Wednesday, October 31, 2007

James M. Cain and Agatha Christie

By Barbara D'Amato

In grade school, high school, even college, I read fiction without much—or maybe any—sense of the structure that supported it. Even when I was lucky enough to take a course with Vladimir Nabokov, who led us to focus on details, rather than just coast along enjoying the events, I don’t think I had any sense of structure. That didn’t come until I started trying to write.

Structure and narrative technique. In structure and technique James M. Cain and Agatha Christie are very much alike. Not in content, I suppose, although you could make an argument that several of Christie’s villains are like Frank.

As Libby Hellmann mentioned in an earlier post, The Postman Always Rings Twice was the one-conference one-book choice at Magna cum Murder last week in Muncie. I hadn’t read Postman in many, many years and remembered nothing about it. I was surprised to see Christie’s technique in it.

For example, it is told mostly through dialogue, as are Christie’s novels. Both authors are far more “show, don’t tell” than was most fiction of the period.

The sentences are direct, using nothing that a friend of mine used to call “fancy writin.’” Cain can be lyrical in the accumulation of sentences, but like Christie doesn’t go in for Proustian length or complexity.

Or elaborate scene setting. Like Christie, Cain gives you only as much setting as you need. It has been said about Christie that she never includes a scene just for atmosphere or padding. Every scene advances the plot. Cain too.

Both writers are deceptively plain and forthright. Robert Barnard has said about Christie that her writing seems simple, and yet is very subtle. Both authors are so declarative that the reader takes the information as simply true, a useful deception in Christie’s puzzles.

Christie believed a novel should be capable of being read in one day. Cain’s novels can be gobbled in an evening.

James M. Cain and Agatha Christie, siblings under the skin? There’s a scary thought for Halloween.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Book 2.0

by Marcus Sakey

When I do speaking events, a lot of times someone asks a question which, though politely phrased, adds up to, "But aren't books going away some time soon?"

It's a fair question. The publishing system is archaic as hell, built on an expectation of waste. Without getting into the gritty details, bookstores essentially buy everything on consignment; if it doesn't sell, they can return it. Because books take up a lot of space, that means that most of the unsold copies end up pulped. And since selling 50% of the printed copies is considered a moderate success, and print runs are frequently in the hundreds of thousands, we're talking about enormous inefficiency.

The question, though, is how to do better?

One answer is the digital reader, a gizmo that can store a library of books and yet fit in your bag. A couple versions of these exist, but for my money, they are a long, long way from being a solution. Even putting aside the tactile joy of books, a digital reader needs to contend with some serious design challenges: it must be rugged enough to survive the beach, easy on the eyes and yet bright enough to read in broad daylight, with batteries that don't quit--imagine your reader dying in the last ten pages of a thriller--plus being small and light and flexible enough to just tuck in your bag, and, oh yeah, it has to do all that at a really low cost.

Suffice it to say we ain't there yet.

More realistic, I think, might be an integration of print-on-demand technology with physical bookstores. Instead of storing and shipping thousands and thousands of books, publishers could send digital files to bookstores across the globe. These stores could either exist online, or else be more like storefronts, with catalogs, samples, and staff to guide you. You pick what you want, it gets printed on the spot, you're on your way. Obviously, this model is also pretty far off, but it's consistent with what other industries are doing: movies are increasing distributed digitally, and need I say more than iTunes?

It's hard to say what will come next. However, one thing that is often forgotten is that books are just a medium. It's not really books that I love--it's story. It's experiencing someone else's world-view, being scared or cheered or filled with joy, having a moment of grace or a laugh that makes me snort my coffee. And while books are my preferred medium, they aren't the only one.

Plus, new ones are on the way. Take YouTube, which, while still specializing in fart-lighting videos, is also a forum for tremendous satire, as well as fascinating experiments in narrative structure.

Or consider video games; long an arena where the story concerns rarely went further than "those are the bad guys, go shoot them," game designers are beginning to aspire to something higher. If you want an example of what I mean, look no further than BioShock, a morality tale set amidst a crumbling dystopic extension of Ayn Rand's ideas that still allows for the highly enjoyable kicking of great quantities of ass. (For more info on BioShock and its impact, check out my brother Matt's review of it here--even if you don't game, Matt's article is worth reading.)

What do you think? Would you read a book on a digital reader? If not, what would need to change so you would? Or does it not matter, since story will always find a way?

What do you think Book 2.0 will look like?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

No Maybe About it. The Enemy is us.


Last Sunday’s Tribune had an article about the tax mess in Chicago, Cook County, and Illinois. Previously, elected officials haven’t suffered any consequences from voter anger about post-election tax hikes, so current offenders know that if they raise taxes now, they can count on voters cooling off before the next election. People who chew out private sector providers when they don’t get good service don’t bother to vote out the lawmakers who treat them with such contempt. People who can rattle off stats on their favorite teams—going back to 1900—don’t know who represents them (read: works for them; spends their money; sends their kids to war) at any level of government. What kind of crazy is that?

There was a Cook County Sheriff’s Deputy wearing his billed cap in court the other day in violation of the judicial order (posted at the court house door) prohibiting hat wearing in the building. I seemed to be the only one who noticed. The judge didn’t care, apparently, and if the deputy’s sergeant—who was also present—noticed, she didn’t do anything about it. I’ve seen this deputy tell others to take their hats off. His double standard didn’t make me like or respect him or his supervisor or his department.

The deputy isn’t even a good example of the problem—too exceptional.

Our civility and respect for law, as well as other people’s rights or comfort has died a death of a thousand cuts. People who wouldn’t dream of holding up a liquor store steal copyrighted music or movies, claim other people’s writing as their own or tolerate plagiarism when others do it. (Isn’t Glenn Poshard still on the Board of Trustees at SIU?) How many times have you heard someone brag about how he cheated an insurance company? How often do you see someone cut in line? Isn’t that stealing the time of those who got there first?

Bad drivers are endemic. (Or is it epidemic given the crash rate?) Most of us consider the posted speed a math exercise—add 15 to get the real, enforceable limit. In Chicago, where phoning while driving is illegal, it seems every other motorist has his cell plugged into his ear—especially cabbies. And who really stops at stop signs? Or even red lights? We don’t ask ourselves if tailgating actually gets us there faster, or think about how really late we’ll be if a cop stops us or we get in a crash. Mostly we don’t really think. Or more specifically, we don’t ask ourselves “How would you feel if...?”

How would you feel if someone cut in line in front of you?

How would you feel if someone treated you as curtly as you’re treating that sales person or telephone operator?

How would you feel if your rush to get there yesterday resulted in a deadly traffic crash?

That’s my take. What’s yours?

Great First Lines (and a contest!)

By Sean Chercover

NOTE: At the end of this post, I’m giving away prizes. Yes, prizes!

At a recent lit conference, the conversation among writers in the bar turned to great opening lines. Not, “Hey baby, what’s your sign?” opening lines, but opening lines of novels.

Writers love to talk about opening lines. What makes a great first sentence, what grabs the reader . . . or what is likely to make the reader close the book, put it back on the shelf and reach for another.

I’ve noticed a recent trend toward such whiz-bang first lines as:

“The bullet slammed into Joe Smith’s chest and threw him against the wall.”

“The safety line snapped and Jane Brown fell away from the rock-face and plunged toward the canyon floor.”

“Just as the man entered the bank, his head exploded.”

Okay, I made those up. But I’ve seen many that are just as bad. Full of action and danger, but ultimately boring as hell. I don’t care about Joe Smith or Jane Brown or the man with the exploding head. I haven’t even met them yet.

Here are some great first lines, pulled from the nearest bookshelf:

“Nothing is so sad as an empty amusement park.” - Soul Patch, by Reed Farrel Coleman.

“What do you do with an old madam when she’s peddled her last pound of flesh?” - Retro, by Loren Estleman

“Much later, as he sat with his back against an inside wall of a Motel 6 just north of Phoenix, watching the pool of blood lap toward him, Driver would wonder whether he had made a terrible mistake.” - Drive, by James Sallis

“It surprised him, how light she was.” - In This Rain, by S.J. Rozan

“When I was a kid, my favorite book was Horton Hears A Who, and, like most kids, I wanted to hear it over and over and over again.” - No Good Deeds, by Laura Lippman

“Gold was up 2 percent the morning that Benjamin Raab’s life began to fall apart.” - The Blue Zone, by Andrew Gross

“Calderon figured that, on this night, he had to be the only chauffeur at Los Angeles International Airport who was picking up a dying boy.” - Stigma, by Philip Hawley, Jr.

“It’s hard to get lost when you’re coming home from work.” - Blonde Faith, by Walter Mosley

And finally, one that always gets me, no matter how many times I've read it:

“Because Lydia didn’t have arms or legs, she shelled out three thousand bucks to a washed up middleweight named Cap to give her ex-husband the beating of his life.” - Psychosomantic, by Anthony Neil Smith

These are all fantastic opening lines, I think, because they are written in a distinctive and authentic voice. And nothing hooks me as strongly as voice. These lines convey a mood, but more than that, they convey an attitude, they hint at a world-view. And they make me want to know more about the characters.

The bad examples I wrote above are written without any distinctive voice. They convey no distinctive attitude, and they fail to breathe life into the characters. They seem gimmicky, a cheap (and even a little desperate) attempt to try and grab the reader by the collar. The only mood they covey is, “Look Out!”

And a distinctive voice does more than just hook me. It also assures me that I’m in good hands, that the writer is confident in his or her ability to take me into a fictional world for a few hundred pages and keep me there. That the characters I’m going to meet along the way will be fleshed out and three dimensional.

So what do you look for in an opening line? Does voice matter to you, or do you want to get straight to the action?

Share with us, some of your favorite opening lines. Not the one's you're writing (we already did that post) but from books already published.

BONUS: The first person who posts the opening line from James Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss, wins a prize. I don’t have my copy handy, and I don’t want to misquote it. I’m not telling what the prize is, but you’ll like it. And another prize to the person who posts the best opening line (other than Crumley’s), as determined by, well, me.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Titles, Blackwater, and more

by Libby Hellmann

I’m going to a conference next weekend in Muncie,Indiana, and the organizers chose James Cain’s THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE as their “one book, one conference” theme. What a fabulous choice! The writing is spare yet elegant, the characters are layered and nuanced, and the twist at the end makes it one of the best examples of noir ever written. I think I’ve read it 3 times now, and I still savor it.

But what I didn’t know until recently is the genesis of the title. In a biography of James Cain written by Roy Hoopes, Hoopes says Cain originally titled Postman “Bar-B-Que.” His publisher, Alfred Knopf, objected and suggested “For Love of Money” instead. (a snort, snide comment or other reaction is appropriate, especially for anyone whose publisher has changed their title). Cain didn't like it either, and it was only in a conversation with playwright and screenwriter Vincent Lawrence, that the Postman title was conceived. Here are Cain’s words, from his preface to DOUBLE INDEMNITY, another noir classic, that I found on Wikipedia:

We were talking one day, about the time he had mailed a play, his first, to a producer. Then, he said, "I almost went nuts. I'd sit and watch for the postman, and then I'd think, 'You got to cut this out,' and then when I left the window I'd be listening for his ring. How I'd know it was the postman was that he'd always ring twice."
He went on with more of the harrowing tale, but I cut in on him suddenly. I said: "Vincent, I think you've given me a title for that book."
"What's that?"
"The Postman Always Rings Twice."
"Say, he rang twice for Chambers, didn't he?"
"That's the idea."
"And on that second ring, Chambers had to answer, didn't he? Couldn't hide out in the backyard any more."
"His number was up, I'd say."
"I like it."
"Then, that's it."

I’m just starting a new book, as yet untitled. So, I’m curious…What do you look for in a title? What should it do or not do? What is the best book title you’ve ever seen? What’s the worst? What about one-word titles? Cool…or pretentious?


One of the best parts about being a writer is doing research. Because of the subject matter of my new novel, Sean Chercover recommended Blackwater by Jeremy Scahill. (Thanks, Sean)

I’m only 100 pages in but I’m scared. I didnt know Erik Prince was an evangelical Christian. (He converted to Catholicism, but still supports the religious right...)But what really disturbs me is his claim, according to Scahill, that his mercenaries have immunity from both international and domestic law. Because Blackwater is a private military, Prince claims they should not be accountable under international or military law. At the same time, because they are part of “The Fight,” they should be exempt from domestic US law. So far, up until September, he was able to play both ends against the middle.

Hmm… a private army, devoted to some higher power, that considers itself above the law… Can you say “Brownshirts?” By the way, for more about Prince's connections and war profiteering activities, check out Frank Rich's column in Sunday's New York Times.


On a lighter note, because I’m usually in the middle of several books at once, I want to give another shout-out to SIN AND THE SECOND CITY, Karen Abbott’s book about the Everleigh sisters and their high-class Chicago brothel. I mentioned it a few months ago, and it’s every bit as charming as I’d hoped it would be. Abbott paints Chicago at the turn of century in fine detail, and her prose is so lyrical you’d think you were reading fiction.

I’m also making my way through Michael Harvey’s THE CHICAGO WAY. It’s an easy read, and, despite one glaring mistake, I’m enjoying Michael Kelly. Then there’s CALUMET CITY, due out next March by Charlie Newton, which features a hard-bitten female Chicago cop. The first page grabbed me.

I’m also looking forward to BLEEDING KANSAS, by Outfit member Sara Paretsky, out in January, and Outfitter Marcus Sakey’s AT THE CITY’S EDGE, also in January.

Finally, I’m told there are some minor distribution glitches with CHICAGO BLUES. You should see it in all Chicago stores within a week or so, but if you need to get your hands on a copy now, go to any of the Chicagoland Borders. They did a very generous buy, and many of their copies are signed.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Naivete and Speed Make a Great Combination

By Kevin Guilfoile

"It didn't work. I want to die. You don't understand. I want to be dead."

Those were words allegedly spoken to paramedics by Jeanette Sliwinski, the 23-year-old Chicago model who two years ago drove her red Mustang convertible at almost 90 miles an hour into the back of a Honda Civic, killing three Chicago musicians on their way to lunch. Sliwinski's trial began this week and it's not an underreported story, at least not around here. The papers are giving it prime space. The blogs are all over it. The local television stations have reporters at the Skokie courthouse. Even the national networks have nosed into the proceedings because of the bizarre nature of the charges and also, undoubtedly, because the defendant is as easy on the eyes as she is hard to stomach. There really shouldn't be much for me to add.

Except that Jeanette Sliwinski murdered my friend.

We have a tendency to sentimentalize the character of the unfairly and prematurely dead, but I could produce a hundred witnesses to tell you that Doug Meis wasn't a guy you even had to know well before you grew to love him. You only had to watch him play the drums. He always had this incredible look, this incredible, transparent look of undiluted joy on his face. His elbows moved around his hands in these wild and joyous, concentric and eccentric orbits. Whenever I brought someone to see the band Exo play for the first time, they always said the same thing to me during the rare silence--God, I can't take my eyes off that drummer! It was impossible to watch Doug play and not know how much fun he was having. And it was impossible to be around him and not have that much fun.

On the morning of July 14, 2005, Jeanette Sliwinski got into a fight with her mother and climbed into her sports car with a bottle of gin and the intention to kill herself. But she wasn't only going to kill herself. She was going to do it in a way that would punish her mother and everyone else that had made her life so unbearably unhappy. Her suicide was going to be a spectacular one. She would kill herself violently. She would kill other people in the process. It would be on the television. In the newspapers. And the long list of people who had wronged Jeanette Sliwinski would have to live with all that blood and destruction forever on their consciences.

Her first thought was to drive into a train, but when she got to the tracks there was no train there. Angry and determined, she pushed the accelerator to the floor. She ran through one red light. A second. A third. Her life would end when something, and hopefully someone, stopped her car.

Michael Dahlquist, John Glick, and Doug Meis had just left the offices of Shure Microphones to get a bite for lunch. They were stopped at a red light on Dempster, waiting to make a left hand turn toward Wendy's.

Sliwinski spotted the rear of their car, retargeted her eight-cylinder missile, and gunned it.

According to Sliwinski's interpretation of the vague, unwritten laws in her head, maybe she thought this couldn't be a homicide. At the moment Sliwinski decided she would never again press the brake of her car, she had never seen Michael Dahlquist, John Glick, or Doug Meis. In the tiny universe with Jeanette Sliwinski at its center, these individuals didn't exist any more than a city in China she'd never heard of. How could she kill someone who wasn't alive? This was the brilliance of her plan. At the very moment these men would enter the plane of her existence, Jeanette Sliwinski would leave it. Her mother and all her other enemies would feel the anguish of the dead she would leave behind, but Jeanette never would.

She would be out of there.

Sliwinski's lawyers are going to try to spin her pathological narcissism as insanity. They've asked for a bench trial, probably deciding that between the testimony of appalled witnesses and the grief of the victims' families and the inevitable slide show of the defendant's glamour shots, she would never get a moment's sympathy from a midwestern jury. Instead they will put five psychologists on a full court press, trying to hang their hopes on a judge's interpretation of insanity law.

But Jeanette was not temporarily delusional, as her lawyers will claim. In fact her plan unfolded almost exactly as she imagined it would. There was violence. Blood. Death. Destruction. Headlines. Her mother was shocked, shamed, humbled, and humiliated. The only part of her scheme that didn't come together perfectly is that she wasn't crushed to death. In accordance with one of God's favorite jokes, she only fractured her ankle. The impact had injected the endless, incurable pain and sorrow of other people's suffering into her own soul, not somebody else's. And now she has forever to think about how good her life used to be.

After hearing the deafening crash, the manager of a nearby mattress store ran out into the street, a demonstration pillow still in his hands. He saw Sliwinski's overturned car, with the model's slightly injured foot sticking out the window. The lifeless body of one of her victims was splayed on the nearby concrete.

"Get me out of here!" he heard Sliwinski demand.

No, Jeanette. You're stuck here with the grieving rest of us.

UPDATE: Jeanette Sliwinski was found guilty, but mentally ill, of three counts of reckless homicide and one count of aggravated battery, lesser charges than the three counts of first-degree murder sought by the prosecution. Sentencing will be November 26. Channel 7 says she faces a maximum of ten years. The Associated Press says a maximum of five.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

A Crime Writer's Essential Reading List

Some time back, I moderated a panel with two other crime writers. It just so happened the gig fell on the 75th anniversary of the publication of The Maltese Falcon. I asked my team how The Falcon had affected their own writing, and both of them brightly said they'd never read the book. These are two Times list-leading noir writers. I was a little surprised, but I like both of them, so I'm not going to out them here. Besides, every time I'm with Gary Phillips and Gary Niebuhr, and they start talking about noir, I realize how woefully deficient my own reading is. For instance, Cornell Woolrich is a blank to me as are Jim Thompson, Hunter S. Thompson, and William Burroughs. I've read Anna Katherine Green, Sherlock Holmes, and Carroll John Daly, who created the very first hard-boiled detective in Race Williams. I'm not going to say any of those are essential for a crime writer, but I do happen to believe anyone writing the P I novel ought to read Hammett, Chandler, and Ross MacDonald.

Okay, how about you? What's your essential reading list for the knowledgeable crime writer?

Monday, October 15, 2007

What in the World is Extradition?

by Barbara D'Amato

With all the extradition issues wound into the slaying of Dr. Cornbleet and the fleeing of Peterson to a French jurisdiction, I realized I didn’t know the first thing about extradition. So I consulted and came up with Anthony D’Amato, a professor of law at Northwestern University, who specializes in international law and jurisprudence, the philosophy of law. He was kind enough to give me an overview.

Anthony D’Amato:

Extradition is one of the oldest practices of states. The ancient Hittites entered into elaborate extradition treaties written on bronze tablets. (Every one of those tablets was subsequently melted down, but the clay molds were preserved—as if today someone threw out all the original letters but kept the carbon paper).

Crimes back then, as they still mostly are today, were territorial. If someone committed murder in state A and fled to state B, there would be no law in state B that applied to his act. Hence he would have a safe harbor. But say the king of state A wanted the murderer to be brought back and executed. Fortunately, the king of B had a mirror-image interest in bringing back fugitives who had committed their crimes in the territory of B. Thus the conditions were ripe for treaties. The king of A pledged to arrest and transport fugitives back to state B, and the king of B agreed to do the same thing regarding fugitives who committed their crimes in state A.

The fugitives who were wanted the most were the ones who had committed political crimes, such as assassinations of government officials. Extraditing those fugitives was a prime motivation for entering into extradition treaties. On the other side of the coin, states were reluctant to extradite their own citizens. Suppose a citizen of A enters into B, kills someone there, and then runs back to A. His family and friends would protest his being extradited to state B where he would probably be executed for murder. Moreover, they could claim that state B had trumped up evidence against the citizen of A.

Today, extradition treaties sometimes exempt nationals (citizens) from being extradited. The extradition treaty between the United States and France has a curious article. It provides that France has no obligation to extradite its own citizen to the United States to stand trial for a murder committed in the United States. It also provides that if France wants to extradite an American for a murder committed in France, the United States has the discretion either to extradite or not to extradite that person.

The history of political extradition in international law would not have been imagined by the most visionary Hittite. In the nineteenth century following the American and French revolutions, people began to realize that political crimes and offenses were often necessary to rid a country of despotic rulers. If a ‘freedom fighter’ who shot a government official in A fled to B, obviously the government of A would desperately want him back to be tried for treason. The fugitive asked the government of B for asylum. And various nations in B’s position for various reasons did grant asylum. In Latin America, where changes of government by assassination seemed to exceed (in the popular imagination) changes of government by election, a strong rule in favor of asylum developed where escaping revolutionaries were granted asylum almost as a matter of course.

The ‘political offense exception’ to extradition took root, and found itself spelled out in numerous extradition treaties. Ironically it was the United States and Great Britain in 2003 who retreated from the political offense exception. Great Britain had been furious that several American courts refused to approve extradition for alleged Irish terrorists who claimed their acts (including bombs) were politically motivated. The Supplemental Extradition Treaty of 2003 removed the political offense exception for acts involving violence or weapons.

And almost as an afterthought, the 2003 treaty also removed the nationality exception to extradition.

What about extradition of persons to tribunals in The Hague who are accused of committing war crimes or genocide? Since these are crimes under international law, and since international law applies everywhere, the particular law of the territory in which the crime took place is irrelevant. Hence the accused persons have no safe harbor. They are subject to what is called universal jurisdiction. Technically speaking they are not extradited to The Hague but rather are remitted there.

Barbara, Back again:

This is a thumbnail. All the books written on extradition laid end to end [don’t make jokes having to do with killing lawyers] would reach from here to Seahawks Stadium. Realizing this, Tony has said he would respond to questions on the subject.

Friday, October 12, 2007

That Academy Award is Gone, Baby, Gone

by Marcus Sakey

As everybody who reads my stuff probably knows, I admire the work of novelist Dennis Lehane. He's most famous for Mystic River; since then, he's released a novel and a collection of short stories, both dynamite, and has been writing for HBO's The Wire, arguably the most important television program of the last decade. But like many of his fans, I came to know him first through a series of PI novels featuring two Boston detectives, Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro.

Patrick and Angie are great characters, and the blue-collar Boston they wander through is beautifully evoked. More importantly, like the best of any fiction, there's the story, and then there's the point, and in the course of their investigations, Lehane's private eyes wrestle with issues ranging from political corruption to gang warfare to child abuse. It's a terrific series, gritty and intelligent.

So two or three years ago, when I read that the film rights to Gone, Baby, Gone, one of the best of the bunch, had been bought by Miramax, I was excited. And I was even more excited to learn that the company that would be producing, LivePlanet, was founded by Ben Affleck. Besides starring in the occasional movie — maybe you've seen him? — Affleck is a great writer and a diehard Boston boy, so I figured if anybody could get it right, it was him.

Well, on Wednesday, I had the opportunity to catch the Chicago premiere at the Music Box. And I'm here to tell you, he more than got it right. He knocked it out of the park. We're talking little-gold-statue knocked it out. Relentlessly intelligent, morally uncompromising, and gripping as hell. The direction is gorgeous. The screenwriting is impeccable. Casey Affleck absolutely kills as Patrick Kenzie, not an easy feat when your co-stars include Ed Harris, Michelle Monaghan, and Morgan Freeman.

All of which made me happy for a couple of reasons. But the biggest is this: last week, LivePlanet and Miramax bought the film rights to my first novel. Affleck is slated to produce, and Aaron Stockard, who co-wrote Gone, Baby, Gone, is going to be doing the adaptation.

Suffice it to say there's been a lot of happy jumping around at Casa Sakey.

Of course, there are a million steps between here and there. But whether or not things work, I couldn't be more thrilled with the deal, and the people involved. I was excited before I saw the film; now I'm straight giddy.

And I promise, my take on Gone, Baby, Gone wasn't skewed even a little bit. It really is that good. The film opens October 19th--if you like intense dramas that engage both brain and balls, I can't recommend it highly enough.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The Bare Facts of the Case

by Michael Dymmoch

“I think my kid’s in there.”

Sergeant Norma McLaughlin looked as perturbed as anyone had ever seen her. A twenty-three year veteran of the CPD, she was as tough as any man in the 19th District. She was five-five and couldn’t have weighed more than 140 pounds in full gear. Her usually serene face was dark with anger.

Her lieutenant, Andy Nowicki, said, “Yeah. We’re gonna get him out.” He kept his voice low but didn’t’ have to whisper. Thrash metal music leaked into the hall from behind the apartment door.

Then Nowicki seemed to realize who Mclaughlin was. “Jesus! How’d you hear about this?”

“It’s all over the air. You think I don’t recognize my son’s address?”

Nowicki nodded. “SWAT and the hostage negotiator’ll be here shortly.”

“How’s that gonna help? You don’t know what’s going on in there. You don’t even know how many are in there.”

“We’re workin’ on that.” Nowicki turned to one of the beat cops. “The doorman call the other tenants?”

“Yeah,” the copper said. “Told ‘em to stay in their units no matter what.”

“Not good enough,” McLaughlin told Nowicki. “I’m not gonna stand here with my thumb up my ass. I’m going in.”

“No, you’re not. You’re not a negotiator, Sergeant. And we’re not gonna spook those guys and have them start shooting. Or give them any more hostages.”

“I won’t spook ‘em. I’ll go in and find out how many there are and let you know.”

“No!” He looked around, spotted a female officer waiting down the hall for orders. He crooked his finger at her.

The officer came forward and waited.

“Take Sergeant McLaughlin back to her unit and wait with her.”

The uniform nodded uncomfortably, and waved down the hall in the direction of the elevator. “Sarge.”

McLaughlin looked ready to do murder but didn’t argue as the beat cop moved between her and hers son’s apartment. They walked to the elevator. The beat cop pressed the down button. As they waited for the car, McLaughlin glanced around wildly—up and down the hall, into the garbage can next to the door.

The elevator opened. McLaughlin ignored it, sprang forward to snatch an empty beer bottle out of the can. She turned back toward Nowicki and the two beat cops waiting out of sight of the apartment door’s peephole.

“I got an idea.”

She shoved the bottle at the police woman, “Hold this,” and raced back toward the others.

As the beat cops jumped to head her off, she unbuckled her service belt and dropped it, stripped off her safety vest and kicked off her boots. She started unbuttoning her shirt.

“What the hell are you doing?” Nowicki whispered.

She planted a heel on the toe of her opposite sock and lifted the foot to pull the sock off. When the lieutenant reached for her arm, she tossed her shirt in his face. Pulling her bra off overhead, she charged the police woman who’d followed her, still holding the empty bottle.

The police woman grabbed at her and had the bra shoved into her hand. The other cops froze in disbelief. Or horror at seeing a veteran officer lose it suddenly.

McLaughlin dropped her trousers and stepped out of them. She grabbed the bottle from the horrified policewoman and reversed course, dodging between the stupefied coppers like Thomas Jones running the ball on a good day.

“Stay outta sight,” she demanded.

McLaughlin wasn’t fat, but she was in her forties. Her skin hung loose in places, stretch marked and patchy. Ample breasts sagged over a thickened midriff; hips and thighs were dimpled with cellulite.

When she reached her son’s apartment, she shifted her grip on the bottle and pounded on the door. “Turn down the damn noise!” She sounded drunk. She looked smashed or deranged as she swayed unsteadily in front of the peephole in only her briefs.

Nowicki sucked a breath in through his mouth and forgot to let it out. The male coppers stood flat-footed and slack-jawed.

“Come on, turn that shit down! “McLaughlin could probably be heard in the lobby downstairs. “Knock it off! Or at least play something decent!” She started pounding on the door again.

The coppers closest to her flattened themselves against the wall, hiding from peep hole.

Suddenly the door flew open. Before whoever was behind it could react, McLaughlin staggered forward, forcing him to back up to avoid a collision.

“You bastards gotta turn down the stereo.” She waved the bottle overhead, swinging it to her left as she stumbled across the threshold.

The cops in the doorway used the distraction to charge in behind her, Nowicki brought up the rear.

* * *

“Tell me what happened in your own words, son,” Nowicki said.

A wagon crew had transported the offenders to Western and Belmont; the beat coppers were stationed in the hall. The tiny studio apartment was crowded with Nowicki and McLaughlin on the couch—McLaughlin wrapped in a blanket, and the two freed hostages—a twenty something couple—sharing a chair opposite. An evidence technician was processing the bathroom. McLaughlin’s clothes and duty belt lay in a neat pile just inside the apartment door.

The kid—who, mercifully, was not McLaughlin’s son—swallowed and said, “This guy knocked on the door and said he had our pizza.” He looked at Nowicki. “When I opened the door to tell him we didn’t order any, he forced his way in. He put a gun in my face and told me to get his drugs.”

He glanced at McLaughlin—not his mother, but…. He blushed and glanced away. “I swear to God, I don’t know what he was talking about. The only drugs we do are Old Style and MGD.”

McLaughlin smiled encouragingly. Nowicki nodded. “Go on.”

“Then she—“ He nodded toward his girlfriend who was cradling a steaming coffee mug in both hands as she shivered in her seat. “…Came out of the bathroom and saw the gun and ran back in. She must’ve called 911. On her cell.”

The girlfriend nodded her confirmation.

The young man stared at the girl until the detective said, “Then what happened?”

“He ran over and kicked in the door. Dragged her out.”

“I hid the cell,” the girl said.

“I told them we don’t even live here, that we’re just visiting.”

“They started screaming at us,” the girl added, “calling us liars.”

The kid went on. “I knew we had to stall ‘til the police got here, so I told them Mike’d be back in an hour.”

“Will he?” Mike’s mother asked.

The kid twitched. “He’s at work.”

“Why’d these guys think you had their drugs?” Nowicki demanded.

The kid shrugged—too casual to be lying. “Probably got the wrong apartment. The guys next door party all the time.” He started chewing on a fingernail.

“Go on.”

The kid shrugged again, dropped his hands to his knees. “They said, ‘We’ll wait.’”

“Then we heard pounding on the door and yelling. They thought it was the cops at first. But one of ‘em said, ‘No, the cops’d just break down the door.’ The other one said, ‘Go see who it is.’ And the first one did.” The kid stared at his knees.

“And then?” Nowicki prodded.

The kid blushed. “The guy said, ‘It’s some drunk naked broad.’ The other one said, ‘Tell her to shut the fuck up and get lost.’” The kid looked at Nowicki. “When the guy opened the door, she…” He pointed at McLaughlin without looking at her. “…Sort of fell through the doorway. And— You know the rest.”

McLaughlin leaned toward him. “Tell us about these guys next door.”

The kid shrugged again. “They have loud parties. Sometimes people knock on Mike’s door by mistake.”

Janet added, “He’s complained to the doorman, but nobody does anything about them.”

McLaughlin smiled at her. “Maybe someone will now.”

The evidence tech came out and said, “All yours.” He started packing up his gear.

Nowicki looked at McLaughlin and hooked his thumb toward the bathroom. “You can get dressed now.”

She gave him a look and headed toward the pile of her clothes.

“Oh, and Sergeant—”

She stopped and waited.

“I’m gonna let you write this one up.”

* * *
© 2007 MADymmoch

Monday, October 08, 2007

Cornbleet Murder Case Media Alert

For Outfit readers who have been following the case, this week Channel 5 in Chicago ran parts of an interview with Hans Peterson's father, Dr. Thomas Peterson, which was taped for an upcoming edition of Dateline NBC:

"There are multiple victims and multiple villains. I feel that one of the victims is Dr. Cornbleet and one of the villains is Dr. Cornbleet. One of the victims is Hans Peterson and one of the villains is Hans Peterson."

Here is part two of the NBC interview which explores the Accutane angle in slightly more depth and includes a response from the victim's son, Jon Cornbleet.

Chicago's ABC affiliate (WLS, Channel 7) also ran an interview with Dr. Peterson. That piece includes a statement from Dr. Douglas Bremner, the Director of the Emory University Clinical Neuroscience Research Institute, who performed a brain imaging study a few years back that claims to show that Accutane has an effect on the orbitofrontal cortex.

If you're confused by the conflicting scientific claims made about the risks of Accutane (also known as Isotretinoin), here is a good explanation of why you're confused, referencing Bremner's study, a more recent study which shows no link between the drug and depression, and another that calls for more studies. If I understand it correctly, Bremner's study showed how Accutane might be linked to depression, but it did not actually show a cause-and-effect relationship:

Dr. Bremner explains that to invoke depression, isotretinoin must influence the brain. During the investigation, brain function of the subjects was measured using positron emission tomography (PET) before and after four months of treatment with isotretinoin. Isotretinoin treatment was associated with decreased brain metabolism in the orbitofrontal cortex- the area of the brain known to mediate symptoms of depression. Yet, there were no differences in severity of depressive symptoms between the isotretinoin and antibiotic treatment groups before or after treatment.

The local CBS station (WBBM, Channel 2), includes some quotes from an interview with Dr. Peterson on its web site, but has no video.

UPDATE: The local papers all have updates on the anniversary of Dr. Cornbleet's murder.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Read Banned Books. . .

By Sean Chercover

Ah, the familiar signs of autumn’s gentle approach . . . children playing in the schoolyard . . . the slight chill in the night air . . . the woodsy smell of burning books . . .

Leaves. I mean burning leaves, of course. After all, what kind of idiot would burn books? Probably the same kind of idiot who would try to ban books. The kind of idiot who would demand that libraries and schools and bookstores limit your reading options to only those books that do not threaten said idiot’s worldview.

Yes, it’s Banned Books Week once again, and I’m gonna jump up and down and wave my hands about it, like I do every year. The mouth-breathers haven’t stopped trying to control what we can read, so we can’t stop either. Eternal vigilance, and all that jazz…

The thing is, thousands of groups of our fellow citizens want to “protect” the rest of us from ideas that they have deemed Evil. As you might expect, these Evil Ideas are found in Very Dangerous Books. And our self-appointed moral guardians run around demanding that these Dangerous Books be banned from public libraries and school libraries. And the really frightening thing is, their efforts sometimes meet with success.

From 2000-2005, there were over 3,000 organized attempts to remove books from schools and public libraries. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Harry Potter novels topped the list of evil books. Also in the top ten were Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou.

Here are a few more titles, from the top-100 challenged books (1990-2000):

To Kill A Mockingbird

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Native Son

Of Mice And Men


The Catcher In The Rye

In The Night Kitchen (really)

The Color Purple

Brave New World

The Outsiders

James And The Giant Peach

Ordinary People

Lord of The Flies

Song Of Solomon

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Sponsored by the American Library Association, the American Booksellers Association, the Association of American Publishers, The Office for Intellectual Freedom, and a handful of other fine organizations (and endorsed by the Library of Congress), Banned Books Week attempts to draw our attention to an ongoing threat to our intellectual freedom.

So please follow the links in this post, and read Banned Books Week section of the ALA website.

And unless you have something better planned this week, (like, say, burning a witch, or using the constitution for toilet paper) please consider stopping by your local library and checking out a couple of the books on the list.

Free People Read Freely.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

I Was a Lonely Boy, I'm Not the Only Boy

By Kevin Guilfoile

While reading coverage of the Cornbleet murder in The Daily Herald, a newspaper from the island of St. Martin, I came across this startling sentence:

(Hans Peterson) reportedly inflicted major lacerations on the dermatologist’s hands and feet and then cauterized the wounds with a blow torch before stabbing him to death with a knife.

I had seen it alleged in other foreign reports that Peterson used a blowtorch in his murder of Dr. Cornbleet last October, but I have never read that claim in the American press.

That's probably because it's not true. Not exactly.

I'm told that Peterson confessed to investigators that he brought a blowtorch with him to Dr. Cornbleet's office with the intention of torturing the physician by cutting his hands and feet and then cauterizing the wounds so he wouldn't lose too much blood. This would have kept Dr. Cornbleet alive for as long as possible so that Peterson could cruelly prolong his suffering. But Peterson couldn't follow through with that part of his plan and he described to authorities the reason why.

More on that in a minute, because it touches on a subject we've discussed recently here at The Outfit.

[If you're unfamiliar with the Cornbleet murder case, in which a Chicago dermatologist was brutally stabbed to death by a former patient because the patient believed he was suffering permanent side effects from a prescribed anti-acne medication, start at the bottom and read up.]

Immediately, it struck me that this idea--cutting into the hands and feet and then cauterizing them--didn't occur to Hans a priori. He had to have heard of someone doing that before. I can only speculate, but I know of at least one popular movie--Tony Scott's version of Man on Fire--in which Denzel Washington does something similar to a man's hands with a cigarette lighter during an interrogation. There is also a more obscure film from the late 90s called Thursday. I haven't seen it but here is a monologue from one scene according to IMDb (bold emphasis mine):

BILLY HILL: Well, I ain't gonna s*** ya, pal. When I leave here today, you're gonna be dead as Cinderella over there. Regardless of what you tell me, I'm gonna f*** you up. [opens his bag and takes out a battery-powered circular saw; turns on the saw and holds it in front of Casey's face] YOU READY TO GET STARTED? [turns off the saw] I know you threw out the smack. And you probly don't know where the money is, neither. That's cool. Tho the truth is... I ain't got nothin' better to do, while I wait here for my old friend Nick. [reaching in his bag] Just so you know, I ain't gonna let you bleed to death. [takes out a blow-torch] No, sir. Cuz when I cut you... [turns on the blow-torch] I'm gonna cauterize it. I consider myself an artist. Matter of fact, I picked up this little girl at this club one time... and I cut on her for 16 hours. That's a personal best, but... I keep hoping... [turns on the saw] Alright, now, let's see. I think I'm gonna start at the feet, AND WORK MY WAY UP!

I have no idea if Hans has seen either film, of course.

I have been told, however, that Hans was a big fan of the Showtime series Dexter (based on a series of novels by Jeff Lindsay). I would never suggest that Dexter, or any other television program, caused Hans to become a killer. But Dexter premiered just three weeks before the murder and it's obvious why the character of Dexter Morgan--a serial killer who only kills villainous people--must have appealed to Hans, who rationalized his savagery by claiming that he was somehow a victim of Dr. Cornbleet's greed.

(There will probably be a lengthier post on this in the future, but I should note here that Peterson's assertion that Dr. Cornbleet prescribed him Accutane because he was desperate for patients and wanted Hans to make the mandatory follow-up visits is not only absurd on its face, but refuted by evidence that Dr. Cornbleet had a thriving practice and regularly saw more than 100 patients a week.)

But back to Peterson's confession. Hans allegedly told St. Martin police that he did not use the blowtorch on Dr. Cornbleet because killing a human being turned out to be a lot harder than he thought it would be. Dr. Cornbleet was in fine shape for a man of his age. He fought back. Hans ended up punched and bloodied himself. It took all of Peterson's attention and energy just to subdue Dr. Cornbleet. He had nothing left for extracurricular activity.

In the surveillance video from the night of the murder we see Peterson leaving the office building, covering his face with a sweatshirt and, according to one witness, apparently bleeding from the nose.

Last week Libby wrote an eloquent post about the proliferation of violent images in the media and the difficulty we all have determining which depictions are edifying and which are gratuitous. I don't believe that such images caused Hans Peterson to kill and I won't play psychiatrist and pretend I understand the forces, internal and external, that drove him to that madness. But when it came time to actually murder someone at close range, with his own hands, Peterson discovered that violent scenes on television and in movies and video games (and novels, too) had deceived him. He was completely unprepared for the intensity and the struggle and the blood and the chaos. The motion. The smell. The sound. Real murder was nothing like the movies.

In the first episode of Hans's favorite television series, Dexter Morgan, who is not only a serial killer but also a forensics technician, admires a crime scene (not his) that is mysteriously free of blood splatter. He thinks to himself in a voiceover, "No blood. No sticky, hot, messy, awful blood. No blood at all. What a beautiful idea!"

And not possible except on cable TV.

UPDATE: The Cornbleet family has provided a link that will direct you to the US State Department's web site. There you can send a message directly to the Secretary of State (as Senators Obama and Durbin have done) requesting that she continue to put pressure on her counterparts in the French government for the extradition of Hans Peterson to the United States.

UPDATE 2: "There are multiple victims and multiple villains. I feel that one of the victims is Dr. Cornbleet and one of the villains is Dr. Cornbleet. One of the victims is Hans Peterson and one of the villains is Hans Peterson." Channel 5 in Chicago has posted part of an interview with Hans Peterson's father recorded for an upcoming feature for Dateline NBC. They will be running more of the interview on the news tonight, as well as a reaction from Dr. Cornbleet's son, Jon.