Thursday, January 18, 2018

The Long Dance

By David Nemeth
Jesse McBane and Patricia Mann, circa 1971
As I drove east toward Durham, the North Carolina Piedmont was hidden by walls of trees and occasional billboards for family restaurants. I tired of the monotony and jumped off Interstate 85 onto US Route 70 as I hoped to see the real Carolina. And not so much, everything seemed familiar, the strip malls, the box stores, and those stubborn little stores still fighting for a dollar.

In Durham, my plan was to catch up with Eryk Pruitt and eat some barbecue. Pruitt is a man of many titles: writer, filmmaker, gastronome, and podcaster. His latest book, What We Reckon, is "filled with love, drugs, jealousy, more drugs, rage, and then more drugs." Hell, it was one of the best books of 2017 as if you couldn't already tell. Pruitt's better half, Lana, met me at the front door and, contrary to popular rumor she does not appear to be suffering from Stockholm syndrome. She walked me through their backyard to Pruitt's writing shed, which she jokeningly called his kill room. (It was a joke, wasn't it?) After a brief tour of Pruitt's garden destroyed by the recent deep freeze, we headed out for some barbecue. He gave me the choice a barbecue restaurant with a chef or a joint attached to a gas station. I chose the latter.

As we headed to Johnson Family Barbecue, the conversation drifted to Pruitt's latest project, The Long Dance podcast, an investigation into the 1971 unsolved murders of Patricia Mann and Jesse McBane in Durham. I had the chance to listen to the first episode which told the stories of Mann, 20, and her boyfriend McBane, 19, who both disappeared on Febraury 12, 1971. You can hear the sadness in the family and friends as they remember these two young people.

Our drive had us in an upscale development and Pruitt came to a stop in a cul-de-sac.

"This is where they found McBane's abandoned car," said Pruitt.

He pointed off in the distance and said that it was a three-mile walk to where their bodies were found tied to a tree two weeks later.


After eating some incredible barbecue, we got in Pruitt's car to grab a cup of coffee further in Durham. A few miles down the road we passed a high school that Pruitt pointed out used to be the hospital and nursing school where Mann studied. The Mann-McBane murders haunt Pruitt.

"When I go to sleep, I think about this case," said Pruitt. "And when I wake up, it's still with me. It's all I think about."

I listened to the first two episodes and I feel Pruitt's obession. Pruitt, along with journalist Drew Adamak and sound engineer Piper Kessler, have produced a podcast that tells Mann and McBane's story compassionately. Not only do we root for The Long Dance team to catch the murderers, but you can tell that they genuinally cares for Mann, McBane, their families, and their friends. Listening to the podcast, Pruitt's prose tells the story gently but with a sense of urgency that unites the listener with the podcasters that the killers must be caught. They are currently putting the final touches to the last episodes and The Long Dance should be out in a few weeks.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Shut it Down

by Holly West

I recently tweeted this:
Some people call this censorship. I say it's simply a business decision the company made, likely for a number of reasons. The official story is that cable news isn't part of a healthy lifestyle. I can personally tell you that I'm a whole lot happier now that I don't have to see the president's mug plastered on all of the giant TV monitors anymore.

Is cable news unhealthy? I certainly think it is, and though I detest it more since January 20, 2017, I came to the conclusion long before that. Or maybe unhealthy is the wrong word. Maybe unproductive is a better one? Or maybe even destructive?

Whatever. I applaud Life Time Fitness for its decision.

You've seen me whine occasionally about political posts. A lot of that was because of the blatantly offensive and untrue memes that circulated during Obama's administration. We also saw the rise of social media during that time, and if Facebook taught me anything, it was that I had a lot of family members and some friends who held, shall we say, wildly different views than I did.

It wasn't the different views I objected to so much, it was the barely disguised racism.

Things are worse now, but I'm admittedly less bothered by offensive memes about our current prez, even if I don't forward them myself. I am, however, still troubled by the proliferation of untrue memes, statements taken out of context, exaggerated narratives that take on a life of their own. I'm not speaking to any one incident, I'm saying this in general. And if things are worse, much of it is because we're treated to the unfiltered thoughts and words of the prez himself every day. Hard to argue something's been taken out of context when he's put it out there for all of us to see.

This, finally, is what I want to talk about today. I'm as outraged as anybody else about the behaviors and policies of the current administration, but I find myself talking about it less and less, especially on social media. Why? Because I can't get beyond the idea that expressing my outrage is actually giving this person and his lackeys what they want. Attention. Doesn't matter if it's good or bad. The media's been criticized and even blamed for the debacle we've now got in the White House but if I participate in that conversation, repeating and retweeting and sharing posts by and about him/them in the process, aren't I becoming part of that media? Aren't I, then, part of the problem?

There's no doubt each of us has a responsibility to speak out against corruption, to voice our anger and dismay and, yes, fear, when we see our personal and collective values shat upon at every turn. Boycotts and peaceful protest are also important tools, as is positive reinforcement when, say, a company like Life Time Fitness takes an action (however small) we believe in.

I'm just wondering if we're all out there shouting so loud we can't hear anything above the noise.

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Bones and Memory

When the president made his pleasant comments about Haiti the other day, it got me thinking about how I haven't read all that much Haitian fiction and need to read more.  I have read Edwidge Danticat, however, and I particularly like her novel The Farming of Bones from 1998.  It's a tough but gorgeously written book that centers around the infamous 1937 massacre of Haitians by Dominican Republic army soldiers on the direct orders of Dominican president Rafael Trujillo.  Trujillo had ordered his army to kill all Haitians living, working, farming on the Dominican side of the island Haiti and the Dominican Republic share, his pretext being Haitian crime in the country.  As he put it in a speech he made October 2, 1937, "For some months, I have traveled and traversed the border in every sense of the word. I have seen, investigated, and inquired about the needs of the population. To the Dominicans who were complaining of the depredations by Haitians living among them, thefts of cattle, provisions, fruits, etc., and were thus prevented from enjoying in peace the products of their labor, I have responded, 'I will fix this.' And we have already begun to remedy the situation. Three hundred Haitians are now dead in Banica. This remedy will continue."

The "remedy" did continue.  Trujillo, you see, believed in anti-Haitianism, his goal being to cleanse the Dominican side of Haitians.  The massacre lasted several days.  Soldiers used rifles, knives, and clubs to kill, and they often - again, as ordered by Trujillo - used machetes.  Thousands were slain while trying to flee back to Haiti, and many people killed had been born and lived their whole lives in the Dominican Republic.  Estimates vary on the total number of people murdered, but the number is somewhere between twelve and thirty-five thousand.

Sound depressing?  The historical facts are, but the book Danticat writes is not.  In precise language, with an effortless style, she takes you back in time and makes her characters, both victims and survivors, come to life. One can see, taste, and smell what she describes. She writes about the poignancy of exile and the importance of memory.  Or, more precisely, not memory per se, but the importance one should place on remembering the past.  Her book serves as a memorial to the slain, a testament to what they experienced, a way of getting stories about history's anonymous down in print for the long term.  And she does it with the skill of a master storyteller, someone whose world, no matter how dark, you don't want to leave.  

Well, that's just one Haitian novel I've read, and though it discusses a specific period of bloodsoaked events, its overall preoccupations are timeless.  The current U.S president, I have to say, is no Rafael Trujillo, but it does seem as if certain basic patterns of thinking about particular groups of people recur and persist.

Meanwhile...I have to take a look and see what Haitian writing I'll be reading next.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Preaching to the Choir

I'm not convinced a lot of people sell books on social media. I certainly know that I've found it harder to find meaningful recommendations since the collapse of the author blogging circles. Illustrations from social media have made me wonder about the effectiveness of book marketing.

What I am convinced of is that Twitter is a political echo-chamber. Some recent exchanges there got me thinking.

It's the same old story. If you criticize 45 on anything (like, say, golfing instead of reassuring people in Hawaii that they weren't about to die) then you're left-wing nutjob who would never give the man credit for anything.

If you defend him you're a right-wing puppet who wouldn't criticize him if he came to your house, robbed you and grabbed your daughter's pussy before securing your vote for the next election.

Now, what does that have to do with promoting books? We're stuck in our own echo chamber. A lot of the promotion I see involves promoting books to other authors.

My husband and I have talked about this a lot. We've talked about the short story market within crime fiction and how we've watched, one by one, as good publications have pulled the plug.

Meanwhile, other short story markets are thriving. The speculative fiction camp seems to have high-paying publications that not only outnumber the crime fiction market but exceed them several times over.

I've been trying to put my finger on just what it is that makes their market so successful while crime fiction's short fiction market flounders.

The only thing that has been suggested that makes sense? Fan engagement. Their fans have Star Trek conventions and comic conventions and they're into cosplay and on it goes. Their fans are immersed. I know someone who works for one of the current stars of The Walking Dead and works at all of their conventions.

And from what I've heard, those conventions are an intense experience.

I don't know what the lay of the land is in romance but I do know that it seems like the level of fan engagement in speculative fiction has enabled publishers and writers to engage their audience effectively.

Meanwhile, over here in crime fiction land, I'm wondering what publishers are doing to push through that barrier. I saw a complaint recently about publicists and it echoed some of my own observations.The material is coming later and later and then I don't have time to prepare to do proper interviews with authors. And then you get the authors who can't be contacted. You try to go through a publicist and the process is delayed or heaven forbid that you might want to have an exchange so you can ask proper follow-up questions and the publicist or author just doesn't have the time for that.

Best author interview I've read in recent months? Brian Lindenmuth's interview with Jason Ridler. You got a sense of the person behind the book and it was a fun read.

Meanwhile I've been struggling to get authors willing to even be interviewed for our second print issue. I got a low percentage of returns from the authors I approached for the first issue and I actually had far more time to line up interviews for the second issue. I posted on Facebook and Twitter.

I've had one author contact me based on my posts and a second author responded to a direct request.

I'm left to conclude that one of the following must be true
a) authors don't want to engage via interviews
b) Spinetingler isn't worth the time
c) reviews are preferred

I'm only reviewing for Underground Book Reviews these days. While I appreciate honest, heart-felt reviews on Amazon as much as any author, I don't think getting them from other authors counts for much. And with some people if you don't give a glowing endorsement in support of every author's efforts then you're shunned. For me, if I can't be honest I can't be reviewing in the crime fiction genre.

What I am trying to do is get back to the days of my in-depth interviews. Nothing has ever made me want to pick up a book more than a great author interview, which includes authors on panels at events.

Am I alone?

Perhaps. All I know is, if I can't build a bridge between authors and readers via Spinetingler then it's time for me to reconsider my efforts. Perhaps all we'll be left with is the Big 5 and a few independents with their standard line of publicity for the top selling authors they publish while those who are new or unknown languish in obscurity. I'm seeing the same books pushed to the same audience through the same channels.

What happens when the recipients find that dull as dishwater?

If you read a great book, you want to read another great book. If you see a great movie you want to watch another great movie.

If you feel like all you're seeing is the same old, same old then what do you do next?

75% of what I read in 2017 was outside the crime fiction genre. I wonder what the stats will be like this year.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

River TV Series

Scott D. Parker

Hot on the heels of watching the excellent Broadchurch, my wife and I decided on yet another program she discovered. The one aspect of this six-episode series (really, just a six-hour movie broken up into six parts) that got her attention was the star: Stellan Skarsgård. I first saw Skarsgård in The Hunt for Red October back. He's a good actor, but not on my list of actors of whom I will see anything they do. This was likely off my radar but, again, I'm so glad it found its way onto my Netflix cue.

If you’ve seen the trailer or read the description, it’s giving nothing away to relate the basic gist of this story. Skarsgård plays DI John River, a man whose partner, DS Jackie "Stevie" Stevenson, was recently murdered. He is haunted by the event, but also by Stevie’s ghost…because River can see her and interact with her. And not only her but other ghosts—“Manifests” as he dubs them—all the time. What is fascinating is the more he digs into the truth about Stevie, the more he realizes there were shades of his former partner about which he never knew.

The plot could come across as rote or mundane, but the acting, especially Skarsgård, allows River to rise above other television programs of the same. It’s not just a crime story; rather, it’s more a nuanced examination of the character and how one violent moment—the murder of his partner—can have such profound impacts on his life. Skarsgård is excellent in this role. More than once, River would be in some dark place, like punching a wall he thinks is a ghost, only to have the character turn on a dime and smile like nothing’s wrong. It’s a bit disorienting for us viewers to say nothing of the supporting characters, especially Adeel Akhtar, who plays Ira King, River’s new partner. We viewers felt for King in the beginning, but he, like us, began to adjust to River’s bizarre behavior. I’d go so far as to say that King is the grounding character River needs to keep one foot on this side of sanity. While King doesn’t necessarily have an arc, he comes across as very sympathetic the longer the story goes on.

Lesley Manville, who plays Chrissie Read, River’s superior officer, also shines. Halfway through the story, it dawned on me that in many of these BBC shows I’ve watched, there are women in powerful positions. Prime Suspect, Broadchurch, The Fall, and Fox’s The Killing. The thing is, in these shows, it’s no big deal. It’s refreshing. Watching Manville’s character react to the events of this story is fantastic.

This is a show of nuances. Little facial tics or a half smile. Of small moments of growth or pain or a character willing to open up a part of themselves.  When you watch this—and you should—do not be distracted by your phone or anything else. If you want to find out just where you know Eddie Marsan from—Sherlock Holmes and Little Dorritt for me; there; I helped you—wait until the end of an episode. Devote your full attention to “River” and you will be justly rewarded.


Thursday, January 11, 2018

Crime Wave in Charlottesville

March 21-25 this year is the week for the Virginia Festival of the Book, an annual event punctuated on that Saturday by Crime Wave.

This year, Rob Hart, Alex Segura, Alison Gaylin, Steve Weddle, Kate Moretti, Attica Locke, Deanna Raybourn, Lyndsay Faye, and many others will be empanelled for your pleasure. Check speaker list here and select by letter.

You have no chance to survive make your time

Crime Wave Brunch with Attica Locke

Sat. March 24, 10:00 AM - 11:30 AM

Omni Hotel - Ballroom A

212 Ridge McIntire Road, Charlottesville, VA 22903

Sponsored by: University of Virginia Gamma Knife Center
Join hundreds of other Crime Wave readers for Saturday morning brunch with Attica Locke, the New York Timesbestselling author of Bluebird, Bluebird and winner of the 2016 Harper Lee Prize for Legal Fiction.
Additional Crime Wave authors will join readers for the Brunch, and book sales and a signing by Ms. Locke will follow.

Why should you attend?

“Attica Locke has both mastered the thriller and exceeded it… I loved everything about this book.”—Ann Patchett, author of Commonwealth
“Locke, having stockpiled an acclaimed array of crime novels, deserves a career breakthrough for this deftly plotted whodunit whose writing pulses throughout with a raw, blues-inflected lyricism.”―Kirkus Reviews starred review
“Attica Locke is a must-read author who writes with power, grace, and heart, and Bluebird, Bluebird is a remarkable achievement. This is a rare novel that thrills, educates, and inspires all at once. Don’t miss it.”Michael Koryta, author of Rise the Dark

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Research Without a Cause

by Thomas Pluck

Today I visited a neglected cemetery and the site of an assassination.
No reason.

Well, other than to satisfy my morbid curiosity. The cemetery is sometimes called the Mulatto Bend cemetery because it sits at the south end of the road with that name, in Port Allen, Louisiana, over the magnificent Huey Long bridge from Baton Rouge. It is also called the Benevolent Society Cemetery, and searching for either of those names will get you sent to the West Baton Rouge History museum, a ten minute drive away. So, don't use Google.

Last night I read the book Fragile Grounds: Louisiana's Endangered Cemeteries, by Jessica H. Schexnayder and Mary H. Manhein, which had been sitting on the night table in my mother-in-law's guest room, and learned that Slim Harpo was buried not far from where they lived. Maybe you don't know Slim Harpo, but he's most famous for the deliciously salacious blues tune "I'm a King Bee," which the Rolling Stones covered, but did not improve upon. The original is here, and Slim really slings the innuendo in it, and his nasal voice gets sweet as honey as the tune goes on. His other killer hits include "Rainin' in my Heart," "Got Love if You Want It," and "Shake Your Hips," which cement him as a blues king in my book. So I went to see where he was interred, and had a little adventure.

First, Google sent me to the museum, where I saw some wonderful restored Louisiana buildings, like a Creole Cottage, a shotgun shack, and so on. But no Slim. So I choogled and I Googled, and found an article by an LSU music historian who found Harpo's final resting place. Even after reading it, I made the same mistakes the author did, and took a right on Mulatto Bend Road and followed it past settling old shacks and rusty playgrounds and one dive called Leroy's Lounge, with the Lounge crossed out and reduced to Bar, maybe when Leroy tired of customers lounging around and not drinking. The cemetery is at the end of the road on the other side of the highway, so I had to race across traffic, right past the historical marker that Baton Rouge residents erected a few years back to honor the native musician.

At the end of the road I found the cemetery, and walked its length several times in the cold. The cold? What did you say, Tommy? You're in Louisiana! And yes, the state is under a five day cold snap that's got them under a hard freeze warning, and covered them with four inches of snow last week, during which residents delighted in sledding and making snowmen. And me without my peacoat! I walked until my hands were numb, eyeing the concrete sarcophagi, looking for James (Slim Harpo) Moore. I used Find a Grave to no avail. I read the LSU article closely, and followed his footsteps. He found a small section dedicated to the Allen family, and said he saw a tomb covered in harmonicas along the fence from that vantage point. When he visited, there was a sign saying that the eldest Allen was a straw boss on a plantation, but that sign is long gone.

But I found a few Allen headstones, and on tiptoe, spotted the only white tomb decorated with mementos. I had walked past it at least five times, but from the path, you can't see the engraved marker or the harmonicas. It was a little anticlimactic, but it got me to visit parts of town I'd never have found before, and Leroy's Bar will help my description of a similar place Jay Desmarteaux makes himself unwelcome in. And I haven't listened to Slim Harpo in ages, and now I have him on repeat. The cemetery itself is good story fodder as well, and I got a feel for the city I'm writing about. All because I wanted to give my respects to Slim Harpo.

After seeing the King Bee, I went to see the Kingfish. That's Huey Long, of the eponymous bridge. He commissioned the new Louisiana State Capitol Building, the tallest such state building in the United States, finished in seventeen months, but not soon enough for him to still be governor when they cut the ribbon. Pity, because he had a Governor's Elevator built that runs to the top of the 29 floor monstrosity, the Empire State Building of the South, as no one but myself ever called it. Mr Long was a populist politician who inspired the novel All the King's Men, and ran on the slogan "a chicken in every pot, and every man a king" ... until he was assassinated in the new capitol building, just outside the Governor's Elevator. Long shifted taxes from the working people to businesses and the oil barons, was impeached, but kept fighting until they murdered him. His legacy includes free schools, abolishing the poll tax, free school busing, charity hospitals, infrastructure, and of course some patronage, but anyone hated by rich men and the Klan can't be all bad.

The hallway where he was gunned down is pocked with bullet holes, as his bodyguards fired 60 rounds into the assassin, who was killed on the spot. Long died two days later. The bullet holes are patched except for one in a column, which you can see here. Today Louisiana is back to being "business friendly."

I didn't get quite as much inspiration visiting the capitol building, but from the observation deck I got a wonderful view of the city, and noticed that the park around Huey Long's statue looks like an ornate symbol of power meant to keep him imprisoned... so maybe there is a story in there, somewhere. When I got home, my mother-in-law told me that her husband's uncle Owen had been in that hallway when Huey Long was gunned down and saw it all. I wish I'd gotten to meet him. This family's steeped in Louisiana history. My wife's memaw saw Bonnie & Clyde's corpses paraded through town after they were ambushed. Her cousin was one of the sheriffs who killed them. I wrote about that for Criminal Element.

So the point of this is, get out of the house and do frivolous things, especially if you haven't been writing as much as you'd like. I've been averaging 500-1500 words a day for the past two and a half months, taking some breaks here and there, but steadily chunking along with Riff Raff, Jay Desmarteaux #2. I'm enjoying it, but I recharge every once in a while by getting out and doing things, whether it's shopping, stopping in Bowie's Outfitters to buy a knife for no reason, or visiting a bluesman's grave. Some people can write inside a cell using only their imagination. I won't do that until I have to.