Monday, April 30, 2007

Great Beginnings

By Michael Allen Dymmoch

I'm really great at starting things, not so good at finishing. I have a huge file in my computer--Great Beginnings--full of things like the following: "Sometimes, when the facts of an untimely death are not in dispute, the line drawn between accident and murder is just the locus of intent." That came to me while I was driving, and it sounded like the first or last line of a story. So I wrote it down--something I try to do whenever I get an idea that sounds like it belongs in a story. Thinking about that line, I came up with the probable genesis--trigonometry class a zillion years ago, where I was required to memorize definitions like: "A circle is a locus of points equidistant from a point." Trigonometry was a clue--the story had to do with math or a math geek, and a crime.

It took six years to work out the rest of the tale and come up with an ending: "When your locus is equidistant from two points, what you have is the straight line dividing them. And you always have to be careful that you come down on the right side of that line."

Here are some other "great" beginnings I'm still working on:

Any day the water wasn't frozen, Rhoda washed her hair.

Our savior was a suicidal bitch known as Cara who we had to take turns watching to see she didn't off herself.

I came late to crime--might have missed it altogether but I was pushed into it

The first thing I noticed was that the guy was naked; the second was that he was dead. Not soul-dead like my ex-brother in law, or brain-dead like my senile uncle. But white as dry-wall mud and frozen into a pose that would otherwise be quite painful. I’d seen stiffs before. I guess the naked bothered me more.

We all want heroes. Even those of us who know better want heroes

When I first met him I thought him dazzling, but in certain lights glass glitters as brilliantly as diamonds.

When you get shot with a real bullet it's never that neat process you see on TV that leaves you with a small hole through some part of your anatomy not essential for locomotion or circulation. Bullets usually hit something messy and essential—like an artery, or something painful—like your gut. When a bullet hits you in the middle, it doesn't just breeze through, because your innards aren't neatly coiled like a new garden hose They come gathered together like a dust ruffle, and when a bullet plows through, it tends to cut your ruffle into lace. I found that out the hard way.

10/18/82 These thing really happened:

As I've worked it out, there are two schools of thought about disposing of dead bodies. One holds that if you hide the corpse well enough, you're out of the woods. The other is that murder always will out, so you save yourself an eternity of uneasy moments if you just dump the remains in a conspicuous spot. Unobtrusively, of course. The murderer of “X” was clearly of the second school.

It was inevitable that someone would call the police. however tolerant people may think themselves, most find a man wandering the streets with a butcher knife somewhat bizarre.
© Michael Allen Dymmoch

Friday, April 27, 2007

Standing The Test of Time . . .

by Sean Chercover

I recently reviewed a DVD box set of the classic 1960s television show I SPY for Crimespree magazine. Here’s part of that review…

The 1960s James Bond pop culture juggernaut spawned a slew of television spy shows. And my favorite - by a country mile - was I SPY, which ran on NBC for three seasons (1965 to 1968) and which I fell in love with as a child in the ‘70s, when it aired in after school re-runs. Such childhood love affairs can be perilous – many of my favorite shows of the time have not aged well (Hawaii Five-O, anyone?). So it was with some trepidation that I broke the seal on Box Set #1 of I SPY.

I needn’t have worried. In a nutshell, I SPY rocks.

Robert Culp and Bill Cosby co-star as Kelly Robinson and Alexander Scott, two American spies who love their country but sometimes question the wisdom and morality of their superiors at the Pentagon. Robinson is a Princeton grad and former Davis Cup tennis champion, while Scott is a Rhodes Scholar, fluent in seven languages. They travel the world undercover as a playboy tennis bum and his trainer.

The series is smart and funny and doesn’t take itself too seriously, but occasionally achieves moments of darkness, bitter irony, and even poignancy. The heart of I SPY is the relationship between Culp (Robinson) and Cosby (Scott). Born out of a close off-screen friendship, Culp’s and Cosby’s performances set the standard for buddy bantering and improvisational interplay on television. The chemistry between them is extraordinary.

And it goes deeper than that. In 1965, this was landmark television. The first network series to star an African-American, I SPY featured an interracial friendship and professional partnership where the black guy and the white guy were truly equals.

An example: In one episode, Culp and Cosby are struggling to find a solution to their current pickle. Cosby comes up with the solution, and then we get the following banter:
Culp: Will you stop that? I hate it when you do that.
Cosby: Do what?
Culp: Being smarter than me. You’re always doing that.

Have I mentioned that this was 1965? Never on a soapbox, these guys simply walked the walk, presenting a divided nation with two friends whose relationship was way beyond race. This was groundbreaking stuff, and it changed the way many young people looked at race in America. In that regard, I’m not sure it has been matched to this day.

In the review, I went on to wax enthusiastic about the guest stars and exotic locations and cinematography, etc. The point is, I SPY had a big influence on me as a child, and it stands the test of time. It holds up as a great show, all these years later.

Other crime shows that hold up for me include Baretta, The Rockford Files, Kojak, and Kolchak: The Night Stalker, while I've recently been disappointed by revisiting such "classics" as the aforementioned Hawaii Five-O, Starsky & Hutch, and Vega$. Even the pull of nostalgia wasn't enough to keep me watching past an episode or two.

And there are so many crime shows that I loved at the time, but haven’t seen in many years. I’m curious to see if these hold up: Peter Gunn, Harry O, Police Story, Police Woman, McCloud, Cannon, Mannix, Bannacheck, Columbo, Ironside, The Mod Squad . . .

So let’s hear it. Share with us the classic crime shows of your childhood, and how you respond to them as an adult. Which ones stand the test of time, and why? Which have nothing to recommend them but nostalgia?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

John Doe 96-2863 and Buddy, R.I.P.

By Kevin Guilfoile

I had a simple question about the hierarchy of the homicide section of the Las Vegas Police Department and before I bothered anyone on the phone, I decided to check the web first. It's the sensible and courteous thing to do, but I wasn't optimistic I'd find my answer. Government web sites, and particularly city web sites, are usually about as organized and easy to navigate as that house on your block owned by the elderly widow who hasn't thrown out a newspaper since 1943. Except the web sites don't usually contain nearly as much useful information. Most of them seem designed specifically to foil you from finding any information at all beyond two-year-old press releases and ten-year-old photos of the mayor. Go to the City of Chicago web site and see how long it takes you to find the name of the number two man in the CPD, the First Deputy Superintendent.

I hope you won't be upset if we don't wait.

Anyway imagine my shock when I found myself at the LVPD web site. You could spend hours there downloading information that is useful, useless, fascinating, and often gruesome. The concerned parent can find out how many narcotics arrests have been made in the last 60 days within a quarter mile of his child's school. The sentimental animal lover can solemnly peruse photos from the funeral of beloved K-9 unit hero "Buddy". The budding Veronica Mars can drum up unsolicited new work with a list of current open homicide cases complete with victim photos and and crime summaries. And the morbidly curious can study coroner photos of unidentified corpses. (Warning, some people might find a few of these pics disturbing, although I had a much tougher time looking at the German Shepherd's funeral.) The corpse I keep coming back to is the possibly doctored to cover decomposition John Doe 96-2863, who was discovered, dead from exposure, seven miles out into the desert.

For citizens of Clark County, this site is a valuable resource and the LVPD deserves great praise for making this information public and accessible. For the rest of us (or for me anyway) it's a source of endless fascination. And potential stories.

Has anyone else stumbled on a crime-related web site lately that was unexpectedly useful or engrossing?

Monday, April 23, 2007

Vonnegut, Propaganda, and Fox

by Libby Hellmann

As writers we know the power of words. We choose them carefully – rooting around sometimes for hours or days just to find the right verb or adjective. We respect the differences and shadings, however minute, that specific words connote. We understand that the right words create a mood or perception in which the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts.

We also recognize when others do it effectively. When novelists do it well, it’s called good fiction. But when the guardians of the nation’s airwaves do it, under the guise of disseminating information, it’s propaganda.

Which is why I’m still appalled at a story on Fox News. (Thanks to J.D.Rhoades for blogging about it last week. And to Judy Bobalik who drew my attention to it)

Okay. We all know Fox is no friend to liberals. We know how they shade stories, particularly political ones, to suit the right-wing. We know how they use code words to inflame or champion whatever the right wing’s sound-bite du jour happens to be, whether it’s government’s, administration’s, or some corporate entity’s.

But this wasn’t a political piece. At least it wasn’t supposed to be. This was an obituary of Kurt Vonnegut. A recounting of his life and work. Notice I didn’t say “tribute” – that’s not the role of the media. They are simply there to recount the facts -- put them in an order for us – the public -- to interpret. And whether you like his writing or not, the fact is that Vonnegut was a major figure in American literature.

Except you wouldn’t know it by Fox’s piece.

The reporter went out of his way to discredit Vonnegut at every turn. In his first sentence, he mentions Vonnegut’s “leftist screeds.” He goes on to talk about his “despondent leftism”… He labels Vonnegut “irrelevant” and “quirky”… He makes sure to mention his suicide attempt (okay that’s fair game…), his scatological humor, his send-up of New York literary society. Like I said, a little of that is appropriate, but, in making sure he mentioned all of Vonnegut’s imperfections, he missed the entire point of the man’s significance.

Sure, Vonnegut was unabashedly left-wing. And anti-war. But people read Vonnegut because he was an antidote to the powers that be. He saw through the artifice and the propaganda and the BS of his time, and he did it in a way that was entertaining, clever, and, ultimately, moving. People read Vonnegut because they knew they could count on him to see the Emperor with no clothes, at a time when the prevailing voices said otherwise.

But there was no word about that in the report. The reporter either deliberately chose to ignore the man’s relevance (How could anyone call Vonnegut “irrelevant”?), or his bosses ordered him to, or he’s as dumb as a box of rocks.

What ticked me off the most, though, was the opening line of the report. It was – well –supremely arrogant. “Vonnegut wouldn’t have wanted a classical send-off… (or something to that effect).. so here’s the Cliff notes version.”

Says who?

How does this Fox reporter presume to know what Vonnegut wanted? He made him seem like a cranky old man, rather than the literary giant he was. Now, if Joyce Carol Oates or Tom Wolfe or Stephen King or some other literary figure had made that comment, maybe I’d give it some credence. Maybe. But a reporter?

But then, that’s Fox. They just can’t stop.

Here’s the link to the obit:

What do you think?

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Another Chicago Criminal Behind Bars

by Sara Paretsky

Another Chicago criminal--not quite as notorious as Bobby Cruz, but every bit a felon--entered the Metropolitan Correctional Facility on April 17. Don Coleman, co-pastor with his wife of the University Church in Hyde Park, broke the law last fall. He entered the compound in Ft. Benning, Georgia, that houses the WHINSEC/School of the Americas, as part of a protest to urge its closing. WHINSEC (Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) trains people from South and Central America in how to conduct interrogations, use psychological warfare, and other tactics against members of their own countries, such as labor organizers and journalists who expose their governments' actions.

Among WHINSEC's illustrious graduates is Peru's Telmo Hurtado, who organized the murder of 74 women and children in the Andean Highlands. An officer brought the children (ranging in age from 1 to 8 years) together with a group of women and old men in one of the houses in the village. "I ordered the assault group under my charge to open fire, while I threw a hand grenade inside (the house) with the intention of eliminating anyone who might be merely injured. I took the decision to eliminate the injured because there were too many of them," said Hurtado.

Don Coleman is serving 60 days for his act of civil disobedience. If you want to support him and the other 15 felons who were arrested with him, Don asks that you try to help close WHINSEC. You can write your senators and representatives, urging them to support HR 1707, a bill that merely asks for an investigation into WHINSEC. If you want more detail about the trial of Don and his co-defendants, you can read Tina Busch-Nema's blog about the trial.

Abu Ghraib, Bagram, Guantanamo, WHINSEC. Can we please shut these places down?

Labels: Torture, Military, WHINSEC, Chicago Criminals

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Virginia Tech

Barbara D’Amato

The cruelty and waste of the murders at Virginia Tech are on most people’s minds. The sorrow of the families and friends of the dead will spread out for decades, and the world will miss out on what those young people could have become

Writers of crime fiction may have a bad feeling in addition to sorrow and anger. It’s not quite guilt, but it has elements of it. I don’t think we believe that crime fiction causes crime. Pretty much all studies have shown that isn’t so, and in fact, reading about violence may act as catharsis.

It’s more a matter of suddenly asking ourselves why we write about such horrible things at all. I was working on an interior monologue for a hired assassin when the news of the killings in Virginia came on the television, and it certainly gave me pause.

Why do we read crime fiction, for that matter? I read mysteries and thrillers all the time. A couple of my relatives have asked me, “Why do you like to read about murder?” Well, why do we? Do we enjoy it? We must. Surely we don’t read these books because we dislike the process.

Carolyn Hart was asked once at a mystery convention why people read humorous crime fiction. Murder, the questioner said with some indignation, was not funny. Carolyn answered, “Murder isn’t funny, but people are funny.”

It’s the people, I think, we read to find out about. And write in order to explore. Crime fiction gives us people at extremes—killers, victims, vigilantes, professional righters-of-wrongs. This doesn’t seem to me to be a bad thing, but I would like to know how others feel about it.

Monday, April 16, 2007

A Rose By Any Other Name...

by Marcus Sakey

...might not sell as well.

Despite the lesson we're taught in childhood, people do judge books by their covers--and their titles. And why not? First impressions matter. And where a cover design assumes the reader is holding the book, and can flip it over to read blurbs and a summary, a title has to stand on its own. It has to be memorable and suggestive, with the right balance of poetry and punch (Barry Eisler wrote a great article on the need for resonance of titles, if you're interested). And given that the title is a crucial factor in the decision-making process of bookstore buyers, the right one can mean a sales difference in the tens of thousands of copies.

So what, you ask? Well, my second book is complete. My editor and publisher are excited about it. Folks say they like it better than the first one, which pleases me no end. But the one thing everyone agrees they don't like?

You guessed it.

I trust their instincts. These people are pros, and this is an important decision. So I'm hoping you'll help me make it.

Briefly, the book is a thriller about a guy named Jason Palmer, a discharged soldier who returns from Iraq to find a similar war raging in his South Side neighborhood. Jason is in a downward spiral, thrown out of the only place he ever found a home, and wants to spend the summer drinking too much and chasing girls. But when his brother is murdered and his bar burned, presumably by the gangbangers he spoke out against, Jason is forced to dig into increasingly dangerous secrets, all while protecting his eight-year-old nephew from the men hunting him.

The central issues are corruption, brotherhood, responsibility and redemption. It’s got gang warfare and arson and a love story and a car chase and Roman history. And Tom Waits quotes. Oh, and a scene where an arms dealer sings “Angel of the Morning” while shooting up a gang house.

Originally it was titled ACCELERANT. Then ONLY THE DEAD. Then THE END OF WAR. Then STREETS OF FIRE.

Now, we don’t know what it’s called. So I’m running a contest. It’s a two-part gig:

A) Any ideas? Don't let the fact that you haven't read the book slow you down. After over 100 suggestions, I'm getting burned out. So please, throw anything--anything--my way.

B) There are three titles that seem to be in favor right now, and I want your vote. They are: THE VIOLENCE OF FIRE, CITY OF ASHES, and AT THE CITY'S EDGE

Obviously, Part 1 is the meat of the contest. My favorite suggestion will receive a signed copy of THE BLADE ITSELF. In fact, just for fun, it will be a signed U.K. edition, unavailable on U.S. shores.

Better still, if we actually go with your title (or a variation of it), I’ll thank you in the acknowledgments. Plus, I’ll name a character in my third book after you. Not bad for a few minutes of brainstorming. (I'm also running this contest at my other group blog, Killer Year; I'll pick one winner from the two sites.)

By the way, if you don’t have any title ideas, I’d still love to get your vote on Part 2.

So let’s hear it, folks. What the heck should this rose be named?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Ad copy

by Michael Allen Dymmoch

I spend a shameful amount of time watching commercials. My favorites are the “priceless” Master Card ads, especially the one with the elephant, and the Verizon wireless network come-ons with the “Can-you-hear-me-now?” guy leading his minions. Capital One had a good thing going with the pillagers, and the Frog Prince take-offs were cute the first dozen repeats, but their family-on-a-hobo-vacation campaign was pretty lame. Volkswagen’s circa 1070 campaign—“Ever wonder what the guy who drives the snow plow drives...?”—is still in my head. And their more recent “Round for a reason” series was entertaining.

What ads have to do with writing fiction—beyond the fact that most are entirely fictitious—is that the best commercials are short stories, thirty or sixty second movies aimed at holding your attention—or at least keeping you from hitting the remote--and at getting you to buy something. (And I did, recently, purchase a VW.) Writing good short stories is hard. (Not that great writers don’t make them read as if they’ve fallen from the lips of God.)

In his educational and extremely entertaining book, Bambi vs. Godzilla, David Mamet deconstructed Jack in the Beanstalk with a five step outline for screenwriters that could as easily be used as a guide for writing short stories, even novels:






Filling in between the headers is the trick. In a short story, every detail is crucial. Even in novels the trick is deciding which details to include. To quote Edmund White: “Because a novel—these words—is shared experience, a clumsy but sometimes funny conversation between two people in which one of them is doing all the talking, it will always be tighter and more luminous than that object called living.... Living is all those days and years, the rushes; memory edits them; this page is the final print, music added.” (The Beautiful Room is Empty)

I was asked to write catalog copy for my next novel (currently without a title as my editor dislikes MIA). What is catalog copy but advertising—a story told in service of seduction? Being better able to appreciate ads than write them, I’ve used Mamet’s outline as my guide. See what you think.

“ONCE UPON A TIME” there was a happy family, the Faheys—Mickey, his wife Rhiann, and stepson, Jimmy.

“AND THEN ONE DAY” Mickey died. Rhiann was nearly paralyzed by grief. Jimmy started cutting school and drinking.

“AND JUST WHEN EVERYTHING WAS GOING SO WELL” Deputy Sinter, an old friend of Mickey’s, showed up and tried to hit on Rhiann. John, a mysterious stranger, moved in next door, offering Rhiann beer and sympathy, giving Jimmy help with his car and an after school job.

Jimmy decided to dig around the roots of his family tree. While visiting estranged relatives, he ran into Steve, a high school friend of Jimmy’s mother and birth father. Jimmy also met a cute girl and got in over his head with her.

Jimmy’s involvement with his relatives led Rhiann to revisit relationships from long ago and wonder what became of old friends and lovers.

Jimmy crashed his car and ended up in intensive care.

John donated blood. He gave Rhiann rides, help around the house, comfort.

Creepy deputy Sinter tried to discredit John, then tried to beat him to death. Rhiann came to John’s rescue with her dead husband’s gun. She discovered John was not what he’d seemed.

Which led her to investigate him. And see him in a different light altogether.

Which led Sinter to try to kill them both, ending up in jail.

Jimmy came home from the hospital. He tried to elope with his girlfriend, was nearly beaten to death by her father, then rescued by Rhiann and John. Their lives all seemed to be changing for the better.

“WHEN JUST AT THE LAST MINUTE,” creepy deputy Sinter, out on bail, went after Rhiann again...

This is a novel, not a fairy tale. I’ll leave it to you to read the book (spring 2008, Title TBA) and decide whether I followed the outline to an end where “THEY ALL LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER.”

So what do you think? Would you buy this book? Or should I give up advertising and stick to novels?

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Wow . . .

This amazing story, in today's Chicago Sun-Times, provides another look at gunshots, relative to my post of yesterday.


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut Has Left The Building...

So it goes . . .

Egregious Gunplay . . .

by Sean Chercover

As writers of crime fiction, we write a lot about guns. So you’d think we’d know a lot about 'em. I’m sorry to say that as a profession, we often indulge in egregious gunplay that defies all laws of physics and, for that matter, good common sense. And when we do this, we jerk many readers (those who know anything about guns) out of the fictional universe we’ve worked so hard to create, and we rudely deny them the ability to continue suspending their disbelief.

So, in an effort to make the world a better place, I’m offering a few tips about how to deal with guns in your writing.

Let’s be clear - although I used to carry a gun for work, I am not a ‘gun nut’, nor would I call myself a gun expert. And I’m not suggesting that you need to become an expert, either. But there are some things that you need to know.

1. If you’re not willing to learn at least a little bit about guns, then follow Chandler’s advice, and just call every gun “a gun,” and offer NO other details.

2. If you must go into detail, do the damned research. A semi-auto is not an automatic. A magazine is not a clip. A bullet is not a round . . . etc. I mean, this ain’t rocket surgery . . . brain science . . . whatever.

3. People do not fly backward through the air when they are shot. They just don’t. So knock it off with the people flying through the air. It’s stupid, no matter how many times you saw it in a Steven Segal movie. Truth is, most people who are shot don’t even know they’re shot, right away. Not only do they not fly backward through the air, most times they don’t even fall down for a while. They’re in shock, and it takes a minute before they realize they’ve been hit. Movie nonsense aside, if a bullet were able to send someone flying backward, then the shooter would also be sent flying by the recoil. Action-reaction. Laws of physics. Get it? Good.

4. Don’t “check your load.” You know the drill: The cop (or PI, or thief, or whomever) is about to go into a dangerous situation. So he flips his revolver open and “checks his load.” What the hell is this? Could it be that the rounds he fed into the gun when he loaded it that morning magically evaporated? I mean, really. Why the hell would he “check his load”? Stop it. It’s ridiculous, unless you intend the reader to think that your protagonist is mentally challenged.

5. Stop “jacking a round into the chamber.” This is the pistol equivalent of “checking your load.” What made you think this was a cool thing for tough guys to do? Oh, yeah, those Steven Segal movies. Right. If your character is a professional (PI, cop, or professional bad guy) then s/he will most likely carry in Condition One. Which means, a round in the chamber, safety on. There’s no reason to jack the slide, since there’s already a round in the chamber. Yes, there are pistols that you don’t carry in this manner, but even then, stop “jacking a round into the chamber” for dramatic effect. You’re driving us crazy with that crap, and it’s a cheap substitute for real tension.

6. Guns are loud. If you fire a gun without ear protection on (especially indoors), your ears will ring and everything will sound muffled and you will probably talk too loud for a few days. Fire a gun in a car with the windows closed, and you will suffer permanent hearing loss.

7. When shot, people do not usually die. In fact, over 80% of gunshot victims survive.

8. And when they do die, they don’t die instantly, in the vast majority of cases. So, stop making your victims drop instantly dead, as soon as they are shot. Unless it is a perfect head- or heart-shot with a large-caliber bullet, they’re gonna stagger around for a bit.

9. And when they are shot in the shoulder, they suffer for a long time and need major surgery and may not regain the use of that arm. All the nerves that feed the arm go through the shoulder joint, and there’s a pretty big artery going through that joint, as well. I know many of us grew up in the '70s, when Starsky (or Hutch, or Mannix, or whomever) would take a bullet to the shoulder and be fine next week. Not like that in real life. So if you need your hero to take a relatively inconsequential bullet, have him take it in the buttocks.

These are but a few examples of Egregious Gunplay that drive me nuts. I’ll probably offer more in a future Outfit post, but for now I’ve ranted enough, and it is now your turn to vent.

Wait . . . I just got off the phone with my friend Michael Black (who is not only a cop, but also an author you should read) and he gave me a few of his pet peeves:
1. When a semi-auto is out of bullets, the slide locks open. So don’t have a character repeatedly pulling the trigger on a pistol that has run out of ammo.

2. Glocks are misrepresented in many ways. Here are a few things to know about Glocks: They are not invisible to metal detectors. The striker is inside; there is no external hammer to cock. They do not have manual safeties that you can engage or disengage.

3. Revolvers do not have manual safeties, either.

Okay, now it’s your turn. What details drive you nuts? Not necessarily about guns, but about anything? What details do writers fake or ignore or generally get wrong, that kill your suspension of disbelief?

Monday, April 09, 2007

Not In My Neighborhood

by Libby Hellmann

They call Chicago the city of neighborhoods – all of them diverse, textured, and fascinating. Except mine. I live in the Chicago suburbs, on the North Shore, and it sometimes feels more like a state of mind than a neighborhood. It’s fairly affluent, bucolic, very white, and the biggest issue in the twenty years I’ve been here is the refusal of residents in the adjoining village to widen the main thoroughfare.

Until now. An issue has been festering for over a year, and, while I already know how it will be resolved, it has shaken up my assumptions about
the tyranny of capitalism, corporate ethics, and suburban sprawl.

The northern part of my village is in the throes of big development. Several condo complexes – now called “lifestyle communities,” new malls, and other commercial projects are either in construction or about to be. At first glance, I didn’t think much about them. Their contributions to the tax base will keep my taxes down, and it’s always nice to have the convenience of a Best Buy, a Home Depot, or Whole Foods nearby, right?

Well, maybe not. The plans are to bring it onto the road that intersects mine, an idyllic street with the Forest Preserve on one side and lovely homes on the other. Suddenly the old abandoned Com Ed building half a mile from my home is ground zero for a big box retailer.

The neighborhood is up in arms for all the reasons you’d expect -- traffic, noise, congestion, blight, suburban sprawl. They formed an association, hired a lawyer, and are doing all the grass roots things the little guy does to fight the establishment, in this case the village politicos.

I started out rooting for the association. They were the David, arming their slingshot against the Goliath of reckless development and profiteering. They wanted to preserve the pristine, rural nature of the neighborhood. They wouldn’t go down without a fight.

Then I found out which big box retailer was moving in. Target. Yes, they are a big box retailer, with all the perils of rampant –yet affordable -- materialism.

But last summer Newsweek ( wrote an article about the 15 people and institutions who "Make America Great." Turned out Target was one of the 15. The article described what a progressive corporate citizen they are. How they donate 5 per cent of their pretax profits to nonprofit causes. How they treat their employees more fairly than the other Big Box store. How they offer free long-term housing for the families of young cancer patients. How their employees volunteer at the rate of 7,000 hours a year. For them philanthropy is good for the bottom line. They’re hoping people like me will feel good about the company and seek them out.

Guess what? It worked. I do make an effort to shop at the red Bullseye rather then the Big Wall. And when I plunk down my cash, I do think that perhaps a penny or two will end up in the right hands. I’m not na├»ve enough to think it’s a panacea, but it is something. So, given their altruism, shouldn’t I take off my armor and welcome them to the neighborhood? Or at least cease and desist?

The reality is that, in the final analysis, I think we are virtually powerless to do anything about development. In fact, the furor is almost perfunctory – does anyone really think that, in the further adventures of the malling of America, development will NOT happen?

But it raises an interesting question. Given a choice, who do you want in your back yard? Is it better to have an altruistic corporate citizen? Or doesn't it matter? Should we welcome Target, happy it’s not someone else? Or am I just trying to assuage my guilty conscience for selling out in the first place?

Anyone have any “happy ending” development stories?

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Stumble You Might Fall

by Kevin Guilfoile

The classic true crime book EVERYBODY PAYS (about the arrest and trial of prolific mob hit man Harry Aleman) has come up more than once around here, and in the interest of updating the public on Chicagoland mob developments, here is the latest on Bobby Cruz.

Bobby Cruz was a minor character in EVERYBODY PAYS. Authors Maurice Possley and Rick Kogan describe him as "a swarthy, round-faced man wearing an expensive suit." A cousin of Harry Aleman, Bobby shows up just before Aleman's second trial and convinces Harry, whose previous lawyer had been paid with court funds due to the defendant's claims of indigence, to hire an expensive new attorney, a death penalty specialist from Kentucky.

Bobby knew what it was like to be on trial for his life. He had done 14 years in an Arizona prison (four of them on death row) for hiring a pair of hit men (neither of them Aleman) to kill a Phoenix print shop owner who had refused to do business with the Vegas mob. Bobby was finally acquitted after five trials. Like Harry, Bobby's life's work was also turned into kerosene fuel for the true crime Airbus. The print shop murder was featured in an episode of A&E's City Confidential.

In early December 1997, just days after Aleman was sentenced to 100-300 years, his cousin Bobby Cruz disappeared. The last time anyone saw him he was hanging Christmas lights from his Kildeer, Illinois home.

Authorities assumed he had fled, although his bank accounts and credit cards remained untouched. Two weeks ago that suspicion evaporated when a construction crew in unincorporated DuPage County "came across the body of a man wrapped in tarpaulin and carpet, buried eight-and-a-half feet down." The county coroner identified the body as Bobby Cruz.

The area where the corpse was found had once been described by an FBI informant as a mob burial ground and was near the former home of Chicago Outfit member Jerome "Witherhand" Scalise. Jerome became notorious in 1980 as one of two Chicago mobsters who brazenly stole the priceless "Marlborough Diamond" from a London jewelry store. Undone by the license plate on their rental getaway car (and perhaps also by Scalise's unforgettable and easy-to-spot-in-a-lineup left hand, which was missing four fingers), Scalise and his accomplice were captured on their return to the US, extradited, tried, and imprisoned for nine years even though the diamond has never been recovered.

Scalise is currently serving time in, coincidentally, an Arizona prison on unrelated drug charges.

Some days it just seems like everyone is connected.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

A Season of Renewal

April 2 marked the start of the Cubs and Sox seasons. So what that both the north and south siders went down in flames? there are still 161 games to play; we still can hope.

That same night, we celebrated the beginning of Passover, a time of redemption, celebrating the time when we went out of the house of bondage and into freedom. Every year at our seder, my friends and I wonder what it means to be free, and what we need to do to become free. Every year, we feel the hopefulness of spring, the possibility of peace. In a time like this, with American soldiers dying or coming home maimed to find they have to fight for health care and for benefits, we need all the voices for peace we can muster, and we need stories that move us beyond ourselves.

I found one such story in the March 26 New Yorker. Barbara Hillary, a 75-year-old retired nurse, is trying to become the first African-American woman to reach the North Pole. She's training like mad for her expedition, which takes off in 2 weeks. "Hillary was a nurse for fifty-five years," the New Yorker reports. “I always had dreams of travel,” she said. “But much of travel, as I saw it, was so sheeplike, so John Doe.” In 1992, she decided to take her first trip abroad, alone. (Hillary has never married, and, along with “one, Mind your own business; two, Maintain a sense of humor; and three, Tell an individual to go to hell when it’s needed,” she credits her air of youthfulness to remaining single.) “I looked around for a place that was affordable in air travel yet somehow virginal in terms of stampedes of tourists,” she recalled. She considered Guyana. “When I called the consulate, the woman said, in a very curt manner, ‘Why are you coming to our country?’ And that was the worst thing she could have said. I was Guyana-bound!” Since then, Hillary has dogsledded in Minnesota and travelled to Manitoba to photograph polar bears. London, Paris? “You can go there when you’re propped up in a casket,” she said.

You can read the whole story if you want; it's very engaging. The story doesn't put in a pitch for money, but when I read it, and found the lady was $9,000 short--because the tour group upped the price on her--I wanted to help, so I tracked down the story's author, and found Hillary's address and sent her a check.If you want to help Hillary get to the North Pole, you can send a check to her at P.O. Box 920174, Arverne Station, New York, NY 11692.

Another story of amazing hope and courage is from a very young woman. Ava Lowery just turned 16; she runs a website called "Peace Takes Courage." This young woman from a tiny town in Alabama, who comes from deeply Christian roots, and is home-schooled, has been making extraordinary videos, and extraordinary waves, for over a year. If you visit her site, be sure to watch "WWJD" from her animation archive.

They make me feel hopeful, these two women, Barbara Hillary going to the North Pole, Ava Lowery speaking truth to power. They makes me feel change is possible, that anything is possible--even peace.

Sara Paretsky

Monday, April 02, 2007


Chief among this nation’s public intellectuals must be Professor Stanley Fish, teacher of English and jurisprudence, and author of many books, including Surprised by Sin and How Milton Works.

In addition to his other attributes, Fish is an avid reader of crime fiction, which makes him a saint in my opinion. Last week, in his regular “Guest Column” in the New York Times – a piece that I am told was also on NPR -- Fish spoke about how he chooses a crime novel.

Imagine, he says, you are hurrying to catch a plane and have just a few minutes to grab a novel at a bookstand. What do you use to make a choice? The back-cover copy? No, he says. “Back-cover copy is written by an advertising flack who probably hasn’t read the book.”

We’ve all been on that date, haven’t we?

Blurbs? No. Fish recalls telling a very famous mystery writer that he was correct to have praised a book. The writer said he couldn’t remember the book, might not have read it, and might have been doing a favor for his publisher. “Members of that club, it seems, pass blurbs out to each other like party favors.”

Fish says, “The only thing left – and this is sure-fire – is to read the first sentence.”

He cites a sentence he particularly liked on first reading. And the book proved just as good. “Joel Campbell, eleven years old at the time, began his descent into murder with a bus ride.” This, though Fish does not say so, is from What Came Before He Shot Her by Elizabeth George.

As it happens, mystery listserves for the last couple of weeks have been involved in a thread about what turns readers off in the beginning of a book. Four things have risen to the top of the “I don’t like it” list:

Italics. Readers say italics hurt their eyes, except in very small doses, as for a character’s interior thoughts. If several whole pages at the beginning are italicized, readers may put the book back on the shelf.

Prologues. To many people, prologues don’t seem to be a real part of the book. Several people admitted to skipping over them.

The author trying too hard. Being too cute. Too violent. Too self-conscious. Too whatever.

Flashbacks. Some readers skip over flashbacks. Since the author must have thought the content was important, this is scary.

We’ve all read good flashbacks and prologues. But the upshot of the readers’ responses is a call to caution for writers. Think about it first. And do you really need those italics?