Monday, December 31, 2007


by Michael Dymmoch

Conflict, the cliché goes, is the essence of story. Movie slug lines follow the formula: (protagonist) vs. (antagonist) in a world where... Fictional conflict tends to be glorified and hyperbolic. In his last blog, Sean confessed that bullets ripping through inanimate objects in slow motion was “utterly beautiful.” He didn’t show a video of bullets tearing through human skulls (or as shocking—and to some, more horrifying—through live animals) but we see it happen frequently in movies, and we read vivid (if inaccurate) descriptions in books. (Who, after all, would find the odor of putrefaction entertaining, or the smell of shit—as when the sphincters loosen and the bowels let go? Where’s the romance in scraping splattered brain tissue off a wall, or scooping human road kill from a highway?)

Violence has replaced conflict in most popular fiction. It’s easier to throw in a fight, car crash or gruesome murder than to convincingly simulate a gut-wrenching marital conflict, or the subtle but systematic verbal abuse that occurs every day, all around us. Everyone “gets” Jason Bourne, not many have the stomach to watch, much less appreciate the genius of Whose Afraid of Virginia Wolfe.

In real life, most of the conflict is subtle or banal. It makes us uncomfortable so we avoid it or tune it out. And most conflict takes place inside the protagonists (us, of course, the heroes of our own stories), often unnoticed (even by ourselves until the ulcer perforates or the heart seizes). In art, conflict must be externalized—the artist must behave oppositely in art as in life, must seek conflict out as diligently as he avoids it in his daily dealings, must study every subtle squirm and grimace. And he must understand conflict’s genesis.

So what? The Bourne Identity is entertaining. So is Pulp Fiction. And Shoot 'Em Up. What’s the point?

The point is what’s the point? When conflict exists purely for entertainment, it doesn’t satisfy. It’s like a diet of popcorn. You may keep consuming it—even past the point where you’re full—but it hasn’t much nutritional value. Conflict in art, leaves you sated. And wrung out. Unable to consume more until you’ve digested what you’ve just experienced. Great conflict has you revisiting a story for days, often for a lifetime. And great stories rarely allow for sequels. Can you imagine Two Hundred Years of Solitude? Hamlet III? Or Mystic River VII?

On a lighter note: Best wishes for a healthy, prosperous new year. And may all your serious conflicts be in fiction.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Details And Destruction . . .

by Sean Chercover

Note: The idea for this post was sparked by reading the blogs of J.D. Rhoades and David Terrenoire. They both write great books and great blogs, so check ‘em out.

David and J.D. both posted the following video, which got me thinking…

Sure, you can intellectualize about guns and bullets and their influence on human history; you can argue about the power of a gun to protect and defend the innocent and procure food, or you can argue about the power of a gun to murder and terrorize and accidentally kill children whose parents didn’t secure said gun responsibly.

But what I thought, while watching bullets rip through inanimate objects in extreme slow motion, was: How utterly beautiful.

Or, as David said on his blog, “Stuff blows up real good.” It sure does. (And, as an aside, this video also provides a lesson in the physics of energy transference, and shows that things do NOT fly backward through the air when shot.)

But let’s turn away from bullets. Here’s ultra slow motion video of the popping of a kernel of popcorn:

Beautiful, isn’t it?

And watch, how the water in a balloon retains the balloon’s shape after the balloon is popped, and then slowly succumbs to gravity:

Or how a dropped water balloon flattens out before exploding:

Okay, so what the hell does any of this have to do with writing?

For me, watching these videos is a reminder of the power of showing details that normally fly by unnoticed. Like that scene in Taxi Driver when Travis Bickle becomes mesmerized by the fizzing Alka Seltzer in a glass of water, and disconnected from the people around him in the diner.

By zeroing-in on an unexpected detail, we slow down time, just like a high-speed camera, and we gain insight into the mind of the character doing the observing.

Of course, a little of this goes a long way. When I wrote BIG CITY, BAD BLOOD, I sent the manuscript to a few early readers, and one of them wrote back the following email:

“Great book. Too much furniture.”

Awesome note. I mean, I like furniture as much as the next guy, but he was right. In my desire to display Ray Dudgeon’s observational skills, I’d gone way too far.

So I went through and cut out a lot of the furniture. If it said something important about the character who lived there, or about Ray’s emotional reaction to the environment, then it stayed. Otherwise, it went. Which meant, most of it went.

As the master, Elmore Leonard, so famously advised: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

And the really cool thing is, once the meaningless details are gone, the important details jump up and sing, creating the emotional impact of Travis Bickle’s Alka Seltzer dissonance moment.

It’s a fun challenge, deciding when to be brief and breezy, and when to slow down time and zero-in on that emotionally resonant detail that normally goes unnoticed.

The aforementioned J.D. Rhoades does this extremely well, stopping time in the middle of a scene of high action and focusing on the telling detail.

What authors do you admire in their judicious use of detail? Got any favorite moments?

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Don't Know Much About Anatomy

By Kevin Guilfoile

We don't talk a lot about the publishing business here, largely because there are already blogs that cover that beat so well. But there was a feature in Friday's Wall Street Journal that is asking for a discussion only because the article the reporter was trying to write is a huge part of the story he was trying to cover.

The headline was Anatomy of a Thriller and the article was about the very early hype for a debut suspense novel, Child 44 by British screenwriter Tom Rob Smith, which will be published next May by Grand Central. The piece briefly deals with the content of the novel (which is about the hunt for a Soviet serial killer at the dawn of the Cold War), calling it "cleverly plotted, packed with chilling psychological drama and densely researched." That sounds great and I'd like to read more, but most of the piece is taken up with speculation about whether the book can possibly make back its million dollar US advance.

You see this story often. At a time when most US newspapers have made severe cuts to their review coverage, the American media still covers the business of publishing with some gusto. Always, the favorite angle of these articles is whether a gamble on this author or that one will pay off.*

And that's funny.

It's funny because although competition for review inches is fierce, one way a publisher can guarantee wide reviews and, better yet, capture coveted outside-the-book-section coverage in entertainment sections and business sections and in general interest magazines like Time and Newsweek is to give a first-time author a million dollars.

Which is not to say that million-dollar advances are always undeserved or the result of cynical strategizing among editors and marketing staff. In fact, they are almost always the result of auctions--competition between houses for a particular manuscript. But all of this media hand-wringing about whether or not a book is worth such a huge advance is not just objective speculation because once the advance is promised that money immediately becomes a marketing tool intended to generate media hand-wringing about whether or not the book is worth such a huge advance.

The publisher is willing to write that check in part because they know the Wall Street Journal will run a story wondering if they're crazy for writing it.

Publishers often employ the marketing strategy of self-fulfilling prophecy. I don't think anyone really believes for instance, that an expensive ad in USA Today or in the NYTBR can generate enough sales of that particular book to justify the ad's cost. But publishers take out those ads for two reasons (two that I know--there might be more). First of all, they advertise in order to subsidize book coverage. The reason book sections are disappearing in the US is that they can't support themselves financially. Publishers advertise in the New York Times Book Review because the continuing existence of the NYTBR is extremely important to them, more important than making back that investment on a particular book.

The second reason is the hope that if you treat a book like you believe it will be a bestseller, if you invest in a book as if you are certain it will be a blockbuster, it will become one. This sometimes works and it sometimes doesn't but it's probably as good a strategy as any. A couple years ago I suggested that you could accomplish pretty much the same thing by holding a press conference with a suitcase full of money and declaring, "We are so confident that Sean Chercover's book is going to be a bestseller, we're going to set a million dollars on fire." You'd get a million bucks worth of coverage for your cinders, I guarantee you.

From this perspective a huge advance actually makes more sense than an ad campaign (at least with respect to a particular book) because if it works it doesn't cost the publisher a dime. Unlike the cost of advertising, every penny advanced to the author would be pennies they'd have to pay him in royalties anyway if they'd given a small advance and the book turned into a big hit.

So it's really not quite the outrageous gamble the Wall Street Journal says it is, as long as the Wall Street Journal keeps printing stories about what an outrageous gamble it is.


But that's not really what I wanted to talk about. To make the point about what's at stake for Grand Central the reporter, Jeffrey Trachtenberg, says:

It's especially difficult to crack the thriller genre. The field is so crowded that retailers and publishers prefer to focus on brand-name authors and seldom make big bets on first time authors.

He repeats the claim in a sidebar and includes a vague supporting quote from a publishing executive about there being "too many good writers out there already" (I'll take that as a compliment, thanks). It's an assertion that sounds factual because it has its own internal logic, but is it really true? It's difficult to get a book published in any genre, but the reason there are so many people writing thrillers is that there are so many people buying them, which means you need to publish more thrillers and so on. Is it any more difficult to sell your debut thriller than it is to sell your literary novel? Or your historical fiction? James Patterson's diabolical and mostly successful attempts to corner the bestseller market notwithstanding, it looks like each year there are more thrillers by more authors, not fewer.

MJ Rose must have statistics on this, yeah?


* Even as I write this, I notice that this piece is categorized by the WSJ as a "Hollywood" story, apparently because Ridley Scott has optioned the film rights to Child 44. That would seem to be odd given that the money involved in the film option, at least until the movie is actually made, would be a shallow pocket of worn nickels compared to the publishing deals, but I guess movie talk is sexy in a way that book talk is not.

JUST ADDED: Time magazine's Top 10 Crime Stories of 2007.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Jean Dixon Wannabes -- This is for You

by Sara Paretsky

Calling all Jean Dixon wannabes. Forecast the future. Tell us, what lies ahead for Chicago under new Police Superintendent (designate) Jody Weis? When he was Special Agent in Charge of the Philadelphia FBI, he indicted an electrical contractor for allegedly pilfering $869,000 from union funds, he broke up the pizza terrorist ring, and he was able to restore the original manuscript of Pearl Buck's The Good Earth to the Buck family trust after it had been stolen by Buck's former secretary. Obviously, the mayor had access to way more information than I do on how Weis handled these tricky operations.

The CPD is going through one of its sine-curve peaks of bad deeds and bad vibes. The Burge torture cases leave a lingering cloud over the force. Six members of the elite Special Operations Section are under investigation, for "issues" including planning the murder of an SOS officer who was cooperating with an investigation into the unite. The video-taping of officers assaulting women in bars has also caused some eyebrows to be raised, at least after people stopped their endless prurient viewing of the tapes on YouTube. Steve Mills recently wrote in the Tribune about the number of times Chicago Police shoot suspects in the back--hundreds--and the times they're investigated or reprimanded--close to zero.

Jody Weis helped fire Chicago FBI agent Robert Wright for publicly criticizing the FBI's anti-terrorist acts. Does this mean he'll stifle dissent here in Chicago? Or does it simply mean he'll run an orderly ship? Will he help the African-American community combat decades of harassment and false arrest? Will he be able to bring officers like Burge to justice?

Look into your crystal balls, you seekers of truth, justice, or prurient excitement. How will Chicago fare under the Mayor's handpicked choice?

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Gifts, Candied Fruit, and So Forth

by Barbara D'Amato

I don’t know about you, but I am FULL UP TO HERE with stuff.

Last year at this time I posted a suggestion for avoiding most of the fruitcake and other items that you either guiltily regift or permit to clog your closet.

The suggestion was to get the name of a family in need and tell your own family and friends that, instead of giving you gifts, the gifts should go to the needy family. With a little looking, you can find a name, either from your church, your job, advice from friends, even from your local police department, of a family strapped because of fire, flood, financial reversal, or an unexpected illness. You and your friends can send the gifts anonymously if you like [actually I would advise it]. Just have whoever gave you the name check first to be sure the gifts will be welcome.

By the way, almost any needy family can use a nice set of new towels.

Another option is to trade charities. Suppose your uncle in Florida always sends you a box of candied fruit. You hate candied fruit and everybody you know hates it, and you can’t even sell it on EBay. But say your uncle is into greyhound rescue and you are a cat-lover. Can he give a donation to your local animal shelter and you give one to the Greyhound rescue people?

But let’s talk about children without toys.

There are a lot of organizations that give toys to children. The Marine Toys for Tots programs is a good one. However, they want cash donations. Suppose you want to do something a little more personal.

It is possible to get the names of women’s shelter sponsors or battered women’s organizations. It is NOT possible, nor should it be, to get the addresses of those shelters, as they are kept well protected. But with two or three degrees of separation, you can find somebody who can get the toys to somebody else, who---well, you see. Many of the women in these shelters have children with them and no resources. If you have children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, cousins, whatever, put the word out that you are collecting unwanted toys. Most of us have an uncle who thinks out seventeen-year old and our college sophomore are still six and ten, and we therefore have toys that are inappropriate, one way or another. If you live in a neighborhood with a lot of children, you may be able to put the word out that you are collecting toys that the children they were intended for just don’t want. Have a block party. Fill the car. Then drive them to your contact person.

For most organizations, try to get the toys while they are still in the box. Some shelters are needy enough that as long as they are clean they will be accepted.

And now for something completely different--

If you want to give at the holidays and not get, but children are not your thing--

Mystery Writers of America has a loan fund that is available for members who are experiencing temporary financial difficulties and the Author Sponsorship Fund. The second is intended to help fund special events. A third possibility is a donation to Reads, the children’s literacy program. All you need to do it send a check to Mystery Writers of America, and let Margery Flax know which fund you are donating to.

For the price of a couple of hardcovers, make somebody happy.

Barbara D’Amato

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Surviving the Winter of 1969

We called again. And again. On the third go-round, the inspector had pity on us. "Girls," he said, because we were clearly children, not adults, "Girls, the building is owned by a precinct captain. She gets ninety-two percent voter turnout in this precinct. No one cares how cold your building is."

From From Sara's terrific "Ode to the Season" essay in today's Tribune.

High Fives to our Guys

Big high-fives to Outfitters Sean Chercover and Marcus Sakey!

Their novels made January Magazine's Best Crime Fiction of 2007 list AND Oline Cogdill’s 20 Best Mystery Picks of 2007.

Friday, December 14, 2007


by Michael Dymmoch

Libby's last blog ("Explanation or Excuse?") got me thinking.  I believe the problem with our society is not so much permissiveness or excusing wrong behavior by psychoanalyzing it and using the analysis as excuse.  It's more we fail to act on what we know.  We don't eliminate the factors in our society that generate bad behaviors.  Once the crazy kid picks up a gun and starts shooting, we get 20/20 hindsight, say "Why didn't anyone act?  The signals were so obvious."

Because it isn't easy to change what led him to feel so worthless and insignificant that he had to destroy strangers to get someone to notice.

We have a crisis of responsibility in our nation.  Not the "We're responsible-for-blowing-up-(fill in the blank)-and-we're-proud-of-it" kind. (Any time something bad goes down, any number of nut-cases step forward to claim they did it.)  But the kind of responsibility my mother taught me when she asked, "How would you feel if...?"; or made me apologize for a rude remark; or asked, "What did you do to him?" when a sibling complained she'd been attacked.

It seems to me too many parents are afraid to say such things to their children.  Or are afraid to say "NO."  Too few set a good example.  Dad wants a new car, why shouldn't he get one?  Never mind if he needs it or can pay for it--that's what credit's for.  And Mom always has the latest styles, so why shouldn't Junior have an iPhone or the newest exciting (violent) video game?  And why shouldn't he watch R-rated movies?

Children learn responsibility from example.  And by suffering the consequences (within reason) of irresponsible behavior.  But parents often give their children what they want, not what's best for them.  And parents don't want their children to hurt, so they shield them from painful experiences.  From learning experiences.  (Just ask any teacher how often she's been attacked for giving Junior the C, D, or F he deserved.)

Part of the problem is complexity.  People go wrong gradually--grow wrong.  (John Wayne Gacy wasn't born a serial killer.)  By the time they're noticeably deranged, it's often too late to fix them.  And when a fix is possible, it's long-term and prohibitively expensive. (Insurance companies pay hundreds of thousands for heart transplants.  How much for mental health care?)

Part of the problem is that simplistic solutions seem easier, even for complicated problems.  It's easier to blame a teacher than admit your kid failed, easier to blame the kid than accept your lack of parenting skills.  It's easier to tell your kids "Just say no" than to address the self esteem issues that might cause them to say "yes."  Easier to start a war than sit through long, tedious negotiations with people whose world views differ from your own.

In the short run.

Eventually, though, Junior turns 18 and daddy can't "fix" the fixes Junior gets into--Cops and States Attorneys won't back down as quickly as the teacher.  Or Junior graduates from pot to meth or cocaine.  Or the Gulf War turns into Iraq.  Or Vietnam.

A lot of problems could be avoided with a little foresight but, apparently, they don't teach history any longer.  So the news is deja vu.

And BTW, violent running amok isn't peculiar to young white males.  Black critics are right.  The white kids get all the press.  Overall, black gang-bangers kill far more innocent bystanders than school shooters do, but not in such great concentrations.  Most victims are killed by members of their own race.  And homicide is the leading cause of death for African-Americans 10-24 years old.*  The troubled white youth who've gone postal in schools and shopping malls are acting out what they learned from hundreds of hours of live-on-the-scene coverage of previous shootings.  Murders by Black or Hispanic gang members don't usually get that kind of attention--a day or two in the news at most--and certainly not with all the anguished detail and dissection.

That's my take.  How do you see it?

*53.1/100,000 for African-Americans, and the second leading C.O.D. for Hispanics 10-24 years old (20.1/100,000).  The rate for white 10-24 year olds is 3.3/100,000.  "CDC Youth Violence Data Sheet," Summer 2007.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

by Sean Chercover

As I’m sure you’ve heard, the Writers Guild of America is still on strike. Even though I have personal financial reasons to want this strike over, I stand firm on the side of the WGA.

In case you haven’t been following the story, here’s a video that explains the basic WGA position (which is extremely reasonable, in my opinion):

If that was too compliated, here’s the WGA position, as explained by a five-year-old:

Just to be fair, let's listen to some voices of uncertainty from the other side of the bargaining table:

Okay, now it’s all clear as . . . (not "mud", because that would be a cliché . . . something else that isn’t mud, but also isn't clear . . . something that the reader doesn't expect, but that makes perfect sense . . . damn, I wish the writers weren’t on strike; they could give me a great simile):

Speaking of a world without writers, check out these classic movie lines, revised:

But seriously, we realize that this strike is hard on everyone. Here’s a look at how the strike is harming others in Hollywood (WARNING: offensive language):

Okay, maybe that was harsh. But you know, despite the acrimony, we all want to see a happy ending to this thing, and the next video should warm your cockles:

And finally, there’s the "Writers Strike Dance" guy (if anyone can explain this, please send me an email. And if the Writers Strike Dance Guy is reading this, can you hook me up?):

So what can you do to help?

Well, you can visit to learn more and get involved. You can give things other than DVDs for Christmas (or whatever) this year.

Or, you can just surf around YouTube and enjoy more entertaining videos about the strike. It beats the hell of whatever's left on television these days.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Explanation or Excuse?

by Libby Hellmann

I picked up NINETEEN MINUTES by Jody Picoult a couple of days ago, ironically, on the same day Robert Hawkins mowed down eight people at the Omaha mall…and two days before the two recent Colorado shootings. For those of you who might not know, Picoult’s book is about a high school shooting during which a 17-year old boy kills 10 people and wounds many more, most of them students.

Much of the book deals with the ramifications and consequences of the shooting. It turns out the boy was bullied mercilessly since the age of five, mostly by other kids, but sometimes by his older brother. As the book opens, that brother is dead – the result of in an auto accident -- and the boy’s parents, overwhelmed with their own grief, have not really dealt with his. The boy never sought or received any help; consequently, his rage festered and ultimately exploded. I haven’t finished it yet, so the ending might surprise me (there was a twist in MY SISTERS KEEPER, another wonderful novel by the same author), but in the main, the book examines why an alienated teenager would go on a rampage.

I’m sure the people of Omaha… and Denver… and Virginia… and Columbine… and Minnesota (in 2005) are asking and trying to answer the same question. And they should.

But here’s my question. At what point does the explanation become an excuse?

One thing we baby boomers have bequeathed to society is a tolerance for permissiveness. Unlike the straight-laced “Father Knows Best” Fifties, we started to explore and cross many boundaries in the Sixties. As we did, we rationalized our behavior. Remember “let it all hang out?” “If it feels good, do it?” “Whatever gets you through the night..” “It’s your thing…” In some quarters, we even honored it. “He’s such a freak…”

We created not just a culture of permissiveness, but a comfort with acting on our whims and impulses. We wouldn’t put anyone down. We wouldn’t judge. Everyone – and everything – was accepted. If someone did something aberrant, we’d explain it away. “His head was in the wrong place.” “He freaked out.”

Those attitudes have had significant ramifications. Our legal and penal systems aren’t as clear-cut or simple anymore. Although we're currently in retreat from it, we’ve played with the death penalty for decades. And we now have legal-psychological defenses for battered wives, abused children, and others that have stretched what can stand up in court.

Still, I think we need to ask what our permissiveness has done to our approach to these horrors. Has it in some way contributed to them? Is the fact that we see so many copycats of Columbine because we have put our arms around it, labeled it, explained it?

Kids killing kids is not the mark of a healthy society. I have two kids on campuses right now and I’m afraid. What have we wrought? Are we making these heinous rampages more acceptable because we can put words and ideas and theories behind them? Are we – in some way – excusing them? Tell me I’m off base here.


Saturday, December 08, 2007

Here Come the Rooster, Yeah

It's not exactly The Night Before Christmas but here's the story I tell every year around this time.

A few years ago I was up late at night drinking with some friends of mine at The Morning News and we were talking about how much we enjoy literary awards in spite of the fact they are also silly and arbitrary. The idea that we should accept the word of any small group of people--people in most cases whose names we don't even know--about something so subjective as the best literature of the year is pretty ridiculous, and forcing authors to compete against each other is just sort of stupid on its face. Anyway, the bottles drained pretty quickly and by the next morning we had the rough outlines of something called The Tournament of Books, in which we would seed the most celebrated books of the year in a March Madness tournament-type bracket and pit those novels against each other in a "Battle Royale of Literary Exellence." For reasons that are probably now forgotten along with the name of that shiraz, we decided we'd present the winning author with a live rooster.

The tournament is in its fourth season now (see 2004, 2005, 2006) and it has evolved into a major event with corporate sponsors and celebrity judges. It's also great fun and every year I discover two or three unbelievably good novels from the tourney (look back through The Outfit archives for any of the earlier posts by either Marcus or me about the winner of the first ToB, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas). This year's competition won't begin until March, but the fellows over at TMN are currently narrowing the list of competitors. And as always, they are asking for help.

Head over there right now and nominate your favorite book from 2007 (you can actually nominate two). If we're about anything over here at The Outfit it's that the best book of the year very well might be a suspense novel so don't be shy about nominating your favorite crime fiction. The only criteria is that it must be a novel published for the first time in 2007.

And after you've done that, come back here and tell us in the comments which books you've nominated. We can have a little hot stove debate until the real bloodshed begins.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Where is the Outrage?

This isn't going to be a very coherent post==I've been traveling all day; the weather snafus turned a four hour door-to-door trip into thirteen hours--but I want to add a little to Barb's quite wonderful post.

The people who did quite heroic acts during the Holocaust to save Jews or other targeted people were usually ordinary people whose only distinguishing trait was that in ordinary times they usually did the right thing--helped the homeless, were open to others, did the decent acts of every day life that I too often am too busy or too guarded or too cynical to perform. My detective, V I, acts out of a sense of noticeable outrage, but the person she's most often outraged with is me, not some anonymous member of the larger world. I've always been afraid that when the chips were down I would be a collaborator, not a resister.

And that brings me to these times. Last week, the Supremes let stand a lower court ruling that allows the San Diego welfare department to break into the homes of welfare recipients without a warrant to make sure they're not committing fraud. This is not a violation of the 4th Amendment for some reason that I don't understand. I wish I could believe they would break into the home of Dick Cheney's friends and former co-workers, who have been living on government welfare for 7 years, enriching themselves at our expense, but of course that will never happen.

I guess what I want to know is, where is the outrage? Where is the outrage when the Supremes announced that women's health is irrelevant to questions about abortion? Where is the outrage about the many thousands of American dead in Iraq, the many hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have died, the millions of Iraqis who have become refugees, the forty or fifty thousand Americans maimed for life? Where is the outrage over the cost of this unjust and pernicious war, now at $1.6 trillion, and likely to be doubled that--in a country which can't afford health care, public transit, or good schools?

I would like to be the person heroic enough, moral enough, to take action, but all I do is grumble and go Christmas shopping. No wonder V I is outraged with me.

Sara Paretsky

Monday, December 03, 2007


By BarbaraD'Amato

Writers of crime fiction generally subscribe to the notion that any one of us might kill if given enough provocation. Mystery novels rely on the ability of the author to show that most of the characters in the story might have dunnit. There is a belief, and not just among crime writers, that all humans have a potential for evil acts. It may be correct.

But that’s not the whole story.

I remembered vaguely the crash of Air Florida Flight 90 outside Washington D.C. in 1982. Something about a hero, I thought. But I didn’t know the details until I read an article by Christopher Mcdougall in Men’s Health online a few days ago.

It was late afternoon, January 12, freezing cold and getting colder. In high winds and snow, the plane faltered and crashed into the ice-choked Potomac River. Most of the passengers died instantly but six, badly injured, some with bones broken, fought their way out of the plane and clutched onto the cold metal of the tail.

They were forty yards from shore, where horrified would-be rescuers grasped at anything to save them. Some tried stretching utility ladders to the doomed people, but they did not reach. Mcdougall says, “One man even tried dog-paddling through the ice chunks, hauling a jury-rigged rescue rope along with him. He couldn’t get close and was nearly unconscious when they dragged him in.”

Survival time in water between thirty-two and forty degrees is fifteen to thirty minutes.

Daylight was failing when a rescue helicopter appeared. Mcdougall: “It dropped a life ring right into the hands of one of the survivors and plucked him from the water. Then things turned really strange.”

When the ring was dropped to the second person, he passed it to another of the survivors. When the plane came back, he handed the ring away again. And a third. And he handed it to the fifth survivor when he must have known he couldn’t hold on any longer. He sank into the ice-filled water.

It seemed no one would ever know who the hero was. The pilot of the helicopter said he was middle-aged and balding. But when the bodies were recovered, only one was found to have water in his lungs. He was Arland Williams Jr., from Mattoon, Illinois. Williams was neither a Navy Seal nor a religious zealot, but a bank examiner who was afraid of water. He had attended the Citadel many years before and did his military service stateside, after which he had spent his life since going from bank to bank examining their books. Williams was forty-six and had two children.

Probably he, like almost everyone later interviewed for acts like his, would have said, “I’m no hero.” If you had asked him the day before—even the hour before—whether he would give his life for five total strangers, he most likely would have said no.

Where does such altruism come from? Evolution might favor people who will go to great effort or risk to help each other out. Extreme heroism, like Mr. Williams’, is harder to explain, since the people who give their lives for others may not have offspring. It may have originated at a time when humans lived in small tribes and everyone you ever knew was related, closely or distantly, by blood. Extreme heroism saved members of the extended family.

Well, okay, but I’m finding, with all the evil in the world, I don’t care too much about where human good comes from. To crime writers, who spend a lot of time dwelling on the idea of a bit of evil in all of us, it’s a boon to think there is a bit of hero in all of us as well.

That’s my holiday gift thought to us all for the holiday season.

An interesting book cited by Mcdougall is: The Altruism Equation: Seven Scientists Search for the Origins of Goodness, by Lee Dugatkin.