop of suspense from a simple phrase or exchange of glances, as good as Alfred Hitchcock at his best." Marilyn Stasio, book reviewer for the New York Times, declared that she was "a writer who is good enough to make up her own rules."

Yet Australian publishers initially rejected her novels, and most of them were first published in England. It would be decades before readers down under would discover and embrace the suspense fiction that defined her.

While still a young child, her family moved to Sydney, where Patricia excelled in school. As a teen she entered a writing contest and won. Her first story was published at the age of 17.  More stories followed, and she wrote several romance novels under various pen names. She then turned her attention to mystery and produced 14 crime novels in the 60s and early 70s, including Hush, It's A Game, The Unquiet Night and Crime of Silence. Despite the passage of several decades, her style of writing is so compact, the settings so familiar, they could have been published last week.

It was during a trip to England that she was discovered by Laura Hruska, editor at Soho Press, who happened to come across her novels in a London bookstore. Soho published many of her mystery novels in the late 90s and they quickly garnered excellent reviews. Not long afterward, Michael Heyward of Text Publishing, while visiting the Soho Press office in NYC, picked up one of Carlon's books and decided to bring her back to Australia. Patricia Carlon had finally come full circle. With the  publication in Australia of some of her best fiction, she finally got the attention she had sought for forty years.

Susan Wyndham, literary editor at the Sydney Morning Herald, had this to say about Patricia Carlon:

"When Text Publishing reissued Carlon's novels Crime of Silence and The Unquiet Night in 2002, I was intrigued to learn about a masterful writer I had never heard of. Carlon politely rejected my written requests for an interview but curiosity drove me to her house in suburban Sydney, where she she happened to be sitting on the veranda and fended off my nervous approach by saying, 'I'm so deaf, I can't hear a word you're saying.'

It was only after she died later that year that a nephew contacted me and revealed she had been completely deaf since the age of 11. No one knew because she had guarded her privacy and dealt with her long-time agent and publishers by mail. But the revelation threw light on her chilling stories of claustrophia, isolation, immobilisation and fear, and intensified my admiration for the brave, solitary woman I discovered too late. The books survive her and deserve to be read."

These recurring themes lend incredible power to her writing. Characters often struggle to recognize danger until it is too late, and their efforts to alert others to their predicament are often ignored or misunderstood. This makes her suspense fiction especially frightening, yet her novels never resort to extreme violence or gimmicks to hook the reader.

My review of her novel, The Unquiet Night, appeared on the blog The Rapsheet, as part of its ongoing series, The Book You Have To Read. It's also on my list of 101 Things To Do Before You Die (For Crime Writers).

You can read her obituary from the Sydney Morning Herald to learn more about her.

Then read her books, and be amazed.

Special thanks to Susan Wyndham, whose insights and articles contributed greatly to this blog post.