Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Un-Bitter Man

There's a lot of bitterness going around these days, and everyone can understand it. Years ago, I knew very few people out of work, now it sometimes feels like I'm one of the few people who has a job. Everyone's world has contracted in some way by our economic smack-down. But it's my hope that we fight that bitterness if at all possible. Bitterness starts a swirl, a bad one, that can only lead to other negative emotions and negative events.

How do we do that, though? When I'm fighting some kind of bitterness, I think of the people I know who've managed theirs. And there is no one better than Life After Innocence client, Jerry Miller.

In 1981, Jerry, a 22-year old former Army cook, was arrested and charged with kidnapping, raping and robbing a woman in downtown Chicago. He was convicted in 1982 and served 24 years in prison. His prison record, which numbers nearly 1000 pages, is replete with the statement, Will not admit guilt. He was required to attend sex offender classes and grew increasingly lonely as many family members and friends no longer visited him. "I missed joy," he later told Maurice Possley of the Chicago Tribune. "I missed happiness. It was very painful, being locked up every night."

Jerry (like so many people today) found him self asking, 'Why me?' But he says he finally decided that he had to find a way to gain hope every day. "You open your eyes and you can see there's something here that's more than just me." He says that as he matured, "I came to understand life is to be lived no matter where you are."

A few years ago, when Jerry was 48, he was released on parole as a registered sex offender, requiring him to wear an electronic monitoring device at all times and prohibiting him from answering his door on Halloween or leaving his job for lunch. He continued to attend required sex offender classes, and every time when introducing himself he stated, "My name is Jerry Miller, and I am innocent of the crime of which I am accused."

Miller was fortunate to have the Innocence Project of New York learn about his case. With their help, DNA testing on semen from the rape proved conclusively that Miller did not commit the crime – and instead implicated another man, Robert Weeks, as the actual perpetrator.

Jerry was one of the first clients of the Life After Innocence Project, which we formed at Loyola University Chicago School of Law, in 2009. The project is designed to help innocent people like Jerry to begin their lives over again after a wrongful conviction (or a not-guilty at the trial level). During the time we've worked together, Jerry has become an amazing friend to me and all of the students. He continually inspires us with his constantly positive outlook. "Look, Laura," he has often said to me. "When it comes down to it, I'm blessed." Life, he has told me, is all in the way you look at it. (To see Jerry's elegance and grace, please check out his appearance on the Colbert Report.)

Jerry filed a lawsuit against the Illinois Crime Lab who wrongfully reported so many years ago that Jerry's DNA was inconclusive. On Friday, the lawsuit was settled, putting an end to Jerry's long, long, long battle. The delightful thing about Jerry, however, is that we all knew he would flourish, we knew he would continue to be an inspiration to us, no matter what situation he found himself in. We congratulate him and we celebrate him. And whenever I'm feeling bitter, Jerry is the face who appears in my mind.

(Post Script-an unofficial celebration will be held for Jerry tonight, February 25, at The District (170 West Ontario), starting at 6. For those in Chicago, join us!)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Palate Cleansing

by Marcus Sakey

So yesterday I sent the draft of my new book to my editor.

This is a very good thing. But it’s not what I want to talk about. I want to talk about what happens now.

My typical process when I finish a book is to tuck it in a drawer for as long as possible, then read it in one sitting. Then I combine my own notes with feedback from buddies, writer friends, and most particularly my agent and editor, in order to edit the thing.

But while in one sense I'm highly focused on the book, at the same time, something else is happening. I'm beginning to let go of it.

This isn’t a simple process, a flip of a switch. When you’ve lived with a story for a year, it takes time for it to drift from your head, which needs to happen in order to leave space for the next one. So during that time, besides editing, I like to read a lot. I mean a lot.

I read all kinds of books, in every genre. But during these periods I focus on books that will inspire me. Not novels I want to emulate per se, but books that take the broad genre I write in and do something innovative with it. That do more than just present a thrilling tale—they do it in an interesting way, or put a twist on it, or cross the border into other genres.

Novels like these are palate cleansers. They perk up my brain, get it receptive to new ideas and new directions.

For example, yesterday I reread WATER FOR ELEPHANTS by Sara Gruen. It’s a lovely book, one of those that you can heartily and universally recommend. And it’s a hell of a palate cleanser, because it takes what is at heart a traditional boy-meets-girl and weaves in a wonderfully realized world, some compelling musings on growing old, and healthy doses of cross-genre material. The result is magic.

Thing is, of course, it’s not easy to find books that are at once innovative and commercial. That’s the sweet spot for me during this period: much as I love David Foster Wallace and David Mitchell, much as I dig postmodernism, or the textual play of a book like HOUSE OF LEAVES, it doesn’t work as a palate cleanser. I need books that balance invention and accessibility, that startle and surprise while also seeming familiar.

That, in the Hollywood parlance, do the same thing, only different.

And since I’m part of this wonderful community, I thought I might ask you for some recommendations. What have you read that did this well?

I’m especially interested in books that have a strong commercial appeal, but they don’t need to be straight-ahead thrillers—just a hell of a tale that’s also got something to say. Books like WATER FOR ELEPHANTS, or THE STAND, or THE HUNGER GAMES.

What have you read that you couldn't put down--and couldn't forget?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Go David!

Hey all, great news--our own David Ellis was nominated for the L.A. Times Book Prize for his novel THE HIDDEN MAN.

Congratulations, David! Hell of an honor.

Chasing a Great Premise

By Jamie Freveletti

I have two different techniques to keep going forward whenever I’m working through a scene in my manuscript and get stumped. The first is to switch screens and work on a second book. (I always keep two going, though deadlines force one to take a back seat at times), and the second is to pop in a DVD of a favorite movie. I like the movie approach, because it gives me a complete story arc in an efficient one and one half hours. My last was The Bourne Identity, based on Robert Ludlum’s novel.
A bit of background; I fell in love with Ludlum after reading The Matarese Circle. Ludlum published the Bourne Identity in 1980, one year later, and I think this novel captured the essence of a thriller while delivering a twisty tale and great mystery. While I prefer the book ending-won’t tell it here to avoid being a spoiler-I like the simplified movie version just fine.
While I watched I thought about some themes that I love to read about in novels. I’m always interested to read another writer’s take on the thorny problem of time travel. A number of authors have inserted their protagonist into various eras and then explored the results, and each have a slightly different approach. Two other themes I enjoy are double lives: when one person is secretly living an alternate existence, and amnesia: when a person has no sense of his or her own history. Both these require a writer to show various sides of their protagonist’s personality, and the results always fascinate me. The Bourne Identity tapped into both of these, which is why I loved it.
I’m wondering, what are the themes that you’ll always take a chance on reading? Bad man turned good and trying to leave his former life behind? Revenge? Capers? Mafia wars-the real ones not the Facebook version. (I hear some Facebook members groaning, but it must have been fun or everyone wouldn’t have gotten quite so addicted).

Also, if you have great examples of writers that nailed the theme you love to read then by all means list them!

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Blind Spots

By Irene Reed

Please welcome Friend-of-the-Outfit Irene Reed, a Chicago native and Harvard-educated lawyer who has come to her senses and now enjoys writing fiction. Despite her fascination with murder, mystery and true crime, she swears that she is perfectly harmless and sane. She is in my writing group, and she has a fascinating take on the Amy Bishop murders.

Violence in America is an odd thing. It exists everywhere, yet the details never cease to amaze. And sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction.

Last week, professor Amy Bishop murdered three members of University of Alabama faculty. Before that, she had a history of erratic behavior, including suspected involvement in a pipe bombing, a meltdown at a pancake house, and difficult relationships with several graduate students. In 1986, at just 21, Bishop shot and killed her brother, then sought a getaway car from a local dealership.

Bishop, a Harvard graduate, mother of four and respected biology professor, has now taken as many people out of this world as she brought into it. Whether verbalized or not, the questions persist: how could this go on for so long? How did so many miss the signs—and why?

Maybe it’s because Bishop occupied a societal blind spot.

There were the Massachusetts police, reluctant to prosecute a young girl from a good family and middle-class suburb. And her parents, unwilling to face the possibility that their daughter needed help. Later, academic institutions probably focused more on Bishop’s academic success than her character or personality. And finally, there was the fact that Bishop didn’t fit The Profile. She was a 45-year old mother—she couldn’t possibly be that bad.

It happens all the time. Take the Washington, D.C. snipers. Nobody expected them to be Black, because the Profile says that most serial killers are White, male and smart. Ditto for Seung Hui Cho of Virginia Tech. The Profile always works—until it doesn’t.

Why, then, are we so committed to our summaries, analyses and pre-packaged beliefs? I think it is because we need to believe that we can understand evil. That if we encapsulate it, box it away, and break it down, it will finally make sense.

But imagination gives voice to the truth. Crime fiction is popular partly because it is an expression of our greatest horror—that evil cannot be anticipated, understood or controlled. The best fictional killers reflect our underlying fear: that evil is random, pervasive, and without reason. That it simply exists, like air, water or love.

Curiously, Bishop was also an aspiring thriller writer. She had three unpublished novels, including one about a scientist who was also an IRA operative. She is also related to John Irving, whom she hoped would help launch her literary career.
What, I wonder, prompted Bishop to write? Did she know, on some instinctive level, that something was wrong? Was she trying to give us clues? And what did Irving think of her work? Did he even read it? Did he try to help, or was she the crazy cousin he wanted to forget?

And what about the people in our own lives? How many blind spots have we missed? What new, unknown horror have we failed to identify? When I read about Bishop, I always wonder: how many other Ivy League-educated, cardigan-wearing, SUV-driving killers are out there, waiting to be recognized for what they are?

What do you think?

Thanks to Libby Hellmann, my mentor and friend, who has allowed me to guest blog. Also thanks to Michael Dymmoch and Jamie Freveletti, who have offered me endless friendship and support during my creative journey so far.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Going for the Gold?

by Barbara D'Amato

I play online games. Even when I should be writing, or paying bills, or cleaning a closet.

One involves shooting colored balls at moving targets. My all-time best in this one is a score of 4400. I was near 4200 this morning when I made a dumb move and the game ended. I was NOT pleased with myself. But I got to thinking, am I enjoying the game less because I make it such a challenge? After all, there is probably a limit to what score I might optimally make, so am I beatying me head aainst the wall?

I do crossword puzzles against time too. And jigsaws.

Why fight it? Who am I competing against? Just myself.

Isn't this like writing?

When I'm working on a book, I find the characters occupy a lot of my thinking, and pace is the aspect I worry about most. But there's always the sneaking question--can I make this book better than the last one?

Once in a while a description or a piece of dialogue is so right that I go "wow." But pretty soon I experience the fear that all the rest of the book may not be as wow.

Of course you are writing your best. Be all you can be, right?

It's yourself you're competing against. You aren't competing against Rex Stout, or trying to out-Wambaugh Wambaugh. [Actually, I did try that once, in GOOD COP BAD COP, and I thought the results weren't too bad, but it was more of an homage than a competition.]

Still we are always competing against ourselves, aren't we? Against books we've written in the past and against what we think we can do now. It's why we try something entirely different now and then, even though we aren't sure we can bring it off.

Writers--do you ever type a page and think "It's perfect. But I'm never going to be able to do better."

If you really believed that the book you just finished was the best you could ever do, would you go on writing?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Do you see what I see?

by David Ellis

Last week, Gail Collins of the New York Times said that Illinois has the worst political culture of any state in the union. Obviously it’s a subjective comment (just look at the number of people who thought their own state belonged at the top), though it’s disheartening that our state is even in the conversation. Personally, while I see how we made the list of finalists—Blago, Scott Lee Cohen, Roland Burris—I am of the opinion that many states, if put up to a microscope, would not look so impressive. It reminds me of Florida in 2000, and how ridiculous that state looked in how it counted ballots during the presidential election. I remember thinking at the time that many states, had they come into the spotlight instead of Florida, would likewise have fared pretty badly in how they handled elections. The business of running an election is messy as hell.

I don’t do politics or campaigns in my job. I’m a state employee and the Speaker’s lawyer on state business. I don’t work for the Democratic Party of Illinois and I don’t know very much about campaigns. But let me just say this about Scott Lee Cohen before I move on: My boss, in his other role as chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois, has come under fire from some people for “allowing” Cohen to win the nomination. He should have stepped in, apparently, and urged people not to vote for Cohen or—better yet—forced Cohen out. I find that criticism positively maddening. Speaker Madigan gets criticized often, in particular by a certain newspaper that assigns reporters full-time to investigate him, for having too much control. But he was supposed to insert himself into a primary election and force a candidate to withdraw his candidacy? Talk about damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

When I speak at an event, either for my book or to talk about the Blagojevich impeachment, the most frequent question I get is why Illinois is so corrupt. I think there are three parts to this answer. First: Is Illinois really more corrupt than other states? Not sure I accept that conclusion. More people have been caught recently in Illinois than in other states. Certainly our last two governors—well, that’s embarrassing, no doubt. But I am not even remotely convinced that Illinois is worse than other states.

Part two to the answer is that we have a fairly aggressive federal prosecutor in Chicago. I got to know Pat Fitzgerald a little during the Blagojevich impeachment, as I attempted to use some of the evidence (and witnesses) he had obtained from his federal investigation. I like him on a personal level and respect him very much on a professional level. (Anyone know that he has a very dry and witty sense of humor? He does.)

This should not be taken as criticism but I think it’s fair to say that the federal prosecutors in Chicago are more aggressive than their predecessors in Chicago, and more aggressive than many of their colleagues around the nation. In particular Mr. Fitzgerald has made use of racketeering (RICO) statutes to prosecute political corruption as well as the federal “honest services fraud” law, which is a very broadly applicable law that could cover just about anything. In fact, I would bet my mortgage that the U.S. Supreme Court is about to strike down the “honest services” law as unconstitutionally vague because it's so broad that it’s unpredictable. (In fact, the reason Mr. Fitzgerald recently re-indicted Blagojevich was to err on the side of caution and remove the “honest services” charges, fearing an unfavorable Supreme Court decision, and replace them with RICO charges for the same underlying conduct.)

My point: Some things are being prosecuted in Chicago that previously were not, and which currently are not in other parts of the country. A lot of people think that’s a good thing. It very well may be. That’s not my point. My point is that our state is likely to compare unfavorably to other states if we have more aggressive prosecutors using creative methods to prosecute corruption. And it may very well be the case that what Chicago federal prosecutors consider "corrupt," in some cases, would be something that prosecutors elsewhere would decline to pursue. (Note that I am NOT including Blago in this particular comment; the allegations against him set new extremes.)

The third part of my answer is simply that I think some of these politicians like George Ryan and Rod Blagojevich surrounded themselves with people looking to profit from the association. In my opinion, that was truer of Ryan than Blago; Ryan, it seemed, liked to bury his head in the sand and let his friends do some things he shouldn’t have let them do. (By the way, Ryan was convicted of doing some bad things all on his own, too.) I think Rod did the same thing, though it seems that he was more actively involved in some shady stuff. We’ll see how his trial turns out.

Is there more to it? Is there something else about Illinois? I don’t know. Maybe. But I work with elected and appointed officials every day, and what I see are people who may be “political” in the sense that they care what voters will think of their actions—I believe that’s the point of a democracy—but who want to comply with the law. They will often ask me if it’s okay to do this or that; they want to make sure they are complying with the law. And often, these days, the answer I give them goes something like this: the law isn’t clear, so you’d best err on the side of not doing it; the lines are fuzzy so don’t get near the boundaries. But in the end, I don’t see a bunch of people trying to rip off the people of this state. I don’t see a band of corrupt marauders. Unfortunately, with the Blagojevich trial slated for this Fall and sure to draw national media attention, our reputation won't be improving any time soon.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


by Michael Dymmoch

Thought I’d have more time to write when I retired from my day job.


Having a day job gives you a structure that doesn’t allow for much procrastination. Anything that’s not absolutely necessary gets put away for weekends or for when I’m retired and have more time.

When you retire, all those I-OWE-MEs come due. You get Photoshop because you were always going to fix those great pictures that were a little over or underexposed. You dust off your Languages 102 CDs. You buy an exercise bike or yoga video so you can finally get in shape to be seen in public in a bathing suit.

But you never get to use any of them because…

You get emails for meetings of organizations you’ve never before had time to attend and you say, “What the hell. I don’t have to work tomorrow.”

You watch Charlie Rose at 2:00 am because he has a fascinating guest and you don’t have to get up for work.

You start a 570 page best selling romance just to see what such a thing is like. And you stay up all night reading it because—even though you keep telling yourself, “This is crap.”—the writer knows how to keep you turning pages.

You agree to read—and maybe blurb—a first novel. Or a poetry anthology. Or submissions for a competition being held by some organization you belong to.

And you still have to cook and eat and sleep and bathe, do laundry, clean the cat box, shop, get your car serviced (or take public transportation everywhere if you’ve ditched your car). You still have to drop everything if a friend needs help. You still have to call your kids (mother, siblings, friends).

But as you get older, everything takes more time. And your ability to keep focused deteriorates. And when you stop to smell the roses, you start to notice how many varieties there are. And how many other species of fascinating creatures you may never have known existed. You get hooked on books and cable shows other people raved about for years that you’ve never before had time to check out. You start a new novel because you get this terrific idea. But you never seem to get back to the one you were working on before…

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Apparently, I Get My Ideas From Joe Mannix...

by Sean Chercover

So I went AWOL today. Instead of working, blogging, and obsessively checking email, I kept The Mouse out of daycare and we spent the day hacking around.

That's what we called it when I was a kid. "Hey, you wanna hack around after school?" These days, kids have play dates (retch), but when I was a kid, we just hacked around.

Hacking around consisted of many activities, the legal ones including: listening to records, riding bikes, collecting loose change and skateboarding to the store for Pop Rocks and Coke, playing mini hockey in somebody's basement, climbing onto the school roof, making forts from cardboard boxes, and of course, running around the back routes playing Joe Mannix.

The back routes were the neighborhood's interconnected back yards and lane-ways, and playing Joe Mannix meant running around shooting cap guns at each other, faux-fighting (which occasionally escalated to bloody lips), and throwing ourselves over hedges, fences, and (in winter) snowbanks. Sometimes we played Joe Mannix inside, which occasionally led to broken furniture and displeased parents.

For those who were not yet born when I was a kid (that means you, Marcus), Joe Mannix was the lead character in a television drama called, naturally, MANNIX. Mike Connors played ultra-cool P.I. Joe Mannix, and he was everything a man should be, circa 1967-1975. A man of fists and guns and fast cars, but also possessed of of sharp intellect, and yes, very smooth with the ladies.

Check out the opening theme, and see if you don't also want to be Joe Mannix:

Sometimes, when a boy in our group started acting a little tougher than his place in the pack allowed, one of the other boys would back him down with: Who do you think you are, Joe Mannix? Such was the pervasive influence of this character on young boys in the early 70s.

Okay, so what the hell does this nostalgia trip have to do with where I get my ideas?

A few years ago, I had an awesome idea for a future Ray Dudgeon novel, and I started making notes on the set-up, underlying crime, plot twists, and so on. It was a strong candidate for a possible third or fourth book in the series, and I returned to it often, confirming that, yes, it was indeed a kick-ass story, and adding new ideas as they came to me.

Then (you can probably see where this is heading) Jon Jordan brought Joe Mannix back into my life, when the first season was released on DVD.

I had not seen the show since I was a kid, and loved it all over again. Like all television drama of the era, it's dated. The world has changed since 1967, as has television drama. But it holds up better than many of it's contemporaries, and some episodes are quite excellent.

Then, about two-thirds into Season One (I'm not telling which episode), I watched in horror as Joe Mannix works the same damn case that I'd been planning for Ray! I grabbed my story notes, and was shocked to discover exactly how similar. Not just the premise, but the hidden agenda of the client, and the major plot twist, were identical.

Clearly, the writers of MANNIX had stolen my idea! Except, I was a baby in 1967, and surely only saw that episode as a rerun during the mid-70s. I guess it buried itself somewhere in my subconscious and hid there for thirty years.

So, the next time a reader asks me where I get my ideas, I know the answer. Joe Mannix.

The Mouse and I do not fight, or shoot at each other, but we do regularly throw ourselves over snowbanks, or into piles of comforters and pillows, and we call it playing Joe Mannix. When we do, we are both Joe Mannix, and our dialogue goes a lot like this:

The Mouse: Let's jump into that snowbank, Joe Mannix.
Me: I'm right behind you, Joe Mannix.

Sorry I'm so late blogging, but The Mouse and I had an awesome day.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Pardon Me While I Rant

by Libby Hellmann

Are we all done with Valentine's Day? OK. For those of you who don’t like political blogs, just scroll on by, because I need to vent. It’s been over 6 months since I’ve written on politics, so I’m due. And it's President's Day anyway, which seems appropriate.

As many of you know, I grew up in Washington DC, where, when you were gossiping about the neighbors at the dinner table, you were essentially talking politics. I came from a “mixed marriage:” my late father and brother were Republicans -- my father even shared the same birthday as Richard Nixon -- and my sister and I were liberals. My mother didn’t declare until my father passed away. She turned out to be decidedly liberal.

Liberal or conservative, however, we were always expected to present our opinions based on fact. I can’t count the times I was told, “But, Elizabeth, where are your facts?” In my father's view, opinions were just hot air unless you could support them objectively. So I learned at an early age how to build a cogent argument.

Over time I began to see how facts could be manipulated. I might have even done it myself a time or two. But I could deal with it. Consider the source. Study the methodology. Analyze the implications. Understand that people often exaggerate. Still, there was usually a kernel of truth – or facts – embedded in political manipulations and exaggerations.

Not any more. Fueled by 24-hour news cycles, cable networks, and blogs, those tiny kernels of truth have disappeared. Politicians are out and out lying. Whether it’s in the pursuit of “truthiness,” re-election, or just obstructionism, the lies are blatant. And when they’re called out, neither the liar nor the listener does anything about it. In fact, it’s almost seems like lying is a badge of honor. The shamelessness makes my stomach twist.

There’s John Boehner claiming health care is dead because they don’t have 4 key Republican principles in the bill. Except all four are in the bill. There’s Sean Hannity chortling over the blizzards and belittling climate change and Al Gore. There are those who feel the US criminal justice system isn’t good enough to try terrorists, even though over 300 terrorists were prosecuted in criminal courts during the Bush years. There are the politicians who voted against the stimulus package then posed for photos with giant-sized stimulus checks in their home districts.

And let’s not even discuss Sarah Palin.

To be fair, Obama has waffled on the public option, executive pay, clean coal, and hiring lobbyists. And getting Democrats to agree on most issues is like herding cats. To his credit, though, Obama seems willing (maybe a little too willing for liberals) to move to the center. Still, neither side is ready to play nice. The two parties are so intent on “winning” or “obstructing” that nothing gets done. Congress is in a stalemate. At a time when our economy and our position in the world is so fragile, it’s unconscionable.

A lot of that impasse is due to the Senate filibuster, the ability of the minority party to basically kill bills they don’t like by demanding cloture. Cloture requires a vote of 60 in order to stop debate on a bill (the actual filibuster part) and vote on it. If they can’t get 60 Senators to vote to vote, the bill withers away.

Yes, Democrats used the filibuster to block Bush legislation. But they’re pikers compared to Republicans, who have used cloture, or the threat of it, nearly 140 times in the first year of Obama's presidency. And then claimed he was weak because he couldn’t overcome it. The Founding Fathers never intended the filibuster to be used this way (there’s are some interesting pieces on it here, here, and here) but it is, and it’s paralyzing Congress.

Some in Congress are beginning to realize the monster they’ve created, but mustering 60 votes to change the filibuster rule is, of course, going to be problematic. Especially since they'll need 60 votes to do it.

So while both parties are arguing, blaming each other, or playing the populist victim card, the opportunity to tackle the tough issues evaporates into the vapor. (I’m still confused why Harry Reid torpedoed a bipartisan effort to draft a jobs bill).

Meanwhile, a recent New York Times poll reports only 8 % of voters think their Congressmen are worthy of being re-elected. Hey guys, are you listening? A pox on both your houses.

OK. Rant over. Comments welcome.

PS Back to crime fiction for a moment... if you’re a Kindle person, the prices of 2 of my novels, EASY INNOCENCE and DOUBLEBACK have been reduced. Smashwords too. Check them out.

Why Mysteries Matter

Julia Keller has a lovely column in Sunday's Chicago Tribune about the appeal of mysteries. Check it out.

Friday, February 12, 2010

A Broken Heart, Girl, Ain't a Thing You Collect

By Kevin Guilfoile

Many Februaries ago I did a small favor for an autograph dealer, who repaid me with a framed, signed photo of Hugh Hefner in a paisley robe and purple pajamas. Since my girlfriend at the time shared an alma mater with Hef, my immediate reaction was, "Valentine's Day shopping complete."

The recipient of that ill-considered gift is now my wife, thankfully, but I still have trouble shopping for this holiday. Part of it is that I am averse to sentimentality, probably to a fault. Flowers should be an easy out--everybody likes flowers. Unfortunately our cat likes them, too, frequently regifting them onto the sofa, carpet, and duvet cover. (On a related subject, pet owners, if not copy editors, might have enjoyed today's WGN News "You and Your Pets" segment on "poisoness plants.")

Over the years my wife has learned to accept my ineptitude. Now she even gives as good as she gets. Last year she found an artist who exclusively paints images of bookshelves with quotes from Home Alone written over them. Mine, which now hangs proudly in my office, says "THE SALT TURNS THE BODIES INTO MUMMIES." (And if you don't remember that quote from Home Alone, you've never really seen Home Alone.)

I realize there might be people out there who are as bad at this as me, which is why I've compiled a shopping guide of the kinds of things my wife might expect to get from me for Valentine's Day. None of these made the cut this year, so feel free to seek them out for your own sweetheart without worrying that yours and mine might compare notes.

1. Nothing accents a room quite like a hand-embroidered Blood Splatter Pillow. Also available in fingerprint, DNA, and hair, two of which, especially if you have a cat and a houseful of "poisoness plants," are probably already on your couch in copious amounts anyway. Caveat: If you are actually thinking about killing someone on your couch, purchase of this pillow will be presented at your trial as evidence of premeditation.

2. It goes without saying that no serious forensic hobbyist should be without their own Institute of Police Technology and Management Crime Scene Template. If you are unsure how to indicate that the killer dropped his nun-chucks in the blood trail between the davenport and the urinal, the IPTMCST has you covered.

3. You might not know this but James Lipton, host of the Inside the Actor's Studio, is an expert in "terms of venery," which are collective nouns applied to animals. He's even written a book on the subject with the lovely title An Exaltation of Larks. That's a pretty good Valentine's Day present. So is this venereally-inspired, crow-emblazoned jewelry called "The Murder Necklace." (In regard to premeditation, please see above.)

4. You don't have to be a gun-lover or a zombie-hater to enjoy these suitable-for-framing gun-range zombie targets. Remember, when the zombies come you must shoot them in the head for a kill, but you also must avoid wounding the slow-footed and oblivious little girl they will have inevitably taken as a human shield/snack.

5. On the other hand, if the person you love in turn loves his guns as much as his family (or her family as much as her guns) then I can't recommend anything more highly than a truly sublime collection of photographs of everyday Americans posing in their homes with their children, pets, and firearms. It's called Armed America, and like the best relationships, this book is surreal, funny, often frightening, and consistently riveting.

For those who like to browse on their own, I can recommend almost any of the wares at Berwyn, Illinois's Horrorbles, where you can find everything from Saw IV action figures to signed Boris Karloff photos.

Anyone else have a heartfelt but nevertheless inappropriate gift for Valentine's this year?

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Life After Innocence Client – Dean Cage

Life After Innocence client, Dean Cage, appeared on the Dr. Phil Show last week. During the show he got to meet the woman who mistakenly accused him of rape, sending him to prison for 14 years. Dr Phil enjoyed Dean and Loretta so much that he did a follow up show which I was involved in. It was truly profound to watch these 2 people, both victims of the system, come together, forgive each other, and actually heal a lot of deep wounds. The shows can be seen, in part, on the Dr Phil website. Look for my appearance at the end of February or beginning of March. Once I get an air date I'll be sure to let you know.

Show coverage:

Part 1
Part 2

Other coverage on their story:


AOL News

Monday, February 08, 2010

The masseuse, her pawnbroker, his running mate and the people of Illinois

By David Heinzmann

I’ve been a reporter for 17 years and have covered various corners of crime and corruption in Chicago for most of that time. But it wasn’t until I recently started helping the Tribune cover Illinois politics that I had cause to take my notebook into a massage parlor looking for answers.

But that’s where I was last Thursday, in downtown Villa Park, at a furtively run establishment known to its faithful as the Eden Spa. It took some shoe leather to get there because the vague directions on their web site were out of date. I’d started out with the photos on the site’s gallery confirming the employment of the girl I was looking for: tall, tanned and blonde, dressed in white lingerie and stockings. But they don’t publish the exact address on the web site, so I had to call. The Eden had recently moved, it turned out.

A very, very friendly woman answered the phone and gave me precise directions that led me directly to an unassuming little one-story office complex in the western suburb. At the end of the row of storefront office suites stood one unmarked door, window curtains drawn, no signage. You’d never notice it.

I walked into a cozily lit reception area. Paneling. Candles flickering. A dish of peppermints. I took one and smiled at the nice lady while she gave some other caller the exact same directions she’d given me minutes before.

When she hung up and turned her attention to me, I asked, “Is Mandi available?”

Two days before, on election night I had been sitting at the city desk watching the election returns firm up in the various primary races. Election night in a newsroom is always an electric event, waiting for hours to see where the upsets will be, and then reacting, pounding out stories and making phone calls to get the winners and losers on the line for a quote while the night’s deadlines come hurtling at you.

It was a crowded field for lieutenant governor with six candidates in each party’s primary. Mostly little known state lawmakers were expected to vie for the chance to be the governor candidate’s running mate. But as the numbers shaped up Tuesday, it became clear that the Democratic winner was going to be a quirky candidate nobody had paid much attention to.

Scott Lee Cohen was a pawnbroker with no political organization, and nobody took him seriously. It seemed he couldn’t win. What nobody knew was that Cohen has access to a couple million bucks and had decided to spend all of it running for lieutenant governor, a job with little power or formal role in state government. But the thing is, even though it's not much of a job, the primary nominee gets locked into the gubernatorial ticket. So a controversial lieutenant governor -- or "lite gov" --candidate can sink a govenor's candidacy. (see 1986; Adlai Stevenson; Lyndon Larouche)


So early Wednesday morning, I started to sift through what we knew about Cohen. He owned a pawn shop, and he’d told a Sun-Times columnist months before that he’d once been arrested for domestic battery in 2005. Cohen’s office then returned my call from the night before. The candidate had just won a stunning victory but he didn’t want to talk to me. He’s tired, and thinking about going on a vacation, his spokesman said. You understand.

No, I didn’t. In fact, I’d never heard of a politician winning a big upset victory at the polls and deciding he would make no public appearances, and instead go into seclusion for a few days. So I argued. Eventually, they relented and granted an interview with Cohen for that afternoon. In the meantime I ordered the domestic battery case file from the courthouse.

When we sat down in his West Loop campaign office, Cohen told me about his dreams of helping put Illinoisans back to work. Incentives for business, green energy, etc.

That domestic? Oh, his girlfriend was drunk and he never touched her. She calmed down and dropped the charges. It was a rough time in his life because he was going through a divorce. I had to admit I could see how a difficult divorce from your wife might put some serious stress on your relationship with your girlfriend.

I asked a lot of questions and Cohen talked and talked, and then I left. When I got back to the office, the domestic battery file had arrived. Well, it was a little different from what he’d told me. The girlfriend said he’d put a knife to her throat. The police took pictures of abrasions on her neck. They called an ambulance. Hmm.

Also, the file gave me the woman’s name for the first time. Amanda J. Eneman. I googled her, of course. And guess what came up:

The Eden Spa.

2005. Just a few months before the knife incident. A prostitution sting. Eneman charged. I ran to a computer in the newsroom that gives us access to Cook County court records and looked up the charges. She’d pleaded guilty to prostitution, servicing an undercover cop for $150. (The cop’s actions in that case are a story for another time.)

And so began the brief flaming saga of Scott Lee Cohen, which ended last night with his tear-drenched press conference in a North Side bar during half time of the Super Bowl while clutching his bawling children, and sputtering out that he was acquiescing to Mike Madigan’s demand that he get the hell out of the race before he dragged Gov. Pat Quinn’s candidacy to the bottom of Lake Michigan.

“Is Mandi available?” I had asked.

Not right then, came the answer. Mandi usually makes her appointments in advance. Did I have an appointment? Nope.

So the woman asked if I’d like a session with Gabby, or some other name I didn’t catch, or herself, actually. She was available.

“No, I need to see Mandi.”

Did I want to leave a number? I gave her my card. She read it and the smile finally went away. Later that night Amanda left a message on my desk phone, telling me she didn’t want to talk to me. Two days after that, she released a statement, through the high-profile California lawyer Gloria Allred, saying she didn’t think the Scott Lee Cohen she knew—the once she met while giving him a massage at the Eden Spa, the once she said held a knife to her throat--was fit to hold public office.

Sunday night Cohen said vehemently that Amanda’s opinion had nothing to do with his early retirement from Illinois politics.

Friday, February 05, 2010


by Barbara D'Amato

I've just learned a fine new word. I've needed this word for years and never knew it existed. The word is "mondegreen." A mondegreen is a misheard word or phrase, but not just a simple misunderstanding. To be a mondegreen it has to give a new meaning to the word or phrase and it's best of all if the new meaning is funny.

Although nobody told me, "mondegreen" has been around since 1954 when the writer Sylvia Wright coined it in an essay she wrote for Harper's Magazine. She described her mother reading a poem to her from Percy's Reliques, the 17th century ballad called "The Bonny Earl O'Murray." It went--

"They hae slain the Earl O'Murray
And laid him on the green."

She heard it as:

They hae slain the Earl O'Murray
And Lady Mondegreen."

More than one child has thought the Lord's Prayer went this way, "Our father which art in heaven, Harold be thy name." My father's name actually was Harold, so I found this one very funny.

In the course of reading a lot of manuscripts, blogs, and some published material where somebody ought to have known better, I've run into a few goodies:

An author on a listserve, talking about a book he wanted to summarize: "This is the jest of it."

And yet another who was criticizing a writers net-presence, said, "He is being very short-sited."

And: "Charles was an invertebrate gambler."

And: "Mr. Sander received a plague for salesperson of the year."

A writer referring to the Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal in New York said, "This is a real abject lesson." And, believe it or not, a blog referred to Spitzer's "peckerdillo." It's possible that this mondegreen was intentional.

Ed McBain used a childrens' misunderstanding of a hymn "Gladly the Cross I'd Bear" as a Matthew Hope title "Gladly the Cross-eyed Bear."

If you have some mondegreens -- and you must have run into many -- send them in. I jest love them.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Rip Van Winkle syndrome (or I wish I were the Flash)

by Michael Dymmoch

When she retired, my mother told me she never had enough time to do all she wanted. Since I was juggling a house, a job, a kid, and a writing career, I thought she was crazy. Now, not so much. I retired. I traded my house for a condo (no lawn to mow; no driveway to shovel; Maintenance washes the windows). My kid grew up and became self-sufficient. Now I never have enough time.

It’s not just that the pace of life has quickened. Scientists have evidence that age related changes in our nervous systems slow nerve transmission and subsequent response time. Old people don’t just seem slower; they are.

Some days I feel like one of those Sci-Fi characters who’s stepped through a portal to a place where time passes at a fraction of “normal” speed. When—after a day’s sojourn—she returns to her own world, twenty years have passed. I sit down to look something up on the internet, or write a letter or… When I next look at the clock, two or three hours, or a whole day, sometimes an entire week has passed.

Writing is sometimes like that.

Reading is almost always like that if the book is good. But that’s not a bad thing.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

An Open Letter to People Who Send Me Crazy Emails...

by Sean Chercover

Dear Crazy People,

One of the great joys of my job is the email I get from readers. That someone actually finds my writing entertaining, moving, thought-provoking, or annoying enough to take the time and write to me … well, it’s rather humbling, and I do appreciate it.

When my first book came out, the letters surprised the hell out of me, probably because I’d never written such a letter (I did call Saul Bellow once, in a moment of youthful folly, to wish him a happy birthday – he was very gracious). I always assumed that authors were too busy to read fan mail, and what did I have to say to them anyway, besides, “I enjoyed your book”?

I obviously didn’t realize what a pleasure it is to simply be told, “I enjoyed your book,” until I'd written one. Anyway, it’s a beautiful thing when a complete stranger reaches out like that, and while I certainly prefer the happy letters, the critical ones are sometimes helpful, and all are welcome.

But then there is your letter.

I am, by nature, a suspicious guy, and in my books I try to pull back the curtain and look at what goes on behind the scenes. The whole idea of "secret knowledge" fascinates me. I do a lot of research, and I’m fortunate to have great sources both in and out of law enforcement.

But, for the record, what I write is fiction.

I enjoy a good conspiracy theory, and I know that conspiracies really do exist. The Gulf of Tonkin incident was a conspiracy, kept secret for almost 40 years. Watergate was also a conspiracy, of course. As were (off the top of my head) the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, Operation Paperclip, Project MKULTRA, COINTELPRO, etc., and so on, and so forth.

History is rife with conspiracies. Of those I named above, only Watergate was busted “in the act”, so people who deny the existence of conspiracies on the basis that it is “impossible to keep a secret” are fooling themselves.

Having said that…

Your letter is all kinds of crazy.

And while I’m flattered that you have selected me as the person to help you publicly expose “the hidden truth” you’ve discovered, I have some bad news for you.

You have not discovered the hidden truth.
  • The Illuminati do not secretly control the Federal Reserve. Neither do "the Jews", you racist nutjob.
  • The Masons do not secretly run the Catholic Church, while pretending to hate Catholics.
  • The 1993 WTC bombing was not an FBI false flag op.
  • The assassination of JFK was not a secret operation carried out by "the Blacks" (see, "the Jews" above).
I wish I were making these up. I am not. These, and many others, have come to me from real readers. You know who you are. And, while I appreciate the support, I respectfully suggest you see a doctor.

But if you won't see a doctor (because the doctors are all conspiring against you!), if you feel compelled to expose "the hidden truth" you've discovered, you'll have to do it without me. I have my own crazy conspiracy theories to write about.

Of course, mine are true.

And although no one has yet written to me about the moon landing or Paul McCartney, I feel compelled to preempt such letters by saying: I strongly believe that we DID land on the moon, and Paul did NOT die in a car accident in 1966, only to be replaced by a look-and-sound-alike.

Call me gullible.

To writers: Do you get these letters, or do I just attract crazy people? If you do, please share, I'm eager to hear.

To all: Do you dig on conspiracies like I do? And if you do, please share your favorite.

Have a crazy day.

Monday, February 01, 2010

Fragments of the past

By David Heinzmann

Not long after I put up a web site to promote my book I received an email from a woman in the western suburbs who introduced herself and said she knew my family from the little farming community Downstate where my parents grew up. Because of the size and remoteness of Stark County, Illinois, and the decades that had intervened, the connection through my book was a delightful surprise.

Then last weekend, just before my book signing and discussion was about to begin at Centuries and Sleuths, the great mystery book store in Forest Park, in walked the woman, whose name is Julann, and her husband. I signed a couple of books for her and she apologized that she couldn’t stay because she had to run her husband to the airport. But before Julann left she handed me an envelope of 60-year-old photographs and a letter.

My head was supposed to be on the coming discussion about crime and corruption in Chicago, but suddenly I was transported to a post-WWII world of farmhouse dinners and big band dances. The photographs were of my parents—my late father and 85-year-old mother--as a young couple. Some of them were wedding photos I’d seen before, but some were images that were completely new to me, including a shot of my father carrying my mom around on his shoulders on a sunny day. And then there was the letter--on blue stationary, in my mother’s distinctively formal slant.

Dated 1946, it was from my mother to Julann’s mother just after her wedding. My mom was 22 at the time and had been a bridesmaid in the wedding. There was nothing extraordinary in the four pages other than some minor-league intrigue over the attentions of two young men apparently trying to ace my old man out of the picture. Nonetheless the letter offered the wonderment of discovery. A glimpse of my mother’s thoughts as a young, single woman. This was a person whom I and my five siblings never knew, and here was a document of who she was and how she thought, a record beyond the faded and malleable recollections of later life.

A few days after this happened, my wife and I were talking about the letter and she said, a little wistfully, “That will never happen again.”

A handwritten letter, forgotten for 60 years in a shoebox or drawer somewhere, landing in a someone’s lap and revealing some little sliver of the distant past. She’s probably right. Nobody sends letters anymore. We send emails and they get deleted, or merely lost in our own vast digital clutter. But who knows, maybe 60 years from now our grandchildren will stumble on some dusty and scratched little flash drive—the one plugged into this computer right now. Maybe they’ll find a machine that can read such outdated technology. And maybe there will be a few random missives from the old folks sitting there waiting for them.

A couple of weeks ago I told a story about my brief time in Haiti several years ago, and that in the wake of the earthquake I wondered what had become of the Hospice St. Joseph, the mission where I stayed when I was there. After a few emails I learned last week that the nuns who run the mission and their lodgers survived by fleeing to their large courtyard, but the building itself collapsed. Many of their staff, who live in the surrounding Christ Roi neighborhood, lost family members in the disaster. It’s hard for me to fathom the collapse of that sturdy old building, and it saddens me that this is relatively good news.


One last thing. I was thrilled by Kevin’s post Friday about the discovery of correspondence between Walker Percy and Bruce Springsteen. I became obsessed with Percy in college and in a weird way he paved my path in life. Or at least pointed me in this direction. The Moviegoer was assigned in an introduction to American civilization class I took as a freshman. I figured any field that would teach this book as a primer on our own civilization was probably where I belonged, and I became an American civilization major. In the American Studies department I fell under the spell of two professors. One was an English and creative writing teacher who finally cracked my knucklehead open to receive literature, and planted the seed that I might myself write something worth reading. The other was an historian of social reform movements who once slyly told me I should read detective novels because they had all the relevant social consciousness that highbrow literature too often lacked. Twenty years later and here I am, still turning this nugget from The Moviegoer over in my head:

“The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.”

Thank you, Dr. Percy. And thank you, Kevin.