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-ExupĂ©ry’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?