Saturday, December 30, 2006

Not Such a Vast Wasteland

by Libby Hellmann

Hey…it’s the holidays. Time to relax, chill, and not deal with anything too serious (like the execution of a Middle-Eastern dictator), right? So, going with the flow, I thought initially I would blog about New Years resolutions.

Yeah. Right. Not exciting.

Happily, my son, who’s home for the holidays, rented Season One of ”Weeds”
and I inhaled all 10 episodes in about as much time as it took someone we remember to claim that he never did.

In a word, I loved it! For those of you who don’t know, “Weeds” is a Showtime satire on Southern California life that features a suburban PTA Mom who also happens to be a drug dealer. Mary Louise Parker is terrific, and Elizabeth Perkins– well, tell me, can a character be an oxymoron?

Then I started to think about it. I’m addicted to

-- 24… more about that when Season 6 starts

-- The Shield… thanks to Jon and Ruth for tying me down while we mainlined episodes 1-4 of Season One. Thankfully, they gave me the rest of their stash to take home.

-- I hear Veronica Mars is worth looking into, and I still feel charitably toward Desperate Housewives and even Grey’s Anatomy, the doctor version of Sideways.
In fact, the last time I remember watching this much TV was on dateless Saturday nights thirty years ago, when All in the Family, MASH, Mary Tyler Moore, and the Bob Newhart Show were on in quick succession. (Anyone else remember that line-up?)

It would appear that TV has made strides since Newton Minow, who as chairman of the FCC, made this pronouncement:

“When television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there without a book, magazine, newspaper, profit-and-loss sheet or rating book to distract you — and keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that you will observe a vast wasteland."

Or has it?

There is a difference this time, though. I’m not watching on the air TV. For the most part, I watch DVDs of the entire season. Or two. I won't tie myself down to specific times, allow myself to force-fed with commercials, or let what’s left of my attention span be compromised by seven-minute spurts of “content.”

It’s a very different experience to throw the show onto your computer or a big plasma screen and lose yourself in ten or twenty or twenty-four uninterrupted episodes. I’ve spent several decadent weekends watching “24” and “The Shield” that way, and I just spent the better part of a day with “Weeds.”

The ability to revel in the characters, the action, the dialogue, even to re-watch certain scenes at your own discretion… wait a minute… I know this experience.. it reminds me something. Could it be it’s just like reading a novel? Dare I even make the comparison? Why not? It's the holidays.
So do yourself a favor this New Years weekend. Skip the bowl games or Tivo them... And get thee to thine video store…You too can enjoy vegging out.

Btw, does anyone know when Season Two of "Weeds" will be here?

And Best Wishes for a crime-fiction, book (starting with our own Marcus and Sean), and DVD-filled 2007.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Cellophane, should have been my name.

by Kevin Guilfoile

Last summer a barely noticeable thing happened to me and the other day I figured out how it fits into the novel I'm writing.

It was morning, probably the middle of June, and I was going for a walk with my two-and-a-half year old son. We stopped by the Farmer's Market and picked up some blueberries and then walked up and down a few neighborhood streets. I kept my eyes open for recently posted For Sale signs and Max cleaned the front yards of dandelions as we passed. A woman ran out of an apartment building, late for work. She smiled at us and then turned in the opposite direction and we heard her footsteps disappear behind us.

Max and I turned the corner and walked to the bank. My son loves cash machines. The other day my wife asked him if he knew how to spell "money" and he said "C-H-A-S-E-A-T-M."

We turned another corner and headed for home. A woman was opening up a flower shop, hauling gardenias and gargoyles and garden gnomes out to the street for display. She stood and spun, facing us now, only six feet away, and I recognized her as the woman running out of the apartment just as she recognized us as the father and son in front of her apartment and for a fraction of a fraction of a second I saw paranoia in her eyes. Not because she felt she had anything to fear from this suburban dad and his son, but because I was a stranger who knew more about her than she wanted. This morning I had accidentally learned where she lived and five minutes later I had accidentally learned where she worked and thanks to a name tag on her apron I knew her name was Dianne and she knew not a damn thing about me. And that imbalance, that asymmetry, is the fuel of paranoia. If only for a half-serious instant.

It's not a very interesting story. I doubt I even mentioned it to my wife when she came home from work that night, a pretty good indicator of what a non-event it was because when you spend your days exclusively with toddlers you tell your spouse everything, just to practice conversation with an adult. In fact our pre-dinner discussion each night usually consists of a detailed accounting of bowel movements. Both Max's and mine.

That it didn't make the conversation cut is to say that the flower shop story is pretty bad non-fiction. But that brief, unconscious moment of fear and uncertainty could be an excellent element of fiction.

There are a lot of ways to describe what a novelist does, but this seems to me to be as good as any. You notice all the things that don't seem worth noticing--you write them down and remember them--until weeks and months and years later they finally add up to something that is. You take completely unrelated, unimportant events and you line them all up and give them a new context and place them in the care of invented characters and you see if they really are pieces of the same puzzle. And if they are you take the pieces apart again and reshuffle so the reader can have the thrill of seeing how they fit for herself and that's the thing we call a novel.

That's what it feels like today. Ask me tomorrow and I'll tell you a novel is something different.

Boxing Day

by Sara Paretsky

My family moved to Kansas in when I was four; on our arrival, my father became the 10th Jewish male in town, which meant they could have a minyan. We lived in the country, because the town had zoning laws on where Jews and African-Americans could live. As the only Jew in my grade, year after year I had to stand up and explain the story of Hannukah to the class. It just didn't compete with the sentimental birth in the manger. Nor did our menorah compete with the lit-up trees we glimpsed through windows as we drove to our dust- and anger-filled house in the isolated countryside. I read Little Women every year from the age of 7 on; I thought all Gentile household were like the Marches'--filled with warmth and laughter, even grief and tears having a reassuring outcome.

I married an Anglo-Canadian with three sons and a tradition of plum pudding and roast goose worthy of Dickens For years I threw myself into trees and homemade fruit cakes, plum puddings. I roasted barnyards full of geese and ducks. And I discovered the secret of the Gentile Christmas: total exhaustion, occasional meltdown, children who never get the present they were hoping for. A few years ago I stopped the trees I have a creche, where Jesus lies in his manger with his very own menorah, Joseph sports a tallis and yamulke, and Mary is emerging from her Mikvah. I don't light a menorah myself--Hannukah should be celebrated with children, not by a lone adult. I serve Christmas dinner to my grown sons, my beloved granddaughter, and whatever friends are in town--and the plum pudding comes by mail order from a shop in Tacoma. No one seems to notice the difference. It's Boxing Day; I'm exhausted, but not unhappy. My granddaughter is still asleep downstairs. My husband and I are waiting to see what the day will bring.

Happy Boxing Day to all. May the new year be--against all probability--one of peace on this tired, sad planet.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Come On-a My House

by Barbara D’Amato

But first:

Thanks to Graham Powell of Crimespot for all his support to the blogging community.


A few years ago I picked up two wonderful crime writers, Margaret Maron and P. M. Carlson, at Midway Airport and drove them to my place in downtown Chicago. It was evening and I brought them up along the lake shore, past downtown, with the lake on the east and the city on the west. There were lighted boats in the harbor and the lighted skyline on the other side. One of my friends had never been to Chicago before and she said, “Why, it looks like Rio!”

I find that people who have never visited here expect steel mills, grit, and stockyards. It isn’t like that. The steel mills are mostly south, the stockyards closed years ago. The grit—well, that depends. There is some. However, I took a friend from New York to dinner in Greek Town on Halsted Street, not the cleanest part of the city. When we got out of the car, she said, “Why, it looks like it’s just been swept.” It didn’t to me. These things are relative.

At any rate, I was thinking after reading Sean’s post [Dec. 15] what a great walking town Chicago is. Walking is my favorite exercise, because it’s never boring. And Chicago is never boring. I walk Michigan Avenue a lot. I’m not interested in the pricey clothing stores or shoe stores where the shoes cost about as much as a trip to Cancun. The shopping gene seems to have skipped me. I walk to look, listen, and people-watch. You can go several blocks hearing every language spoken except English. There were people playing Peruvian wind instruments in Water Tower Park today. A child and her grandfather playing violins in front of the Borders store. And a woman came toward me—tall, striding along, elegant in a calf-length black leather coat and shoes [I mean, SHOES!] talking vivaciously, her cell-phone hand to her ear. And no cell phone. There was a Chicago cop eating an ice cream cone. A little boy carrying a baby pig—unless it was a cane nudo.

Chicago is a smorgasbord. There are Picasso, Chagall, Calder and Dubuffet street sculptures. There’s the Art Institute. The Oriental Institute. Blues clubs. The Symphony. The International Museum of Surgical Science. Plus, food, food, food. Chicago is an eating town. Thai? Ethiopian? Soul? Korean? Brazilian? Russian? Tuscan? Guatemalan? We’ve got ‘em and a hundred more. It’s a city of ethnic neighborhoods and all the neighborhoods have restaurants.

Don’t worry. I’m getting to the point of all this.

If I have friends coming to visit Chicago and they ask what to see and do, what do I tell them?

Architecture boat tours. More than anything else, with the exception of gangsters, Chicago is famous for its architecture. Louis Sullivan, Mies van der Rohe. Daniel Burnham. Frank Lloyd Wright. There are wonderful land-based architecture tours, too, and the interiors of the buildings are well worth seeing. But for the sweep of the city, the diversity and grandeur, take a boat tour. Most are running spring through late fall, but a few go all winter.

Now my question: If you have friends coming to Chicago for the first time, what do you tell them to see or do? What is your favorite Chicago thing?

Wednesday, December 20, 2006


Excerpted from THE BLADE ITSELF, by Marcus Sakey

When they were ten, they’d played a game called Pisser. It was a made-up game, but it lasted for almost two years, until Bobby Doyle missed his jump from the roof of a two-story CVS to the fire escape of the building next door and broke both wrists.

When Danny remembered the game, he always felt the way he did when he caught his own voice on an answering machine. It felt familiar, but a little off, too. Like someone else was telling a story that had happened to him.

The leader of the game was the Big Dick. It was a title they fought to earn, though mostly it meant that as they went about their lives, they kept their eyes open for the right kind of opportunity. Say, a new skyscraper going up in the Loop, the concrete and glass of the curtain wall only half-finished, the dark silhouette of a tower crane looming sixty stories up.

Boom. Call a Challenge.

Meet at seven o’clock, the yard deserted except for the security guys drinking coffee in their trailer. Squeeze under the chain link on the far side, keeping low until you’re in the building. The first floors would have actual staircases, what would become the fire steps. After that, plywood ramps. When those ran out, grab the A-frame of the crane, hoist yourself over the rail to the gridwork stairs, and start climbing.

At twenty stories, your calves burn.

At thirty-five stories, you’ve come further than the outside wall. The wind hits.

At fifty stories, five hundred swimming feet of vertigo, people on the street are just dots. Cabs are those mini-Matchbox cars you can put a dozen in your pocket.

At sixty stories, you’ve run out of stories. The building drops away, structural steel blackened by welding marks. You’re climbing the crane to the sky. Start counting steps. Ignore your legs Elvis-ing.

One hundred and eighty steps later, you’ve reached the operator’s cab, the white box like the driver’s seat of a semi. But it’ll be locked, so go up twenty more, to the gangway on top of the mast.

Take panting breaths on the ceiling of the city, the sky indigo around you, the world spread out jeweled at your feet.

Now the Challenge, because that was just warm up.

Step onto the crane arm. The metal grid is maybe two feet wide, but it feels like a tightrope. Indian-walk one foot in front of the other, keeping low to fight the wind, nothing on either side, just a few inches of steel between you and a five-second trip to State Street. Hit so hard, they’d tell each other, your shins come out your shoulders. Hit so hard nobody can tell your head from your ass. Hit so hard your teeth bounce for blocks.

Step. Breathe. Step.

When you reach the end, take a bow. Then hustle back fast as you dare. If you’re the first to ante up, congratulations. You’re the new Big Dick. Pussy out, you’re the Pisser, a little baby still whines for his mommy and wets the sheets. No hair on his nuts. No nuts at all.

It was vivid to Danny, like he could step back into that Challenge today if he wanted. The way his legs had trembled and burned. The way the air cut as he drew it in, far, far above the city-street smells of exhaust and garbage.

Once he took that first step, the fear would fade. His mind would throw up interference, like radio static, that screened out everything but a calm inner monologue and his body’s response to it. The first step wasn’t the hard part.

No, the hard part came before he stepped into the void. The hard part was the waiting, his brain imagining all the things that could go wrong.

All the things he couldn’t control.

All the ways that fate loomed beneath him, hungry, eager for him to slip.

The more you have, the more you have to lose.
January 9th

Monday, December 18, 2006

Getting the Hang of It

by Michael Dymmoch

I used to own a house, a handyman special, and it was great training for a writer. Over the years, I did a lot of home improvement projects, and the most important thing I learned from them is that it always takes longer; it always costs more. And it usually involves three trips to the hardware store.

My new home is a condo, so I’m still doing home improvement projects—most recently replacing some of the track lighting with stained glass fixtures I picked up at rummage and estate sales. Simple, right? You just turn off the power, replace the old equipment with the “new” old equipment, and turn the power back on. And the track lighting was already attached to the ceiling.

Well not quite so simple. My condo has 15 foot concrete ceilings. So suspending anything from them requires good balance and a really tall ladder. When Mike, the building engineer, delivered the ten-footer I was borrowing to do the job, he looked at the “new” fixture and said, “I don’t know if I’d trust your old hangers to carry that much weight.”

“What would you suggest?” I asked. One thing I’ve learned about home improvement projects is to get all the expert advice you can. And my building engineers have lots of experience suspending things from ceilings.

“I’d put in a new hanger,” he told me. “One I knew was strong enough.”

Since drilling into concrete is something I’d done successfully only once—at ground level, I immediately asked if I could hire him to do the job in his spare time. We agreed on a time. He said he’d bring the gadgets that go into the ceiling. I said I’d go to the hardware store and get 10 feet of BX cable and a sturdy chain.

Mike arrived on time and got right to work. I started to connect the new chain to the fixture and discovered I’d forgotten to get lamp wire to go from the electrical box on the ceiling down the chain to the fixture. Fortunately, I live near a hardware store, so while he disconnected the old lights, I ran out and got ten feet of black wire.

When I got back and tried to attach the new wire, I discovered that I’d inadvertently bought the kind of were used on not-so-small appliances, and it was too large to go through the top of the fixture. Back to the hardware store for the correct item.

By this time Mike had installed a heavy duty hanger and an electrical box on the ceiling and discovered he’d forgotten to bring a cover for the box. To leave it open would be unsightly and against code, so while he wired up the box and suspended the chain from the new hook, back to the store I went. It took another half hour to decide just how high to hang the light. (Mike was smart—or experienced—enough to leave an extra ten inches of chain and lamp wire coiled out of sight in case I want to lower the fixture later.)

Seeing the “new” fixture finally glow where the old track light had glared was—for someone who hates track lighting—an ahhhh experience. And it only took twice as long as estimated.

All very nice you say. What’s it got to do with writing?

When you get an idea for a story, it seems like a simple task to just write it. If you want the job done well, however, it’s gonna take longer. It’s gonna cost more in time and mental effort than you originally estimated. You’re gonna have to rewrite. You may even require expert advice, or at least encouragement from another experienced writer or an editor.

But if you know before you start that it’s gonna take longer and it’s gonna cost more, if you're persistent and patient, you should be very pleased with your result.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Call Me A Cab. . .Okay, You're A Cab

by Sean Chercover

Tonight found me at a Christmas party at the Abbey Pub, where the Sons Of The Never Wrong played to a packed house (examples of their work, on YouTube here and here).

It was a great show, and a great time spent with new friends. . .

Around 11:30, I step out onto Elston Avenue. Traffic is bordering on sparse, but it’s unseasonably warm in Chicago, so I walk toward Addison, figuring to hail a passing cab along the way.

A half-dozen cabs pass, and I wave at them, but they don’t stop. Two of them slow down to take a good look at me, almost stop, but suddenly switch off their ‘on duty’ roof lights, and speed away.

Curious. I’ve had a total of one (1) pint of Guinness at the pub, so I’m not giving off the don’t pick up this drunk guy vibe. I’m wearing clean jeans, a decent sweater and a relatively new leather jacket, so I’m not giving off the this guy can’t afford a cab vibe. My hair is short, my face freshly shaved and I know how to hail a cab without seeming like a psycho. I really don’t look that scary. And it’s not a dangerous neighborhood.

A few blocks south, and I’m on Addison. Now we’ve got a pretty good flow of cars. Including taxis with their duty lights on. But do they stop for me? Hell, no. More cabs slow down as they approach, but each of them decides that I’m not a good bet, and they all speed away. Some of them tease me by almost stopping and switching off their roof lights before hitting the gas and taking off.

The Sons Of The Never Wrong are a folk band. They’re all about peace and love. So I put myself in a peaceful frame of mind, and I send love to all the cab drivers that come my way. They still don’t stop, but I keep sending them love anyway. It's not about what you get back; it's about what you give. That's what the hippies say.

I resume walking. It’s a nice night for a walk, and I can use the time to soak-in my surroundings, taking note of the small details that may find their way into the next book, or the next short story.

And I’m glad for the opportunity to reconnect with Chicago as a walking town. You think ‘walking town’ and you think New York, naturally. New York is the ultimate walking town. But Chicago is also a great walking town, if you’re willing to walk longer distances.

I get to Wrigley Field, where there are drunk frat boys spilling out of sports bars everywhere you look, and now plenty of cabs are willing to pick me up. But now I'm grooving on the walk, so I decline the ride.

I don’t really know what the hell this post is about. It’s very late, and I walked all the way home - and thouroughly enjoyed the walk - taking note of many details along the way. Details that would’ve been lost, had I been speeding along in a cab, or walking thorough the hustle and noise of the day.

This nocturnal city walking ritual is easily forgotten during the cold winter months. But this, for me, is also an important part of the writing process.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Bad Cops, Women, and Chicago

by Libby Hellmann

Chicago has been front and center in crime doings over the past couple of weeks. First there was the young man arrested for planning to bomb a Rockford shopping mall. Then there was the man who killed three people at an intellectual property law firm over a portable toilet. But the crime that captured my interest has to do with the latest bad cop scandal, called Operation Broken Oath.

For those not in Chicagoland, several months ago 4 Special Ops cops were accused of home invasions, armed violence, and burglary, mostly in the form of shaking down suspected drug dealers. Their crimes were so pervasive that over a dozen OTHER Chicago cops – in what has to be one of the biggest cases of breaking the blue code of silence – decided to rat on their colleagues. Then two weeks ago two more cops were charged. One of them, Margaret Hopkins, 32, a 7-year CPD veteran, was ordered held on $750,000 bail.

Excuse me? Did someone say “Margaret?” A woman? Alas, yes. There she was in the court sketches with long hair, charged with home invasion and official misconduct. If convicted, she faces a sentence of up to 30 years.

Admittedly, men don’t have corner on corruption and crime. Neither do police officers. But something about the fact that a woman was involved made me sad. Maybe I’m being a reverse-sexist here, but I can’t help feeling that the struggle to succeed in a male dominated environment meant that a woman had to be more competent than the men. Extra good. As in being held to a higher standard of accountability.

Most of the women I asked about this with didn’t agree. In fact, their comments were pretty hard-nosed, along the lines of:

-- “Only one in seven was a woman?”
-- “It’s about time we got equal plunder…”
-- “Finally, a woman gets in on the action…”

I understand the cop culture requires you to “go along to get along.” I also realize that cops risk their lives every day. One of the things that makes it easier to do that is the knowledge that another cop is covering your back. If – for any reason – that back-up is just a tad slow in coming, a cop is exposed and vulnerable. Not a good place to be. Is that what happened here? Did Officer Hopkins feel she had no choice but to go along in order to survive?

I asked a former female Chicago cop about that. Basically, she agreed. Within a unit, she said, you know after a month who’s dirty and who’s not. You know who you want to show up on a job and who you don't. Let’s say you’re on the West side and you see your fellow cops, including your boss, filling the trunks of their cars with meat. What do you do? Everyone suffers under tyranny of the phone call – it only takes one call to get transferred if you piss someone off. So you don’t say anything. Maybe you even take a leg of lamb.

In fact, she went on, if a woman wants a promotion, there’s often a quid pro quo. It might be sexual favors, looking the other way, or other repercussions that could be worse than transfers. Commanders in some units have been known to pressure women.. because they are women. They expect women to continue to prove themselves and use that obligation to play them.

She also brought up another interesting point: that some women cops might use their gender as leverage. Women cops are less likely to be caught , she argues, because they’re not in the spotlight. She talked about checking bar licenses on the West side. When a cop walks in, the first thing a bar owner might do is shake the cop’s hand. Inside would be a $100 bill. However if a female cop goes in with a male cop, the $100 would invariably go to him; the assumption being that female cops would be shocked by the offer of a bribe. That feeds into a sense of reverse entitlement, she says. Women cops start to do the same things the men are doing, but figure no one will notice them and they won’t take the fall.

It gets complicated, doesn’t it? And unless Officer Hopkins writes a book or sits down for an interview, both of which are probably unlikely, we’ll never really know what motivated her.

What do you think? Is corrupt corrupt no matter who does it? Or is it different for female cops?

Friday, December 08, 2006

Cruel, Not Unusual By Sara Paretsky

"I felt a strong contraction and I knew that the baby was coming. I
asked for the doctor and worked the leg chain around so that I could lay
down again. The doctor said yes, this baby is coming right now.

Because I was shackled to the bed, they couldn't remove the lower part of the bed for the delivery. My feet were shackled together, and I couldn't get my legs apart. The doctor called for the officer, but the officer had gone down the hall. No one else could unlock the shackles, and my baby was coming but I couldn't open my legs."

If you think this is a report from a Kosovo war crimes trial, you're wrong: Maria (not her real name) was an inmate at Cook County Jail in Chicago, my hometown.

I read Maria’s statement while doing research on women in prison for one of my books . I read other reports, too, and met with women who had done time. I wasn’t expecting a world of sweetness and light. What I learned is that nightmarish childbirth accounts are just part of the story. There are also wrenching child-custody losses, lack of drug rehab and vocational programs and, most shocking of all, routine sexual abuse by prison guards.

This abuse is particularly shocking, when you consider what experts are saying these days: that the sexual abuse of women is a thread that may tie women to poverty and lead them to prison in the first place.

It’s not the only reason that some women abuse drugs, or fail to find work, or end up behind bars. But it’s a strong contributor for the 154,000 women who make up almost 10 percent of our prison population. Welfare case-workers are only starting to realize the extent of childhood sexual abuse that may lie in the background of their most intractable clients, while groups like Amnesty International are starting to see the connection between sexual abuse and what sends women to prison.

Eighty percent of these women are drug addicts. Almost all have children under the age of eighteen.

Although African-Americans make up about 13 percent of the U.S. population, 75 percent of women inmates are African-Americans: as a country, we prosecute African-American women at seven times the rate we do white women.

Almost sixty percent of these women are illiterate, but we won’t do literacy training while they’re in prison.

And only 31 percent are in prison for violent crimes. Half of all women inmates are in prison simply for possessing drugs. In a perverse form of the glass ceiling, women in the drug world are almost always users or small-time couriers; they rarely are dealers or major money players. Under mandatory sentencing guidelines, they could reduce or avoid prison time by turning in a bigger player. But they rarely know bigger players.

Most disturbing of all is this: At least half of the inmates will turn out to have been sexually abused as children. (Typically, they will receive no psychotherapy for this.) And nearly all of them will experience sexual abuse while they are behind bars.

According to reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other groups, male guards may verbally insult them, observe them while showering, masturbate openly in front of them, reach inside their clothes and touch their genitals, even rape them.

If the women complain they can end up in solitary confinement where they could be systematically assaulted. (A year ago in Florida, a woman hanged herself in her cell, despairing, in a note left to her mother, that no one in the prison cared about the intense sexual abuse to which she was
subjected. )

If a woman resists, guards sometimes write up "tickets" saying she is violent or uncooperative, which can lengthen her time in solitary and keep her from getting parole. And they can take away her privileges, including the right to see visitors.

When women finish their sentences, what will their lives be? Most will still be illiterate, few will have learned any skills, almost none will have been treated for addiction.

As for the 2200 women who give birth annually in prison, many may -- as Maria did -- lose custody of their children. Under a provision of the welfare reform law, if a woman is in prison for more than 18 months after her baby's birth, she loses her parental rights: Incarceration itself is deemed abandonment of the child.

Yet the hope of making something of themselves so they can give their kids a better life is one of the few positive motives for women behind bars.

It costs anywhere from $30,000 to $75,000 a year to keep a person behind bars. Conservatively, that's about $6 billion a year we're spending to lock up—and, apparently, abuse—these women, most of whom are non-violent offenders.

The only people who benefit from that $6 billion a year are those who live in dying towns, prison-construction and management companies and the politicians who court their dollars and their votes. That's an outrage. It's an injustice. Unfortunately, it's not a crime.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Quick Watson, the Needle

- Barbara D'Amato

A few weeks ago a group of Chicago police officers were pulled off duty for keeping the drugs they confiscated from arrestees and reselling them—the drugs, not the arrestees. Probably nobody wanted to buy the arrestees.

I’m not criticizing the CPD. Most police officers do a good job and a good cop is pure gold to all of us. It’s sad that drugs are so portable, so profitable, and maybe even to these cops, constitute such a victimless crime.

Crime writers make use constantly of drugs as plot elements—motivation, solution, even simply to characterize a person as a bad guy. It was not always so. Watson did not despise Holmes.

What if we decriminalized drugs? Well, we might achieve this--

Save the billions—yes, billions—that are spent on police, the DEA, prisons, border interdiction, and so on. Maybe this money could be spent on treatment. Or maybe even schools.

Eliminate deaths from adulterated drugs.

Eliminate a LOT of crime. Cop friends tell me that three-quarters of the arrests they make are drug related.

Eviscerate drug cartels and drug-related criminal enterprises.

Protect the thousands of people who will be mugged for drug money.

Make the kids who now “earn” a couple of hundred dollars a day as lookouts think seriously about getting a job.

End the “Amwayization” of drug use. I wish I knew who first came up with this word. It means, of course, that when a person gets a habit he has to go out and convert others to sell to so that he can support his habit.

But, you say, you know people whose lives have been ruined by drugs. Me too, but very frequently by legal drugs. The advantage legal drugs have is that they can be monitored. How about spreading that benefit? In any case, let’s be clear here. Everyone you or I know of who has a problem with drugs has developed that problem under the present laws. Is it possible the laws cause the problem? Two very powerful forces are operating—Amwayization, as mentioned above, and the forbidden fruit syndrome. I would really prefer a world in which children would not feel their normal need to rebel would be served by using drugs.

How bad would decriminalization be? Nobody knows. But in Peru, coca growers are permitted to grow a certain amount for their own use. Coca leaves are brewed as a stimulating drink, somewhat like the way we use coffee and tea. What is a drug, anyway? In some parts of the world, coffee is illegal.


Some good reading:

The economist Milton Friedman wrote a lot about decriminalization. An economic conservative, he was nevertheless in favor of what seems a radical notion. See The War We Are Losing, Hoover Institute Press, 1991. Or Stop Taxing Non-Addicts, Reason Magazine, October 1988, or an interview with him in Newsweek May 1, 1972.

Howard Becker, a well-known sociologist, has had a lot to say about what kind of substances we choose to call drugs. See, for instance, “Drugs: What Are They?” in Aiglet:Atlanta, 2001. He has numerous other articles on the subject. Elsewhere he makes the point that when stronger forms of mind-altering substances arrive in a culture, people don’t know how to use it and it destroys people for a while. Think Hogarth’s Gin Lane. He predicted that people would learn to use the substances that appeared in the sixties more safely, and he was generally right. Stronger forms of a drug are developed, among other reasons, so that they can be hidden in smaller spaces and transported easily.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Messy Personal Politics...

by Sean Chercover

In the current issue of the Chicago Reader, John Conroy exposes massive conflict of interest among Cook County’s criminal judges. These jurists are handing down rulings on postconviction petitions relating to cases in which they were directly involved as prosecutors, years earlier. Since many Assistant State’s Attorneys grow up to be criminal court judges, this seems a widespread problem.

The most absurd conflict, Conroy writes, is the case of Judge Nicholas Ford, who ruled to uphold a confession that he, himself, had written as an ASA.

It would be the stuff of high comedy, if not for the fact that the convict in this case is claiming that his confession was a product of police torture.

Interesting that, as I write this, I have the urge to insert a disclaimer pointing out that most cops are good people doing good work, etc. Should go without saying. But Chicago has had a few very bad apples. The University of Chicago has a website devoted to the torture inflicted by former CPD commander Jon Burge and his thugs. Also on the site are statements made by some very brave CPD detectives who came forward. The statements make for sobering reading.

But this post isn’t about good cops and bad cops. It’s about the personal politics inherent in the judicial system. . .and how this informs the way we approach crime fiction.

Obviously, a judge is ethically bound to recuse him- or herself from a situation such as Ford’s. But Judges routinely make rulings on the work of former colleagues and friends and lovers and rivals. Real life is messy that way, which is a good thing for crime fiction writers. The personal politics at work among cops and prosecutors and defense lawyers and judges offer the opportunity to take these characters beyond type.

Who are your favorite writers in this regard?


PS: The Outfit is stepping out on the town! Starting this coming weekend, The Outfit will be making some public appearences together, and we'd love to see y'all in person. You can find our event schedule on the right-hand sidebar of our main page.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Cooking Up a Story

by Michael Dymmoch

Writing fiction has a lot in common with cooking. Like cooks, writers start out with a list of ingredients and simple instructions—plot, character, conflict, etc., and the rules of spelling and grammar. We pretty much follow the recipe—sometime ad nauseam—and usually come up with something we can serve. Great cooks and great writers learn the rules and understand the purpose of each ingredient, master the basics, then improvise. Proportions are important—too much flour, or exposition, and the result is flat. To much spice, or sex—you get the idea. But great writers, like great chefs, eventually abandon the measuring spoons and adjust the ingredients to taste.

Good cooks and writers also learn to keep basic ingredients around and to use whatever else they have at hand. Need a quick meal? Look in the fridge. If you’ve got eggs and herbs you can make a great omelet. Leftovers? Soup or stew or shepherds’ pie. Need details to make your story credible? Just check the nightly news. Or take a ride on the bus. (Last night the #22 bus was stopped at Clark & Belden forever because CPD had closed the intersection to deal with a situation.) Or just look around—you’ll see stuff you couldn’t make up. (A sign over an auto repair shop in LA reads: Graffiti no longer accepted here. Please find a day job! Thank you.)

In On Writing, Steven King (loosely paraphrased), said that a writer’s job isn’t to come up with a totally new idea—there aren’t any. Writers have to combine ideas no one’s ever put together before and express them with their own style. Sometimes you can combine things that don’t seem to go together and have a hit. I thinks that’s how pineapple pizza (Some of us love it.) and chocolate covered pretzels came to be. I know that’s how Death in West Wheeling was born—Homer, Mark Twain and Festus Hagen; Agatha Christie, Jeff Foxworthy and Roy Clark; The Odyssey, Mayberry and you-couldn’t-make-this-up news clips from AP.

Breaking the rules is half the fun—Ever tried French fried ice cream? I’m sure someone told Dan Brown the world wouldn’t buy a religion-based story. And who would have thought the tale of a precocious bird (Jonathan Livingston Seagull) would become a best-seller? Or a photographer on assignment in Iowa? (Bridges of Madison County) So sometimes wildly successful recipes turn out to be junk food. They’re still a (guilty) pleasure. Great chefs break away from the usual or do the usual uniquely.

And great writers follow Stephen King’s advice. Which is why Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince) is a classic story and one of the most brilliant philosophies ever written.

In The Book of Lost Things, thriller writer John Connolly combines grim fairy tales with the Blitz; and biting satire with brilliant insight into a child’s efforts to cope with unbearable loss. Part of the genius of the tale is the lyrical prose, which sets the once-upon-a-time tone and keeps horrifying incidents from becoming so graphic that they overwhelm the story.

Another example is 47 Rules of Highly Effective Bank Robbers. Reminiscent of Edward Abbey (The Monkey Wrench Gang), Dave Barry (Big Trouble), and Carl Hiaasen (name your favorite), author Troy Cook turns the self help genre on its ear and throws Barbie ® in to boot.

Perhaps a study of any novel novel would reveal this master chef approach. Noticing the “ingredients” doesn’t detract from the pleasure of reading a wonderful story any more than studying art history detracts from appreciating art.

That’s my take. What do you think?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Save the Date

by Marcus Sakey

So I was looking at my calendar this morning and realized something.

My debut novel The Blade Itself comes out in 41 days.

Holy crap.

This is very exciting news. One thing a lot of people outside the publishing industry don’t realize is just how long the process takes. I finished my first draft of the book eighteen months ago. Sold it fourteen ago. Hell, I finished the draft of my second book four months ago, and Blade is still not out.

But on January 9th, just 41 short days away, it will be. And in one of those moments of strange synchronicity, another debut novel drops that same day—fellow Outfit member Sean Chercover’s Big City, Bad Blood.

This, we have decided, is worthy of celebration. And we’d like you to join us, because, hey, that’s what a celebration is about.

If you live in Chicago or the outlying area, come to our launch party. Hoist a beer and chat with authors, reviewers, booksellers, and friends. Beer, wine, booze, and apps are on us. Both our books will be available for sale, but you don’t have to buy one to get in, so come out for a couple of pints and some chicken wings.

Sheffield’s Tavern
3258 N. Sheffield (two blocks from the Belmont red/brown stop)
Thursday, January 11
Technically 8 – 10 pm, but we’ll be there till they toss us

Very much hope to see you there!

Monday, November 27, 2006

Giving the Devil His Due

By Libby Hellmann

Probably the most common question we writers are asked is “what made you start writing crime fiction?” I’ve always answered that I can tell you how and when I started writing, but, aside from the fact that I’ve ingested a steady diet of thrillers and mysteries over the years, I was never exactly sure why I felt compelled to write.

Well, thanks to the events of the past week, I think I know. In fact, it’s been one of those smack-yourself-on-the-forehead, how-could-I-have-been-so-stupid moments.

It was OJ. Or, more accurately, the OJ trial.

I was free-lancing in 1995, and I had a flexible schedule. So I was able to watch a lot of the proceedings, which began pretty much at the beginning of the year. I remember being glued to the TV, and what I remember most was the theater: a hideous crime, a compelling story, eccentric characters, drama, conflict – in other words, everything you could want in a crime novel.

First there were the characters. Central Casting couldn’t have come up with a better collection: the earnest but scattered female prosecutor , the urbane, witty defense lawyer, the dullard judge who yielded control to everyone, the racist cop. There was even a California surfer dude, the requisite expert witnesses, as well as the avuncular king of defense lawyers.

Then there were the forensics. I knew very little about police procedure when I started watching and even less about forensics. DNA tests, blood spatter, the bloody glove, the timing – all those issues opened up a new world for me. And when the defense suggested that some of the evidence had been mishandled… maybe even manipulated – well, that played to all of my latent conspiracy theories, not to mention my tendency to rebel against anyone in authority.

Finally, of course, there was the denouement. How absolutely noir an ending it was! The victims are denied justice. The bad guy goes free. Chandler or Ross McDonald couldn’t have done it better.

I remember how swept up I was in the day to day events. I remember screaming at Marcia Clark to object when Barry Scheck made a salient point….I remembering calling my husband, a lawyer too, to rant and rave ... I even remember the nagging feeling that the real issues were being buried and obfuscated (although I wasn't sure how or why). The only other seminal event I was involved in to that degree was the broadcast of the Watergate Hearings in 1973 (I worked for public television and was part of the crew who broadcast the hearings at night.) In retrospect, actually, I find it curious that I was more emotionally involved in the murder of a woman than in a President who tried to subvert the constitution. But that’s another blog.

I’m sure it was the denial of justice… the fact he got away with it… that justice was NOT served… that stayed with me. It wasn’t a conscious decision, of course, but the verdict came down in October of 1995, and by spring of 1996 I’d written my first mystery. It was a police procedural, btw, about the murder of a female judge who was also president of her synagogue. It was never published, and it shouldn’t be. Still, I kept going and eventually published the Ellie Foreman series.

In a way, I’ve been hesitant to own up to this, because who wants to give the devil his due? I was thrilled when Fox News (in an uncharacteristically rational move) cancelled the book and the interview. At the same time, I have to admit that OJ had a tremendous impact on me. I can even say he changed my life.

What about you? What inspired you to write – or read – crime fiction?

Thursday, November 23, 2006

"George, I Wish You'd Look at the Nursery."

by Kevin Guilfoile

In The Veldt, possibly the best-known story by America's second-greatest short story writer (my official top-five are available on request), Ray Bradbury imagined an automated house with a playroom that could read the minds of the children within and produce a realistic environment--around, above, and below--forged from the kids' imagination. When the story begins, homeowners George and Lydia Hadley are concerned that their kids have been spending too much time in the virtual but frightening African grasslands. (I won't ruin it by telling you what most concerns George and Lydia by the tale's end.)

It's a story about technology, but it's also about the ways that modernity has detached us from nature. That there are consequences to the insulation of our urban/suburban existence.

In recent weeks I've become addicted to a show on the Discovery HD channel. It's called Sunrise Earth and every morning it shows a sunrise. For an hour. In crystal clear high definition.

It's a little more than that, but not much. Each episode is shot in a different, beautiful location. One morning it's the woods of Maine. The next might be the Everglades. The next rural China. Or Yosemite National Park. They shoot with multiple cameras which could capture a moose bathing in a river, or insects converging on an opening flower, or lobstermen preparing their boats. There's no narration, just an occasional clock giving you the local time and a line of text with some trivia about the landscape. I normally turn it on when I come downstairs in the morning and let it run in the background as I get breakfast ready. It's hardly a show you watch with rapt attention; it's more like having a window with the most amazing view you can imagine. My three-year-old loves it, too. He's obsessed with maps of the United States and he likes being able to put these magnificent pictures to the names he's learned--California, Massachusetts, Florida.

So the other day I was bringing a sippy cup of milk from the kitchen to the living room and as I handed it to Max and glimpsed through my television window a seal wriggling up some California beach I thought to myself, "Holy cow. This is The Veldt."

I live in an old suburb with plenty of mature trees and park space and woods. It also has a Starbucks and McDonald's and shoe stores and bars. And the landscape is flatter than the top of a Green Beret's head. I understand that much of the appeal of Sunrise Earth is nostalgia for my upstate New York childhood, a time and place where I really could wake up in the morning and open my bedroom shade and watch the red sun appear over actual mountains and lakes. But who would have thought that one of the stars of high definition television would be some dude who plants his camera in a relatively unspoiled part of the country and films the sunrise for folks who live in the parts that have been bulldozed and paved over?

Ray Bradbury, actually.

Some of the action in my book Cast of Shadows takes place inside an online computer game called Shadow World, in which every detail of our cities and towns--down to each home and store and alley and brick--is duplicated in a virtual environment. When I talk to people who've read the book, at bookstores and libraries and reading groups, Shadow World seems to be the great divider of readers. For many it's their favorite thing in the book. For an equal number it's the thing they most dislike. I can't even count the people who have said to me, "I had no problem accepting the doctor who clones his daughter's killer, but I found Shadow World to be completely implausible. There couldn't possibly be a game like that."

And I have to tell them that there already is. Almost.

I started writing Cast of Shadows in 2001 and at the time I imagined Shadow World as a game like The Sims taken to its extreme. I included it not only for structural reasons, but I also thought the idea of people cloning themselves in a virtual world was a thematic fit with the rest of the book. (I wasn't the first to imagine such a world, BTW--check out Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash for a fun, earlier example). I finished CoS in 2003 and that same year an online game called Second Life opened to the public. Second Life wasn't exactly like Shadow World--it's a fantasy landscape rather than an exact twin of our earth--but much of the social interaction is stunningly similar. With over 1.5 million players, Second Life has its own exploding economy (as I write this over $600,000 US has been spent in the game just in the last 24 hours). Real life businesses have opened branch offices in Second Life, Reuters has a bureau there, there are plans to stage a Second Life version of the reality show Big Brother, and there's an operating exchange rate between US dollars and Second Life's Linden dollars. There's even been some discussion in Congress about taxing the fictional transactions in the game. Imagine having to pay income tax on those little red hotels you put up on Park Place.

I'm excited by the possibilities of an environment like Second Life, although I have to admit I'm a little disappointed it has arrived so quickly. While I was only imagining it, a much smarter someone was actually making it happen, which surely takes some prescience points away from me as a writer. Shadow World is almost, but not quite my Veldt.

Anyway, I'm not sure anyone is reading this over the holiday weekend, but here's something I'm wondering about if anyone's still around. What other Veldts are out there? What are some literary inventions that have recently come to pass, in one form or another, in the real world?

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Red State/Blue State by Sara Paretsky

Red State/Blue State

Okay, Illinois, home to the Outfit, is officially a Blue State—we voted Democrat even down to Todd Stroger, who was appointed by the local polit-buro—sorry, Cook County Democratic Organization—to head the county ticket after his father suffered a stroke in the middle of the primary. Cook County’s budget is over $3 billion, with some 30000 employees, a patronage nest that makes the county presidency a prize worth fighting hard to keep. But is Illinois a liberal state? Is Chicago a liberal city? has some interesting comments on this.

I first came to Chicago in 1966, when Dr. Martin Luther King was here, trying to support Al Raby and others in their fight to integrate what is widely thought of as the most segregated city in America. The white south side erupted in violence that shook Dr. King to his core, as Taylor Branch reports in At Canaan’s Edge. ( Like a lot of bloggers, I’m a new and enthusiastic Branch reader.)

The white south side was furious with Mayor Daley for sending police out to Marquette Park to protect Dr. King. Shouting the kind of epithets that got Richards in trouble on national TV this week, they vowed never to vote Democratic again. They packed up their marbles and stomped off to the western suburbs, where they formed a Republican machine every bit as corrupt, powerful and dangerous as the old Daley or the new Stroger operations. And they send some of the reddest of the reds to Congress, including Judy Biggert, Illinois 13th and the outgoing speaker, Dennis Hastert, Illinois 14th. So whether we’re red or blue or progressive or reactionary—it’s all where you’re registered to use that Diebold machine!

Monday, November 20, 2006

No More Re-gifting, No More Fruitcake

by Barbara D'Amato

The holidays are right around the corner, and so is your Aunt Martha with her annual gift of Turkish paste and Cousin Dan with his annual subscription to A Guy’s Basement Workshop. Plus you feel a need to head out and buy presents that you know may turn out not to be the right size or the right thing. And work on your smile of delight at the Turkish paste.

I have the solution. No more re-gifting. No more fruitcake.

Find a family in need. One year a friend in North Carolina told me about a family whose possessions had been wiped away by a hurricane. Another year a Chicago cop found me a family whose wage-earner had died and whose oldest child had medical problems. Your minister, priest, or rabbi may know of such a family. Or with two degrees of separation, I guarantee you can find one.

NOTE: Make sure the family’s permission has been obtained.

Find out the composition of the family, and the gender and ages of the children.

VERY IMPORTANT: If there are children involved, get an alternative address to which the presents can be sent. I don’t think you should ever give out addresses of children. There are just too many creeps in the world. But a neighbor, grandparent, or church contact works well.

Inform all the people who give you gifts that you want gifts sent to the needy family instead of you. Tell them you will be very, very, extremely upset if they give you a gift instead.

Good gifts include:

Towels. Everybody has old towels. New towels just aren’t a priority when you are in dire need. And new, fluffy towels are a great comfort.

Luxury items. It sounds strange to give luxuries to a family that needs essentials, but luxuries are the first things that disappear in a crisis. Chocolates and holiday cookies are very appreciated. Alcohol isn’t so good

Children’s toys. It depends on the age, of course. Dolls, balls, checkers, or dominoes, catcher’s mitts. Crayons, art paper, knitting equipment and yarn, paints, markers, coloring books and so on are good. Books of course. And nobody ever has enough Legos.

Tell your friends to send the gifts, but not their name. Keep it anonymous. That way there are no comebacks and you have no fear that somebody in the giftee family is going to turn up later for a handout.

I don’t know where the petrified fruitcake that has been making the rounds for thirty years will go, but this year it won’t be your house.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

We're Gonna Need A Bigger Garret

by Marcus Sakey

I’m a new writer. My debut, The Blade Itself, comes out January 9th (notice the subtle plug?), and so I’m in the thick of the marketing and self-promotion jungle.

I’m setting up signings. I’m planning a launch party. I’m expanding my website. I’m also doing something new that’s quickly becoming the norm—I’m partnering with other writers.

More and more often, groups of authors are working together to accomplish what might be tough on our own. Take this blog: sure, we like each other’s work, we write in the same genre, and we’re all in Chicago, but I’ll let you in on a secret—the real reason we formed The Outfit is that we’re too damn lazy to run our own blogs.

Working together, we can create a forum for ideas and discussion without having to worry about the time blogging takes away from novel writing. It’s a good arrangement.

Sean and I are also part of another group, Killer Year. It’s a collective of suspense novelists with debuts coming in 2007. I can’t speak for anyone else, but when I joined, I figured, hell, why not? I imagined that while it probably wouldn’t do much good, it also wouldn’t take much work.

As it turns out, I was wrong on both counts.

It’s a lot of work. Even deciding what to do takes a long time when there are fourteen people with vested interests.

However, it’s paying off. Killer Year was adopted as an official program of International Thriller Writers. We each have an ITW mentor to guide us through our debut year (mine is David Morrell, creator of Rambo and the godfather of the modern thriller). We’ve chipped in to print a collection of our first chapters and ship it to several hundred independent booksellers. And in the biggest news yet, we just sold an anthology to St. Martin’s Minotaur. Edited by Lee Child, it will feature work from all of us and some of our mentors, including contributions by Laura Lippman, Duane Swierczynski, and Ken Bruen.

All of which is very groovy, and I couldn’t be happier. But the reason I bring it up is because I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on the benefits—and limits—of authors working as a group.

This is a hot topic. Group blogs are popping up all over the place (without any thought at all, here’s one, here’s another, and a third). Authors are teaming up for signings and hitting the road together to bring down the cost of tours. We’re co-writing, link-seeding, and critique grouping.

Is this the new way of doing business? Or is it a phase?

Some aspects, like group blogs, make such obvious sense that I think they have the legs for the long haul. But will our traditionally solitary business now be about working as a team?

And if so, how far does that go?

I can imagine a day when in addition to individual writers, there are collectives, with shared characters, plots assembled by committee, and quarterly releases. You go to the store and buy the new Good Girls Kill For Money novel.

Good? Bad? Improbable? What do you think?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


I got the assignment because I earned it, beating out cut-throat competition to interview the world’s foremost expert on death. It was a plum, made sweeter by the rumor that the dean of death was dying; there might be no more interviews after mine. He offered me a day--sun-up to moonrise, a curious division.

I arrived as the first third of the sun’s disk cleared the horizon, casting its warm rays down the central corridors of his house. The place was white and architecturally austere. He’d employed simple materials everywhere--wood and wool and cotton, slate and stone, glass and linen. The effect was pleasing. A slab of polished marble for table. Dried flowers in a spheroid vase. The steel ring of an engine gear framing an ivory Kali.

His books filled an entire wall of shelves. He had classical representations, from Bosch to Mozart’s Requiem. His photographs were hellish--corpses at Aushwitz, mountains of skulls in Cambodia, piles of body parts in Africa. His own monument to mortality had raised the subject to an art form. He had immersed himself in death, its lore refined and polished.

“All this will go to the University, one day,” he told me. A pernicious bequest.

He took me through the course: “Homo erectus was a cannibal. Death obviously meant a full belly. For someone. “Neandertal buried his dead with flowers. Cro magnon surrounded his with magic and red ochre. “The Egyptians and the Maya planned for eternity... “The Vikings cheated death and grave robbers simultaneously... “The Jews were divided... “And so we come to Christianity, the ultimate death defying feat. Behind the sacristy curtain we find the wizard of Oz--but he gave them what they needed, didn’t he?”

He pointed to pictures of Arlington cemetery and Flanders Field and said, “War has been always with us. Wars throughout history have served Death and left it monuments... So to the present.”

He held up the photo of a skeletal man on life supported by tubes and wires and monitors. “The ultimate absurdity. We’ve made a living monument to death.” But no one gets out alive.

For luncheon we had the blood of grapes and little silver fishes, eyes fixed and dilated.

Afterward, he took me room to room and showed me violent ends in slow-mo.

“Hollywood captures the excitement without the loss," and "God is dead. Neitche. But Neitche is also dead, so where did killing God get him?”

“Have you ever killed,” I asked.

He shook his head, sadly I thought, and I believe he murmured, “Not yet.”

He showed me videos of creatures--chickens, small dogs, monkeys--killed with knives, with wire, with flaked obsidian and jade, with a remarkable paucity of blood, or with blood that seemed black as in a photograph, not red, not vivacious.

No acolyte was more lovingly instructed. I took copious notes.

He tried to interest me in joining his experiments but I resisted. “Objectivity is all,” I said. “I can’t retain my credibility without it.”

The sun passed overhead. When its gold probed the white hall from the western end, he took me to his kitchen, where I watched his chef murder a rabbit. It kicked once, and its life slipped down the drain. My host seemed to drink in the experience, then to dismiss it. “Dinner,” he said.

The rabbit was delicious, and later, over dessert, he promised me the ultimate experience.

I recalled how my mother (of the huge, guilt provoking eyes), on hearing of my fortunate assignment, told me, “He will cause you pain.”

“Well, then, I’ll suffer,” I had said.

I recalled this conversation after dinner, after soporific wine. As my lids closed, weighted by the day, by death, perhaps by laudanum in my coffee.

I awakened on his couch (but I had not been ravaged), covered with a shroud of eggshell linen.

He was not in the room, but I became aware of sounds, in the adjoining room, of knives being stropped.

I was filled with fear such as I’d never known, with dread, with loathing, and the conviction I would soon experience death in the most immediate way. I threw the cover off with terror to find a cord tied round my waist, a dark, fibrous umbilicus of natural hemp. When I released the tension on this thread, he came in, rushing from the nether room in panic.

“No! It’s too soon. I'm not ready yet!”

I tried to push past, but he anticipated my evasion like a dancer, like a lover, knowing his beloved’s every whim.

He raised the knife, and I was mesmerized.

The blade gleamed in the shining moonlight. I was immobilized.

His grip twisted til he held the knife before him, palm inward, point upward, like a talisman. He held my eyes with his. Then he brought the blade across with a sure and savage joy, with a cry like a lover's climax. The blade bit silently. The line between life and death drawn definitively, across his throat’s white flesh with his own lifeblood, with a single, clean stroke. He managed only two words, at once a challenge and a plea.

“You see?”

© 2000 by MADymmoch
first published in Blue Murder Magazine

Monday, November 13, 2006

Violence and Darkness. . .

by Sean Chercover

Over at John Rickards’ forum, there’s a discussion about darkness, graphic violence, and how far is too far.

There’s been a trend in recent years, a one-upsmanship of graphic violence, an unspoken competition to see who can be the Grand Puba of Noir. Yet, for all the arterial blood and brain matter smeared all over the page, many of these stories are not affecting, and their violence seems cartoonish, rather than dark.

Memo to would-be tough guys: An exquisitely detailed description of eyeballs popping out of their sockets does not, in and of itself, make a story dark, and it doesn’t make the writer a badass.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not against graphic physical violence. I do some of my violence on-screen when I write, and I appreciate realistically portrayed violence when I read. When done well, violence is messy and disturbing, and it needn’t be prettied-up and sterilized.

Excellent use is made of graphic violence, for example, in Lawrence Block's Edgar Award-winning Matt Scuddder novel, A Dance At The Slaughterhouse. The story deals with snuff films, so we’re talking about some ugly sexual torture here. Without wallowing in gore, Block offers enough graphic detail to make the violence truly disturbing. And that’s as it should be. The graphic violence in A Dance At The Slaughterhouse is not only justified, it is necessary, in my opinion.

What Block does so masterfully, is to offer a few specific details (one sickening detail, in particular) that stick in your mind. He then summarizes the rest of the torture without detail. In retrospect, you think you’ve seen more detail than you actually have.

And there may be a lesson here for the rest of us. Given the opportunity, the reader will make the violence more horrific than the writer possibly could. Because each reader will fill in the details with specifics to match his/her own worst personal fears. Block describes selected details that send a signal to the reader - this is very dark stuff - and then he lets the reader’s own imagination take over.

But when you spoon-feed every gory detail, you take that power away from the reader. The reader is no longer a complicit partner. Your worst personal fears are not shared by everyone, and will not be as affecting. Pile detail upon detail, and the scene starts to look like a cartoon.

And the writer starts to look like the kid in the schoolyard trying too hard to be a badass. Trying too hard is fatal, and has the opposite effect.

Now, I don’t know where the perfect balance is, and I don’t know how to find it. I just stumble along in the dark, trying this, trying that, until it feels right. I suspect that the point of perfect balance is different for each of us.

Where is yours? What writers do you admire for their use of violence, and for their ability to recruit your imagination in the commission of violence?

Thursday, November 09, 2006

The 15 Minute Solution

by Libby Hellmann

First -- some personal news. The first book in my series, the Anthony-nominated An Eye for Murder is being re-released as a trade paperback by the wonderful folks at Poisoned Pen Press. If you’ve never read the Ellie Foreman novels, this is a good place to start. Or, if you just want to reconnect with an old friend, you can order it from your favorite bookstore or directly from Poisoned Pen Press.

Second, I have a new story up on Amazon Shorts. "The Day Miriam Hirsch Disappeared " won several contests when it first came out. Set in 1938 in Chicago’s Lawndale, it introduces 16 year old Jake Foreman (Ellie’s father), who has a crush on actress Miriam Hirsch. Unfortunately, Miriam only has eyes for Ben Skulnick, aka Skull, who may or may not be a gangster. Is all fair in love and war? See for Yourself-- It's only 49 cents.

Now… onto something weightier.

Most of you reading this are part of an extended community of readers and writers. Given that we tend to hang around with each other, it’s sometimes hard to realize that most people in the country don’t read. Or do so as little as possible. I won’t reiterate the sobering statistics – you already know that the time Americans spend reading has declined. You’ve heard how book sales have plummeted, particularly mass markets. You’ve read how newspapers are phasing out their book review sections.

Maybe you’ve signed in one of the chains, as I have, and experienced a person passing your table. You ask if they read mysteries, and they reply, rather defiantly, it seems, “Oh, I don’t read. I don’t have time.” You bite back the obvious reply, “Then what are you doing in a bookstore?” and go on. Inside, though, you’re fuming.

At least I am.

It’s not just that we’ve evolved from being a culture of ideas to a culture of the mouse. It’s not just that we've dumbed ourselves down to become ignorant. It's that we’ve become arrogant in our ignorance. We’re proud of the fact we have more important things to do than read.

Okay – enough whining. I’m probably preaching to the choir anyway. But I do have an idea, and I’d like your reactions. It’s not a total solution, but it may be the beginning of one. Unless I’m hopelessly naïve. You tell me.

How many of you remember the ”Get Caught Reading” campaign about 10 or 15 years ago? I think it was library-based, and it consisted of photos of celebrities reading a book. (Today’s “Got Milk” capitalized on the idea).

So… what if there was a new campaign? With the message: Just turn off your computer, Ipod, or cell phone (and, yes, even the blogs) for 15 minutes a day and read. Just15 minutes.

Think about it. In 15 minutes, a person might read 10 pages. Over a month, that’s 300 pages, which is an entire book. Over a year’s time, that’s 12 books. And that doesn’t take into account that some people might actually enjoy the experience and read more. Everyone can find 15 minutes a day, can’t they?

You’d get famous people to appear, everyone from to LeBron James to Brangelina to Barack Obama. You’d blitz the media, including cable, print, and banner ads all over the Internet. Maybe you could tie in book giveaways at the same time, although I really don’t see this as a commercial venture.

The key would be to make a big splash. To make sure the message is heard by young people as well as adults, kids as well as parents. In order to do that, of course, you’d need to get the entire publishing industry involved: publishers, distributors, bookstores, libraries. Walmart and Costco. Even Oprah.

And that’s the problem.

I’ve been told it would never work. That the publishing industry is too fragmented. That publishers prefer to spend their marketing dollars promoting individual authors and titles. That you’d never get all the different entities to cooperate.

Maybe I’m naïve, but I don’t want to believe that. Why wouldn’t a company want to promote behavior that encourages consumers to buy their products? I can’t imagine the chains wouldn’t want to take part in it, either. Or libraries. Independent bookstores. Or authors. It’s one of those win-win situations. All it would take is a little cooperation. And money. And, if all the interested parties pooled their resources, how much could it cost any one player?

So, what do you think? Could it happen? Is it even possible to restore the culture of reading?

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

I'm Goin Way Down South to Mexico Way

Last month The New Yorker reported on a staff reunion of the long-defunct New York Herald Tribune. Among the many excellent old-time newspaper anecdotes in the story is this one:

The Daily Mirror was on East Forty-fifth. Bishop was doing rewrite on the night shift. The elevator opened right in the city room. This young fellow walks off the elevator. He has a gun in his hand, blood all over his shirt. The first desk he comes to is Jim Hurley’s. Hurley was the hunting-and-fishing editor. The guy says to him, ‘I came home and found my wife in bed with another guy. So I shot her. I want to turn myself in.’ And Hurley says, ‘This is outdoor sports. Indoor sports is over there.’

I'm a big fan of the police beat columns in my local paper (as well as the hilarious police log at the Arcata Eye). They are not only a great way to keep up with the juiciest neighborhood gossip they offer a wealth of stories about oddballs and idiots, all important material for a writer to squirrel away in his hollow tree trunk of story and character ideas. I remember a few years ago when there was a rash of people assaulting the rhinos at the zoo with their hats.

Darren Stephens is a talented actor, musician, yodeler, and voiceover artist in Chicago. I knew his fine work when I was working in advertising (it's difficult to forget someone working in the biz who shares a name--at least homophonically--with the most famous ad exec in television history.)

Anyway I ran into Darren at a wedding recently and was extremely excited to learn about his latest project, the twice weekly STOP! Police podcast. On STOP! Police Darren basically reads the Chicago police blotter and offers his own sarcastic commentary. It's sort of like Hill Street Blues meets Best Week Ever and each episode is only about ten minutes long which, conveniently, is about the same length as my bi-weekly cardio workout. Short, brilliant, check it out.

Also, a program note. Tonight, (Wednesday, November 8) I am appearing on a panel sponsored by the Illinois Humanities Council titled How Free Are We? exploring the relationship between nature and nurture and the potential challenges advances in genetics pose to the notion of free will. This was an important theme of Cast of Shadows and I'm extremely flattered they've included me on a panel with actual, proven smart people. One of those people, by the way, is panel moderator and award-winning Tribune science writer Jeremy Manier who, in a remarkable coincidence, was my housemate 13 years ago when we both first moved to Chicago. It will be great fun to get together again with Jeremy and revisit the great metaphysical questions, only this time in front of hundreds of people and not over a six pack of Old Style on our Barry Avenue roof.

The event takes place from 6-8 PM at the Duncan YMCA Chernin Center for the Arts, 1001 W Roosevelt Road in Chicago. Admission is free but I think you need to register or RSVP or something so check out the the web site.

Finally, if you can't make tonight's event, on Monday, November 13 I'll be joining the Gapers Block Book Club for a more intimate discussion of Cast of Shadows, which has been GB's November reading selection. All are welcome so if you've read the book and want to talk some more about it with me and others, come down to The Book Cellar, 4736 North Lincoln, Monday at 7:30 PM.

And if you show up at either event, please be sure to say hi.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Caught in the Web of Words

In Arabic, there’s a single word that expresses “the pleasure one gets from listening to music.” One of my former writing students told me this recently. Her first language is Chinese, English her second, she knows smatterings of French and Spanish, but she wanted to learn Arabic because her own pleasure in music is so intense; she feels a thrill that hovers between the erotic and a yearning for eternity when she listens to some compositions. The Arabic word itself might evoke the essence of what she responds to in music. She saved her money for a year so she could go to a language institute in Oman. I asked her what the word is; she said her Arabic is too rudimentary, and that there are too many versions of the language; she’s still trying to track it down.
I asked her about Chinese poetry, which I’ve been told translates badly into English and she said, yes, because a line of Chinese characters contains a universe of meanings and if you aren’t steeped in the nuances, you miss them.
Elizabeth Murray wrote a loving memoir of her grandfather, James A. H. Murray, who created the Oxford English Dictionary. She called it Caught in the Web of Words. My student is caught in that web, drunk with language, wanting more, deeper, wanting meanings and layers. She wants to go to writing school, to an MFA program. She has a lot to learn; I’ve taught people with a better sense of style, or structure, or craft, but I haven’t taught anyone as passionate about words, the raw material of our craft, as this young woman.
I think whatever we’re writing, however we’re writing it, we must all come to our craft because of the love of the word on the page. I envy my student; I’ve gotten to be almost sixty with only one language, and half of another, and I don’t have the time or the energy to master a third really well, but I would love to know how to say in one word, the deep pleasure I get from Mary Oliver’s poetry.
--Sara Paretsky

Friday, November 03, 2006



Writers of crime fiction are often taken to task about sex and violence in books. The issue of whether the sex or violence is gratuitous is a stylistic one. We don’t seem to call extra scene-setting or characterization gratuitous. But if we are going to call sex and violence socially harmful, maybe we should take a look at some recent speculations about pornography.

In a way I am cheating here, since I am using research my husband developed and cited in a recent article on the Social Science Research Network. [1] He is Anthony D’Amato, a professor at Northwestern University School of Law.

Headlines today report a sharp decline in forcible rape. [2] Tony says, “Official figures just released show a plunge in the number of rapes per capita in the United States since the 1970s. Even when measured in different ways, including police reports and survey interviews, the results are in agreement: there has been an 85% reduction in sexual violence in the past 25 years. The decline is depicted in a chart prepared by the United States Department of Justice See The National Crime Victimization Survey The chart shows there were 2.7 rapes for every 1,000 people in 1980; by 2004 The same survey found the rate had decreased to 0.4 per 1000 people, a decline of 85%.“

There are many possible explanations for this decline, including women avoiding unsafe situations and sex education classes telling boys that no means no. But it’s hard to believe that they are sufficient to explain this large a change. In addition, decreased reporting appears not to be a factor. If anything, since the advent of more sympathetic treatment of victims by police, the courts, and society in general, the proportion of rapes reported has most likely increased.

As Tony says, “There is, however, one social factor that correlates almost exactly with the rape statistics. My theory is that the sharp rise in access to pornography accounts for the decline in rape. The correlation is inverse: the more pornography, the less rape. Pornographic magazines sharply increased in numbers in the 1970s and 1980s. Then came a seismic change: pornography became available on the new internet. Today, purveyors of internet porn earn a combined annual income exceeding the total of the major networks ABC, CBS, and NBC.“

National trends are one thing. Tony asked, what do the figures for the states show? From data compiled by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration in 2001, the four states with the lowest per capita access to the internet were Arkansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, and West Virginia. The four states with the highest internet access were Alaska, Colorado, New Jersey, and Washington.
While the nationwide incidence of rape was showing a drastic decline, the incidence of rape in the four states having the least access to the internet showed an actual increase in rape over the same time period. This result, Tony thought, was almost too clear and convincing, so to check it he compiled figures for the four states having the most access to the internet. Three out of four of these states showed declines (in New Jersey, an almost 50% decline). Alaska was an anomaly: it increased both in internet access and incidence of rape. However, the population of Alaska is less than one-tenth that of the other three states in its category. To adjust for the disparity in population, he took the combined population of the four states in each table and calculated the percentage change in the rape statistics:

Combined per capita percentage change in incidence of rape. [3]
Aggregate per capita increase or decline in rape:

Four states with lowest internet access--- Increase in rape of 53%
Four states with highest internet access--- Decrease in rape of 27%

These results he found to be statistically significant beyond the .95 confidence interval.

Tony’s interest in the rape-pornography question began in 1970 when he served as a consultant to President Nixon’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. The Commission concluded that there was no causal relationship between exposure to sexually explicit materials and delinquent or criminal behavior. The President was furious when he learned of the conclusion. When President Reagan put together a similar commission, he did not ask Tony to participate.

After the SSRN article posted, Tony received a lot of email, including messages from people with examples of similar effects outside the U.S. One man wrote from Australia that the same phenomenon had been noticed there. The Australian Crime and Safety Survey, which is published by the Australian Bureau of Statistics, reported a fifty per cent drop in forcible rape between 1995 and 2005, during which time internet access was rapidly increasing.

Of course, correlation is not cause. Killing turkeys doesn’t cause winter. But it’s not a stretch to suspect that for some people, watching porn can get the urge out of their systems. In addition, the ready availability of porn, as well as sex ed in the schools, may eliminate the forbidden fruit effect. Sex has been demystified.
Porn to many may be distasteful. Distasteful does not necessarily equal harmful.

In the words of the immortal Hercule Poirot, this gives one furiously to think.
[1] Porn Up Rape Down. Social Sciences Research Network,
[2] For example, Washington Post, June 19, 2006; Chicago Tribune, June 21, 2006.
[3] Statistics on forcible rape compiled from

Barbara D’Amato

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Revise *This*

by Marcus Sakey

I have a novelist friend who loves doing revisions. The way she sees it, the first time around the book is ragged, rough, and when revising you get to draw out the soul. Revising is her favorite part.

My friend is insane.

As you may have guessed, I’m in the midst of revisions myself. I turned in the draft of my second novel about two month back, and three weeks ago I got my editorial letter. It was full of nice things, kind and friendly comments about how much my editor liked the book, how he thought it was really good.

Then came twelve pages on how to make it better.

Let me get this part out of the way first—he’s right. I don’t agree with everything he said, but damn close. Which makes sense. First, he’s a pro. Second, and this is the kicker, he’s pointing out things that I didn’t see because I was too close.

For this book, I had the standard sophomore-novel worries, which truly are a bitch. Of course, I know it doesn’t really get all that much easier—I was talking to Tess Gerritsen after ThrillerFest, and she was telling me that starting her new book, her twentieth, most of them bestsellers and award-winners, that starting this one has her absolutely terrified.

Which is at once creepy and comforting.

But besides the usual writerly worries, with this novel I was trying for a broader story than in my first book. I wanted a more complicated plot, filled with twists and reversals, and some elements of mystery. Creating these things, I have discovered, is hard.

Feel free to quote me on that.

But for me, revising these things is harder. Some writers, like my friend, race through a draft. To them, finishing the first is the equivalent of a sculptress choosing her marble. A draft provides limits and boundaries, but the real work is yet to come. They go through the book over and over, chiseling out plot lines, polishing up characters, chipping away to find the form of the thing as a whole.

That’s not the way I write. For me it’s more like weaving a tapestry. I have an outline, and I write steady and methodical, a thousand words a day. I polish the hell out of things as I go, and when I type the last page, knot the last string, the book is close to submission-ready.

Which means that when my editor points out a weakness in a plot line, or suggests combining three characters, I stagger and stutter and say “Ummm” a lot. Not because he’s wrong, but because that’s the equivalent of cutting a thread and yanking it. And in tapestries and novels both, that results in a snarled mess.

I’ve spent the last three weeks banging head-shaped holes in my walls. And though it took a while—and my forehead connecting with more than one stud—I now know what I need to do. I’m combining three characters, and dramatically shifting one. I’m adding more warmth to one guy and making another colder. And the tug of each of these changes has altered the pattern of the piece as a whole.

Which is, of course, the point.

It’s not a fun process for me. A crucial one, one that will result in a better book. And at the end of the day, writing a good book is our only true responsibility. But fun?

On par with repeatedly poking myself in the eye.

What about you? Do you enjoy the revision process? Have you found any ways to make it easier?

Or is this pretty much just the way it goes?