Sunday, May 31, 2015

Mystery History - The Copyright Act Is 225 Years Old Today

It's the birthday of the Copyright Act of 1790, which was signed into law by George Washington on May 31, 1790. The law allowed authors and map makers protection for their intellectual property for a period of 14 years from the date of publication. It was designed to encourage innovation and creativity in the growing young nation. Its basic principles still exist to protect writers (including mystery writers) and allow them to profit from their ideas and works.

The law was formally called, "An act for the encouragement of learning by securing the copies of maps, charts and books, to the authors and proprietors of such copies, during the times therein mentioned." It provided an initial copyright of 14 years, which could be renewed once for an additional 14 years.

The original law had several flaws. Among them, a work or book had to be registered with a district
court to receive protection, and a filing fee had to be paid. Today, a work is given copyright protection the moment it is created even if the creator takes no further action. However registration of an author's work still affords considerable protection in the event of a lawsuit and most publishers routinely secure formal registration through the Library of Congress when a work is published.

Paintings and drawings were not mentioned in the Copyright Act of 1790 and they did not receive formal protection until 1870. 

In addition, the original law only protected the rights of U.S. citizens, not foreigners. Works by foreign writers were routinely pirated and sold in the United States, a fact that caused English writers such as Charles Dickens considerable financial loss until the law was changed in 1891 with the passage of the International Copyright Act.

The length of copyright protections has grown from the original maximum of 28 years to today's
standard of the lifetime of the artist plus 70 years, a change that was strongly supported by U.S. companies such as Disney. The corporation stood to lose protection for some of their most beloved cartoon characters, including Mickey Mouse in 2004. Disney pushed hard for the passage of the Sony Bono Copyright Term Extension Act (or as some sarcastically call it, the Mickey Mouse Protection Act). Many people in the legal and entertainment professions are beginning to complain that the repeated extensions are serving the opposite of the law's intention, by stifling creativity.

The copyright law when first passed was only a couple of pages long. Today, with changes and amendments, the current law runs over 279 pages of legalese that only a lawyer could love.

Current copyright law allows for some exceptions in quoting from protected works. Fair Use states that small portions of a copyrighted work may be quoted, for such purposes as teaching, news reporting, or criticism and commentary (such as a book review by yours truly). Courts have also allowed for fair use in the artistic areas of parody and satire. Some artists have made an entire career from this area of the copyright exception, such as Weird Al Yankovic.

Did You Know: The copyright symbol, recognizable almost everywhere by the symbol © was introduced into the copyright law in 1954. 

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Mystery History - Mystery Novel By Jane Austen's Relative To Be Reprinted After 86 Years

Lois Austen-Leigh's The Incredible Crime is set to be reprinted for the first time since 1931. The granddaughter of Jane Austen's nephew is unknown today, but she published four crime novels during her lifetime. And when this debut work came out it garnered praise from none other than the Times Literary Supplement. The reviewer didn't think much of the mystery genre, though, stating, "Miss Austen-Leigh might consider a more serious vein of writing."  Another reviewer said her writing contained "passages of unusual beauty" and that she was "something more than a writer of mystery stories", as though beauty and mystery were incompatible.

Still, the current editor, Kirsten Saxton, professor of English, is thrilled to be bringing the novel back to the printed page. It contains not only a good mystery but a lot of entertaining characters, including " a cigarette-smoking brash young woman who can curse like a sailor". 

Rumor has it that the novel was written at the same desk used by the author's more famous ancestor. Fans of Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers, historical novels, and pre-WWII British mysteries should all look forward to the novel's re-release in 2017 by the British Library.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Writers Born Today - Tony Hillerman

It's the birthday of Tony Hillerman, born May 27, 1925 in Oklahoma. 

He was still a teen when he enlisted in the army and served in the European battlefields of World War II. By the time the war ended two years later, he'd seen brutal combat in the Battle of the Bulge, won three medals and been badly wounded. He also saw fellow soldiers treat Native American warriors with contempt, and it made a lasting impression on him when he returned home.

His writing career started early, but not with fiction. A newspaper reporter did a story on his service in the war. Having read his letters home to his mother, the reporter told Hillerman that with his talent he should become a writer. He got employment as a journalist and professor after getting his journalism degree at the University of Oklahoma. 

In his spare time he began writing fiction. Deeply influenced by the Indian culture of the Southwest, he wrote his first novel about a Navajo tribal policeman. He was 45 years old when it was published. 

Although his first agent urged him to dump the "indian stuff", he persevered, and won an Edgar Award for Best novel with his third one, Dance Hall of the Dead. This epic work is also lauded as # 37 of The Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time. Hillerman went on to write 18 mystery novels, many of them best sellers. Most of them revolved around two Native American protagonists who work for the Navajo Tribal Police, Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Otto Penzler praised Hillerman for showing Native Americans "not only as sympathetic characters but as intelligent, cultured, wise and decent human beings...".

In 1991 the Mystery Writers of America made him a Grand Master. He also served as its President in 1988. And in recognition of his writings about the native culture, he was made a special friend of the Navajo in 1987. The Hillerman Prize was created as a tribute to his writing and is awarded annually to the best debut murder mystery set in the southwest United States. 

"I want to write an entertaining book, and I'd like people to see the strength and dignity of a culture I admire."

                                     - Tony Hillerman

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Mystery History - The Asphalt Jungle

It was on May 23, 1950 that American moviegoers got their first glimpse of The Asphalt Jungle. Based on the novel by W. R. Burnett, it tells the story of a criminal mastermind who assembles a team of second-class hoods to pull off a fabulous jewel heist. It featured a cast of top notch talent, including Marilyn Monroe in her first film role, though it was a minor one, as the mistress of slimy attorney Alonzo Emmerich. Sterling Hayden played Dix Handley, a muscle man. James Whitmore, his friend and co-conspirator, played Gus.

Sam Jaffe portrayed the recently released Erwin Riedenschneider (referred affectionately to in the movie as "Doc" by his associates). He's the mastermind with the plans for the jeweler they intend to rob of a million dollars in precious gems. He brags that he could "sell the plans on the open market for a hundred thousand dollars" but he prefers to execute it himself, so he can get a bigger take (spoken like a true capitalist).

All of the men have hit rough patches in their lives and hope this final heist will be their way out of the criminal life. Dix is even hoping to use his share of the loot to buy back his family farm so he can retire and raise horses among the blue grass of Kentucky. This is the dark side of the American Dream.

The planning before the heist is brilliant and every attention is given to detail. Doc and his bookie financier, Cobby, even conduct interviews for the men they will need, as if they were part of a corporation. They need a safe-cracker, a getaway driver, and a strong arm man (a hooligan). This is the kind of planning most criminals can't be bothered with anymore. Criminals today just aren't the men their fathers were...hard working, organized men who take a professional pride in their work.

Yet despite being led by the best in the business, things start to go wrong. Even though they pull off the caper, one of the gang is shot while escaping. A crooked policeman is hot on their trail and may turn legit by arresting one of the gang just to save his job. And worst of all the lawyer who has arranged to fence the jewels is planning to double cross them and keep the haul for himself. One by one, the gang fall victim to greed, betrayal or bad luck. Even Doc is betrayed by his own weaknesses when he is spotted in a restaurant by two policeman when he lingers too long while watching a pretty girl dance to a jukebox.

The brilliant John Huston directed the film and it was nominated for four academy awards, including Best Director, though it lost. The film's realistic look at the criminal underworld and dark vision have come to define film noir and set a high standard for the pictures that followed. Few movies have surpassed it in the genre.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Sink Your Teeth Into "Dry Bones" by Craig Johnson

Somewhere among the rock strewn gulleys and cliffs of Absoroka County the skeleton of a female is discovered. When all the flesh is gone it can be difficult to determine the cause of death, but not in this case. Evidence of a violence so brutal that it left scars in the bones make it clear that this was a crime of murder with more than one suspect. But the killers won't have to answer for their actions.
The statute of limitations just doesn't apply when your victim perished 65 million years ago.

The skeleton belongs to a T-Rex, you see. It's worth a fortune. And that kind of dough attracts a lot of attention. Soon the FBI and the U.S. attorney's office take an interest. There's some dispute over who owns the land on which Jen (the dinosaur's new name) was found. The ranch belongs to Danny Lone Elk, who may or may not have sold it to the Cheyenne Indian Nation. He or they'll get the skeleton, unless the dig site on Danny's ranch crosses onto federal land. In that case, the FBI, aided by a publicity seeking acting U.S. Deputy Attorney General will seize it. Add to this combustible mix the media circus driven by the discovery of the largest T-Rex in history.

And you thought Walt Longmire was going to have a relaxing few days off with his daughter, who's bringing Walt's newborn granddaughter to visit? Think again.

Things go from bad to worse when Danny Lone Elk winds up dead, floating face down in a reservoir on his own land. It falls on Walt's shoulders to solve the mystery of Danny's death and decide if he drowned in an alcoholic stupor, or was killed so someone could make the moves on Jen. Along the way both persons unknown and the unforgiving Wyoming landscape threaten to make Sheriff Longmire extinct.

The writing moves at a quick pace, and entertains even as it educates (did you know that Wyoming once hosted ocean front property?). Walt is joined by many of the same characters that we've come to enjoy, including Lucian, a former Sheriff who both hinders and helps the investigation. Undersheriff Vic appears with her usual take no prisoners approach to crime solving, and like Walt, has little time for a show-boating US attorney who is so media conscious he wears makeup to a press conference and only drags in Walt to appear as a prop. "You didn't mess up his lipstick, did you?" Vic teases Walt after the chaotic appearance on the courthouse steps.

In addition to his professional woes, Walt faces a personal crisis that threatens to take away the one thing he cares most about - his family. Fortunately Henry Standing Bear has his back and while assisting Walt, provides not only physical protection but the kind of personal advice that only a best friend can provide. We should all have some one like him in our corner.

The latest edition of the Walt Longmire mystery series, Dry Bones was 65 million years in the making. But you won't have to wait that long to enjoy this tense, action-filled crime story. The book comes out on May 12th.

By the way, did you know that the acronym F.B.I. has two meanings? One is Federal Bureau of Investigation. And the other one...isn't.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015


Man LIKES His Wanted Poster On Facebook And...I think You Know Where This Is Going.

Levi Reardon, wanted on forgery charges, happened to see his Wanted Poster on Facebook. Apparently he thought it was a pretty good he did what every dumb criminal eventually does to guarantee they are caught.

He "liked" it...on Facebook.

Yeah, you really can't make this stuff up.

DUMB Happens.

He later thought better of his hasty choice, and "unliked" it, but not before the Cascade County Crimestoppers Facebook page captured a screen image of it. It wasn't long before THIS picture appeared on Facebook. Let's hope Mr. Reardon's court appointed attorney has a little more upstairs than his client.

Kansas Denies Victim Compensation to 10 Year Old Girl Murdered in Drive-By

This would be funny if it weren't so tragic and Kafkaesque. The Kansas State Victims Compensation Board has denied financial compensation to the family of a murdered 10 year old, Machole Stewart, to help pay funeral expenses.

The reason? According to the Board, "the victim was likely engaging in or attempting to engage in unlawful activity at the time of the crime upon which claim is based."

In addition, the Board states, "the victim has not fully cooperated with appropriate law enforcement agencies as required for compensation."

It's no surprise that the victim isn't co-operating; she's dead.

And the "unlawful activity" she was allegedly engaging in when she was murdered? She was in her own home watching television when she was gunned down.

So, I suppose she could have been up past her bedtime? Watching a PG-13 rated TV show?

This heartless and insensitive decision goes beyond the pale, even for a conservative Red state like Kansas. How the Board members came to this conclusion defies logic, which is one virtue you would think Board members Suzanne Valdez (an attorney and law professor at the University of Kansas), Nan Porter (therapist with the Wichita State University Counseling Center), and Thomas Williams (Allen County Commissioner and former sheriff) would have in abundance.

If you'd like, you can attend the next meeting of the Victims Compensation Board, perhaps to see how they reach their decisions. The next one is at the State Capitol, Topeka, on May 14th at 10 AM.

Here's their phone number: (785) 296-2359

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Take A Deep Sip From "A Dram of Poison" by Charlotte Armstrong

A Dram of Poison won the Edgar Award for Best Novel in 1957, and after reading this novel, it's easy to see why. It's a complex tale of love, disappointment, jealousy, and carelessness that leads to catastrophe. Not your traditional whodunnit, but a story packed with so much suspense you had better read it on your day off, or consider calling in sick. Once you've reached a certain point, there is no stopping until the final page has been turned.

Trouble isn't long in coming when Ken Gibson, a middle-aged English professor suddenly decides to marry Rosemary, a 32 year old woman  who has been left homeless by the death of her invalid father. At first things go swimmingly, as they used to say. But the real trouble starts when Ken is injured in an auto accident (while his wife is driving...a mishap that will cause her much hand-wringing in the weeks to come) and Ken's strong willed sister Ethel comes to live with them and help care for Ken.

It doesn't take a psychologist to realize that most family dynamics only allow one woman to dominate a household (safely), and Charlotte Armstrong is a genius for milking the tensions that erupt when the dominant one is not the wife. Ken, caught between two women he loves, decides to end his life to escape what has become intolerable, especially after he observes Rosemary developing a close friendship with a man much closer to her own age. Convinced that his wife would be happier with their neighbor, Ken procures some odorless, tasteless, fast acting poison which he hides in a bottle labeled olive oil.

Then, disaster strikes. A bottle of poison can be a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands.

In resolving his dilemma, Ken gets a strong assist by, of all people, a bus driver. This man's intimate knowledge of the city streets becomes crucial in the story as the suspense builds to an intolerable level. And he proves to be more than a stick figure character. He debates philosophy and the human condition with Rosemary, and more than holds his own.

It's typical of Armstrong to sculpt every character with such depth that they could easily substitute for the main character. Any baseball manager would envy such a deep bullpen.

A Dram of Poison is a real treat. Put the cell phone on silent...this story screams for your attention.