Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Happy New Year

In the past, my resolutions have all been selfish: to grow in my craft, to shrink in my abdomen--I want to fit into those jeans I bought 10 pounds ago--to find more light, less kvetching.  And so on.  This year, I decided to make more altruistic resolutions:

1.  I resolve that Dick Cheney will go to prison in 2009 for war crimes and his estate be distributed among homeless Iraq/Afghani war veterans.

2.  I vow that Karl Rove and George Bush will walk chained together through the streets of Dallas, wearing nothing but their cowboy hats, carrying placards that read "He/I am a horse's patootie."

3.  I resolve that Barack will fix the economy by May 1, and include universal health care coverage.

4.  I resolve that women will be left in peace by rapists, churches, governments and anyone else who thinks our bodies are public property.

5.  And I will fit into those jeans!

What about you?

Monday, December 29, 2008


New Year’s Resolutions

By Barbara D’Amato

I asked a few people, award-winning, wonderful writers, to comment on what they would work on in their writing this year. I think their writing could not be improved on, but it may encourage all of us if people as accomplished as they are have work lists.

Sara Paretsky says:

For years, I hoped that my writing could become freer. I worry too much about reactions to what I'm doing, by readers or reviewers or other parent surrogates--what Annie Lamont referred to as Radio Station WFCK-U plays in my head too much of the time while I'm writing. Now I'm less hopeful that I can change that dial. When I wrote Bleeding Kansas, a standalone novel set in the part of rural Kansas where I grew up, I was a little more playful, a little more lyrical, but I'd like to become more playful, more lyrical, more of a risk-taker in my writing. The trouble is, I'm at a loss on how to make that happen.

Libby Hellmann:

Someone once said of my writing, “You never use one word when three will do…” So I’m trying to work on being more concise.

I’m also tackling a new challenge... the story I want to write next is more mainstream (although it is a thriller). And it’s set in another country. Twenty-five years ago. Um…actually, I may have bitten off more than I can chew.

Michael Allen Dymmoch:

I'm still trying to develop some discipline. I'd be dangerous if I could keep at something long enough to finish it in a reasonable amount of time.

I am very much in Michael’s camp. I’ve been a terrible procrastinator this last year. As for content, I want to become more visceral. I seem to want to intellectualize everything, which doesn’t always work for the immediacy of the characters.

My informants above are all like Nancy Kerrigan, flawless.

Writers out there--what are you working to improve?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Another Turn of the Screw

by Michael Dymmoch

This is the time of year when the media have human interest stories revolving around Christmas themes—home for the holidays, secret Santas, gold coins in the bucket. Some publication reruns Royko’s famous “Mary and Joe, Chicago Style" (Chicago Daily News, Dec. 19, 1967). TV news reports the theft of Christmas by real grinches. Channel 5 reruns It’s a wonderful Life. This year, I stumbled into my own Yule season story. Only it’s more like the “Turn of the Screw” than “A Christmas Carol.”

It started when I was approached in front of the AMC Theater by a diffident young man with a South Shore Metra schedule in hand. His red hair and beard made me think of my mother, whose always been partial to red-heads. “Excuse me,” he said. “Could you help me?”

I stopped. He looked lost and a little depressed, and I’m used to giving directions to tourists.

"I’m trying to get home for Christmas. My mother told me I’d be more likely to get help from a woman.”

OK. That sounded like something I might tell my son—only I’d add that a woman might be more likely to be scared of a strange male asking for help. This kid didn’t look scary.

“I have to get to the South Shore station at Michigan and Roosevelt,” he told me.

Easy enough. I pointed toward Michigan. “Just go up to Michigan Avenue and take a bus to Roosevelt.”

“I can’t. My wallet was stolen. They took my student ID, credit cards, everything.”

“Then you need a policeman.” I looked around—never a cop in sight when you need one.

“No, I’ve been to the cops. They gave me this....”

He shoved another paper at me. I didn’t look closely, but at a glance it was a...

“...Police report. But that’s all they could do. I need to get to the station by four o’clock or I’ll miss my train.”

Ah. It was either a scheme to scam me out of train fare or a real hard luck story. I couldn’t tell which. So many panhandlers accost us with sad tales that city dwellers are pretty much inured to hard luck stories. But his story was plausible. And what the heck. I’m willing to plunk down $25 in a bookstore for a good yarn, why not bus fare for a line I haven’t heard before? I gave the kid $2 and said, “This’ll get you to Michigan and Roosevelt.”

“But I don’t have money for the train. I just need $44 to get home, $18 to get to South Bend and $26 for the bus from there to Evansville.”

“Can’t you ask your folks to send it to you?”

“They can’t. That’s just the thing. They won’t wire you money if you don’t have an ID.”

I hadn’t thought of that. But I wasn’t going to give him $44 even if I'd had it.

“OK,” I said, “Let’s go to the station.” I figured I could buy him a Metra ticket with my credit card and he’d be that much closer to home. And maybe his fellow Hoosiers’d be willing to front him the difference.

He followed me back to the steps leading up to Michigan Ave, and took the lead crossing it to get to the bus stop, ignoring the don’t walk signs and signaling a bus driver to let us on even though we weren’t at a proper stop. As we rode south, He explained that he’d come from school on a train and had fallen asleep, waking up at 71st street without his money and IDs.

When the bus driver called the South Shore stop at Michigan and Randolph, my new young friend told me he wasn’t going to go in there because he’d been there earlier, begging for help, and he’d been told by a cop to leave or be arrested for panhandling. We stayed on the bus.

At this point, the needle on my bullshit meter was flopping in the red, but I wanted to see how the drama would play out. When we finally got off the bus, the young man led the way to the Metra station. Climbing snow-covered steps and following him down onto the enclosed platform, I wondered if what I was doing was sane, never-mind safe. But there were other travelers around, and I really wanted to see how far things would go.

The end was anti-climax. The Metra station ticket dispenser wouldn’t accept credit cards--something I find amazing, since you can even pay for parking with credit cards these days. Unable to buy the kid a ticket out of town (which he wouldn’t be able to use or return if he was just scamming me), I broke down and gave him what cash I had ($9) and wished him luck.

He said he’d go back to Michigan Avenue and try his luck with other passersby.

I noticed, however, that he didn’t stay on Michigan, but kept going west. So I was left thinking he may be just a scammer with a better than average line. If he was scamming me, he’d worked really hard for my $9. And I got a story out of it.

But what are people to do when they get robbed in a strange city and can’t prove their identity? What would I do under the circumstances? What would you do?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Nellie The Elephant...

by Sean Chercover

Sara's post of last Monday (and the comments people left) got me thinking. Yes, times are tough and we're inundated with bad news, but you don't need to be Pollyanna to see some good in it.

We have an incoming President who picked a Nobel Prize-winning physicist to head the Department of Energy. Wow (or, as the kids would say, "Duh"). Could be that the federal government's War On Science is almost over.

Some see the arrest of our governor as Bad News. It is only bad news if you labor under the delusion that most politicians are honest. I don't. I see it as Great News. To me, the story doesn't read, "Our governor is corrupt." Looking through my prism, that isn't news at all. To me, the story reads, "They caught the bastard!" So it makes me happy.

But the main things that make me happy during hard times are family, friends, and art. Novels of course. And music. Movies. Etc.

Combining two of those things (music and family), I now present you with the top-6 songs, as ranked by The Mouse.

#6 Thomas Dolby - SHE BLINDED ME WITH SCIENCE (The Mouse loves to thrust a finger in the air and yell, "Science!" Who doesn't?)

#5 Aretha Franklin - CHAIN OF FOOLS (No video, but you can listen, and you should.)

#4 Warren Zevon - WEREWOLVES OF LONDON ("Better stay away from him. He'll rip your lungs out, Jim." Screw Barney, this is great music for kids.)

#3 Gnarls Barkley - CRAZY ("Ha-ha-ha. Bless your soul.")

#2 Peter Tosh - KETCHY SHUBY (again, no video, but listen anyway.)

And currently #1 on The Mouse's playlist:
The Toy Dolls - NELLIE THE ELEPHANT (The Mouse is a punk at heart.)

The Mouse and Agent 99 and I play these (and other) songs every day, and dance around the living room like idiots and sing our fool heads off. Bad things are happening out there in the world, but life is good in my living room.

"Ah-ooo, werewolves of London..."

Happy holidays.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Hey, You Talkin' to Me?

by Libby Hellmann

The following is part of a conversation for the PWA (Private Eye Writers of America) newsletter between author Kent Krueger and me. You can read the whole thing in a month or so in the next PWA newsletter, but I thought you might like a sneak preview.. as well as a chance to join the conversation.

William Kent Krueger, as many of you know, is a fabulous author and story-teller. He has 9 or 10 books out, all but one featuring Cork O’Connor, who is sometimes a PI and sometimes a police officer in the fictional Minnesota town of Aurora. Kent has won the Anthony Award (as well as a bunch of others, such as the Minnesota Book Award) probably more than anyone I know, and when you read his books, you’ll understand why. Visit him at his website

Q: Why did you start writing PI crime fiction?

Kent: I started out by having Cork step back from law enforcement, then becoming involved in law enforcement again, and then stepping back once more, mostly to maintain credibility in the things that drive our plots. The “PI” was a convenient way to do that, rather than the “accidental” sleuth.

Libby: “Accidental”, not “amateur”?

Kent: Accidental.

Libby: My transition to PI was for much the same reason. My protagonist, Ellie Foreman was an amateur sleuth, and I kept wondering how many more times she could come up against dead bodies without stretching credibility. After the fourth book, when I was scraping the ceiling for a rationale, I realized something had to change. Happily, Georgia Davis had already been introduced, and I knew I wanted to explore her further. So she, rather conveniently, became a PI.

Q: How familiar were you with the “PI” tradition, and how did that influence your decision to make your protagonist a PI?

Kent: My first entrée into the genre was Philip Marlowe. My next reading jag was Robert Parker and Spenser, so I pretty much knew what the subgenre was about. But I didn’t want to do a traditional noir PI type of book, because that wasn’t the character of the series. When Cork became a PI, he was a different sort of PI.

Q: How was he different?

Kent: He has a family for one thing, so he’s not a loner. He also has a significant network of friends and people that he’s known his own life in this small town. That’s another thing that’s different: Cork operates in a small town. He’s a guy who has fairly middle-class values: he’s Catholic, he practices his religion, he’s a father, and who knows -- he might even be a member of the Lions Club one day.

Q: Sounds like you’re describing Kent Krueger.

Kent: I’m not a member of the Lions Club. What about Georgia?

Libby: She’s more the classic noir PI, but a female version. I read Chandler and Parker, but it was Sara Paretsky, Marcia Muller, and Sue Grafton, as well as the “second generation” of PI writers like SJ Rozan and Laura Lippman who influenced me. Georgia’s more of a loner. She’s got baggage, which I’m still discovering. And she’s not afraid to put herself out there, regardless of the danger. She’s still honing her skills, though, and that means she makes mistakes, some more serious than others.

Q: Why did you become a member of PWA?

Kent: The truth is I got tired of watching all these PWA members sneak off at Bouchercon for their secret dinner, and I wanted to know what that was all about.

Libby: I even learned the secret handshake.

Now, it's your turn...

Why do you like PI crime fiction?

Describe the perfect -- or your favorite -- PI.

What would you like to see in PI crime fiction that hasn’t yet been done?

Happy Holidays, everyone.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

If you want to know about the man gone bonkers

By Kevin Guilfoile

The Chicago Tribune has been running an ad on local television this week. It includes edited clips from US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's press conference announcing the arrest of Governor Blagojevich:

FITZGERALD: I have to take my hat off to the Tribune...We ought to credit the Chicago Tribune...I appreciate that and respect what they did.

V/O: Looking out for you. Now more than ever. Subscribe Today.

Of course, if you saw the press conference you would know that what the Tribune did to deserve such praise from Fitzgerald was withhold the story that the feds were bugging the governor's home, a decision, I understand, that met with vigorous debate within the newsroom. Now this might have been the right the thing to do, and as an Illinoisan I'm glad the investigation wasn't compromised. We all have a big crush on Patrick Fitzgerald right now so I can see why someone in the Trib marketing department got all gooey when he started blowing the Trib kisses in the middle of his statement. But I know a lot of terrific reporters and editors at that paper and I doubt there's anyone on the editorial floors at 435 North Michigan who doesn't think it's bizarre to suggest that people should subscribe to the Tribune because the paper DIDN'T report what would have been the biggest story of the year. That decision might have made the paper a good citizen--and I'm not criticizing them for it--but it's no reason to get all boastful. Bad newspapers don't break stories all the time.

Last week in the Huffington Post, Daniel Sinker wrote a column really giving it to the Trib for not reporting the fact that Blagojevich had been trying to blackmail Tribune executives into firing members of their editorial staff before that information came out in Fitzgerald's complaint. Sinker's piece, however, makes a number of factual errors and arrives at a series of assumptions none of us can make. We know that Blagojevich and his chief of staff John Harris talked to each other about speaking to Tribune executives, as well as a "financial advisor to the Tribune," to suggest that state financial assistance for Wrigley Field could be held up if the Trib didn't jettison some of its editorial board. But we actually don't know who Harris spoke to and everything he alleges was said to Tribune executives (and what they said in return) is all third-hand on the tapes. Harris even told Blagojevich that he "won't be so direct" with the suggestion. It might have been indirect to the point where Trib officials thought it was just another example of the governor whining about their coverage (in fact Blagojevich was calling publicly for the firing of editorial board members right up until the day before he was arrested). Harris might personally have thought the suggestion was insane and might have been lying to his boss about conversations he had just to keep Blagojevich happy.

It's seems clear that Tribune executives did not put actual pressure on the editorial staff as a result of suggestions from the governor's office. "If the governor did what was alleged, he ran into a brick wall," said one Trib editor. But if Trib execs did get an explicit message from Blagojevich that he wanted reporters fired in exchange for state money, it seems odd they wouldn't have passed this information along so their own paper could report--I'll say it again--what would have been the biggest story of the year. And if they didn't get that message, it seems that the nature of the forthcoming indictment against Blagojevich could be radically altered. I'm not sure you can be convicted of extorting somebody who doesn't know they're being extorted. I suppose you still have some sort of conspiracy to commit extortion, but that might be harder to prove. Any prosecutor would rather have goods on the real thing.

It appears as though the governor is going to fight this complaint. He's hired a defense attorney who is well-known for going to trial rather than pleading out. It would seem the only way he could challenge what's on those tapes would be to argue what's on those tapes isn't what it seems. And one of our hometown newspapers is going to be at the center of that argument.

Unfortunately, newspapers are rarely great at reporting on themselves.

Also, confidential to 23-Year-Old Chicago Woman: The traditional gift for the sixth wedding anniversary is either candy or iron.

We're really hoping you get the candy.

Monday, December 15, 2008

It's a long cold lonely winter, but--

What with the dire economy, G-Bay (as Tribune readers have christened the Blago scandal), book sales down by 20 percent in most markets, private miseries,  and a general lack of a ho-ho-ho feeling in the air, it's good to have something uplifting and unusual to turn to.  And for me, last week, it was the Nobel Prize.

Yes, winning that prize was a wonderful culmination to a life of creative work. By Mr. Yoichiro Nambu at the University of Chicago.  For personal reasons, Mr. Nambu was unable to go to Stockholm to accept the prize.  Instead, the Swedish Ambassador to the United States came to Chicago and presented the prize to him here.  My husband, Courtenay Wright, is a professor of physics at the University of Chicago and a member of the Fermi Institute (it was Enrico Fermi who brought Courtenay to Chicago as a young post-doc).  I always find it exciting to tag along to physics events.  The work they do is exciting and stimulating; even if I don't understand a great deal of it, the parts I do understand stretch my mind in wonderful ways.

At the December 10 ceremony, they hired the Millar Brass ensemble to play the heraldic trumpets used in Stockholm.  They showed a film of the Stockholm ceremony, where everyone has to dress in white-tie or ball gowns, and then the ambassador gave Mr. Nambu his medal and Mr. Nambu explained spontaneous broken symmetry, for which he received the prize, to the audience.

If you want to hear the speech, or at least the Millar Brass, you can do so here:

After the ceremony, I came home to the quotidian, the bills, the ills, but I still see a faint glimmer of gold, not from the prize, but of the reaches of the human mind that inspired it.  It's one of the things that will help carry me until the sun comes out.  What's helping you through these difficult days?

Friday, December 12, 2008

Is It the [bleeping] Language that Increases our Indignation Toward that [bleeping] Rod Blagojevich?

by Barbara D'Amato

Lawrence Velvel, Dean of the Massachusetts School of Law and Professor of Law, wrote an interesting blog recently about our governor. It also has a bit to do with Chicagoisms and by extension Chicago fiction writing.

Quoting Professor Velvel:

‘I suggest that Fitzgerald and the FBI agents were really outraged by the language they heard (just as a lot of people, even Republicans, were outraged by the language they heard Nixon use on the Watergate tapes). Bleep this and bleep that obviously means "fuck this" and "fuck that." Around the country, most people don't punctuate every other sentence with fuck this, fuck that, fuck him, he's a fuckin' asshole, etc., etc. Nor do they like it when they hear people talk like that. But in Chicago that is how a lot of people regularly talk. (Not everyone in Chicago speaks like Obama, you know.) Many of us who grew up there learned to talk like that, and, when we've lived elsewhere, have learned that people elsewhere dislike and won't listen to the views (no matter how intelligent) of someone who speaks in a way that is par for the course in Chicago. (You may remember that people used to react badly to a southern accent (which they considered a sign of stupidity) or to a Brooklyn accent or speech. The same is true of the Chicago style of speaking that I am discussing here.)

‘That this is one typical Chicago style of speech is only the more clear because it is well recognized that, as has sometimes been discussed here, some very famous Chicago writers combine very bad language, language from the streets of Chicago, with their otherwise high falutin' writing. Think Mamet. Think Terkel. Think Bellow.

‘One might say, "Well, Fitzgerald grew up as a poor kid in New York City. The language there is pretty bad, so he should be used to it." Here is one writer who begs to differ, and I know others who differ also. Though rough, the typical language of New York is not as rough as the language of Chicago. As someone knowledgeable about the speech pattern in both cities recently said to me, "Chicago is cruder." Yes it is. Much cruder as a general matter, and the crudeness often extends to the highly educated. It is one Chicago style. (It would be interesting, incidentally, to see a comparison by professional linguists of the styles of speech in Chicago and New York.)

‘(I note that Fitzgerald has lived in Chicago for a few years, so perhaps one could argue he should be prepared for or inured to the Chicago style. But on the other hand, there are those who think he is prissy and straight arrowish, and could never become used to such talk.)

‘So I think that even the ex New Yorker, Fitzgerald, was not prepared for the kind of language that was heard on the tapes (just as people weren't prepared for Nixon on tape). And I cannot help thinking that, in addition to not wanting the Senate seat to be sold before they acted, the Federal officials acted in major part because they were taken aback by the kind of language used.

‘You know, it might behoove Blagojevich not only to put on the stand a parade of witnesses who are knowledgeable about what has gone on in politics for scores of years in this country, but also linguistic experts who are familiar with and knowledgeable about the style of Chicago speech typified in the tapes of Blagojevich and, to a lesser extent, present in the works of some of the great Chicago writers. And maybe Blagojevich's counsel should seek to cross examine Fitzgerald himself and some of his staff about their reactions to Blagojevich's style of speech and what effect this had on them. But wouldn't it be a hoot if a Chicago federal trial judge were to deny efforts by Blagojevich to introduce evidence of the "widespreadness" in Chicago of Blagojevich's style of speech, and to deny examination of Fitzgerald and company by Blagojevich's lawyers, with the ruling of denial being encapsulated in a two word Chicagoesque ruling, "Fuck that." What, you say that can't happen? Well, I can dream, can't I?’

This ends the Velvel quotation.

I think that part of people’s indignation at Nixon’s or Blagojevich’s use of bleepable words is outrage at what they see as hypocrisy. These people campaign as if they are holier than the rest of us. The tapes sound far less than holy.

All of this is not to minimize Blagojevich’s hideous behavior. I mean, threatening to take funds away from Children’s Hospital if he isn’t paid off? The Blagojegrinch!

But what do you think of this view of Chicago talk? Hey! Whaddaya think? I’m bleeping talkina you!

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Complaining About Sex with Twins, and My Top 15

by Marcus Sakey

It was my great honor (and no small pleasure) to be invited to attend Noir in Festival in Courmayeur, Italy this last weekend. A prestigious film-and-lit noir festival that's been running for 20-plus years, NiF is located at the foot of Mt. Blanc in the Italian Alps. Featuring some of the best of European film, as well as authors like Richard Price, Don Winslow, and Victor Gischler, it was without a doubt one of the best gigs I've had as a writer.

The only downside, and it ain't much of one, is that I traveled for 26 straight hours yesterday. A car ride from Courmayeur to Milan, Milan to Atlanta, a three hour layover, a two-hour tarmac delay, Atlanta to Chicago, lousy weather, a two-hour holding pattern, a landing in Cincinnati to refuel, back to Chicago, and a thirty minute wait for them to defrost the jetway.

As the headline suggests, griping about that would be just silly. However, the net result is that I'm a little zonked and jetlagged. So rather than a formal post, I thought I'd help with your holiday shopping. I've gone over the list of books I've read thus far this year (76 to date, not counting the magazines and anthologies that held the 400+ short stories I read for the Edgars), and picking my faves. In no particular order, here are the top 15; if you're looking for more, I review on my website.
Reign in Hell, Steven Brust
Wildly entertaining and super-sharp retelling of The Fall from a different perspective.

Tree of Smoke, Denis Johnson
A study of America at war with writing so good it made me ache.

Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn
A genuinely creepy thriller, not only for what happens, but for the way it's told.

What the Dead Know, Laura Lippman
Which should have won last year's Edgar.

My War, Colby Buzzell
My second read of my favorite Iraq II memoir, an obscene, in-your-face, boots-on-the-ground read that's all the more excellent for its lack of glamour.

Once Were Cops, Ken Bruen
A one-sitting read from a master. Bruen is at his best here.

The Human Stain, Philip Roth
It's Roth. How much more do I need to say?

Northline, Willy Vlautin
A beautifully understated novel of addiction and recovery, harm and hope.

The Paperboy, Pete Dexter
Dexter is an American treasure. If you've never read him, start now.

Feast of Love, Charlie Baxter
A lovely and entertaining rumination on love and sex and more love.

The Given Day, Dennis Lehane
Historical epic of 1917-18 Boston, rich with life. Possibly Lehane's best.

Altered Carbon, Richard K. Morgan
Richard Morgan is this year's discovery, the most exciting sci-fi writer I've read in a long time.

The Wishbones, Tom Perrotta
Manifesting itself as a lighthearted comedy about a struggling band, the novel's great strength is in it's protrayal of the joys and difficulties of romantic relationshops.

Straight Man, Richard Russo
A send-up of academia, this is the funniest Russo I've read.

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
Didn't just hold up on a third read--it got better. R in more P than you felt in life, brother.
How about you? What are your faves of the year?

Monday, December 08, 2008

My Schefflera has TB...

by Michael Dymmoch

...Or scale insects, the houseplant equivalent. (Yeah, I know TB is a bacterium and scale are insects. And I know the difference between the two types of “bugs.” But both “diseases” are contagious, resistant, and difficult to treat.) Problem is, I don’t want to consider the treatment recommended by the Chicago Botanic Garden—throw the Schefflera out and get a new one. I’ve belonged to this plant for 34 years. It was 6’’ tall when I first brought it home. Now it’s 5’ 6”.

Unfortunately, it’s too big for the treatment that worked on my ficus—a shower with Scrubbing Bubbles ® (the kind in the can, not the shower-cleaner.*) followed by a good soaking with insecticidal soap. The Schefflera’s pot is too heavy for me to lift. So, periodically, I treat it in place—scrub the scale off with cotton soaked in alcohol, then hit the plant with the insect-killing soap. If I were consistent, I’d have vanquished the enemy years ago. Problem is, I forget the scale for months at a time—until the infestation has reestablished itself from the bug or two I missed, and the scales are too numerous to miss. I’m constantly starting the war over.

It’s a little like trying to overcome al Queda. Or procrastination. Or bad writing habits. You have to keep after them. You have to be determined, systematic, and relentless. Any time your efforts flag, the pest comes back in force. That’s fair. It’s a matter of survival for your enemy. And of whether or not you’re able to live with the disease.

*WARNING: This treatment will kill many plants. Try it at your own risk

Sunday, December 07, 2008

The Name Game . . .

by Sean Chercover

The Mouse is two years old. Well, two and change. 27 months, if we must be specific. Most of the time, he calls me Da-da, or Dad. Da-da was fun, but I welcome the transition to Dad.

The surprising change is that, with increasing regularity, The Mouse is now also calling me Sean.

A couple of people have suggested that I correct him. But he is correct. My name is Sean, and he hears other people call me Sean, so why the hell shouldn’t he call me Sean?

I admit I am still slightly startled each time he does it. It’s just a little odd to hear my 2-year-old son calling me by my Christian name.

“Christian name.” You don’t hear that very often, these days.

Anyway, I find it interesting that other grown-ups are uneasy about it. Also interesting to note my own emotional reaction to the different names. When the Mouse calls me Sean, it feels different than when he calls me Dad, which in turn feels different than Da-da.

Do you think about this when naming your characters? Not only how the name feels and what it conveys, but also what nicknames the characters might call each other, and what those nicknames convey about the relationships between the characters.

Like everybody, I keep a few “Baby Name” books near my desk. But sometimes reading a list of names with notations of the “Welsh/Irish/Hebrew/Latvian” origins is not enough.

Occasionally I use names of real people. It’s fun to give a shout-out to people I know and love. Like many writers, I’ve donated character naming rights to be auctioned to raise money for a good cause, and I have a contest on my website, one of the prizes being a character named after the winner.

Then there are the names of characters from other books. Gravedigger Peace from Big City Bad Blood and Trigger City is a tip-of-the-hat to Chester Himes, one of my all-time favorite crime writers. His Grave Digger Jones was a corrupt and brutally violent Harlem cop. The resemblance between Gravedigger Peace and Grave Digger Jones doesn’t go much beyond the fact that they both have a pretty deep wellspring of rage, and they’ve both killed more than a few people, but I love using the name as a nod in his direction . . . and it fits my character who is, in fact, a grave digger.

Ray Dudgeon, my series protagonist, went through many names along the way. His penultimate name was Ray Dunbar. Dunbar Road is the street I grew up on. I didn’t like the name Dunbar, but I liked Ray, and I liked the way it sounded with a surname that started with D. I also like names that have independent meaning as words. Spade, Archer, Hammer, Reacher, Strange, Rain . . . all great names that tell us something about the character. So I started flipping through the letter D, in Webster’s dictionary.

Dudgeon fit my protagonist perfectly, both for its modern meaning and for the archaic meaning, most famously used by William Shakespeare in Macbeth. A few folks have commented that Ray’s name is a bit too clever, but the vast majority of people dig it. And I’ve had email correspondence with a number of real-life Dudgeons as a result, including a real Ray Dudgeon.

A totally unexpected benefit of using an unusual name.

I’d love to hear some of your favorite character names, and your method of naming the characters you create. So have at it.

BONUS: A signed, first-edition of Trigger City goes to the first person who tells us the archaic definition for Dudgeon (as mentioned in the Macbeth reference above).

ALSO: Libby mentioned this in the previous post, but in case you missed it. . . The amazing folks at Bleak House Books are giving away FREE books this holiday season. For real. You only pay for shipping. Check it out.

AND: For those of you who are buying gifts this holiday season, please consider buying and giving books.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Wha 'cha Gonna Watch this Season?

by Libby Hellmann

OK. I confess. I’m going rogue. I was going to post a blog on corruption and oppression (I just saw Changeling, and I’m researching a possible new book that takes place in revolutionary Iran.)But let’s face it: no one – including me -- wants to get too heavy this time of year.

Many of you have already chimed in on Kevin’s post with the books we ought to get our kids for the holidays. This post isn’t nearly as noble. And much more superficial. Still… in the interest of inspiring whatever holiday spirit you can muster, forgetting about terrorist attacks as well as the economy, and earning a few brownie points from Netflix, let’s talk movies.

What holiday movies make your all-time top 5? Is it A Wonderful Life (which, just to bring it somewhat back on topic, Carolyn Wheat dissects quite admirably in her book Killer Fiction) and you will undoubtedly see listed 10 times on local stations this season?

What about Miracle on 34th Street… the original or the remake? Oy – now that I’m thinking about it -- it is pretty cloying.

So, what about one of the versions of Amahl and the Night Visitors? I seem to remember a TV production I’d watch every year as a kid. Anyone else remember that? I recall it being mysterious and exotic. Of course, I was only about ten at the time.

And of course, I like Home Alone, which was filmed right around the corner in Winnetka.

I’m not all that fond of the Scrooge films, or the Charlie Browns, or the Grinches--
too sappy and predictable. But I didn’t mind Family Stone. Or the TV productions of the Nutcracker. Especially the one with Baryshnikov and Gelsey Kirkland.

But my all time favorite holiday movie has to be Love Actually. How can you not like Hugh Grant dancing to “Jump,” Alan Rickman playing a wayward husband, Colin Firth falling in love, or the Beach Boys’ finale of God Only Knows with all those split screens? In fact, if this doesn’t put you into “the mood,” I give up.

Your turn. What Holiday movies do you recommend? Let’s hear them. Btw, if anyone has any Hanukkah movies (is there really such an animal?), that would work too.

PS I forgot to mention that my wonderful publisher, BLEAK HOUSE BOOKS, is offering free books to all of you this holiday season. Yup. Free. All you pay is shipping and handling, and you can get novels by Reed Farrel Coleman, Eric Stone, Victoria Houston, Craig McDonald, Mary Logue,and even me.

To find out more, click here. This is the real deal!

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

How about Good as Gold, Frankenstein, and House of Mirth?

By Kevin Guilfoile

We had my whole family in for Thanksgiving, twenty of us, ten adults and ten kids, crammed into my house. It was a terrific weekend of football in the park and basketball at the gym and air mattresses on the floor and turkey on the table and presents under the tree.

Yes, presents. Because we won't be together for Christmas we exchanged gifts on Friday. One of my nephews, who is in high school, asked for books and so a few weeks ago I was in the bookstore, browsing the shelves, trying to remember a handful of novels I had read at that same age, books I loved then and still love to this day.

I chose three--A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving, A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, and The Stand by Stephen King. I can still remember reading those books, still remember carrying them with me trying to cram a few moments of reading between school and work and baseball practice and much too little sleep. I remember how eager I was to get back to them and how reluctantly I put each of them down. I also liked that they were different genres--one howlingly funny and one epically scary and one whatever Irving is--some combination of quirkiness and poignancy and sentimentality and effortless prose that I am just a sucker for.

Last week, Sean urged everyone to give books for the holidays, but let's start to get specific. If you were buying three books for a high school senior, books you hope he or she will still remember reading twenty years from now, what books would you get and why?

Friday, November 28, 2008

Jumping off the High Board

I'm not a big risk-taker, and it's making me frustrated and melancholy that I live my life in too tight a way, especially these days: hard times require a big spirit and a willingness to take risks.

My cousin, Barb Wieser, whom I love dearly, has just been visiting me, showing me as she always has, one version of the risk-taker's life.  Barb is amazing: she's a skilled trekker and wilderness guide  She kayaks around the Alaskan coast, making camp wherever she sees a flat bit of shore.  She started two presses; the second, Aunt Lute Books (name for our shared great-aunt, Lute) is still an active small press.  For over two decades, she ran the country's oldest bookstore, Amazon Books in Minneapolis (no connection to the behemoth, which came along after Amazon Bookstore had been up and running for more than twenty years).

And now she's turning her life in  yet another direction: at sixty-plus, she's joined the Peace Corps and is heading for Ukraine.  Barb is a warm and loving woman, a bright presence in the lives of the people who know her; I know her Ukraine experience will challenge and change her, but that she will bring all she has to the task, and that the people she works with will be richer for her presence, as I and her other friends are, too.

We're the same age, Barb and I, but here I sit, tight in my little ball, while she opens and takes in the world.  

I'm trying to learn to change that, so I'm wondering what risks others have taken, things I can learn from and grow.  Let me know.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

R. D. Wingfield

by Barbara D'Amato

R. D. Wingfield, born in 1928, was working in the sales office of an international oil company and writing radio plays in his spare time. His first, Compensating Error, was produced by the BBC in 1968. His plays became so successful that by 1970 he gave up his day job to write.

Wingfield was a very private man. I’ve not been able to find a photo of him, other than a very early one.

His first novel, FROST AT CHRISTMAS, introduced Detective Inspector Jack Frost, Denton Division. Wingfield had intended the book as a stand-alone, planning to kill Frost off at the end of the book, but fortunately for readers, changed his mind. There followed:

Frost gets no respect.

Frost is bawdy, slovenly, humane, insulting, and surprisingly humble. He ignores his boss, and steals his cigars. When he sees somebody bent over a desk, he gooses him or her. He’s an equal opportunity gooser. In HARD FROST, he appears in his superior’s office in a shower of cigarette ash. “There he was. Detective Inspector Jack Frost in the same battered mac, a button hanging loose, and an old scarf trailing from his neck.” But he’s not Columbo. He’s a far more complex character. He is insubordinate, and devious in evading directives and budget restrictions, generous to people who have broken a law but need help more than punishment.

In the end, Frost finds the bad guy, usually by sheer reasoning ability, which few of the people around him recognize. It’s not just that Frost gets no respect; he doesn’t ask for it. In fact, he permits or even plans for colleagues to receive the credit for his solutions. He’s interested in stopping bad people from doing bad things. He doesn’t care what he looks like or what people think of him.

This series is a wonderful example of the police procedural in which several crimes are being pursued at the same time. In terms of witness and suspect characterization, it goes well beyond its ground-breaking predecessor, John Creasey’s Gideon series. The social and physical background is brilliantly rendered. It is a lesson in how to plant clues and how to interweave plots.

I realize I’m not conveying what fun this series is. Frost cannot be summarized. Read one of the novels and meet him.

Wingfield died in 2007.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

This Just In

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has announced a freeze on acquiring new books.  Details here.  Harper Collins 3rd operating income was down 88 percent from last year.  Book sales as a whole are down by 2 percent.  

Monday, November 24, 2008

The End of Civilization

by Marcus Sakey

So I should tell you up front that this is a rant. Feel free to skip it and come back Wednesday.

For years, I've held out against the cellphone-as-umbilical-cord thing. I proudly had a piece-of-shit pay-per-minute phone that closely resembled a brick. But they've gotten so cool these days, what with ready access to the Internet and GPS and all kinds of Star Trek features, that I caved and bought a G1, the brand-new Google phone.

And it's really, really cool. When it works.

Thing is, for near two weeks, I couldn't get the thing to work dependably. It had been fine for a couple of days, just enough to give me a taste that left me hungry for more, and then it started getting twitchy. Which meant that I spent hours--lots of them--on the phone with T-Mobile's Tech Support.

The people that I spoke to on the help line were all unfailingly polite. Several went above and beyond, doing everything they could to escalate the problem to the mysterious folks who actually make things happen. You know the ones--the ones that can never, under any circumstances, come to the phone.

And now we reach the subject of my griping. The safety of polite bureaucracy.

Because no matter how many times I called, or what acronyms I bluffed with, or the detailed history in my files, I could never get through to someone who would admit the power to do anything. After three hours one Sunday morning I was finally escalated to a "Supervisor," the first rude one of the bunch, who informed me that despite the fact that the problem was clearly on their end, there was nothing she could do. It was in the system, I was informed. That was the extent of her power--putting it in the system.

This kind of argument makes my forehead explode.

Could I talk to an engineer, I asked?

No sir, I'm sorry.

Okay. Could she? Could she call over and tell them that there was a customer who had been through the whole rigmarole and really needed satisfaction?

No sir, I'm sorry.

Did she care at all that I was ten minutes from returning the fucking thing, dropping my contract, buying an iPhone, and blogging about the whole experience?

No sir, I'm sorry.

Fine. Was there someone above her?

No sir, I'm sorry.

No? Well, could I ask her last name?

No sir, I'm sorry.

You get the point.

Obviously, part of this post is me just blowing off steam. But I do really believe there is a larger social issue at work here, and it worries me. When did it become S.O.P. to never connect the person having a problem with the one who can fix it? When did, "that's the way the system works?" become an acceptable answer? When did some corporate bright-boy realize that as long as the service is polite, they don't need to be able to do a good goddamn?

Maybe I'm looking too small scale on this. Bush ran the country for eight years with about three press conferences, and never got around to answering a direct question. Because that's the system.

I think what troubles me most about the whole thing is the idea that there is no personal responsibility. The central principle of civilization is responsibility. From the tribal days, it made sense to live and work together because those that did fared better than those going it alone. The basic precept of that organization is that we are all responsible for our little portion, and those who fail are punished, or castigated, or at least don't generally excel.

But somewhere along the line, that's changed. It's no longer about efficiency. It's about courtesy. Because we now have a foolproof excuse: That's the way the system works.

Why is there a $50 "missed appointment" fee on my cable bill when I never had an appointment? Because that's the way the system works. Can it be reversed? No; they don't have that power. Because that's the way the system works. Can I speak to someone who does have that power? No. Because that's the way the system works.

Worse still, I don't know what to do about this. How can I, as an individual, really make any impact? Sure, I could have dumped T-Mobile and gone to AT&T with an iPhone. But I don't believe they operate any differently. And the people I'm talking to, they don't care. They're not bad people--they're just part of the system, and that's the way it works. So it becomes an empty gesture. A protest held in my living room.

Does this drive anybody else as crazy as it drives me? And is there anything we can do, besides blogging about it?

Saturday, November 22, 2008

A great road trip and more on DNA

by Michael Dymmoch

I was invited to come to Minnesota recently, to do an interview with The Minnesota Crime Wave. Carl Brookins, William Kent Krueger and Ellen Hart are exemplars of what makes the mystery community a community—gracious, generous and intelligent. Damn fine writers, too. Minneapolis/St Paul is a seven hour drive, so Carl offered to put me up after the interview. Next day, he gave me a tour of the Twin Cities, a terrific lunch, and a ride to the Mystery Writers of America meeting at Once Upon a Crime.

MWA’s guest speaker was Ann Marie Gross, Technical Leader of St Paul MN’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA). The FBI recently honored her for her work with DNA.

Ms. Gross told us that crime scene evidence is brought to the BCA by submitting agencies or sent in via US mail or FedEx. In the biology section, a visual inspection is performed for trace (hairs, fibers, etc.) as well as stains. A serological exam reveals whether blood, semen, saliva or other body fluids are present on clothing or other items; presumptive semen stains are examined microscopically for the presence of sperm. Blood and semen are commonly known to yield DNA, but DNA can also be recovered from licked envelope flaps, and the sweat found on hat bands, shirt collars and garment underarms. Individuals may also leave enough skin cells on a gun grip or trigger to prove they’ve handled the weapon—something convicted felons often learn to their dismay.

The root of a hair is the only part containing nuclear DNA—the type required for positive identification of an individual (or his identical siblings). A hair shaft can, however, yield mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) which, as Barbara D’Amato recently pointed out, is inherited from the maternal line and shared with non-identical sibs. MtDNA is most often used to identify unknown human remains, since there are usually more standards—DNA from relatives—for comparison. (The Chicago Sun-Times reported Friday that the remains of Nicolaus Copernicus, the first astronomer to recognize that the earth orbits the sun, were recently identified by comparing DNA from his skeleton with a hair found in one of his books.) All 50 states have laws requiring convicted offenders to provide DNA samples, and the national DNA database, CODIS (Combined DNA Identification System) has 5 million on file.

After the DNA is isolated and amplified at the BCA, it’s analyzed by a machine (ABI 310) that runs 24 hours a day, five days a week. The process, which once took seven weeks and required a dime-sized blood sample, can now be done with a sample the size of a pen tip and completed in 30 minutes. Evidence turnaround time at the lab is two months—from receipt to report. Public safety cases (e.g. serial rapists) are moved to the head of the queue with scientists working late and on weekends.

BTW: Murder & Mayhem in Muskego was even better than Alison Janssen predicted in her November 7 guest blog. Thanks to Muskego librarian Penny Halle and Jon and Ruth Jordan for a terrific conference.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

All I Want For Christmas . . .

by Sean Chercover

All I want for Christmas. . .

"But it's too early to blog about Christmas," I hear you say. "We haven't even reached Thanksgiving!"

True, but we are living in desperate times, and they call for desperate measures. Surely you've seen the news, and you know just how desperate. You've heard the cries from Washington and Wall Street and Detroit. It's a Global Economic Meltdown(TM), and just in time for the Holiday Shopping Season(TM).

Run and hide!

Okay, I know that we're all in for some serious belt-tightening, but here's the thing: You will probably buy a few Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa gifts for your loved ones this year. You may not be as lavish as in years past, but you'll probably buy something, right?

Right. So please, make that something a book.

Doesn't have to be my book (although I have no objection to that), just any book will do. Fiction, preferably. But as I said, any book will do. Fiction, non-fiction, hardcover, paperback, frontlist, backlist. Just so long as you give books.

Maybe give a book that had a big impact on the way you see the world, or simply a book that made you smile. A book is a beautiful, thoughtful, personal gift. And a book can be burned for heat when the entire economy collapses and we are all left freezing in the dark.

Really, there's no better gift this year.

Those of you who read the publishing trades know that I'm not kidding around. Share prices of the largest book retailer in America just hit an all-time low. Some other bookstore chains and many independents may not survive the winter. Even the most optimistic economists project no economic growth until next spring. And that will be too late for many bookstores.

It's that serious, kids.

Of course, if you're so broke that you're considering roasting the family pet for Christmas dinner, you get a free pass. But for the rest of us . . . for those who are going to buy something to give our loved ones this Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa. . .

Please, give a book.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Jon Burge and the Theater of Corruption

by Libby Hellmann

Studs Terkel once said Chicago is not the most corrupt American city… it’s the most theatrically corrupt.”

If that’s so, turn on the stage lights and cue the actors. The dénouement of one of the Chicago’s longest running police scandals is about to unfold. The villain is former Police Commander Jon Burge; the hero is U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald; and a supporting role will be played by Judge Joan Humphrey Lefkow. If past is indeed prologue, we’re in for high drama next spring.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the scandal, Jon Burge was a police commander in Area Two on the South Side of Chicago. For over 20 years, mostly during the ‘70s and ‘80s, he and his men allegedly tortured over 200 suspects into confessions for crimes they may or may not have committed. We’re not talking about your run of the mill police pressure, interrogations, or threats. We’re talking cattle prods. Alligator clips attached to body parts. Electric shocks. Suffocation. Radiator burns. Mock executions. And, of course, beatings, as described in the following trailer of a 2007 documentary:

Never before has there been such an extraordinary pattern of police abuse and brutality. Once the rumors and reports about the behavior surfaced, a series of complaints, investigations, and lawsuits followed. Burge was tried for police brutality in 1989 -- he was acquitted – and then tried again for civil rights violations. But he was never convicted of a felony, and after he was fired in 1993, he moved to Florida where he’s lived – unrepentant and free and collecting his police pension -- for 15 years. To date over 30 million dollars has been spent by the city and CPD in settlements and legal fees. Many believe Illinois’ stay on death row executions by former Governor George Ryan was prompted by Burge’s behavior.

Enter US Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald. On October 21 Fitzgerald finally arrested Burge in Florida and charged him -- not with torturing his victims-- but with lying. Fitzgerald, an aggressive, rising legal -- and probably one day political-- star is best known for his work on dramatic cases like the first World Trade Center bombing, the Valerie Plame scandal, and sending George Ryan to prison after the licenses for bribes scandal. (In Illinois you truly can be a hero one day, a felon the next. In fact, the story of Ryan’s career would make for great theater too… but I digress.)

Fitzgerald’s charges are themselves interesting. Because the statute of limitations on the actual torture ran out, the prosecutor used Burge’s denial of the torture in a 2003 federal civil rights case as fodder for charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. In his announcement, he compared Burge’s arrest to that of Al Capone who was arrested for tax evasion, rather than his mob and prohibition-related crimes.

It turns out Friend-of-the-Outfit (ours, not Capone’s) and best-selling author Jonathan Eig is writing a book about Capone and the man who nailed him (It wasn’t Elliot Ness). Eig says while the practice of using one crime to pay for another started with Capone, it wasn’t a slam dunk. Indeed, there was high drama there, as well.

They weren't crazy about the idea and they weren't sure it would work. Even the tax charge against AC was fairly weak. In the end, it worked, of course. My book will show that Capone actually got screwed during the trial. If he had a better lawyer he might have beaten the rap… It doesn't have to be tax evasion. Barry Bonds was indicted with the Capone method; instead of nailing him for steroids they (the IRS again) are after him for perjury. Countless terrorism suspects have been arrested for visa violations and locked up for long stretches on the assumption that they're probably dangerous. Burge fits the pattern perfectly.

When he's not pleading the 5th, Burge has – of course - said he's not guilty. The trial is set for May 1st and the judge is none other than US District court judge Joan Lefkow, whose husband and mother were tragically murdered three years ago by a disgruntled plaintiff. High drama there, too.

So, the pieces are in place. The characters’ back stories are fascinating; the issues are fraught with conflict, tragedy, and not at all pre-ordained. Stay tuned. This is going to be some show.

What about you? What corruption cases would make great theater in your neck of the wood?

Friday, November 14, 2008

I've got a couple from Israel and Azerbaijan

By Kevin Guilfoile

Before I wrote Cast of Shadows, I spent over a decade as a creative director at the advertising, design, and interactive firm Coudal Partners. Every single word of the thousands of ads I wrote while at Coudal have been long forgotten (alas, even vegan agitators have forgotten the hate mail they sent me for the steakhouse billboard on the Kennedy with an image of Mrs. O'Leary's cow and the headline: It's Payback Time!). One of the only enduring legacies I probably have from those days is the Museum of Online Museums, a rotating collection of links to serious and oddball collections around the web that Jim Coudal and I started back in 2001. The site's been featured in the New York Times and on All Things Considered and Time magazine named it one of the internet's 50 Coolest Web Sites.

I'm still something like the MoOM's part-time co-curator emeritus or something, and today I found a great new entry, a small collection of lurid covers from Cambodian pulp novels.

Those images reminded me of the wealth of literary collections that can be found at the MoOM, especially in the pulp, sci fi and detective genres, which seem especially collectible.

A great place to start is the University of Buffalo's George E Kelley Paperback and Pulp Fiction Collection. You could spend a whole afternoon just in the Gumshoes, Sleuths, and Snoopers section. In addition to cover art, each book has plot, theme and character summaries. It's not nearly as sexy (or comically sexist) as some of the others, but I have always loved the cover of The Con Man, the first 87th Precinct novel.

Not exclusively mystery-related, but equally lurid, is this collection of men's magazine covers from the fifties and sixties. I'm not sure what we have to do to get young men reading fiction again, but anyone who is uncomfortable with the level of exploitation in Maxim should probably not click that link.

Switching gears to something more charmingly nostalgic is this extensive collection of French editions of the Saint novels.

I've spent years digging around in the catacombs of the MoOM. I promise you could easily lose a couple of hours there if you lack restraint. And if I really wanted to destroy your Friday, I'd tell you how to find the MoOM Annex where all the MoOM links, past and present, wait to be rotated in and out of the main exhibit.

I would never do that to you, though.


UPDATE: It has been pointed out by more than one astute reader that I made a mistake in my last post when I said Chicago has the "highest murder rate" in the country this year. Chicago has had the most murders of any US city in 2008, more than even New York or L.A., but smaller cities such as Detroit and New Orleans have higher per capita murder rates than Chicago. That was careless of me. I apologize.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Whatcha Reading, Barack?

On November 1, the Chicago Tribune invited its two heavy-hitter writers, Aleksander Hemon and Garry Wills, to come up with a list of required reading for the new president: five fiction, five non-fiction. You can see their list here: It includes Thucydides, Al Gore, and Jose Saramago, among others. I have to confess, I was underimpressed with their recommendations.
My own list:
Non-fiction: The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.  Barack will have policy wonks aplenty on specific issues but my physics friends say this should be required reading for anyone having to think seriously about nuclear weapons, proliferation, dirty bombs, and related policy issues.  
Ahmed Rashid's The Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia.  Rashid, a Pakistani journalist who covered the Taliban for years, wrote this important book right before 9/11.  We could have avoided a lot of mistakes in Central Asia if we had listened to him and experts like him.
National Security, FBI and CIA Intelligence Briefings.  Given that the nation's security apparatus had warned Bush and Condoleezza Rice of an imminent attack on U.S. soil in the summer of 2001, a great deal of the mess we're in now could have been avoided had the president and his aides only read the briefings and acted appropriately.
Women's lives and bodies have been compromised by eight years of the Bush administration, in which access to contraception and abortion have been curtailed both at home and abroad.  Barack has announced support for Griswold and Roe, allowing people to return to the privacy of their  homes and doctors' offices to make important choices, but the Catholic bishops are demanding that he abandon these views.  There are many books available on reproductive matters; one that is eminently readable is Daniel Maguire's edited volume Sacred Rights. Maguire is Professor of Moral Theology and Ethics at Marquette University (a Catholic Institution) and has a deep and nuanced understanding of religion and reproductive rights.
Finally, Helen Thomas's Watchdogs of Democracy? is a timely critique of the way in which the Washington  Press Corps failed to ask the key questions needed for our citizens to understand what the Bush administration intended to do about war, peace, the environment, the economy, and our nation's health.
Fiction, Poetry
Irina Ratushinkskaya's Grey is the Color of Hope.  This memoir from the Soviet-era gulags tells readers about the human cost of power, and the human capacity for survival and hope.  
The Brothers Karamazov.  A ripping good yarn about faith, families and murder.
Richard II.  What happens when you let power go to your head.
Melissa Benn, One of Us.  This novel about ambition and politics, by the daughter of one of England's important labor leaders, is a gripping novel of the cost to the people who support the big kahuna on his/her quest for power.
Dashiell Hammett, Red Harvest. Shows what could happen when we let greed rule in the place of justice.

What do you think Barack should be reading?

P.S.  Heman couldn't come up with any books by women; Wills had one.  Extra points for those who imagine women writers.

Monday, November 10, 2008


by Barbara D'Amato

Leicester University in the UK invented DNA fingerprinting in 1984. Now comes news that they will soon be able to predict the surname of a male suspect from blood, hair, saliva or semen found at a crime scene.

DNA on the Y [male] chromosome is passed down the male line. A study of 2,500 men showed that there was a twenty-four per cent likelihood of two men with the same last name having a common ancestor. However, if the last name was uncommon, the chance of a common ancestor was fifty per cent. With very uncommon names, the chance went as high as seventy per cent.

Sooooo—with a large enough database of Y chromosome DNA, a crime scene analyst will be able to send a hair to the lab and, in whatever time it takes, tell us “This hair is from a man named Fosdick.”

Mitochondrial DNA, mtDNA, is inherited from the mother. Both males and females inherit their mother’s, and the father’s is lost. If a person’s mtDNA mutations are the same as another’s, they have a common ancestor. Comparing a sample to the Cambridge Reference Sample identifies the maternal line. All humans today belong to one of only thirty-three haplogroups or clans, which are ethnically specific. In other words, the lab can look at your mtDNA and tell your ethnic makeup. There are even companies which will test your mtDNA and come with an ancestry portrait—for example Fosdick is 2 per cent East Asian, 10 percent Native American, and eighty-eight per cent European.

Since DNA already tells ethnicity and such things as genetic diseases and physical appearance – Fosdick has brown hair and salt-sensitive hypertension -- and mtDNA reveals ancestry, there will soon be nowhere to hide. As crime writers, until fairly recently we had only to keep our malefactor from leaving fingerprints if we didn’t want to catch him too quickly. More recently we had to deal with DNA, but of course that couldn’t be matched unless the police found the bad guy. Now from a smidgen of blood we know what he looks like. Soon we will know his name.

To the crime writer this is both a challenge and an opportunity, as PRESUMED INNOCENT used an earlier level of forensic analysis to befuddle the reader.

The bar has just been raised.

Friday, November 07, 2008

YARMPHF: Murder and Mayhem in Ghostwriting (and Muskego)

Ladies and gentlemen, we have another great guest blogger for you today. Alison Janssen is not only one of the premiere editors out there today, she's also one of the coolest people you'll ever meet. So, without further ado, allow me to present, my FF, One-L Alison:


I commandeered Marcus's post. Marcus is incapacitated at the moment, me having drunk him under (several) tables.

Ok. So, that's a lie. He's right here next to me, and challenging that assumption. Point is, I'm in control of the keyboard and he's busy smoking a cigarillo (aka tiny cigar), so we'll go with my perspective of events.


We're about to attend Murder in Muskego, one of the fastest-growing, most-awesomest conferences in the Midwest. Tomorrow legions of folk will descend upon the Muskego Public Library (and the Mobile station across the way) for several hours' worth of wisdom from varied and experienced crime writers. But more than that, as with most conferences, this is a chance to celebrate the community of mystery writers and readers, and that's what we're here, right now, at the Jordans' palatial estates, doing.

I don't know if you ever stop to think about how amazing the mystery community is. No, seriously. In all earnestness. This isn't one of those "OMG, I'm so drunk and I loooooooove you!" statements.

This community supports its authors. This community's authors care about its readers. There are not a lot of areas of industry in which there's such a connection between producer and consumer. I mean, really. You can bid, at an auction, for your name (or the name of your loved ones) to appear IN a book that you will later purchase and read.

Talk about meta.

In any case, we're really excited about tomorrow. You should really make it out, if you're in the vicinity.

And if you're not, that's cool, we still love you. But we'd ask you to think about this. I mean, really, think about it. You are a part of something, by being part of the mystery community. You have ownership of the genre you read. On some level, you get to tell the stories that most move you.

So, tell us. What do you want to see? Where do you want this community to go? And ... how will you help it get there?

(p.s. We had ought to talk about how these conferences seem to go better with beer ... Jon and Ruth have provided a bathtub ... yes, a BATHTUB ... full of different beers. So, bonus question: What's YOUR favorite social lubricant? I vote Ale Asylum's Ambergeddon, but that may just be because I'm halfway though a bottle and it's right here in front of me right now ... )

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The End... The Beginning...

by Michael Dymmoch

I pretty much stayed out of the political debate. There’s been no shortage of information (and misinformation) about the race and the candidates, and our readers are smart enough to make up their own minds.

I voted early yesterday, then put the election out of mind. I didn’t even turn on my TV until 11:00 PM—to get coverage of the rally in Grant Park. Here in Chicago there weren’t any fireworks, though the rest of the world was/is celebrating like crazy.

Barack Obama’s words to his supporters were eloquent, wise, gracious, hopeful and brief.

We are all winners.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Notes From The Road . . . (Go Vote!)

by Sean Chercover

Been on the road since I don't know when. Feels like forever. Meeting many great people, talking 'bout books, putting serious miles on the old Chevy Malibu.

Some random notes from the road. . .
  • If you want to know how to host the best Bouchercon ever, ask Ruth Jordan and Judy Bobalik.
  • You really should visit the grave of Edgar Allan Poe. At night.
  • Pittsburgh continues to impress. Beautiful city, friendly people.
  • The people of Ohio are totally sick of political commercials, and for good reason.
  • Obama bumper stickers outnumber McCain bumper stickers in Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and California.
  • McCain bumper stickers outnumber Obama bumper stickers in West Virginia.
  • If you stop at the visitor's center in Wheeling, West Virginia, and ask where the nearest bookstore is, the answer will be, "Pennsylvania."
  • I did not make that up.
  • West Virginia is probably sick of being thought of as less than literate, but . . . damn.
  • There are some really bright students at the University of Illinois, Champaign.
  • Touring with Marcus is great fun. I recommend it.
  • Breaking your toe while on tour is not so much fun. I do not recommend it.
  • If you break your toe and then drive to the next town, do an interview for cable access TV, do a workshop at a library, walk to a pub, walk back from the pub, go to a cocktail party and stand for three hours, then drive for three hours, your toe will be ugly.
  • If a guy in line at a gas station accidentally steps on your broken toe, you will immediately go out and buy steel-toe shoes that you really don't need.
  • Doc Martens are not the quality shoes that they once were.
  • Overheard in a bookstore. . . A wealthy suburban mom, speaking impatiently to her 12-year-old son: "Fine, you can have the Metallica CD, but then we're putting the books back. You can't have everything you want."
  • It takes a great deal of restraint to keep your mouth shut and mind your own business when you hear a mother telling her son that he can't have books, in a country where very few young men still want to read.
  • California hasn't changed.
  • I love palm trees.
  • If you live in California, please vote No on Proposition 8.
  • The OC is very OC.
  • You can get signed copies of Trigger City at the Barbara's Bookstore near gate H1 at O'Hare.
  • Signed books make a thoughtful Christmas gift.
  • And all them other religious holidays, too. Like Hanukkah. And Kwanzaa
  • I can never remember how to spell Hanukkah, and I'm not sure why it sometimes has a C and sometimes doesn't.
  • And I always forget the extra 'a' on the end of Kwanzaa.
  • I am obviously rambling and in need of sleep.
  • G'night...

Go Vote. Now.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Studs Terkel RIA

Studs Terkel died yesterday. Studs was one of the country's great journalists, in print and on radio, a gifted listener, a commanding raconteur, the ultimate "voice of the voiceless." He was born in New York, but Chicago was his home for the great span of his adult life. He had a restless curiosity for the human condition and human life, and he continued to do his best work in his last decades as he had in his first. It's a joy to have known him and worked with him, a sadness to have lost him--especially before Tuesday's election. I don't want you to rest in peace, Studs; I want you to rest in action, so that those of us who remain behind don't stop the work which you "have thus far so nobly advanced."

Friday, October 31, 2008

Sam Reaves Sings the Mean Town Blues

by Libby Hellmann

Sam Reaves, aka Allen Salter, is, quite simply, one of the best crime fiction authors in Chicago. I’ve been reading him since his Cooper MacLeish series,and continued with his Dominic Martell and Dooley books-- he just keeps getting better. I love his prose. His plots and his characters aren't half bad, either. His tenth novel will be out soon, and I'm thrilled he's stopping by The Outfit to talk about it… and more. Both he and I will be around to check comments, so feel free to post. Welcome, Sam!

Some books are easy to write, others are tough. Sometimes a book just fights you from beginning to end; sometimes you start out like a house afire and get bogged down in the middle; sometimes you careen along having fun with the story and then when it’s time to wrap things up you realize you have so much going on you’re going to have the devil of a time making it all come out right, with no loose ends dangling.

Most of mine seem to be tough. Looking back, the easy ones stand out: Fear Will Do It practically wrote itself; Dooley’s Back took eight months from conception to completion, the fastest I’ve ever done a book. Homicide 69 was a lot of work from a research point of view but the writing mostly went pretty well, and I had a great police consultant, the late John DiMaggio, looking over my shoulder. But both Bury It Deep and Get What’s Coming gave me fits. I was struggling with the awkward nature of the Cooper series (essentially an amateur sleuth but stylistically closer to a P.I.) and having trouble getting a handle on the stories. I have bad memories of those books, though I think they came out all right.

Under my Dominic Martell pseudonym, Lying Crying Dying and The Republic of Night went well, making me think I had it down, and then Gitana twisted totally out of my control and wound up being the toughest to finish of all my novels.

Mean Town Blues was one of the easy ones. The premise is simple: we’ve all heard about a woman being persecuted by a stalker and thought, “Somebody ought to just shoot the son of a bitch.” (Admit it, you’ve thought that.) Well, what if you did? And what if when you did, you found out that you’d killed somebody with some very heavy connections? You’d need to be a fairly steady hand yourself to deal with the consequences. And there’s my novel. Tommy McLain, a Kentucky boy just back from a rough tour in Iraq, finds out that Chicago can be a mean town indeed.

Basically I just wound up the story and let it run. And because I knew who Tommy was, knew where he came from and what had forged him and how he thought and talked and reacted, the book pretty much wrote itself.

I wish I could figure out what I’m doing right on the easy ones, so I could do it every time. If I’ve learned anything, it boils down to keep it simple, find the right voice and take care of the prose.

I hope I can remember that when I start my next book.


PS You can celebrate Mean Town Blues with Sam at his launch at Sheffields on Wednesday, November 12 between 7 and 10 pm; 3258 N Sheffield, Chicago.