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

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Odyssey of a Book

            This past weekend I read Ellery Queen’s The Player on the Other Side. Published in 1963 it was one of the last works of Manfred B. Lee and Frederic Dannay, who wrote under the Queen nom de plume, and while interesting, is probably not as good as the earlier works that made their name. But it’s not the written book I want to discuss today.
            What I found myself thinking about after I finished it was the physical book itself — the copy in my hands. I had bought it at Logos used bookstore in Santa Cruz probably a year ago, brought it home and put it on the shelf for later reading. It was a hardcover book-club edition of the original Random House printing, which sold used for $3 — probably about what it cost new nearly a half-century ago.
            It still had the original dust jacket, only slightly frayed, and when I removed the dust jacket to read the book (as I always do with a hardcover copy), I saw the thing that got my imagination going.

From Indiana to California

            On the inside front cover of the book, hidden by the dust-jacket flap when I looked at it in the bookstore, was one of those return address labels that used to be commonplace back when people actually used the mail. It said:

            M Francis
            7934 Delmar
            Hammond IND

            For some reason the first thing I noticed was the absence of a ZIP code on the address label. That’s not surprising, given that ZIP codes were introduced in the year the book was published and quite a few people had a lot of those return address labels to use up. Still, it dated the book as having come from a simpler, more innocent time.
            On the heels of that observation, there was the obvious question of what the M in the owner’s name stood for. Michael or Mark? Mary or Myrtle? No clue whatsoever as to even the gender of the owner.
            Hitting the computer, I Googled the address and found that 7934 Delmar Avenue is a three-bedroom one-bath home in the Chicago suburb of Hammond and is currently valued at $80,000. No owner’s name was shown, but odds are no Francises have lived there in a long time.

The Really Intriguing Question

            Finally, the really big question: How did the book get, in nearly pristine condition, from there to here? I’d like to think that it first was taken aboard the Orient Express, with a secret code slipped in between pages 136 and 137, and that some spy risked his or her life to get it back to America. The more likely and prosaic explanation is that It was passed down a couple of generations and that some latter-day Francis, who wound up in California, finally sold it to the used bookstore.
            The book was in such good condition that it’s possible I may have been the first person to read it since it was mailed to Indiana. Which raises another point. One of the reasons for writing a book is that it conveys a form of immortality. Long after an author dies, even a forgotten book can, through yard sales and used bookstores, find its way into the hands of someone who reads it, as I did, and in so doing, brings the author alive again for a few hours.
            I can only hope that 48 years hence, someone comes across a copy of my mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, at a yard sale or on a family bookshelf, opens it, and starts reading. Wherever I may be at that moment, I’ll smile if I can.


Friday, November 23, 2012

Thoughts from Serving on a Jury

            Serving on a jury, as I recently did, is one of those things that prods you into thinking about larger issues of how our social, legal and governmental systems work. Having been made a part of that process, whether you wanted to be or not, you see it in a more real and tangible way.
            By dint of circumstance, one element of the jury experience hit me between the eyes. Here in California your exposure is limited to a week. You call in the night before to see if you have to go in the next day, and if you haven’t been called for five days, you’re off the hook.
            As chance would have it, I was called in on Monday morning, which exposed me to being seated on the jury for a six-day civil trial. Had I been called in any other day of the week, I would have been exposed to a three-month murder trial. Six days is a manageable inconvenience; three months is a business or job-destroyer. I cheerfully did the six days.

Why Does It Take So Long?

            When the concept of trial by jury was first introduced a few centuries ago, they didn’t have forensic specialists, psychiatric experts or most of the other things that add greatly to the time of a trial. Practically every case was heard in a few days, and just about anyone could afford to put the plow down that long.
            They also didn’t spend a lot of time picking the jury. The idea was that it was supposed to be 12 people who knew the defendant well enough to know whether he was probably lying or not. Now the idea is to come up with people who know nothing and have qualities that make them likely to be sympathetic to your side.
            During our little trial we would step out into the courthouse foyer during recesses and see dozens of prospective jurors for the three-month trial filling out a questionnaire that looked to be about 10 double-sided pages long. I hate that sort of thing. Most of the time the questions aren’t very good and force you to give an oversimplified and un-nuanced answer. For a nuance guy like me, that’s painful.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

            The jury process itself is more than a bit humbling. A big part of that is that as a juror you have to make a decision that means a great deal to the people involved, but you have to do so based on incomplete knowledge derived from incomplete evidence presented to you. When our jury was in deliberation, I asked at one point, “Is it just me, or does anybody else feel like the evidence presented to us doesn’t adequately explain what the heck happened here?” There was a chorus of “yeas” and nodding heads.
            We moved forward and decided on the basis of the evidence we had that there wasn’t enough of it to prove the case and ruled in favor of the defendant. In casting my vote, I did so realizing that if I knew what God did, I might have voted the other way.
             Deliberations, in our case, brought out the best in most people. Another humbling thing about jury service is the realization that not everybody else looks at the evidence and sees it as you do. Tolerance and courtesy nonetheless prevailed for the most part, and we were eventually able to talk ourselves into agreement. For a fleeting moment I wondered how things would be if Congress and state legislatures behaved like juries, but that’s not what they’re elected to do. Nice fantasy, anyway.

Holiday re-run; originally published July 29, 2011

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Talking to Students About Fly Fishing

            This week I sat down with Ron Kinninger, a retired school administrator, to talk about meeting with the Reading Buddies next month. Ron and I are both members and past presidents of the Rotary Club of Watsonville, which sends club members into E.A. Hall Middle School once a week to read with the kids who go there.
            It’s a great way to get them interested in reading and to expand their reading skills. Reading a book aloud with an adult who can ask questions and point things out can dramatically improve a student’s reading skills in a short period of time. It’s not uncommon to see kids who have read with a Rotary reading buddy for a year show a dramatic increase in standardized test scores.
            Ron had invited me to speak to the students and Rotary reading buddies on Dec. 5 about my mystery novel The McHenry Inheritance. He felt it would be a good idea to show the kids that real people write the books they’re reading and to have the kids hear something about how it’s done. And since I’ll stand up in front of an audience any time, I was an easy “get.”

Relating to 12-Year-Olds

            The students in the Reading Buddies program are sixth and seventh graders, so we’re talking about an average age of 12. That’s younger than my usual crowd, but I’m not going to be making any special preparations for the age group. Even when I speak to a roomful of college-educated people, I try to use simple, direct language. That ought to be good enough for the kids, as well, and in my experience, kids appreciate being talked to as if they’re adults and hate it when someone talks down to them.
            To begin the presentation, I thought we could show the video trailer for my book, which is two minutes long and starts with an explanation of where the idea for the story first began. Then I could talk a few minutes about writing the book and open it up to questions from the audience.
            Ron suggested something else that I hadn’t thought of. Since my book has a fly-fishing backdrop (the protagonist is on a fishing vacation in the High Sierra when he becomes embroiled in all the crime and drama), why not bring some fly-fishing paraphernalia to the presentation and talk about that as well?

Now We’re Talking Fishing

            Great idea, but all of a sudden I’ve become transformed from an English teacher talking about writing a book to a science instructor explaining how fish feed, the various stages of the insect development cycle, and the mechanics of casting a fly rod.  What the heck. In the new global economy, we’re all required to be multi-taskers.
            Still, it was an inspired idea of Ron’s to add this to the presentation. I could begin by asking how many of the kids have ever been fishing with their parents or an older sibling, then ask about fly fishing in particular. My guess is that most will have been fishing but none have been fly fishing, so it should all be new, yet related to something they’ve done and enjoyed. It’s a good way to get the audience involved.
            It even occurred to me that if the weather permits and the school authorities were agreeable, we could go outside for a fly-casting demonstration. Then I had second thoughts. It’s hard enough to make a good cast when you’re alone, no one is watching, and there’s no pressure. Doing it in front of an audience all but guarantees the yips. Besides, they can see me casting in the video.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Researching a Mystery Novel

            One of the comments I get from time to time about my mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, is that I must have done a lot of research for the book. That’s a compliment, of course, because it means that readers — or at any rate the ones who are talking to me — found the book real, at some level anyway.
            Generally, my response is to shrug and make a vague, noncommittal comment. The real answer, as they say, is that it’s complicated, but the accurate short answer would be that there wasn’t that much book research but a lot of field research.
            Because the book is set only a few years in the past, in a time that will be remembered by even the youngest readers, there wasn’t any need to research it, in the way that the author of a book set half a century or a century ago would have to do. At most I had to do a quick double-check on whether a couple of specific things would have been around then (anybody remember CompuServe?) or whether my memory was off by a couple of years.

How to Challenge a Will

            A key element in the story, as you might guess from the book’s title, involves a challenge to a will that was changed at the last minute and cut out one of the adult heirs to a substantial estate. That, I had to research, but it was pleasant going.
            I simply called up Bill Locke-Paddon, who is the pre-eminent estate attorney in our county and invited him out to lunch so I could pick his brain about how to mount an effective challenge to a will. He was gracious and highly informative, discoursing at length not only about how a will could be broken, but also about how a good attorney, anticipating a challenge, could take steps to create a will that would be more bulletproof in court.
            Bill’s expertise helped me frame a realistic situation in which the precautions weren’t taken and the appearance of undue influence would rear its ugly head in court, as it does in the book’s first chapter. If anything in that chapter is wrong, legally speaking, the fault is mine for misunderstanding Bill’s clear explanations.

Paying Attention on Vacation

            As for the rest of the book — the sense of place, the fishing material, etc. — most of it came from observation and memory.
            Earlier in this life I spent nearly 20 years as a newspaper reporter and editor. It’s one of those professions (police work is another) where you never really get away from thinking as you do on the job, even when you’re on vacation. In practical terms that means eavesdropping, asking questions, and paying close attention to what you see and hear.
            When I go to the mountains on a fishing trip, I love to go to breakfast at the local café (there’s always a joint like Mom’s in my book), newspaper in hand, and listen while I’m looking at the paper. Nobody pays any attention to a solitary reader and you can generally monitor several conversations in the immediate vicinity. If you know a piquant detail when you encounter it, there are plenty to be found in such a place.
            I also talk to store clerks, law enforcement officers, park rangers, basically anyone I meet. And when it comes to describing the fishing, that’s easy. A fly fisherman has to pay close attention to the water and to what he’s doing, so that’s all between my ears. And fishing a stream is the pleasantest research of all.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Lessons From a Nevada Weekend

            When I was young and westerns ruled television, one of the more popular ones was Maverick. It featured James Garner and Jack Kelly as two brothers who were professional gamblers traveling around the old west, catching a bad guy here and there.
            The concept of product alliances was in its infancy back then, but nonetheless someone came up with the idea of a how-to book based on the show. It was called, if memory serves, The Maverick Guide to Playing Poker.
            One of the running gags of the TV show was Garner recalling bits of wisdom that his “pappy” had shared with him. At the beginning of the book, purportedly written by the Maverick brothers, there’s a story about pappy taking them to a casino and pointing out the roulette wheels, dice games and blackjack tables. “Boys,” he said, “that’s gambling. Don’t never gamble. Play poker instead.”

Gambling Without Gambling

            Pappy’s point was that poker is to some degree a game of skill. Knowing the odds and observing the other players to see who can be bluffed can give a good player an edge. You can’t control the hands you’re dealt, but if you play them well, you can outperform your cards.
            In a similar vein, when I visit a casino (which has been twice in the past 11 years), I don’t gamble. I bet pro football instead.
            The NFL is a small enough league that you can get to know all the teams and develop a sense of how the game works. That, in turn, enables you to place an intelligent bet, which, I hasten to point out, is not necessarily the same thing as a winning bet.
            It’s one thing to determine which team has the better chance of winning (and never mind the spread for now), but that team still has to go out and play the game, with all its turnovers, penalties, dropped passes and injuries. Not to mention the defensive coordinator with the new scheme, the journeyman player who goes out-of-his-mind great for one game, and so on.
            Nevertheless, the intelligent bet remains a possibility, and one that offers satisfaction. Not only is there a slightly better (emphasis on the slightly) chance of winning, but you don’t lose any sleep over losing since you at least played smart.

Now That’s Gambling!

            This past weekend my buddy John and I played some football (in the betting sense) at Lakeside Casino in Stateline, Nevada. It was a hoot. A lot of locals play there, and the sports area was full of people looking around for hours at two dozen television screens showing all the games. The last of the second-hand cigarette smoke I inhaled should be out of my lungs by Christmas.
            Looking at the NFL matchups, I picked out five games where I felt I could see an advantage for one team and bet on that team with no regard for the point spread. At the end of the day, I’d won four out of five against the spread, and my winnings covered our cheap motel room and the gas for the drive up. Saturday night I even placed a very small bet on Boston College plus 20 over Notre Dame, just to put some interest into an unwatchable game, and won that one as well, going five for six overall.
            Some day I may do it again, but at least I have the sense to know three things: Don’t bet on the 49ers; Really, really don’t bet on the Raiders; and don’t think you can go back next weekend and win five of six again. To that, I’d add one more: Don’t bet on college football. That’s gambling.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Some Bookstores I Have Known

            Bookshop Santa Cruz is celebrating its 46th birthday this weekend. I’ll be out of town and not present for the ceremonies, but since they’re asking people to reflect on independent bookstores , I can make a modest contribution.
            The first bookstore I really remember was Vroman’s on Colorado Boulevard in Pasadena. We lived in nearby Altadena the first 12 years of my life, and my memory of Vroman’s is mostly of going there a couple of times a month, always on a Saturday afternoon, to spend part of my allowance on Hardy Boys books. Years later, after I had moved a few hundred miles away, I’d still make a pilgrimage to Vroman’s when I was in Los Angeles to visit my parents. The parents are gone now, but Vroman’s remains.
            In my high school years, I took to going to the Pickwick bookstore in Hollywood. It was bigger than Vroman’s and more chaotic, plus Hollywood in the sixties was a pretty dodgy place, which added a bit of a frisson to the expedition. The Pickwick, alas, is no more.

Surveying the Local Scene

            Our county now has four major bookstores and several smaller ones. Bookshop Santa Cruz is the leader, active in independent bookseller circles and industry change. They recently invested in a book-printing machine that has gained considerable community attention and use.
            Crossroads in Watsonville, where I had the first book-signing for my mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, is a gem of a small bookstore, providing a vital service for a community where people would otherwise have to make a 25-30 mile round trip to buy a book.
            Capitola Book Café is another good general bookstore, serving the area between Santa Cruz and Watsonville. Logos, in downtown Santa Cruz, is a behemoth of a used-book store.
            In all the stores I’ve mentioned, there’s a wonderful sense of serendipity, a feeling that you could stumble across something new and wonderful that you never knew about before you walked through the doors. To me, that’s the single most important thing a real bookstore offers.
            Browsing and chance discovery are somehow easier when the actual books are in front of you, rather than up on the computer screen as you scan Amazon. Amazon has its virtues, but it’s best when you know what you’re looking for going in. It rarely surprises you.

Bookstores Encountered by Chance

            Over the years there have been a number of bookstores I came across on trips, often completely by chance. I’ve been racking my brains, with no success, to come up with the name of the bookstore in London where I scored some incredible British mysteries and thrillers by authors I’d never heard of. That score included my first Dornford Yates book.
            Then there was Murder Ink in New York City, where the scenario was the opposite. It had quite a reputation and was one of the things on my to-see list when we made our first trip to Gotham in 1988. Murder Ink lived up to its reputation.
            And finally there are some small-town bookstores in getaway areas. Three I particularly recall. There was The Book Keeper in West Yellowstone; I still have one of their bookmarks, but the store vanished some time after our last visit more than 20 years ago, and a Google search today turns up nothing. Toyon Books on the Plaza in Healdsburg in the California Wine Country had a great cat and amazing selection for its size. It’s now Copperfield Books. And finally, one that’s still around, and from which I bought a couple of volumes in March, Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino on the California coast. Long may it thrive.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Feeding the Bulldog

            Yesterday I emailed to Santa Clara University a 600-word article I wrote based on an interview with a finance professor who has been researching why central banks in developing nations have been accumulating a high level of international reserves (a catchall term for foreign currency and other financial instruments with broad global liquidity). Today I email them the invoice. It’s what I do for a living.
            If you’ve been reading this blog, it would probably strike you that central bank foreign reserves wouldn’t be a primary area of interest for me, and you would be right. It’s a subject I don’t know much about, but in some ways that makes me a good person to write about it for a general audience.
            That’s because once it’s explained at a level where I can get it, I can then write it so that a reasonably educated, but not academic, audience can understand it as well when it appears in the university’s publication. It’s sort of the academic version of Willie Stark’s political dictum in All the King’s Men: “You gotta get your message down so low that even the hogs can get it.”

Once a Journalist, Always a Journalist

            In a sense, it was my two decades of working at a daily newspaper that qualifies me for this sort of work. In the movies newspaper reporters are always chasing scoops and doing all sort of muckraking, often at great risk to their lives and careers. Nice work if you can get it, but in real life, the newspaperman’s lot is a much more prosaic one.
            Most of what newspaper reporters do, even at big name papers, is compile a lot of information, evaluate it, throw out the unimportant stuff, and reduce the rest to its essence, typically in a few hundred words. Doing that anywhere close to right requires skill, experience, a mind that makes connections quickly, and an initial period of tutelage by a wise mentor. Sadly, there are very few wise mentors left in the business these days.
            Another considerable part of the journalist’s trade is taking a report that has been written in the jargon of a certain tribe, figuring out what it really means, then rewriting the gist of it in plain English. If you’ve ever had to read a raw police report or an environmental impact report, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about. If you haven’t, you’re lucky and should do everything you can to preserve your innocence.

Does It Translate to Fiction?

            An obvious question is whether or not this type of training is helpful to someone trying to write a novel. Earlier in this space, I addressed that question in detail, but one point I’d make is that it certainly could be of help to someone writing mystery fiction.
            That’s because the genre depends on puzzles, surprises, and the details coming together in the right way, as well as upon the reader being able to follow the complexities of a story. Much more than the author of so-called serious fiction, the mystery author needs to constantly be asking, is this making sense?
            When I was writing my mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, I tried to think of Ward Bushee, my first managing editor, who was a stickler for clarity and accuracy. Reading over something I’d written, I’d say, WWWA, or What Would Ward Ask? If I got the answer to that right, the passage probably worked. If I didn’t, well, too bad Ward isn’t with us any more to work it over with his pencil.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Mysteries I've Been Reading

            If you’re a writer, one of the ways you keep in shape — mentally, in any event — is by reading a lot. There may be an exception to the rule that good writers are good readers, but I can’t think of one offhand.
            Having just published my first mystery novel, The McHenry Inheritance, a little over three months ago, I find myself reading more mysteries than usual lately. As I consider writing a second book, reading what others have written in the genre helps me keep my head in the game, so to speak.
            In a typical month it would not be unusual for me to read, for example, Eric Ambler, Agatha Christie, Donna Leon, Louise Penney and Henning Mankell. I like to mix the Brits, the Yanks, and authors from abroad, or who set their stories abroad, and am partial to writers who have stood the test of time but open to checking out the new guy. After all, I’m one of the new guys now.

The Obsession and the Procedural

            Here’s a look at three books I read and liked in October. We’ll begin with Thirteen Steps Down by Ruth Rendell, published in 2004. Rendell, probably best known for her Inspector Wexford series, is one of the grandmasters of the genre. The Wexford books are stylish whodunits, with a perceptive eye cast to the vagaries of modern English life.
            Thirteen Steps Down is a stand-alone book and belongs to a subset of books she’s written that follow a non-police character whose life is unraveling. Here, the protagonist is an exercise-machine repairman who seems normal but quirky at the beginning of the book and by the end has gone crazy over an obsession and committed a murder. It’s a testament to Rendell’s skills that the former is almost scarier than the latter.
            Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo are a husband and wife Swedish writing team who wrote ten Martin Beck police procedurals together before Wahloo died in 1975. The Laughing Policeman is the fourth in the series, published in 1968. It follows a group of Stockholm detectives as they attempt to solve a massacre on a city bus where one of the victims was a fellow detective. Over a period of months, the clues gradually and painfully come together to form a surprising picture. It’s a near-perfect book, and I don’t say that often. Jonathan Franzen liked it enough to write an appreciative introduction for a recent Vintage Crime edition.

Found Among the Used Books

            Last weekend I read Deadstick by Terence Faherty, first published in 1991. I’d never heard of the book or the author, but came upon it while browsing the racks at Logos used bookstore in Santa Cruz and picked it up for two bucks. It’s easier to “find” a book like that in a bookstore than on Amazon. The books and their publishers give off clues in their physical form that you just don’t get on a computer.
            Deadstick follows the adventures of Owen Keane, an ADD researcher for a Manhattan law firm retained to look into a 40-year-old plane crash that killed two people. As you may already have guessed, there was more to the “accident” than authorities discovered at the time, and Keane is kept busy following that trail and attempting to sort out his relationship with a nymphomaniac red-haired librarian named Marilyn. It’s a good book (all three were), and now that I’ve discovered Faherty and Owen Keane at the used bookstore, I look forward to following further adventures through the bookstore and Kindle. That’s the way of the book-shopping world these days.