This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

New posts on Wednesdays. Email

Friday, August 31, 2012

The Oldest Dope Fiend in California

            For the past couple of months I’ve been doing local-history research for a client, and it reminded me of a tale I encountered earlier, the story of the oldest dope fiend in California.
            It happened in the late 1940s, when Watsonville, a farming community 90 miles south of San Francisco, was cleaning itself up after being known, during the War, as “Sin City.” A new police chief, Frank Osmer, was quietly pressuring the operators of brothels and gambling joints to scale back or move, but was hardly taking a hard-line, ideological position on vice.
            Osmer had grown up alongside many children of Japanese and Chinese descent, and had developed an appreciation for their culture. A part of that culture at the time was that in what remained of Watsonville’s once-booming Chinatown, there were a few restaurants that had back rooms where men, most of them older, would retreat to smoke opium. The chief viewed that as a cultural activity, and as long as it was done quietly and they didn’t try to peddle the stuff to kids, he was inclined to let it go. And of course, if a serious crime should occur in Chinatown, he expected the owners and habituĂ©s of those establishments would tell him whatever he needed to know.

A Nefarious Criminal Arrested

            From time to time it was necessary to raid one of the establishments in order to maintain appearances, but Osmer tried to spread the police activity around so that no one place took the brunt of it. And the legal establishment took a similarly enlightened view.
In a talk to the Friends of the Library years ago, Osmer recalled one instance, in which an over-zealous state narcotics officer along on a raid had arrested a 93-year-old man for narcotics possession. It wasn’t clear if the elderly gentleman slept through the warning, or was simply so old, slow, and befuddled that he was the only one who got caught, but caught he was.
 The state drug-enforcement officers were giving themselves high-fives for having captured the oldest dope fiend in California, and were intent on making an example of him. The case went before local Superior Court Judge Leo Atteridge, who took one look at the non-English-speaking nonagenarian and asked the defense attorney, “How old is he, anyway?
“Ninety three, your honor,” came the response.
            “Oh, hell,” said the judge. “Thirty days probation, and tell him not to do it again.”

“Objection, Your Honor!”

            Immediately the state attorney, assisting the local DA, leaped up to object, arguing strenuously that state law required a prison term, not probation, for possession of a narcotic as serious as opium. The judge quickly cut him off.
            “Young man,” he said,  “I am the judge. You are an attorney. I can give this man probation, which I just did. I can put people in jail, too, and you may be next if you keep talking back to me.”
            And that was the end of it. A few years later, a zealous young attorney campaigned for the local prosecutor’s job, claiming, perhaps because of cases such as this, that the county was soft on vice.
            Everyone I tell the story to today sees it differently. They feel the judge showed no more than common sense and compassion in handling the matter as he did, and I agree. Increasingly, our laws are tying the hands of judges and denying them the discretion to judge a case on its own merits. This story is a perfect illustration of why that’s a bad idea.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

In the Spirit of Dornford Yates

            It took my sister, Susan, to remind me that although my mystery-thriller, The McHenry Inheritance, carries an inscription that it is written “In the spirit of Dornford Yates,” I have yet to write about him. Susan wanted to know who he was, so here goes.
            The literary critic Cyril Connolly once wrote, “Sometimes, at great garden parties, literary luncheons, or in the quiet of an exclusive gunroom, a laugh rings out. The sad, formal faces for a moment relax and a smaller group is formed within the larger. They are the admirers of Dornford Yates, who have found out each other. We are badly organized, we know little about ourselves and next to nothing about our hero, but we appreciate fine writing when we come across it, and a wit that is ageless, united to a courtesy that is extinct.”
            Dornford Yates was the pen name of Cecil William Mercer (1885-1960), a British lawyer, who took it from the birth surnames of his two grandmothers. In his twenties and thirties he wrote a series of high-society romance-comedies that were well received. After two decades of that, his writing took an abrupt turn.

Taking a Nap in the Wrong Place

            In 1927 he wrote his first thriller, Blind Corner. It begins with young Richard Chandos, headed back to England after a stay in Biarritz, pulling off the road for lunch, taking a nap, and waking up to witness a murder. The dying man asks Chandos to take his Alsatian dog, and in the dog’s collar is the secret to a treasure concealed near an Austrian castle.
            Chandos, along with his friends George Hanbury and Jonah Mansel, decide to follow the lead from the dog collar. In doing so, after considerable running about in the Austrian countryside, they encounter the murderer of the dog’s owner and a vicious gang, led by a man with an unusual name, intent on claiming the treasure for itself. As the book’s dust jacket says, “What started out as a high-spirited jaunt (turns) into a desperate battle for survival.”
            I dedicated my book to the spirit of Yates because it features a well-heeled young man on a holiday who stumbles across a murder, encounters a menacing gang, led by a man with an unusual name, and does a considerable amount of running around in the High Sierra countryside. I wouldn’t push the similarity any farther than that, other than to say that there is a literary tradition within the mystery/suspense genre on which my book draws.

She Fell Among Thieves

            My discovery of Yates occurred at a bookstore in London in March 1990. At the time he was out of print in America, but Perennial Books subsequently reissued a few of his titles here. His thrillers, as well as some of his comedy-romances are available on Amazon and Kindle.
            If you’re inclined to give him a try, my recommendation would be to start with She Fell Among Thieves. It has his best villain, a diabolical woman named Vanity Fair, a great story, and lush descriptions of the French Pyrenees (where Yates lived for a number of years) that will make you want to whip out your iPhone and book a flight.
            A word of caution if you go that route (reading Yates, not traveling to the Pyrenees): His politics are a bit, how shall we say this, reactionary, and some of the social attitudes are cringingly out of date. Those things are a small part of his books and, in my view, a small price to pay for the good stories and good writing they deliver.

Friday, August 24, 2012

I Oughta Be in Pictures

            As I was getting close to having my mystery novel The McHenry Inheritance ready for publication, I came across an article in The New York Times saying that one of the marketing things authors are supposed to do these days is make a video trailer for their book.
            My immediate response to that wasn’t exactly upbeat. In fact it was more along the lines of, “Great. Another expense and another hassle.”
            Fate works in mysterious ways, however. Several days after reading that article, I came out of Office Max and ran into Chip Scheuer. Chip worked at the newspaper as a photographer when I was the editor, then went on to work several years as a video cameraman for the news department of one of the local TV stations.
            He’d just moved back to the area from San Francisco and said he was looking for work shooting still photos or video. In particular, he talked up video, and how important it is for people and organizations in an increasingly visual and digital age. The chance encounter turned out to be the prod I needed.

Working With a Professional

So I sat down at the computer and wrote the script in about half an hour, then gave Chip a call and met him for coffee. He was excited about the script, quoted me a fair price, and suggested the highly effective opening sequence. I won’t describe it; you can see for yourself.
A couple of weeks later, we set aside a morning and shot the trailer. In a perfect world, I would have taken a cast of dozens up to the High Sierra, recreated the militia encampment from the book, and made a real James Cameron production out of it. Instead, Chip and I met for breakfast, drove half an hour into the mountains nearby and shot the necessary footage at a park by a local stream.
(An interesting sidelight is that the stream was closed to fishing at the time, so in all the shots where the angler is casting, it was an empty fly line, with no leader or fly attached — just in case a game warden showed up.)
Chip has always been one of those people who loves his work, and his upbeat attitude is infectious. It took us four hours to get enough footage for a two-minute video, but the time went by quickly and pleasantly.

The Things an Actor Does

I do quite a bit of public speaking, so I felt comfortable delivering my lines, but the circumstances weren’t always easy. In one instance, Chip wanted to photograph me with the stream in the background, but to get the light and background he needed, I had to kneel in the water, getting my legs and feet wet while I said my routine. For some reason, I had more muffed takes in that section than in the others.
As we were doing it, I had a sense that it was going to turn out well, but when Chip sent the edited version to me 24 hours later, I was really impressed. Chip’s friend, Rigo Torkos, did a masterful job of editing, and the whole thing looked really slick. It’s getting a lot of use on my web site and social media, and as far as I’m concerned has been a hugely effective marketing tool.
When friends see the video, the word most of them use to describe it is “professional.” I have to smile. That’s what it should be when professionals do it, and in this case I certainly got more than my money’s worth.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Vampire Stories You May Not Know

            You get some interesting responses when you tell someone you’ve published a book. I was talking with a friend a while back, and he asked if my mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, had any vampires in it.
            “Vampires?” I said.
            “Yeah, vampires,” he replied. “It seems like every book out there now has vampires. Yours would probably sell better if it had some, too.”
            He may be right, but it’s too late for a rewrite at this point. Nevertheless, he got me thinking about a couple of venerable vampire stories that are considerably older than I am.

A Victorian Lesbian Vampire Tale

            JosephSheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873) is generally ranked with Wilkie Collins as one of the great writers of Victorian-era shockers. A number of his tales were ghost stories or tales of the supernatural, and though they’re not widely read today, they’re quite good. I defy anyone to read “The Familiar,” then step forth confidently on a walk through a deserted city.
            His best vampire story is “Carmilla,” which tells of a young woman by that name who takes up temporary residence with a man and his daughter in their home in a lonely forest in Germany. Pretty soon the wives and daughters of nearby peasants are dying mysteriously, and the young lady of the house, who has become Carmilla’s affectionate friend, has become inexplicably ill.
            For a story written 150 years ago, in an excessively proper society, “Carmilla is pretty steamy stuff. Here is the young lady of the house writing about waking suddenly in the middle of the night and seeing:
            “A young lady who was kneeling, with her hands under the coverlet. I looked at her with a kind of pleased wonder and ceased whimpering. She caressed me with her hands and lay down beside me on the bed, and drew me towards her, smiling; I felt immediately delightfully soothed, and fell asleep again. I was awakened by a sensation as if two needles ran into my breast very deep at the same moment …”
            Makes you wonder how that got past the censors of the day, but then I once read that when Parliament was considering the criminalization of lesbian behavior, Queen Victoria scotched the idea on the grounds that since such a thing could not possibly happen, there was no good reason to outlaw it. Maybe that’s the explanation.

Nothing Supernatural About It

            ClaytonRawson (1906-71) was an American mystery writer, contemporary and friend of John Dickson Carr, the locked-room specialist. Rawson was an accomplished magician, and many of his stories feature outrageous situations with prosaic solutions.
            In 1940 he wrote four stories/novellas under the pen name Stuart Towne, featuring a magician named Don Diavolo. One of them, “Ghost of the Undead,” tells of a vampire who appears in New York City and commits a murder. You can find it on Kindle in the book Death Out of Thin Air.
            Rawson isn’t in LeFanu’s class as a writer, and this story has the feel of something banged out on an old Underwood, under the influence of coffee and cigarettes, by a man in need of a quick check from a magazine. But it’s interesting, nonetheless, as a historical curiosity.
            Almost all supernatural tales written in the first half of the 20th Century, when people still believed in science and progress, ended up having rational explanations. Rawson’s vampire isn’t really a vampire, and tricks such as disappearing from a locked room on the 20th floor of a skyscraper are merely sleight of hand, explained at the end. How odd that in today’s high-tech society, such rationality seems passĂ©.

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Latte, My Mystery, or Both?

            A few hours after posting the previous blog, in which I forecast a future for dead-tree books for some time to come, I had to attend a meeting in Santa Cruz. Before it started, I was talking with several people I know, and one of them asked how my book was doing.
            Another asked what kind of book it was, and when I replied it was a mystery novel, he said he was a big mystery fan and asked for the name of it. I told him The McHenry Inheritance, and in about 30 seconds he showed me the cover, from Amazon, on his iPhone. When I told him that was the one, he bought it on the spot and showed everyone the title page on his phone. Then another friend, also a mystery fan, joined the conversation, and the guy who had just bought the book sent him a link as we stood there.
            I wish selling books could always be that easy.

Instant Digital Gratification

            At $2.99 for the e-book, my mystery, like a latte, is essentially an impulse purchase. The internet makes it way too easy to buy something on the spur of the moment, but since that’s working in my favor at the moment, I’m not complaining.
            Shortly after Christmas I was reading The New York Times Sunday book section on my iPad when I came across a review of Death Comes to Pemberley, a mystery novel by British author P.D. James, drawing on characters from Pride and Prejudice. My wife, Linda, is a big Jane Austen fan, so I e-mailed the review to her, along with a query: Want to buy? From the next room, she e-mailed back yes, so I went to Amazon, bought the book with one click, and a few minutes later had it on my iPad ready to go. She stayed up late that night to get started reading it.
            For all the ease of doing it that way, I am not yet a total convert. Probably three out of four books that I read are actual printed books. I subscribe to the Times on my iPad and enjoy it very much, but find it maddeningly slow at times — three to four minutes to bring up a page in the worst case. I’ve been a New Yorker subscriber since 1968 and get the iPad version as well as the print. I read about a third of it on the pad and the rest in the mail-delivered print version.

Buyer’s Remorse

            The ability to buy something on the spur of the moment has its downside. A few months ago I was in a large department store trying to cash out a couple of bucks on a gift card. The only person ahead of me was a woman with two Santa Claus-sized bags in tow, from which she was taking item after item, which then had to be scanned for a return. As the line began to build behind her, she turned, flashed a wry smile, and said:
            “Sorry. I do a lot of online shopping.”
            When I recently offered my book free on Amazon, more than 300 people bought it. If 15 of them actually read it and post a review, I’ll be doing pretty well. Most of the rest probably grabbed it because it looked halfway interesting and the price was right. It was an easy score, but probably with not much reward. It calls to mind Carrie Fisher’s famous line, “The problem with instant gratification is that it isn’t fast enough.”

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Trees Will Continue to Die

            When I first decided to put my mystery novel, TheMcHenry Inheritance, on Amazon, I toyed with the idea of making it an e-book only. A couple of friends were highly supportive, saying it was the wave of the future, and that print books were dinosaurs of the digital age.
            But the more people I talked to, the more dubious the idea became. Over and over I heard people say they preferred the print version of a book to the Kindle, Nook or iPad version.
            Moreover, the people who were saying this were not older folks who never made their peace with computers. (And to avoid stereotyping, I should mention that I know of at least one woman in her late 80s, no relation to me, who is reading my book on a Kindle.) They included a professor at Montana State University, a technical writer, and a couple of nonprofit agency directors — in short, people who use computers regularly and can in no way be considered technophobes. They just prefer the printed word.

Change Happens at Its Own Pace

            A lot of people tend to assume that when a new technology comes along, it will quickly drive out the old. Sometimes it does. Digital cameras wiped out film within a decade and the automobile did the same for the horse and buggy. But the arc of progress is by no means always clear and unimpeded.
            When television came along, a lot of people thought it would make radio and newspapers obsolete, but it didn’t. Electronic transfers and online banking have become hugely popular, yet plenty of checks are written each year. In fact, about 90 percent of them seem to be written by people ahead of me in line at the grocery store. Target and WalMart might wipe out the grocery store, but if there’s money to be made from it, they’ll still be taking checks.
            Print versions of books, and presumably the stores that sell them, look to be one of those things that will continue to survive and be profitable despite the newer technologies for reading. It will be a lesser market than it was before, and the players in it will have to be nimble and think strategically, but  old-school books fill a need and ought to do so for some time to come.

The Magic of Print

            Last month I went to Bookshop Santa Cruz, one of the leading independent bookstores in the country, for the unveiling of their new print-on-demand book machine. It was a big community event, with probably 200 or so people on hand. They even held a contest to name the machine, and the winner was Walt, in honor of the fact that poet Walt Whitman appears on many of the store’s logos.
            Friday night I was back at the store to get the proof copy of The McHenry Inheritance that had been run off a couple of hours earlier on the Walt. Something came over me when the book was handed across the counter — an emotional kick that I simply didn’t feel when I went to Amazon and saw my e-book in the Kindle store for the first time. Call it the magic of print.
            A print book is more work for a self-published author, and the final product costs the reader more money than the digital version. I’m willing to do the work, and people tell me they’re willing to pay the difference, so there must be value in there somewhere. In another ten days to two weeks, my book, already published online, will finally be, literally, “in print.”

Friday, August 10, 2012

It's All Material

            In two decades of working at the newspaper, I came into contact with some interesting characters, to put it mildly. Many of them hovered around the office for a while until they realized we had run as many stories about them as we were going to (sometimes none at all), then faded away.
            One was a man who claimed to have been former black-ops, and who certainly affected the air of one who feels everyone is out to get him. He had to deal with our advertising department for a while, and at one point a sales rep told me he had paid cash for an ad  in a most memorable way.
            He took out a big roll of bills, she said, and explained that the serial numbers began with a letter of the alphabet that corresponded with the city hosting the Federal Reserve Bank where the bill was printed. “I like to keep my money in alphabetical order,” he said, “and spend San Francisco last.”
            When I heard the story, I filed it in a compartment in my brain that holds information or anecdotes that might come in handy later. It sat there for 15 years, and then I used the serial-number shtick in my mystery, The McHenry Inheritance.

The Wool-Gathering Mind

            In one of the obituaries of Nora Ephron, it was reported that her parents, professional screenwriters, used to tell her, “Everything’s copy.” I’d say material, not copy, but I absolutely agree with the sentiment, even going so far as to say that the propensity for collecting such daily flotsam and jetsam is one of the distinguishing characteristics of the writer.
            Decades ago the collection of seemingly useless facts and stories was referred to as “wool-gathering.” I’m not sure what it’s called now, but it’s a skill that requires a certain critical judgment. You have to have a sense of when something is interesting enough or piquant enough to be worth saving.
            The gifted wool-gatherer must also be patient. Occasionally you come across something that can be put to immediate use, but that’s an anomaly. Usually, it’s something you realize could potentially be of value later on, but you don’t know how. So you file it and hold it until something else comes along and triggers a memory of it. At that point, the knowledge of how to use the material is generally instantaneous, and the rightness of its use obvious.

What’s In a Name?

            Similarly a good and distinctive name is something to be saved carefully for the right character. One of my duties at the newspaper for a while was doing the historical column, which reported happenings of 25, 50, 75 and 100 years ago.
            At one point, somewhere between 1912 and 1914, I came across an item that read, “Rex Radio, the radium healer, is in town for a few days. Treatments at reasonable prices at the Mansion House.” It went into the column and into my personal mental file. Years later, when I was casting about for a name for a disgraced radio talk-show host in my mystery, I remembered Rex and realized I had it all along.
            It also can deviate from the original plan. If I’m on the road and in a small town on a Friday night, I sometimes go to a high school football or basketball game. A kid playing in one of those had a great quarterback name, which I filed away in case I needed one some day. I ended up using it in my book, but the football player, Mike Baca, ended up being the sheriff. It fit.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Making Sense of Reviews

            It used to be that when a Broadway show opened, the cast would repair to a restaurant afterward for a party and to wait until the early editions of the newspapers came out with the reviews. Before World War II, when there were a lot more newspapers  than now, it was a big deal. When the reviews were good, the cast went to bed knowing they’d be working for a while. If not, a period of “rest” was imminent and it was time to be thinking about the next role.
            Newspapers don’t have so much clout today, and thanks to the internet, anyone with a computer has at least some sort of audience. My mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, was published on Amazon two weeks ago, and so far has garnered two reviews. One was from a friend, and one was signed with a descriptor rather than a name, so I don’t know who it was. Both gave the book five stars out of five. You can take that any way you want, and you probably should.

Was He Feeling Lucky That Night?

            That reminds me of my first experience looking at restaurant review on Yelp, years ago. It was hard to know what to make of them. Most were so short that you couldn’t really get a sense of the standards of the person writing them and so general you couldn’t assign a weight to them. A review signed with a real name, implying accountability, was a start but nothing more.
            Knowing nothing of the circumstances, there was no way to tell what ulterior motive or backstory was behind a review. Could a vicious put-down have been written by the owner of a competing restaurant down the street? Did the reviewer have fond memories of the place because his date agreed to go back to his apartment after dinner? Or bad memories because she stalked out in a snit halfway through the meal?
            In another instance, my sister was coming down to visit and asked me to check out some day spas in the area. One was heavily reviewed on Yelp. Half the reviews raved about the place, comparing it to the facilities at a five-star resort. The other half ripped it, saying the hot tub was moldy and the equipment unsanitary. Somebody was lying, but who?

Consider the Source

            Professional critics are imperfect guides, but at least they have standards and a track record. Reading a restaurant review in The New York Times, you at least know the author wasn’t influenced by a free meal and made every effort to experience the place as an ordinary customer would. When you read a movie review in a newspaper or magazine, you’ve probably seen enough movies to know where you do and don’t agree with that particular critic, and hence, how much weight to give this particular review.
            In the case of restaurants, there’s another factor involved. A movie is going to be the same every time you look at it (though your perception is certainly subject to change), but a restaurant can have good and bad days. If a quarter of the wait staff calls in sick, leaving the rest stretched far too thin, nobody who eats at the place that night is going to have a premium experience.
            Maybe with restaurants the best idea is to do what my father did when looking for a place to eat in a strange town: Go to the place with the most pickup trucks in front, figuring the locals know best. Makes as much sense as anything else.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Struggling With Implausibilities

            In Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest, Cary Grant is lured to a deserted country crossroads on the Illinois prairie, where, in one of the movie’s most memorable moments, the bad guys try to kill him by strafing him with a crop duster. It’s a tribute to Hitchcock’s skill that the most implausible part about it, as it’s happening, is the aftermath: Grant has his suit, stained with topsoil and fertilizer, sponge-cleaned at his hotel in Chicago, then wears it to cocktails downstairs.
            Afterwards, of course, it unravels when you start thinking about it. Who on earth would try to get rid of somebody that way? Why not just plug him when he left the hotel? Or do a drive-by shooting at the deserted crossroads? But the art of Hitchcock, and many another good storyteller, lies in the gift of making the viewer or reader suspend disbelief. It’s accomplished by handling the wildly implausible with a combination of self-assurance and panache. Done right it dispels (or at least delays) the audience’s rational analysis of what it’s seen or read.

The Conventions of a Mystery

            The mystery-thriller genre couldn’t exist without an audience’s willingness to let go of reality for a while. In my book TheMcHenry Inheritance, for example, the protagonist is a man on vacation, who gets sucked in to the investigation of a murder that occurs where he is fishing.
            That character is descended from a long line of “amateur” detectives in books and movies going back more than a century. Readers have come to accept that convention, however implausible it might be. Some authors try to make the amateur more plausible by making him or her a private investigator, but even a private eye almost never plays a significant role in a murder investigation. There’s a reason it’s called fiction.
            As far as I know, there are no statistics on how often someone gets caught by the bad guys and lives to tell about it. I’m guessing about one in five hundred, but in books and movies the good guy always gets away. Either the villains unaccountably stash the hero somewhere for no apparent reason, allowing opportunity for a clever escape, or the police (or other good guys) show up at the last second and stave off disaster.
            Why not just kill the captive and get it over with, the rational mind screams. The only possible answer lies in what a judge I know likes to say about criminals. “If they weren’t dumb, we wouldn’t catch ‘em.”

Working Through the Implausibility

            Dealing with these implausible situations is a challenge for a writer of mysteries and thrillers. There are several approaches, none of which is entirely satisfactory. A writer can attempt to provide a plausible pretext for why the amateur detective is involved in the investigation or why the evildoers have decided not to kill their prisoner forthwith when they have every reason for doing so.
            In the end, though, a plausible pretext for an implausible action can only be window-dressing. Some writers don’t even try, apparently figuring that if they move the story forward at breakneck speed and rack up a high enough body count, the reader won’t notice the problems. If you write in the genre, you always have do do some hoping like that.
            It’s amusing to hear a reader of a mystery or thriller complain about some detail, like the trajectory of a bullet when the entire story really doesn’t hold up to close scrutiny. In a sense, the minor complaint is a form of backhanded compliment. It means the author did well on the big stuff.