Thursday, January 31, 2008

Chicago Winters

by Michael Dymmoch

People bitch constantly about the accuracy of weather reports, but they’d do well in the stock market with information as ”bad.”

We had blizzards when I was a kid. I didn’t walk five miles to school in snow, just two blocks to the bus stop. And the snow sometimes started in November and stayed on the ground until March. I lived through the winter of ’67, and the snows of ’78, and the minus 25 degree temperatures in 1985. And in April of 1975 , I remember driving through a “freak” snowstorm that dumped 18 inches of snow overnight.

So when they predict three to six (or even ten) inches of snow and call for a winter storm watch, I don’t get it. This is Chicago. We’re supposed to get snow in winter. People who don’t want to move to Florida or Arizona ought to get a grip and a snow shovel and deal with it.

A Bunch Of Stuff . . .

- Sean Chercover

First. . . an OUTFIT EVENT: This weekend (Feb 1-3) at the Love Is Murder conference (held at the Wyndham O'Hare hotel) you will find five-out-of-seven Outfitters (Sara and Kevin can't make it this year). We'll be talking on panels, signing books and mostly hanging out in the bar . . . so please come by and say hello and have a drink. There will even be a panel/party for the Chicago Blues anthology.

Oh, and the conference features a bunch of great crime writers like Lee Child, Tess Gerritsen, Barry Eisler, JA Konrath, William Kent Kruger, Tasha Alexander, Sam Reaves, Theresa Schwegal, and more. So that's a whole lot of reasons to come out to Love Is Murder this weekend.

Next up. . . I want to take this opportunity to thank the City of Chicago for towing my car from a perfectly legal parking spot, to make room for some resident to move (even though moving permit signs were not posted) and dumping my car in a lot about 10 blocks away . . . and for insisting when I called that my car had not been towed and must've been stolen . . . and for connecting me to the cops who checked their computers and also insisted that my car must've been stolen . . . and for having a computer system that sometimes doesn't register the license plate number of a towed car for at least 24 hours. I really had nothing else to do for the last two days and I appreciate the diversion. Gotta love Chicago city bureaucracy.

Oh, and a sincere thank-you to my road dog Marcus, for driving me around the neighborhood in endless circles, looking for the aforementioned car and insisting that it couldn't be stolen, because no self-respecting car thief would steal such a shitbox.

I'm so glad you were right, Marcus.

And finally. . . I just want to add my voice to what Marcus and Sara said. Patry Francis is a great person who has written a great book, and you should buy it. Check out a few of the many stellar reviews:

"Engrossing from the first paragraph . . . deeply textured . . . beautifully written." - Mystery Scene Magazine

"Readers will be heartily rewarded." - Ladies Home Journal

"The Liar's Diary is outright chilling." - New York Daily News

Okay? Okay. Scroll down to Marcus' post and you'll find all the appropriate links to learn more about Patry and The Liar's Diary, and to get your hands on a copy.

You'll be glad you did.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Liars Diary

Hats off to Patry Francis for an arresting story. Not since Roger Ackroyd has there been such an unusual point of view in a murder mystery. Well done

Sara Paretsky

Help a Sister Out -- Blogging for Patry

by Marcus Sakey

Today marks the trade paperback release of my friend and Killer Year classmate Patry Francis's spectacular novel THE LIAR'S DIARY. It's a beautiful piece of work: nuanced, tense, and unpredictable, with some stunning twists and a wonderful feel for the ways we mislead others and ourself.

That's the reason to buy it.

The reason I suggest it here is that, as many of you probably know, Patry was recently diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. She's spent the last months in and out of the hospital. Her life has been shaken like a snowglobe. She's had to face the demons all of us dread.

And yet she has handled it with honesty, humor, and hope (check out her blog to see what I mean.) Rather than letting herself succumb to every dark thing, she's fought to find the beauty in each day. It's an amazing thing to watch grace unfurl.

Of course, that means that her focus has been where it should be--on real life. Not on promoting her novel, not on networking and schmoozing and doing interviews. Which gives us a wonderful opportunity to help her bear the load.

Think about jumping over to BookSense or Amazon and buying a copy. Do it because you can help out someone extraordinary. But also do it for yourself--you won't be disappointed.

If you are, hell, drop me a line. I'll buy your copy back.

All our best, Patry. There's a lot of love aimed your direction.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

White Collar Crime Fiction

by Libby Hellmann

There’s been a story in the news that reminds me why I write crime fiction. I'd like to say this story could only happen in Chicago, but of course that’s not true-- it could happen anywhere. But maybe not with the chutzpah and swagger we associate with the city of Big Shoulders.

It seems as if a few Cook County officials stole 1.6 million dollars in loans and federal money that was intended to train people to become carpenters. The thieves ran the President’s Office of Employment Training, POET, (ironic, no?) a federally funded jobs training program for the county.

Oh.. the Mayor’s office was tangentially involved, too. POET set up a dummy vendor, United Front, which was given a bunch of money from both the Mayor’s office and the Cook County Housing Authority. Unfortunately, the training sites United Front set up were “empty shells:” no equipment, no teachers, nothing. Except that United did go to the trouble of forging student signatures and falsifying paperwork to continue the stream of money.

But here’s the thing. It wasn’t as if United Front has an unblemished record. One of its officials was convicted of arson and fraud 15 years ago – Yes, that’s 15 years go -- to cover up theft. And a former POET fiscal manager was charged three years ago with embezzling nearly $200K.

All in all, over half a dozen people were charged, and while I’m shocked – shocked -- at the corruption and fraud, not to mention the turn-the-other-cheek mentality, I’m also fascinated. Who were these officials? Was simple greed what motivated them, particularly when they had to know the people at United Front weren’t (Ok, I can’t resist) “front and center?” Or was it something else? Maybe an official was in debt to the wrong people. Maybe someone’s spouse or kid had an out of control drug habit. Maybe someone needed money to pay for a medical procedure that wasn’t covered. What makes a professional commit a crime – and so brazenly?

White collar crime and the people who commit it are pretty much what I write about. Three of my novels deal with real estate fraud of one type or another, including EASY INNOCENCE (out in April… more about it later). Partly that’s because it’s familiar– my family has been in commercial real estate on the East Coast, and I've absorbed the basics over years of dinner table conversations. I understand the boom or bust cycles… the pressure… the risks… the pride.

When it’s done right, real estate development is every bit as creative as writing a novel…you’re creating something worthwhile where nothing existed before. (Sunday’s Chicago Tribune notwithstanding.) At the same time the possibilities to cut corners are legion. Maybe it’s slipping in sub-standard materials to save time and money. Maybe it’s greasing a palm for an official approval or environmental “clean bill of health.” Maybe it’s making sure the construction crews are available when you need them, or maybe it’s just out and out soaking investors without any return.

It goes without saying that my family wears a white hat when it comes to real estate. Still, I’m attracted to the dark side. What makes a person cross the line? Are unions threatening to strike? Are cost-overruns threatening to destroy the project? Or is it simply the personality of the individuals? I know these people. I grew up with them. They’re my neighbors. What happened? Did I miss something? What made them turn? Those are the things I think about when I’m writing and plotting, and – er – developing a book.

A quick search of the news reveals a rich tapestry of white collar crime. In Europe, there’s the “rogue” French trader who committed fraud to the tune of more than $7 billion…

In Los Angeles federal agents raided several Southern California museums searching for Southeast Asian antiquities that were stolen and smuggled into the U.S...

And although he’s not strictly white collar, there’s former cop Drew Peterson, who’s out-OJ’ing the Juice in outrageous behavior following the death and disappearance of two wives.

Who is this French man? He’s only 31. What went wrong? What about the art smugglers? And the collectors? Why did they risk their careers? Was it that lucrative? And what kind of creepy narcissist is Peterson? Is he going to skate?

I wonder… then I write.

What about you, Outfit readers? Is there a certain type of crime – or criminal – that calls to you?

Friday, January 25, 2008

Once I Had A Love, And It Was A Gas

By Kevin Guilfoile

I bet there's a statistician somewhere who could tell me the best place in the United States to grow up if you want to be a writer. Some little town tucked away somewhere that produces prose masters and poets by the busload. No doubt if you had the time to do all the research and graphing and geographical mapping you'd find such a magical spot, probably down south, a place where they wonder about the water, a village that defies probability.

I grew up in Cooperstown, New York, which in just the last couple years has produced three novelists (and possibly a fourth one soon): The talented Eugena Pilek (Cooperstown) was a year or two behind me, and Lauren Groff (whose novel The Monsters of Templeton will be published next month) graduated in 1996. That might not seem like a lot. Maybe it isn't. But when you consider that the public high school in Cooperstown boasts only about 90 kids in a class, that's better than one novelist for every 300 graduates over that span. It seems like a fair percentage.

Cooperstown is a village steeped in mythology. Pioneer myth. Native American myth. Baseball myth. There was always someone who had claimed to have seen a monster in the lake. Every third Victorian home had a ghost. It's a place where the cemeteries outnumber the traffic lights seven to one. It was where America's first homegrown blockbuster novelist was born and raised.

Cooperstown is a factory town where the factory makes stories. Or it was.

In her debut, Lauren Groff changes the name of the village to Templeton, just as James Fenimore Cooper did in his books. But she gets everything else about the place astoundingly accurate. Even when the lake monster dies and they beach his mammoth, prehistoric carcass in Lakefront Park, the nonchalance of the townfolk, while all the rest of the world loses its head over the discovery, is spot on.

If I can quote her:

In the past, the tourists had never really taken up much of our attention. They held no part in the social strata of Templeton: they existed in our periphery, essential but unimportant. Since the hospital came in 1918, the doctors had made up the highest base, filling the town with money and brains, running the country club, opening the galleries. The only rung above them held our few millionaires: the ambassador, the railroad magnate, the wonderful wealthy woman who made sure there were flowers everywhere, the Falconers with their beery fortune, not to mention both sides of my family until we lost it all. Below the doctors were the other white-collar people: hospital administrators, attorneys, librarians, and below them were the farmers, who used to be important, but with the decline of the New York dairy heifer were now associated with malt liquor and bonfires and hickishness. Below them the random townies who filled the Bold Dragoon on weekends. When the new Opera House opened in 1986, we reluctantly opened ranks for the Opera visitors with their couture gowns and Mercedes, but even they were eventually shunted off to Springfield on the other side of the lake. When the Park of Dreams opened in a cow field in Hartwick Seminary, south of town, we thought that a few Little Leaguers wouldn't be able to change the topography of the town that much. We didn't expect that they would bring their parents, and that the parents (cheesy, loud people with cellulite under their shorts and minivans soaped up with TEMPLETON OR BUST! and CHESTERTON CHARGERS ARE #1) would demand cheap restaurants and a better grocery store and plasticky chain hotels and miniature golf. We had no idea that the Park of Dreams would expand to hold 1200 screaming baseball brats per week, plus about 600 of their awful parents. Though we tried to keep them relegated to Hartwick Seminary, three miles south of Templeton proper, we didn't know that such demand would transform the face of the town. The sewing store, the dollhouse store, the toy store, even the Farm and Home would become stores that merely slutted themselves to baseball. Now, nearly every store was brimming with memorabilia or bats. The tourists were getting harder to ignore.

I know anyone who grew up in Cooperstown, anyone who has ever loved the place, will find a lot of painful truth in that. As a former stock boy at the Farm and Home Bargain Center, I know I do.

The Monsters of Templeton is getting big buzz in advance of its publication February 5. In his EW column a few months ago, Stephen King raved: "(Templeton is) a town that will remind readers of Ray Bradbury at his most magical. There are monsters, murders, bastards, and ne'er-do-wells, almost without number. I was sorry to see this rich and wonderful novel come to an end, and there is no higher success than that."

I would suggest to the half million or so tourists who are headed to Cooperstown this year that The Monsters of Templeton is the book you need to take with you. Read it on a bench in Lakefront Park, or in an Adirondack chair on the Otesaga Hotel veranda. Take it with you to the Dreams Park and dip into it between your kid's at bats. Finish this book while you are there and I promise you'll really have learned something about the place by the time you leave.


As long as we're talking about new books, I want to remind everyone that Marcus Sakey's latest, At The City's Edge, is off Marcus's laptop and in stores now. Get it. Open it. Smell it. Read it.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Edward Hoch

Edward Hoch has died, of a heart attack, in his home in Rochester, New York. He was one of the great masters of the short story, and one of its most productive practitioners: he wrote over 900 stories and had one in every issue of Ellery Queen, from 1973 onward. Ed was one of the kindest, most gracious and gentlemanly of all crime writers. His was the first face and hand to welcome any newcomer to MWA, and almost all of us active writers can cite any number of generous acts, from seeing that our own work got published, to his support of Sisters in Crime when we were first starting out. His memory will live long, but we will miss him sorely.

Sara Paretsky

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

AT THE CITY'S EDGE released today!

by Marcus Sakey

Hey folks, just a quick note to let you know that my new novel, AT THE CITY'S EDGE, is in stores today. You can stroll into any bookstore and buy as many as you like. I'm just saying.

However, if you're in the Chicago area you might want to hold off until tomorrow, when from 7 - 9 I'm throwing a launch party with fellow novelist Laura Caldwell at the uber-swank Landmark Lounge (1633 N. Halsted). Books will be available for sale, and though it's cold outside, you can count on beef tenderloin and a vodka martini with blue cheese olives to warm you up.

Finally, I'm running a contest to celebrate. Entering is easy — all you have to do is join my mailing list. Five runners-up will receive signed copies of the novel. But one lucky grand prize winner will see their name, or the name of someone they love, appear in my next novel. Maybe you'll be a cop, maybe you'll be a corpse.

Who knows? Maybe you'll be the hero.

I promise not to give out your email or swamp you with spam. And every single time I send out a newsletter, I give away free stuff, so there's pretty much no way to lose. Click here to join.

Thanks, folks! I now return you to the regularly scheduled Outfit Collective...

Monday, January 21, 2008

Cruisin' for a Bruisin'

by Barbara D'Amato

Here’s one for the books.

Jeanna Bryner, writing for reports on a study Professor Craig Kennedy at Vanderbilt University had undertaken and reported in the Journal Psychopharmacology. Get this:

The experimenters put a male mouse and a female mouse in a cage together. Then they took out the female mouse and put in a second male mouse. The intruder caused aggressive actions by the resident male, which, if you’re a mouse, includes boxing, a sideways stance, biting, and tail rattling. [Don't humans do this?] After the intruder mouse was removed, the researchers trained the resident male to poke a target with his nose to get the intruder to return. The resident mouse poked the target and fought, over and over, with the intruder mouse. Thus, the chance to fight was a reward. This was repeated with several resident and intruder mice

The researchers then treated the resident mice with a chemical to block dopamine release in its brain, the same parts of the brain that “see” food as rewarding. The mice were then less apt to poke their targets to get their intruders to come back. The researchers conclude that positive reinforcement is triggered by opportunities for aggression--aggression itself, just as it is by food and sex.

Are you a man or a mouse?

Given the fact that most humans see the mouse as typifying timidity, what does this say for human fighting? Will a guy go to a bar specifically looking for trouble? Probably. Maybe the scrappy little boys on the playground haven’t simply been badly brought up.

The implications for peace on earth are scary, of course, but way beyond the scope of The Outfit. Unless somebody wiser than I wants to take over.

The implications for crime fiction are interesting. Maybe those books in which people simply fly off the handle and fight, and are criticized for “lacking adequate motivation,” are actually well-founded. Extended fight scenes, quick recovery from that blow to the chin, and “wanting more” may be quite realistic.

Unmotivated aggression is not just a plot device. More’s the pity.

Friday, January 18, 2008

2008 Edgar Nominees Announced

by Marcus Sakey

This morning Mystery Writers of America announced the 2008 Edgar nominations. The Edgar is the most prestigious annual award in the field, and this year's nominees are terrific. A partial list is below; click here to see the full list.



Christine Falls by Benjamin Black (Henry Holt and Company)
Priest by Ken Bruen (St. Martin's Minotaur)
The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon (HarperCollins)
Soul Patch by Reed Farrel Coleman (Bleak House Books)
Down River by John Hart (St. Martin's Minotaur)


Missing Witness by Gordon Campbell (HarperCollins – William Morrow)
In the Woods by Tana French (Penguin Group – Viking)
Snitch Jacket by Christopher Goffard (The Rookery Press)
Head Games by Craig McDonald (Bleak House Books)
Pyres by Derek Nikitas (St. Martin's Minotaur)


Queenpin by Megan Abbott (Simon & Schuster)
Blood of Paradise by David Corbett (Random House - Mortalis)
Cruel Poetry by Vicki Hendricks (Serpent's Tail)
Robbie's Wife by Russell Hill (Hard Case Crime)
Who is Conrad Hirst? by Kevin Wignall (Simon & Schuster)


"The Catch" – Still Waters by Mark Ammons (Level Best Books)
"Blue Note" – Chicago Blues by Stuart M. Kaminsky (Bleak House Books)
"Hardly Knew Her" – Dead Man's Hand by Laura Lippman (Harcourt Trade Publishers)
"The Golden Gopher" – Los Angeles Noir by Susan Straight (Akashic Books
"Uncle" – A Hell of a Woman” by Daniel Woodrell (Busted Flush Press)


If/Then by David Foley (International Mystery Writers' Festival)
Panic by Joseph Goodrich (International Mystery Writers' Festival)
Books by Stuart M. Kaminsky (International Mystery Writers' Festival)


As always, I've read fewer than I would have expected, which means I've got some work to do in the next months. However, there are a couple I'd like to draw special attention to.

Derek Nikitas, nominated for PYRES, is a fellow member of the Killer Year group (as is Sean Chercover), and I had the privilege to blurb his book, so his nomination gives me a very personal pride. Way to do, Derek!

Ken Bruen is a friend and a mentor and an inspiration, and I love that in the last few years his work has really started to get the acclaim it deserves.

Laura Lippman is a wonderful writer, and the absolute soul of class and grace. While I'm thrilled she was nominated for her story, I'm stunned that WHAT THE DEAD KNOW didn't make the list.

My friend John Hart pulled off an amazing feat; he was nominated last year for the Best First for KING OF LIES. To return with a nomination for Best Novel on his sophomore effort is incredible.

Reed Farrel Coleman is a stone-pro who is long-overdue for this sort of attention. Very happy to see that one.

Stuart Kaminsky was nominated for not one but two Edgars, one of them for his contribution to CHICAGO BLUES, the anthology edited by Libby Hellman that includes stories from the Outfit. His story is terrific, as is the antho.

Speaking of the anthology, Alison Janssen and Ben LeRoy at Bleak House Books deserve special notice--rarely has a publisher not based in New York had such success. Three award noms, including in two Best Novel categories. Go, go, go!

Finally, for the record, this isn't a vote or a critique or anything of the sort. These are folks I know. I'm just giving love to friends.

Congratulations to all the Edgar nominees! It's a hell of a list.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Graphic sex

by Michael Dymmoch

I saw my first porn film way before I’d ever considered film as anything but entertainment. My brother loaned me an 8 mm movie because I’d never seen one, and he wanted to “educate” me. (Actually he was just showing off how much more he knew about porn.) It was entertaining until the novelty wore off—about two minutes in. Without plot, characterization, or suspense, it only had the improbable anatomies of its “actors” to hold my attention. And any appreciation of those was interrupted by observations like “she must get terrible backaches carrying all that weight up front.”

Since then, I’ve learned a little about movies, story and entertainment. And discovered some of the incredible variety in the ways Nature’s come up with for getting male and female together, as well as some of the other ingenious uses She’s devised for “sexual” behavior. For me, graphic sex, like baseball, is more fun to do than watch or read about. It’s not that I don’t appreciate a well written sex scene (or a well written any kind of scene), and I have stopped to reread a few that were particularly good. But that’s my point. I stopped. Unless the scene has a point beyond proving the writer can write it, it doesn’t add to the novel. It stops the reading dead while the reader appreciates the sex.

My second sex-in-“lit”- education lesson came from a copy of Playgirl Magazine. Curiosity compelled me to take it home. After I’d studied the pictures, I checked out the text—material I suppose was intended to be erotic. I nearly fell off the couch laughing. It was just too graphic. As much of a turn-on as watching cattle breed. And the idea that the behavior described would turn on an observer was hilarious.

When any animals get it on, Nature provides hormones and pheromones to facilitate the process. Really graphic sexual material (or for many humans, romantic descriptions) may stir the gonads and stimulate the hormones, but great description can also turn off those whose tastes differ.

I recall graphic sex scenes from several mystery novels—don’t remember the plots or how the stories came out—but I remember that the sex stood out. (Having said that, I’ll admit to putting fairly graphic foreplay in my upcoming novel, M.I.A. --April, St Martin’s Press--which I hope doesn’t stop the action. ) Mary Stewart’s romances don’t involve graphic sex, but they all left me wishing I had some. (And I’m not the only one—they were best sellers.) There was nudity in the Goodman’s last performance of Lear, but I didn’t walk out of the theater feeling sexually aroused. That performance—the rage, the fear, the love and loss and conflict—left me feeling like I’d been flattened by a bus.

I can envision stories in which graphic descriptions of kinky or unusual sex might delineate character, heighten suspense, or constitute an important plot element. (In Basic Instinct, graphic sex was the plot.) But now that it’s been done so well, how do you top it? (The sequel tanked.) One man’s turn on may be gross or hysterically funny to someone else. And if it’s really good, it stops the action.

That’s my take. What’s yours?

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

WGA Strike Follies, Part Deux . . .

-Sean Chercover

Okay I promise this will be my last video-based blog post for a while, but I couldn’t resist…

As many of you know, the WGA strike recently caused the cancellation of the Golden Globes broadcast and may threaten the Oscars.

What you may not know is that the AMPTP (the producers/studios) walked away from the bargaining table 39 DAYS AGO, and they have not returned.

Here’s a look at the AMPTP’s last counterproposal, before they stormed off in a huff…

For those still confused about the underlying issues, David Letterman explains:

Looks like this thing isn’t even close to over.

With the writers refusing to write, the studios have come up with a new prime time police drama, MURDER UNSCRIPTED, starring Chris Noth, BD Wong, Eric Bogosian, Dean Winters, Kate Erbie, Peter Gerety, and Zeljko Ivanek.

And here’s a sneak-peek at the next Susan Sarandon film:

You know what? I’ve changed my mind. We don’t need scripts. All we need is great acting:

But as Hollywood moves on without the writers, we may shed a tear for the lonely scribes’ plight:

And the strike doesn’t just hurt the writers. Here’s a look:

For more information on the WGA strike, please visit

We now return you to your regularly scheduled programming...

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Reading is Fundamental

by Libby Hellmann

Every year, one of my new year’s resolutions is to improve my writing. For me, writing is a challenge, and I usually feel unequal to the task. I’m not one of those people who love the process of writing, and I’m jealous of people who do. I’m more the “I-hate-writing-but-loved-that-I’ve-written type. Which begs the question of why I’m writing in the first place.

The answer is I’m not sure, but I have my suspicions. I love stories, and I love characters, and I love it when either the story or the characters surprise me. I wasn’t always a book junkie (although I started out that way as a kid)… I was a film-maker way before I was a writer, and my goal was to be the Lina Wertmuller of the United States.

But somewhere along the way I came back to words. There are so many authors writing such wonderful books -- stories that inspire, that educate, that shock, bring me to tears, cause me to question, or make me fall in love all over again. There is a delight in settling down with a book and knowing I’m going to be taken on an author’s journey – whether physical, metaphysical, or emotional -- and let into their heads for a while. In fact, that joy is one of the most pleasurable activities I can think of.

So it’s probably not a stretch to see how that fueled my desire to write… to create stories and characters that would bring the same delight to others as I’ve always felt.

Sadly, though, (and yes, I’ve blogged about this before), people aren’t reading the way they used to. We all know the statistics about the hours Gen X’ers and Y’ers spend online, visiting social networks, or melding with their Blackberries. It's time they aren’t spending reading. Now, it seems that Baby Boomers are getting into the act too.

Shelf Awareness, a wonderful resource about bookselling btw, cites an article from the New York Times last fall:

"Technology investors and entrepreneurs, long obsessed with connecting to teenagers and 20-somethings, are starting a host of new social networking sites aimed at baby boomers and graying computer users. The sites …look like Facebook--with wrinkles.”

According to the article’s author, Matt Richtel "there are 78 million boomers--roughly three times the number of teenagers--and most of them are Internet users ... Indeed, the number of Internet users who are older than 55 is roughly the same as those who are aged 18 to 34, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, a market research firm."

Does that mean Boomers, traditionally the backbone of the buying public, will be reading fewer books as time goes on? As a Baby Boomer myself, I spend more time online these days… time I used to spend reading. But if reading is the activity that inspires me to write, how do I improve my writing by reading less? The simple answer is that I won’t.

Author Elizabeth Berg wrote an incredible essay in the Chicago Tribune Books section last weekend about her resolution to read more. Here's part of what she said:

A lot of people say they don't have time to read, not even an hour a day. Whenever I hear that, I always think of my partner Bill, who says, "Give up 'Wheel of Fortune' in favor of reading, and you can go through 25 books a year, and that's with taking the weekends off!"

In this age of multitasking, of speed for speed's sake, of pop-ups and links exhorting us to go somewhere else when we're not even done with where we are, it is a relief, if not salvation, for us to focus on one dang thing at a time. Instead of being lost for hours in the time-sucking quicksand of the Internet, one sits in dignified, tick-tock, one-blue-mountain silence and reads a page ... turns it ... reads the next page, and so on. Such an elegant act, reading, isn't it? And such an elegant image, a person sitting in a chair, a book resting on a lap, lamplight spilling onto the page. Can't you just feel your blood pressure lowering, contemplating such a thing?

I can, and I've decided to modify my resolution. Like Berg, I’m going to try and read more this year and spend less time online.

What about you? How much time do you spend online? Has your reading declined as a result? What do you think about that?

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Quod Erat Demonstrandum, Baby

By Kevin Guilfoile

I'm sure you don't know this but The Outfit has a Caribbean doppleganger, a French-language blogger who has been covering the Hans Peterson case from paradise climes with nearly as much diligence as us, albeit with a little less discretion and a lot more flair.

More on him in a moment.

The case is back in the news as a team of French prosecutors, judges, and police officers will arrive in Chicago on Monday to begin their investigation into the murder of Chicago dermatologist Dr. David Cornbleet. They will be interviewing witnesses, detectives, and the family of the victim, and they might visit the Michigan Avenue office in which Dr. Cornbleet was murdered.

(If you're unfamiliar with this bizarre case, in which a former patient of Dr. Cornbleet confessed to his brutal murder but not before fleeing to the Caribbean where he now waits, in a web of complicated extradition laws, for trial in a French court, start at the bottom and read up. I promise you won't be bored.)

Thanks to a legal system that must be the envy of our current administration, Hans Peterson has not been charged with a crime and yet has been sitting in a Guadeloupe prison since his confession last August. Presumably this legal junket to the states will finally lead to murder charges which will then be prosecuted under the French inquisitorial system in an island court.

Unlike our adversarial system, in which the prosecution and defense would duel over his fate before judge and jury, the investigation, trial, and sentencing of Hans Peterson will all be directed by a judge. At trial, representatives for the prosecution, defense, and even the victim will be allowed to make suggestions, but it will ultimately be the judge who interviews witnesses, the judge who weighs the evidence, the judge who renders a verdict, and the judge who issues the sentence.

Prosecutors in Guadeloupe have assured the Cornbleet family that justice will be served in a French court, and I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of their public service. I assume they will seek a thorough investigation and a fair trial. Jon Cornbleet, the son of the victim, recently told the Sun-Times what message he hopes to communicate to the judge:

"I want to explain to them that everybody is upset about this,'' Cornbleet said. "I want to explain to them that this is a huge national case that everybody has their eyes on. I don't think they understand what it has done to my family.''

This might be a message that will be well-received. France is fairly sensitive to victims' rights, even requiring in some cases that the state compensate victims financially when the the offender is unable to.

Of course the Cornbleets have never asked for compensation, as far as I know. I think what Jon Cornbleet would like the French government to know is that the world is watching this case. Or, if not the world, CNN, Inside Edition, Dateline NBC, the United States Senate, the US State Department. And of course, The Outfit. And also Jabiru.

Jabiru is Gilbert Blum, the aforementioned blogger and a St. Martin journalist operating under the auspices of Le Monde who has taken an interest in this case. Apparently he has received much of his information from the local detectives who took Peterson's confession, as well as the attorney who will represent him at trial.

Months ago we reported that Peterson had carried a blowtorch with him on the night of the murder with the intention of cutting off Dr. Cornbleet's hands and feet and then cauterizing the wounds, keeping the physician alive while he suffered. Jabiru goes into far more detail (even if the awkward translation sometimes makes the depiction more lurid):

To carry out his demented mutilation operation, he buys a small blowtorch with gas cartridges, special pliers to “slash the dermatologist with”, a hacksaw, some rope, plus his knife… before the fateful appointment of 24 October 2006. Faced with Dr. Cornbleet, he uses as an excuse a blemish on his buttock and the consultation takes place normally.

Then, as he was about to leave empty-handed, he pretends to the dermatologist that he also has a blemish on his leg to show him. And then the cold-blooded attack begins, releasing a drive to kill pent up since April 2002.

His diabolical delirium (a Dibbuk, as Dr. David Cornbleet’s Ashkenazi ancestors used to say) materialized in the persecution feeling which has been haunting him, eating at him inside his body and soul for the past four years. But in a broken up family context, he does not talk about it. Therefore there is no outside critical mind that could go against the negative deviance of his intimate thoughts. No meeting, no advice, no feed-back from his father, his mother or his sister Stephanie.

He feels perfectly normal and totally logical to punish his persecutor by slashing at his hands and feet so that he may no longer carry out his profession. A fiendish plan, including cauterizing the wounds with the blowtorch!

Under the threat of torture, the physician defended himself, hitting the aggressor with the knife. Then he becomes relentless, with no visible emotion, until he finally finishes him off with the thrust of the knife in the heart of his executioner having become an expiatory victim until his last breath. Leaving the office with warm blood stains, he told someone there to call for an ambulance quickly. On exiting the building, he conceals his face in front of the video cameras.

We might be seeing the first glimpses of Peterson's defense here. I'm not sure if this comes from Peterson's statement or from his attorney but this is the first suggestion I've seen, however improbable, that he did not intend to kill Dr. Cornbleet that day:

His main goal – four years after the first consultation – was not (he said) the death of his executioner, only mutilation… Of course, for all his patients David Cornbleet is everything but an executioner. But Hans is locked within the delirium of his paranoid delusion, controlled by the injustice he feels as a victim.

Much has been made about the effect that the drug Accutane might have had on Hans Peterson, even after only two doses. Peterson's father, also a physician, has gone so far as to say that it was the cause of his son's psychosis. Perhaps the most interesting implication in Jabiru's posts (and in his comments here at The Outfit as well) is the possibility that the defense will include the suggestion that Hans has Asperger's Syndrome.

For the court attorney in Guadeloupe, the burden of defending Hans Peterson is heavy and somewhat tricky. The first trips to the visiting room in the Basse-Terre jail look more like short progressive taming sessions.

The murderer is not talkative. He is autistic, and his distinctive features are:

Lack of communication with people. Reasoning intelligence and good writing qualities, including self-analysis.

A champion of online poker on the Internet, the year the crime was committed, he has 130,000 dollars in his account. Therefore he did not kill for money. “A rational gambler typically knows the expected payoff and loss, as well as the probabilities of winning and losing”, he says.

From now on, his brain, locked into a prison cell, is going to remain shut away inside the prison, like a snail inside its shell. A young French-American borderline individual, coming to take refuge on a French island to avoid the risk of a lethal injection, his trial will probably take place within 2 years. Who is he and why did he kill?

Hans Peterson’s four aces, his “game of bluff” could be Asperger’s syndrome.

Readers of this site know that three months after he murdered Dr. Cornbleet, Peterson began posting to Wrong Planet, an "online resource and community for those with Asperger's Syndrome". Although Hans had registered at the site three years earlier, it was only after Dr. Cornbleet's murder that he began inquiring whether he might have the disorder. Hans was clearly trying to figure out why he was different from everyone he knew.

As far as I can tell Hans has never been diagnosed with Asperger's, a high functioning form of autism that has nothing to do with murderous rage. But it's possible that his attorney is trying to use Asperger's as a mitigating factor in sentencing. Several months after we had first discussed Hans's personal inquiry into Asperger's, Jabiru commented here at The Outfit:

I discuss about that with a french psychiatric expert. Autism and Asperger Syndrom have also to be in your mind to understand a little more about this criminal.

I can only assume that Jabiru is getting that idea from Hans's defense attorney. And although it's difficult to imagine what Asperger's has to do with murder, if Hans's defense is really lining up psychiatrists to attest to that fact it's something that might give observers of this case pause, especially in light of this paragraph from the US Department of Justice analysis of the French judicial system:

Expert witnesses, such as psychiatrists, have a great influence. The court will generally abide by the conclusions of expert witnesses.

Cub fans

It's almost time for pitchers and catchers to show up for spring training. Ryne Sandburg is managing the Peoria team. There are tornadoes in Chicago in January, which could herald either the World Series or a giant blizzard. I was driving through spectacular lightening shows last night to do a reading at Women and Children First, when I saw the cars backed up half a mile at the Belmont exit to Lake Shore Drive, the exit to Wrigley Field, and I thought, these truly are Die-Hard Cub fans, braving tornadoes in January to see their team.

Sara Paretsky

Thursday, January 03, 2008

How to Stage a Pie Fight

by Barbara D'Amato

We have had many deep and serious postings on The Outfit Collective. This isn’t one of them.

Let’s suppose you plan to stage a pie fight, for a convention, a party, or just because. I’ve been involved in a couple of these, and can say with confidence that it’s not as simple as it looks.

You don’t just walk up on the stage and start throwing pies. The audience needs to understand what you’re going to do. They have no chance to anticipate if you just jump up and throw a pie in the victim’s face. You need to build the moment a bit. Let the audience see the pie. They’ll wonder whether you really intend to go ahead. A little dialogue here helps. Something like:

“You wouldn’t!”
“Yes, I would.”
“You wouldn’t! I just had my hair done.”
“All the better.”

Of course, something wittier is always good, or something related to who the victim and pie-thrower are and what the event is.

“You wouldn’t do it in front of all these nice funeral directors!” Whatever.

Now, the pie itself is important. The shell can be the light aluminum kind or the fiberboard kind that real pies come in. But don’t use a real pie. There’s no point and it makes a mess. No hotel needs blueberries in its carpet. As to the filling, there are two schools of thought, whipped cream or shaving cream. Some fear that shaving cream will sting the victim’s eyes. Forget about it! Shaving cream is much superior to whipped cream. Whipped cream is sticky and doesn’t wash out of clothes or hair easily. Shaving cream, on the other hand, is sort of soap. Whipped cream may also start to break down and get soupy if it hangs around a while under hot lights. Not a good thing. The last pie fight I was involved in was with Parnell Hall, who insisted on whipped cream. Parnell is a splendid person, multi-talented and gentlemanly. He is, although you must already know this, the author of the wonderful Puzzle Lady mystery series and the Stanley Hastings mystery series. But he doesn’t know from pie fight fillings. Use shaving cream.

Okay, the pie is about to be thrown. But in fact, don’t throw it. Lift it more slowly than you would naturally, and place it squarely, flat-on into the face of the victim.

At this point the victim should freeze in place—and he or she may even be too surprised to move, despite having expected this—to let the audience see that the event has actually happened.

Have fun.
Photo: Parnell Hall, Barbara D'Amato, photo credit Bonnie Cardone

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

2007's Best Stuff

by Marcus Sakey

In general, I'm not a list-maker. But about three years ago, I began writing down the titles of books I read. I started on a whim, just thinking it would be entertaining to look back on, but it's become a serious routine, one of those mildly superstitious habits we try not to look too closely at, like if I don't write it down, it somehow doesn't count.

Anyway, the fun part is that every New Year's Day, I get to take out the old list and relive those moments. I remember sitting by the fire last January, lost in A WINTER'S TALE; I recall honey sunlight through the restaurant window as I cracked DRIVE; which beer I had ordered before diving into AMERICAN TABLOID; that three a.m. quiet as I closed LEGENDS OF THE FALL.

So in that spirit, as we begin 2008, I thought I'd mention a few things I discovered or enjoyed in 2007.

Critic David Montgomery asked me, and about fifty other authors, to list the three favorite books we'd read in the last year. You can read mine here. However, choosing three was brutal, so I'm going to take the time to add a few more:

CORONADO, by Dennis Lehane, knocked my socks off. Lehane's voice just keeps getting more controlled and refined. The story "Until Gwen" is an absolute heartbreaker, though "Gone Down to Corpus" is probably my favorite.

VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL, "the oral history of a nuclear disaster," is one of the most horrifying things I have ever read.

SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL, by Kent Anderson, is the prequel to the novel NIGHT DOGS. These two together are in my top five crime / war novels of all time. Anderson doesn't hesitate to go to his dark places, and what he sees there he delivers up with a poet's flair and a reporter's impartiality.

STONE CITY, by Mitchell Smith, is off-the-charts good. God bless the folks at Busted Flush for reprinting it. Keep your eyes open; it's due out early this year.

I loved Edgar contenders A FIELD OF DARKNESS and THE KING OF LIES, by my friends Cornelia Read and John Hart. Both have second books out now, and I own both and am pleasure-delaying on 'em.

I re-read Cormac McCarthy's BLOOD MERIDIAN, and found it just as horrifyingly good this time around. A lot of people have discovered McCarthy this year because of THE ROAD, which is an excellent book. But this one is better.

Movies & TV:
The Lives of Others is a go-out-and-rent-it-right-NOW movie. Set in East Berlin during the height of the Cold War, it's a scathing look at fascism, paranoia, and misplaced passion.

The Departed gets better every time I see it. A lot of folks like to say that it's good but not great, but I can't agree--it's tight, compelling, beautifully interwoven, rich in parallel and meaning. The only weak moment in the whole film is the very last one, with the rat on the railing.

Little Children was tremendous. The cast is great, the adaptation is almost as good as Tom Perotta's book, and the sense of suburban helplessness, offset with just the tiniest amount of warmth and humor, was thick enough to choke.

The movie I'm having the hardest time getting out of my mind recently is The Fountain. It's a love story told in three parts, all interconnected, and only one of them actually happening. The score is beautiful, the cinematography is tremendous, and Aronofsky isn't afraid to make you think. I feel like the film went a little more obscure than strictly necessary in the last ten minutes, but I'd always rather watch an artist shoot for the moon.

Battlestar Galactica continued to blow the doors off. Can't wait for the next and final season.

My favorite band discovery of the year is The Mountain Goats, an indie rock group that really centers around one guy, the incredibly talented John Darnielle. Unabashedly smart lyrics that paint intimate portraits, flavored with just the right amount of irony and humor. How can you beat lines like, "I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me"?

Along the same lines, a friend recently introduced me to Kevin Tihista's Red Terror, an album called "Wake Up Captain." It's music that sounds like it should be depressing, all about loss and the pain of love, but somehow you're singing along and smiling.

I wore out my Dropkick Murphy's albums this year. Also Social Distortion and The Libertines and The Hold Steady.

Death Cab for Cutie and The Postal Service both topped the list too, as does Spoon. I love the first few tracks of Cracker's "Greenland."

Bioshock set a new bar, proving that games can have both ass-kicking and a point. Atmospheric and intelligent, with one of the first well-executed "twists" I've ever seen in a game.

The annoyingly-punctuated S.T.A.L.K.E.R was an amazing experience in a haunting world. Playing that game, I just felt...lonely.

So there we are. A few things that made me think, made me laugh, or just made me happy in 2007. If you've got a few minutes, post a comment and let me know what did the same for you.

And welcome to 2008!