Saturday, March 31, 2018

A Detective With a Six-Shooter: Longarm and the Border Wildcat

Scott D. Parker

Mysteries don't always happen in big cities or the English countryside. Sometimes they occur in the Old West.

Custis Long, U.S. Marshall, was the star of 436 monthly westerns and most of these titles involved some sort of mystery. Written by many different authors, the Longarm novels penned by James Reasoner (as this one is) focused on a central mystery Longarm had to solve, and this story was no different. In the 229th adventure, Longarm acquires a partner in the most Longarm-ish way possible: a fight over a woman.

Just as the voluptuous red-headed Anne Marie is about to lead Longarm up some stairs to her boudoir, a bearded, beefy hombre questions the federal lawman about his intentions with "my girl." The brawl ensues and both men get in their licks under the man, Lazarus Coffin, produces his Texas Ranger badge. Longarm laughs and trumps the state badge with his federal one. It is only then they realize they are both in Del Rio, Texas, for the same reason: to provide security during a delicate negotiation between diplomats from America and Mexico.

This being an adult western, naturally there is yet another woman. She is Sonia Guiterrez, sultry daughter of the Mexican diplomat, Don Alfredo. She in openly wanton in her wants and desires and she teases just about every man in every scene in which she appears. Naturally, her father is unaware, but Coffin and Longarm aren't. Thus begins a rivalry between the two men to see who can bed the temptress. Guess who wins.

Another factor is at play in this story: a mysterious marauder, El Aguila. The local owlhoots who ride through the streets and shoot up the town are alleged to be members of his gang. That may be so, but if they are his men, the leader himself proves too elusive.

Longarm and Coffin chaff at the boredom of standing guard while the diplomats negotiate, but that lull is quickly dispatched when El Agulia's gang again rides into town. This time, however, they kidnap Sonia. When asked why she was out of her hotel room, Longarm doesn't answer that he and Sonia were having a rendezvous in an alley.

Naturally, the two lawmen must pursue the kidnappers and bring back the lovely Sonia. Along the way, they meet El Aguila himself, sling lead with the bandits, and uncover the truth behind the entire scheme.

As always, these Longarm westerns are fun, action-packed, and a joy to read. I especially enjoyed the interplay between the more cautious and reasoned Longarm and the brash Coffin. I emailed Reasoner and asked if Coffin ever showed up again in a future Longarm novel he wrote. He said no, so this is your one and only time to meet the big Ranger.

Speaking of Ranger, I also got a smile on my face when Reasoner namedropped "Jim Hatfield" as one of the Texas Rangers Longarm wished had been sent to Del Rio. Hatfield was the lead character written by Bradford Scott in the old pulp magazine TEXAS RANGER. Speaking of old pulp characters, there's another one hidden in plain sight. Read this book and see if you can identify the character.

If you want something different than your typical detective or mystery novel characters, give Longarm a try. I'll bet you read more than one. 

Friday, March 30, 2018

Sex OR Violence

Vice published an article outlining how Amazon has (again) throttled erotic books on their site. The official statement from the retail giant is that it was an accident, and it's fixed now, but this isn't the first time Amazon's policies and practices with erotic books has affected the authors that depend on Amazon for the vast majority of their sales.

I find it interesting because our genre never comes under attack here. Even the ones that feature a lot of sex (many Amazon romance authors report being labeled erotica when they were simply "hot" romances). Seems crime fiction writers can have their characters shoot at each other, stab each other, beat the living shit out of each other, and whatever else we please because we haven't made the mistake of focusing on sex (or being a female dominated genre that deals with love - oft regarded as the most feminine genre, and not surprisingly, oft the most derided).

It's unsurprising that Amazon's policies would favor violence over sex. It's an American tradition, after all. Recently, a tv series I enjoy, (The Last Man On Earth) featured Fred Armisen as a cannibal. We saw him murder and eat people, we saw him dig a corpse out of the ground and eat various parts of his body, and finally, we saw him blow himself up with a puzzle box bomb. But when Will Forte and Kristen Schaal's characters have sex it's an awkward, perfectly still scene, just as last week's SNL featured a "sex scene" that featured a fully clothed woman on the lap of a fully clothed man - perfectly still. Both shows have confirmed it was to appease network censors. See - you can slit throats, eat corpses, and be blown to smithereens on network TV - but if two people wiggle a little during sex, all hell breaks loose.

In a society overrun with violence, and with weird, often harmful views of sex and sexuality, we're still letting whatever violence creators can imagine through, and hiding any instance of two people enjoying each other in a sexual way. This is not to say that violence in books or on TV causes violence - all the strange dancing around sex in entertainment hasn't stopped us from fucking, after all. But it's worth questioning why we accept increasing levels of violence in our entertainment, but freak out if we think a kid under the age of twenty-one might see two people go at it, even in a show like Last Man where the characters were not only married, but actively trying to have a baby. They're straight, too - if it were a porn, it would be the kind that's inexplicably marketed to hardcore religious people.* Still, the sex can't even be a little sexual.

It's weird, right? I don't have an answer, and this isn't exactly a new viewpoint, but I wonder when the reckoning is going to come. When are we going to talk about our weird attitudes about sex in entertainment in a meaningful way? How did we become a society that's okay with blowing up Fred Armisen on Prime Time but not with wiggling on late night TV?

I don't mind violence in my entertainment - some of my favorite books and films feature enough of it that they're routinely labeled "gratuitous." I don't think violent entertainment causes violence. I do think having extremely permissive ideas about hurting people, versus extremely strict ideas about pleasing people is unhealthy. The ideas behind the actions are what worry me. America has some shit to sort out and this is only the beginning of the beginning.

*remember when that was a big news story? A Google session couldn't confirm that it's still a thing.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

So you want to moderate an author panel

By Steve Weddle

This past weekend was the Virginia Festival of the Book, an annual event held each spring in Charlottesville.

I met Alex Segura and Rob W. Hart for dinner Friday night. Along with 39 other authors, we took the back room at a new Korean BBQ place on the downtown mall. About two dozen walked out when the waiter told us that they had yet to receive their liquor license. (For the record, the water was fine.)

The next day I moderated a suspense panel with authors Alison Gaylin, Kate Moretti, Kaira Rouda, and Erika Raskin, pictured below, in order.

We had a lovely time. I had 197 questions prepared and we got to about six of them.

My name is not Katrina Holm, which means I'm not the world's greatest moderator. But I've done many of these panels, as author and moderator, and I figured I'd pass along some thoughts in case you are ever on that side of the table.

When you make gumbo, first you make a roux. When you do anything in crime fiction (or books, in general, really) you ask Jon Jordan for advice. Well, Jon and Ruth Jordan and others put together this handy guide for Bouchercon moderators -- YOUR MODERATOR BIBLE.

Read that. Live it.

I'll just bounce off a few of those ideas, in no particular order.

Read the books or don't read the books or read some of the books or what?

Yeah. I know, right? So you're a month out and you've got four books to read for the panel and you'll never make it. So go back in time and start sooner, dummy.

No, for reals. Read all of every book?

Ugh. Look, I have talked with other folks who come across as wonderful moderators and they said the trick is to read the first 50 pages and no more. That way you can sell the book to the potential reader without giving away any spoilers. I'm not that worried about spoilers. I figured out early on in Dave White's first novel that Jackson Donne, the main character, was really the one who had murdered all those orphaned kittens. Knowing that didn't make the book any less enjoyable.

But, if you're a bit of a gossipy doofus, maybe stop reading 50 pages in. I don't know. I barely know you. I enjoyed all four of these books and wouldn't have been able to stop 50 pages in. Why did the birds fall? Who was driving? Is Paul really that bad? Will she and her boss end up together? Like the gentleman with the number of bullets questions for Dirty Harry, I had to know. So, I say read all of every book. If you don't like reading, maybe there's a TV show you can watch to fill your life.

I'm a middle-aged man who is balding. Can I wear a baseball cap and moderate?
If it's crime fiction, a mesh trucker cap is allowed. Otherwise, no. Jackass.

As a moderator, should I sit in the middle or at the end.

The wonderful Bouchercon PDF I linked to up there that you read and memorized has some thoughts on this. My thought is this: It's not your show, buttercup. Stay out of the way.

How many questions should I prepare?

You've got three or four panelists and an hour? You're going to have some housekeeping at each end of the program. If you have a half-dozen for each, you'll have more than enough. I always over-prepare because I get nervous and if I don't have more material than I need, I'll spend the three hours before the panel with a runny bottom. Maybe you're tougher than I am. Figure out how many questions you think you need, and then do the trick where you convert celsius temperature to American temperature: Double the number and add 20.

I like to have a free-flowing panel, so  I'm thinking maybe I just go in without preparing to give it a more natural feel. Does that seem like a good idea?

Go shit in your hat, moron.

Should I start with author and book intro and then ask each person a question or ask everyone a question at once and what if they don't all answer and everything bombs?

I was in the audience last year at a book festival when the moderator asked each author, in order, the following: "Thanks for coming. Can you give us all a quick bio and tell us about your book?" Then the questions were about how they came up with their ideas, what their writing process was like, and so forth. Let's be clear. If you're not going to read the books or learn about the authors, don't moderate a panel. It is only through the restraint I learned during my seven years as a monk in southeast Asia that prevented me from walking up and splitting that moderator stem to stern. Don't be that guy. These authors have worked their tails off. For many of them, this is their only panel this festival. For some, it's their first ever. To quote from one of my favorite movies, "Show Dick some respect."

OK. So do my research. Got it. But how do I structure the hour? Intro the people and the books and then questions?

Look, you do you. Here's what I did this weekend. We went through and did quick bios of each author, which helped the authors and the audience kinda settle in. If you're the leadoff hitter, you're going to want to take a few pitches. I started with one of the books, gave the jacket copy info, and then read a one-star review of the book. Then I asked a question of that author about her book -- but a question that I knew from having read the books and every online author interview and review I could find that would open up themes and ideas to all the authors and their books.

You read all the author interviews and book reviews before the panel?


Are you just making that up, like the Dave White stuff and the monk stuff?

No. I have probably 80 to 100 pages on each author. Some of them were asked and answered amazing questions with a book from 10 years back, and I wouldn't have gotten to know that had I not delved in. It's pretty easy. Use the Google. That's how I work. You might not work that way. Like I said, you do you. But for me, I read the books and then devote a week of prep to each author. The last week of February was Kate Moretti Week for me, for example. Once you learn about your authors, you can see what ties them together. What do they think about secrets in their supsense novels? If all of them used an unreliable narrator in a book somewhere along their career paths, you can talk about that. How do they all deal with setting? What type of character are they drawn to in their writing? What have they said about pacing? About tea vs. coffee? What day jobs have they worked? Honestly, you dig around and you'll find connections. And when you see what connects all the authors on your panel, you end up with a threaded conversation in which they all come off as old friends. And if you're blessed as I was this weekend with four fabulous authors, it's pretty simple to get things rolling and keep yourself out of the way.

A good moderator is like other people's children -- they should stay the hell out of the way.

As a moderator, you have two jobs: 1) make your authors look good; and 2) end on time.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Representation Matters. Misrepresentation REALLY Matters.

Perhaps you'll remember that bit Eddie Murphy used to do about the similarities between blacks and Italians. Two bada-bing types walk out of a showing of "Rocky," and figure any black man they encounter is a sucker for a southpaw hook to the mouth. Rocky was so compelling, so immersible, some 5'2" untrained Italian dood leaves the cineplex pretty damned certain he can just sucker-punch brothas. "You can really do that." "He's 6'5". I'm 5'2". He's bigger than me, but I'm Italian." Hilarious, right? This is an instance where representation matters, if only because misrepresentation REALLY matters. This one is funny. The outcome of my man's ignorance is being knocked out by the concession stand at the Cinemart in Forest Hills.

You know how there are a lot of folks who think that watching all sixty episodes of The Wire is enough of a primer to speak deeply on issues of race and class in America?
"Well, it's just like on 'The Wire.' Have you seen 'The Wire?' Oh, my God. Great show. So real. I had no idea."
Deep familiarity of black Americans at large, acquired through binge-watching five seasons of a television show about people from Baltimore. If they stayed with David Simon for HBO's Treme, they're a scholar. If they can go all the way back to Homicide: Life on the Street, whooo lawdy, you have a hell of a cocktail party debate on your hands. Multiple-degreed historians and anthropologists struggle with getting our shared existence in this country right, but you know what's up because you had an HBO subscription and plenty of time one weekend. I listen to NPR in the car, right up until I hear mention of "The Wire," which is just about weekly, and always in relation to someone's professed understanding of black Americans. It's what we do with new insights. We peddle them everywhere and lend them to everyone we can get to listen. It's just human.

Good God, everything is Hip Hop! Sure, some openly lament its traces, if only because its elements and attitude are everywhere. Remove the Hip Hop from ESPN and it's boring, middle of the road, innocuous sports trivia. Hip Hop—black American—speech, attitude, and aesthetics are present in Country and Gospel. So much American cultural output was off the menu until a little Hip Hop was mixed in with the batter. It's everywhere. Can't even keep up with it. Know what? Let me cook your noodle for a second.

Hip Hop is crime fiction. I don't need to parse it. I'm not going to break it down. Y'all get it. Hip Hop is crime fiction more than it is music. You don't think Raekwon actually commits all those crimes, do you? Don't rhyme sayers cleave unto their (largely fictional) biographies as much as crime fiction novelists who enjoyed morally ambiguous reputations, ala Ian Fleming and Chester Himes? Doesn't James Elroy start all his public speaking engagements as his own hype man? Before Hip Hop, folks would figure him just crazy, as opposed to crazy like a fox.

Say, suppose for a moment you're a youngish Latinx police officer in St. Anthony, Minnesota, which I imagine is a place where one is, shall we say, unburdened by the social requirement of interpersonally relating with black folk. We're effectively only ten percent of the US population, after all. There are plenty of Americans who can spend their entire lives without having to look at a black person unless they want to. When we aren't a predominant portion of the population in an area, the black folk one would encounter are likely behaving according to white middle-class social norms. The "he/she's black, but…" types. Joe Biden crystallized this mindset perfectly:
"I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man."
Thing is, Philando Castile wasn't Obama-level storybook. He wore dreads. He regrettably had the worst luck with Minnesota police and cars. His lady was behind the wheel and her respect for the law was negligible. He had a concealed handgun on him. It was all chill, until Castile's admittance of his weapon, permitted and lawful to be carried. In 40 seconds, everything went from "Hello, sir," to casual banter, to dead black man. Former Officer Jeronimo Yanez's testimony included these tidbits:
“I thought he had a gun in his hand.”
Actually, he told you it was concealed on his person, it was concealed-carry permitted, and you told him not to pull out the weapon. You would have seen him pull it out, dawg.
"I was scared because, I didn’t know if he was gonna, I didn’t know what he was gonna do."
He told you. He was gonna get you his ID, which was what you asked for.
"I thought I was gonna die."
From what? Castile's effusive cordiality and compliance?

Officer Jeromino Yanez is trained, armed, has supervision available via radio. His partner is chill and trying to get him to chill. Nothing about the situation is escalating. Yet, within forty seconds, a man who was, by all accounts, affable and well-intentioned (and probably a little dumb) was dead and a cop was accused of murder, and anti-blackness. He said he was afraid he was going to die, despite all his weaponry, training, back-up on the scene and no visible presence of a firearm other than his own. What was the source of his fear??

Well, here's an image of Philando Castile.

And here is a photo of Omar Little, that death-defying, bulletproof, sexy/dangerous, antihero, supernigga from The Wire.

Take the glasses off of Philando. Add some THC-derived chillness. Make it the first real-live black person Yanez has seen in a while, and the only one he's seen with the balls to admit he's carrying a gun. The only one with the balls to carry a gun while sitting in a car with a woman who has her own well-documented troubles with the law. Philando Castile's dumb ass is sitting in a car with a loaded gun when he's a cop magnet. Over sixty cases for anything and everything vehicular. I wouldn't go anywhere near a car were I Castille. You got to figure he's at least a little crazy, like crazy Omar Little, who defies death.

And what young police officer in a place where not much crime happens hasn't seen The Wire? How many young police officers, soldiers, teachers, etc. are exposed to crime fiction and the filmed entertainment adapted from them? How much of this crime fiction have they enjoyed before it became necessary to do their adult jobs without preconception or bias? I'm just asking.

Okay, okay. I get it. I got Tarantino first week, then Black Panther. Now I'm going to take down The Wire? Not at all. My point is that culture informs, and it misinforms faster. Folks get all lifted over Omar Little, they want to have their own Omar Littles in their novels and television shows, same as how Hip Hop goes in the goddamned milkshakes and apple pies at McDonald's. It becomes so common, it's archetype. A staple. A standard. Culture helps us navigate through the parts of our world we have yet to directly experience. And if you don't have a chance to make up your mind before fear sets in, culture will make your moves for you. The way I suspect it did Officer Yanez.

There is something about fallacies and the human heart. It tells the brain, "Yo, don't go sayin' that shit. You know it ain't true." To look at another human being in different skin than you and regard them as some inferior variant requires conditioning and constant reinforcement. Cultural reinforcement. Crime fiction has the fastest pipeline to the entertainment industry. If it's romance, then crime fiction runs a close second. Once ideas and conventions leave the pages of a book, they're pushed through the Hollywood mill where all but the broadest strokes are ground down.  Blackness is many distinct cultures, each with their subcultures, but on television, we're only ever Omar Little or, say, Carlton from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, with very few gradations between.

What's any of this have to do with anything? Well, my Eddie Murphy example serves the point that misrepresentation gets people hurt. My Hip Hop example hints at what happens when the legend becomes standard. My example of The Wire is to help y'all see that individual black folk's show-and-tell is trumped by what someone saw on television the night prior. If folks are printing the legend, and people with institutional or situational power believe the legend, a black person on the business end of a crisis situation has to be more compelling than the Apollo Creeds, Omar Littles, and Raekwons. Right there, on the spot. Or else power is justified in its fear.

I'll end this with a little W.E.B. Du Bois:

“Suppose the only Negro who survived some centuries hence was the Negro painted by white Americans in the novels and essays they have written. What would people in a hundred years say of black Americans?”
“I do not doubt that the ultimate art coming from black folk is going to be just as beautiful, and beautiful largely in the same ways, as the art that comes from white folk, or yellow, or red; but the point today is that until the art of the black folk compels recognition they will not be rated as human.”
- W.E.B. Du Bois, "Criteria of Negro Art" October 1926

Du Bois dropped that on us ninety-two years ago. It's safe to say the next eight years likely won't see a cultural shift. Stephon Clark. Danny Ray Thomas. Killed by police within days of each other. Everyone is so afraid of black folk, even well-armed police officers. Even when a black man is in his grandmother's backyard.

"Oh, my God. Have you seen that show "The Wire"??"

Yeah. I've seen it.

"It's so real. I had no idea, ya know?"

Yeah. I know.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Scouting a Location

My favorite kind of research involves going somewhere to do what you might call location scouting. That's what I did yesterday, taking a day off from work to travel to a wild place that looks like this:

A river with waterfalls, surrounded by woods. At this place, I was able to wander around in peace and quiet while plotting out a story I have to write for an anthology.  I got a feel for the river and its banks and took photos I can refer to later.  An escape into nature for a day, a morning and part of an afternoon walking around in the area where I've chosen to set this story.  Where best to have the crime occur, or the body to be found?

If the river in the pictures looks narrow, that's because it is, and if the building in the picture above makes you suspect I'm in a city here, that's because I am.  I took a drive from the central Brooklyn neighborhood where I live to the northern Bronx and the Bronx Zoo area to get reacquainted with the Bronx River, around which this story I'm supposed to write revolves.  It's a crime fiction anthology, yes, but each story has to feature a river in some fashion, with proceeds to go to a river conservation group.  But why the Bronx River?  Not exactly a mighty torrent.  It's because when the person organizing the book, a fellow New Yorker, asked me to pick a river, he said outright, "Don't say the Hudson."  Which, of course, I would have picked.  I had to think for a minute in order to find another river I could write about, and then it dawned on me how many times since childhood I've visited the Bronx Zoo and walked over, past, and alongside the river that runs right through it.  The Bronx River runs for about 24 miles from Westchester County (north of New York City), down through the heart of the Bronx, and over the last several years, thanks to the efforts of many, it has gone through much clean-up work.  Go there in the summer, and the entire greenway can look pretty lush.  From certain vantage points, whether you're on its bank or canoeing down it, you'd never know you're in a city.

Anyhow, I had a lovely day skipping work and strolling along the riverside paths.  The zoo on a Monday in March isn't crowded, and the calm was conducive to thinking.  I made progress plotting out the story, though I do have details to work out. 

They'll come (I hope).  

Let's see. Gotta have the river in there, but should I involve any animals? A body disposed of in the reptile house with the crocodiles?  Or maybe the corpse is dumped in the river, blood flowing downstream...

Monday, March 26, 2018

What Might Not Have Been

It's hard to believe, but Omar Little (The Wire) may not have been played by Michael K. Williams. There was a real possibility that the role of Leonard (Hap and Leonard) could have gone to someone else.

Yes, Michael K. Williams had struck out with acting and was working in his mom's daycare when he decided to give it one last shot.

It's easy for those of us who love his performances and (like Obama) agree that his character on The Wire is a memorable stand-out.

Omar's so popular he's got several supercuts of clips on Youtube that keep popping up, years after Omar and The Wire took their last bow.

Michael K. Williams isn't shy about crediting the role with altering the course of his life.

Imagine if he hadn't decided to give acting a final try.

Imagine if his mom hadn't given him a loan so that he could make that attempt.

The truth is, many artistic types suffer from self-doubt and rejection along the way. It's easy to get discouraged. No matter how nice and supportive a lot of people in your industry are on the surface there are always going to be those people who will try to bring you down. I just had a chance to chat with Dana King about his latest book and he talks about some of the issues female authors face as just one of a number of gender-related issues that inspired his story.

I got a lesson in perseverance from my 3rd cousin, Deric. Same age. Same home room in high school. Different paths in life. He quit college, packed his bags and moved to Nashville. And when his debut CD came out he wrote about spending 10 long years deciding whether to buy groceries or pay the electric bill while he struggled to get his break.

This would be the same guy who's had his own successful career as a Canadian recording artist and as a popular songwriter. If you've listened to popular country music on the radio then you've heard something that Deric penned.

I'd always wanted to write novels and I felt shamed that the only thing I had to do was invest my time and energy and I could write from the comfort of my own home. I didn't have to move to Nashville. I didn't have to struggle to pay the bills while trying to pursue my art.

Deric talked about seeing people come and go from Nashville. All he could say was to keep chasing your dream. You couldn't give up.

Imagine if he had.

Imagine if Michael K. Williams had.

What will the world miss out on if you quit?

Saturday, March 24, 2018

A Thriller with a Historical Twist: The Escape Artist by Brad Meltzer

Scott D. Parker

Sometimes, a little known fact in history can spark an entire story.
THE ESCAPE ARTIST is the latest novel by Meltzer, a man who has a healthy respect, understanding, and love of history. If you haven’t read any of his books, you might know him from his TV shows “Decoded” and “Lost History.” He first came onto my radar when he wrote “Identity Crisis” for DC Comics, a graphic novel that shows actual death in the DC Universe and how it affects the characters. The ending of that story reverberated through the comics for years after, and it’s still unnerving. I read his Culper Ring Series featuring Beecher White, an archivist at the National Archives. Any author who can make an archivist a hero is a good writer. I earned two degrees in history and while I may have soured on the political aspects of being a professional historian, I still retain the passion. It’s a passion Meltzer shares and it’s why I enjoy his novels. And don’t’ even get me started on his awesome series of kids’ books focusing on heroes for his son and his daughter.

In the weeks leading up to the book’s release, Meltzer’s excitement for THE ESCAPE ARTIST was palpable. His social media and his newsletter (sign up here was filled with anticipation that we would soon meet Nola Brown. She is one of the two protagonists in the new book. Taking a page from lost history, Meltzer made Nola the official painter of the US military. Ever since World War I, the military have hired a painter to capture things a photograph cannot: the anguish of war and what it really means. She doesn’t show up for a little while in the book, but her presence does.

The opening chapter shows a military plane taking off from somewhere in Alaska. Soon thereafter, it crashes, but not before the unnamed female character has a chance to write a last message. The message is received by the other protagonist, Jim “Zig” Zigarowski, a mortician who works at Dover Air Force Base. This base is where all our fallen soldiers arrive after they die in service to our country. Zig and the other morticians help to give families closure by fixing up the dead. When the name “Nola Brown” comes across the big board, Zig personally takes it upon himself to work on her corpse. You see, Nola helped saved the life of Zig’s daughter back when they were Girl Scouts. It doesn’t matter that his daughter died a year after that; Nola gave Zig the extra time, and for that, he’ll pay the debt. But the woman identified as Nola Brown is, in fact, not Nola at all. Zig would know because of a particular physical mark on the real Nola. This unidentified woman’s identity is specifically being targeted so as to wipe away Nola’s existence. What gives Zig even more pause is the note he finds in the most unlikely of places: on a piece of paper in the dead woman’s stomach.  You see, if a person wanted to pass along a message in the seconds before a disaster strikes (like a plane crash), the person can write a note and swallow it. The stomach acids will preserve the paper and the message. It happened in real life on 9/11with one of the people on the plane that crashed into the Pentagon. Meltzer took that unknown piece of history and wove it into a spectacular story.

The narrative is divided into two main POVs: that of Zig and Nola. Often, we get “This is Nola at age sixteen” or “This is Nola at age ten” segments where a particular moment of his life is revealed, giving us a greater understanding of what makes her tick. I listened to the audio with my favorite narrator, Scott Brick, is teamed up with January LaVoy who reads Nola’s parts. The combination is fantastic.

As is the story. There are too many layers to note here without spoiling the fun of this book. In January, I discovered THE SHADOW novels from the 1930s and thoroughly devoured all that were available on Audible. Now, I’ve moved on to the reprints in my library. In breathless prose, Meltzer’s writing is clean and precise as always, delivering a bonanza of excitement that would have been right at home in the heyday of pulp fiction, with a heroine who can stand alongside The Shadow himself.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Extra, Extra! New Project!

I've spent the last few weeks getting my creative crap together and refocusing. Projects I've wanted to do for awhile are in swing now, and it feels a lot better doing than thinking about it. The latest project is a podcast I launched with Rae Alexandra of called Mandatory Happy.

The concept is simple, Rae and I, two somewhat cynical feminists, watch rom-coms from every era, and talk about them. We talk about what we like and dislike, and what parts of the movie are nightmarishly problematic. This may sound like it has nothing to do with writing, especially crime writing, but I'm here to tell you it does.

The issues that plague bad rom-coms are the same issues that plague bad crime stories, the same issues that plague bad action movies, etc. It's characters that do things that don't make sense, fall for things they shouldn't, and behave in ways that real humans would never behave.

As crime fiction writers, we're not writing toward a mandatory happy ending, but we're hopefully writing toward realistic characters that catch the reader's attention and feel believable.

The first episode (available now, here!) tackles the film City of Angels, which was marketed as a light hearted almost romantic comedy 20 years ago, and instead was a depressing mess of uneven tone and people behaving in unbelievable ways (if you want to know more, you're going to have to click that link, nothing in this life is free).

One thing we kept coming back to in our discussion was characters behaving in ways that didn't make any sense, things happening, and being accepted in the film that weren't really possible (even in a universe where angels walk among humans, sniffing ladies' hair and talking about Hemingway).

While many male writers still admit, sheepishly, that they don't really know how to write women, I think taking the discussion out of what you are writing at the moment, and looking critically at the writing in other mediums can be helpful. And if you do it with us at Mandatory Happy - it can be fun.

I hope you'll check out our first episode and subscribe via iTunes and join in.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Lessons I've Learned From The Walking Dead

After The Walking Dead returned in 2018, I watched only one episode live–I had to see his death, a death I dreamed of since season two. The last couple of seasons, I watched TWD and hated myself for it. I wasn't enjoying the show and felt I wasted an hour every Sunday night. I found out Eryk Pruitt was a fan of TWD and disappointed as well, I wanted to give him a chance to write about why TWD failed so many fans.  He agreed to give it a shot. Pruitt is a writer, filmmaker, and podcaster. He is the author of What We Reckon, Hashtag, and Dirtbags. His true crime podcast, The Long Dance, will be out shortly and I wrote about it here at Do Some Damage. Can crime fiction writers and readers learn anything from the mistakes of The Walking Dead? – David Nemeth

By Eryk Pruitt

1. Always aim for the head.
2. To achieve peace, war is necessary.
3. The zombie disease is inside us and it has been the entire time.
4. Do not jack with your audience's trust in the narrative.

That fourth lesson is the stinger, man. It's the one that has left the mark.

The Walking Dead has been one of my favorite TV shows and it's based on one of my favorite comic books and has based an entire universe around one of my favorite topics: the zombie apocalypse. I was excited from the moment the show was first announced and, after a choppy first season, I can remember hoping against all hope that the show wouldn't suck. After the first half of the second season started slowly (at Hershel's farm) I reckoned the show certain for cancelation due to bad pacing, but by the midseason finale, I was hooked, man. Hooked.

When Sophie walked out of that barn, it was the payoff that we didn't know we were due. That little surprise was more than a narrative gimmick, it was proof that the writers in that room knew what they were doing, and we could trust them with our attention for one hour per week. Since that moment, I watched each episode, each narrative arc, each season knowing that the grown-ups were flying the plane. There was no reason to doubt them; they knew what they were doing.

This had paid off in spades. That trip to Terminus which lasted nearly an entire season culminated in FOUR OF THE MOST INTENSE MOMENTS IN TV HISTORY. They made bold choices (Carol kills a child, dude) and stood by them. They experimented with pacing, structure, and introduced or killed off characters with abandon. However, their audience—although tested at times—knew we were in good hands.

We trusted the writers.

And then Glenn fell off that dumpster…

Somewhere along the way, the showrunner at TWD started cashing checks. Maybe the inflated cast meant less money for the writers. Maybe folks thought their audience would follow them through anything. Maybe Scott M. Gimple found compromising photographs of TWD creator Robert Kirkman or Greg Nicotero and leveraged this blackmail so that he could singlehandedly ruin an innovative franchise. I'll never know the ins and outs of the wanton destruction of this superb example of prestige television, so instead of giving you the cause, I shall instead focus on the effect:

They jacked with our trust in the narrative.

Seriously, if offered the opportunity to go back in time and stop either Donald Trump or Scott Gimple, I would need a minute to think things over.

Instead of the TWD's narrative being led by characters (actual characters), it became led by plot points. Instead of dialogue, the show relied more on special effects. Their approach to storytelling became cheapened and they stopped being the kind of show that took risks.

For example, the war with Negan basically pits two large groups of extras against each other. Remember the days when we became invested in characters and felt the pain when those characters were killed? Now, we don't know any of the casualties of this war, so who cares? And even if we did care about the character, IT COULD BE ANOTHER GLENN BENEATH THE DUMPSTER!!!
I can't help but think that the TWD writing staff of Seasons 2-5 would have given us a half-season from the Savior's POV which would A) allow us to care about these "extras" who are just cannon fodder and B)  allow us to question the morality of our protagonists (Rick's group), instead of endless conversations about should we kill them/let them go. But instead, we have the death of Coral to drive home that point.

Whether you like TWD or not, you can learn from their mistakes. I am lucky to have earned whatever audience I have, and would never willingly do anything to jack with their trust.

I only wish The Walking Dead would have done the same.

LITTLE DISCLAIMER: This last half-season has actually been getting better. Does this coincide in any way with the "firing" of Scott M. Gimple? I have no idea, but it's a start.  You know where to find me on Sunday nights.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

The Montclair Literary Festival

I grew up next door to Montclair, the cool bohemian town with the bookstores and antique shops, and now I live there. Recently we've had an influx of New Yorkers fleeing the rents of Park Slope for our comparatively inexpensive housing, and I've poked fun, but let's face it, one good thing about an influx of affluent residents is that they sometimes fund the arts, as patrons always have. Montclair has a Film Festival (made famous by resident Stephen Colbert's support) and now we have a Literary Festival supported by Succeed2gether, a charity that offers free tutoring and education to children in need. Co-directors Jacqueline Mroz and Catherine Platt have put together a great festival, much of it free to attend, that has drawn authors from all over the world.

This year I volunteered as a venue manager and general go-fer. As a project manager I know that having a "floater" who can spot problems and offer an extra set of hands can head off problems. Yesterday, the last day of the festival, was the biggest event. Rocker and author Patti Smith filled the First Congregational Church, with 960 tickets sold. Each ticket came with a copy of her book in the Why I Write series, entitled Devotion. The church has three entrances but they funneled everyone through the accessible ramp, and this made a bottleneck as people traded tickets for books, so I grabbed a stack and handed them out in a second mini-line.

There's something therapeutic about handing out books. I think the booksellers and librarians are onto something.

The event itself was wonderful and casual. I'd never heard Smith speak or sing live before, and she knows how to work an audience. She alternated between reading poems and prose from her books, from Just Kids to her newest, and singing songs and playing guitar with Lenny Kaye. Hearing her recite poetry in a church, the stained glass backlit by the setting sun, and then lead us in hymns like "Because the Night," "I Can't Help Falling in Love with You", and the finale, "People Have the Power," which she dedicated to the teenagers marching to end gun violence in the March For Our Lives events all over the nation this Saturday, March 24th. 

The other big event this year was Tom Perrotta in conversation with actors Patrick Wilson and Dagmara Dominczyk, who are also part owners of Word Bookstores in Jersey City and Brooklyn, so in other words, saints. Perrotta is best known as the author of The Leftovers, Little Children, and Election. His latest book is Mrs. Fletcher, and I can't wait to dig in. The panel title was Sex, Schools, and Suburbia. Most of his books deal with sexual transgression of some sort, but his sense of humor and excellent explorations of character make his books quite compelling. His genre would be literary fiction or commercial, depending on how you like to categorize, but he's story-driven enough for me. 

Perrotta talked about his beginnings. He had written three novels and none had hit big, he was in trouble of being dropped, and his publisher rejected a manuscript. Then he went to a literary festival and read from the beginning of his novel The Wishbones (which is funny as hell) and caught the ear of two producers. He wasn't done with Wishbones, so he passed them the manuscript of Election and they wanted to make a movie of it. Then all of a sudden his publisher wanted to publish it. It was not a big hit either, but the movie got some buzz which saved his career, and eventually Little Children (which he was nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar) and The Leftovers would hit big. So, don't think that literary conferences can't make a difference. You never know who's in the audience. Always read something striking.

Patrick Wilson, Tom Perrotta, Dagmara Dominczyk

Speaking of, Megan Abbott was on a panel with Samantha Hunt (Mr Splitfoot) moderated by Alice Elliott Dark, entitled "The Dark Side of the Short Story". Get it? Three women who know their way around a short story, dark or not. Abbott read from her Anthony winner, "Oxford Girl" and Hunt's reading from her collection The Dark Dark was so good that I bought all her books (I already have all of Megan's, the PhD of Noir's books are a mainstay on my shelves). I was the venue manager for the room, keeping people quiet, arranging the chairs between panels. I'm a Montclair author, but I'm relatively new, and now I know all the people involved with the festival. If they don't put me on a panel next year, I'll still volunteer. It gives me access to the authors and other publishing professionals, and I like to help. 

Megan Abbott, Samantha Hunt, Alice Elliott Dark, and co-director Catherine Platt

What a lot of people see as cliqueishness and "pay to play" is also known as "making your bones" or "paying your dues" in my opinion. A lot of people show up after not being part of a community and want the support of its structure and institutions that took a lot of work to build (especially politicians) without contributing anything themselves. Sometimes a star rises alone and gets the adulation of the community without having worked from the ground, but it's less common than you think. It's not a pyramid scheme where we all support each other. It's increasingly difficult to get work noticed as more and more people write, and working as part of a community is one way to meet people whose work you may enjoy, and who may enjoy yours.

Bouchercon is always looking for volunteers, and you get to meet everybody! If you don't know many attendees, this is a great way to do it. You get out what you put in, as they say...

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Afrofuturism, in African Films

I hate it when the New York Times beats me to an article.  In the wake of Black Panther coming out, and considering its position as the first high budget Hollywood film that is also a work of Sci-fi Afrofuturism, I wanted to look at some other films you might describe as Afrofuturistic.  I was excited to do this, but then last week, the Times had a piece, by critic Glenn Kenny, called "Exploring Afrofuturism in Film, Where Sci-Fi and Mythology Blur." It's a good piece and I enjoyed reading it, but I was annoyed that the paper talked about some of the films I wanted to discuss.

The Times mentioned Sun Ra's 1974 Space is the Place (available on You Tube), which has some similarities with Black Panther.  In Space is the Place, Sun Ra along with his band use a spaceship to come down to earth from their new home planet. And where do they happen to land? Oakland, where they set about opening an Outer Space Employment Agency. Sun Ra wants African Americans to settle on his planet, and the agency’s purpose is to get people to move there. It”s a world with no white inhabitants, so the idea is to see what would happen without white people around. The movie is not exactly up to Black Panther levels of technical expertise, but it's worth seeing both as a curio and for presenting in cinematic form a number of Sun Ra's ideas.

But the films I really wanted to talk about, before I read this New York Times piece, were African films that in their way could be described as belonging to the world of Afrofuturism.  African Afrofuturism, if you will. What have those films been like?  I had in mind three such movies I've seen, and wouldn't you know that the paper of record beat me to the punch by discussing two of them.  Depressed, I considered writing another piece, on an entirely different subject, for this particular post.  Not that I had any solid idea what this impromptu post would be. But then I thought screw it, I'll write my little piece as intended, why should I let the Times intimidate me?  For one thing, I doubt everyone I know actually read the Times piece on Afrofuturism in film.  And two: even if they did read it, what's wrong with reinforcing what the Times critic wrote? It's unlikely a lot of people have seen these films, so if you did read the Times piece, here's someone else recommending these films. Can't do any harm.

Touki Bouki, directed by Djibril Diop Mambety (1973):

This Senegalese film was made for $30,000 by a twenty-eight year old who had no formal film training.  It's a road movie of sorts, about a young cowherd named Mory and a woman named Anta who are fed up with their lives in Dakar and plot to get to France, which they've never visited.  Together they ride around a lot on his motorcycle, which has a horned animal skull mounted on it, and indulge in schemes, including robbery, to raise the money for the ocean voyage.  It's not so much that the film has any science fiction in it that makes this film feel futuristic, or otherworldly, so much as the way Mambety plays around with conventional  narrative. A low budget is no hindrance to this filmmaker, who clearly has studied everyone from the great Senegalese director Ousmane Sembene to Sergei Eisenstein to the filmmakers of the French New Wave.  He often mismatches sound and image, and he edits in such a way that sometimes it's hard to pin down exactly where, or in what order, certain events are taking place.  From scene to scene, the whole movie has an energetic, free-associative vibe.   It alternates between manic and meditative, absurd and serious, socially realist and quite dreamlike.  There's no question the film is taking place in then contemporary Senegal, but the way Mambety mixes up the urban and the rural, the modern and ancient, African and Western, makes it seem like the characters' odyssey is happening in a place out of time, a Senegal of the mind as well as of the actual world.

The movie's available to buy from Criterion as part of a set, Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project, or you can stream it on the Criterion Channel of Film Struck.

Yeelen (English: Brightness), directed by Souleymane Cisse (1987):

I've seen this remarkable film twice. It's a Bambara myth film, set sometime around the 13th Century in Mali, and the plot involves a young man and his father.  Both practice magic, but the father uses it for selfish purposes.  After the father has a vision that indicates his son will be the cause of his death, he decides he must kill his son, and a long journey for the son results, a journey involving pursuit and dangers and a final, extended confrontation.  

It's hard to describe how completely absorbing I found this movie.  The director takes you on a trip that feels familiar only because it's mythical in nature and myths the world over have common features.  And yet, it's completely non-Western in how it approaches storytelling conventions. This is an African world before the advent of any Western influence, and the director handles it as if he's filming a poetic documentary.  The fantastic and the magical, intimations of the cosmic, are everywhere, but they're presented in the most matter of fact way.  Cisse, unlike Mambety, was a cinema fan since childhood, and his mastery shows.  Yeelen has a stately pace that gives it an epic feel, and the only way I can describe the final duel between father and son, both using magical instruments, is to say it feels foreign and familiar at the same time.  It's something taken from Bambara legend (which I know nothing of), but it could also be a scene from a western if you exchanged the magical instruments for pistols. Again, it's an African terrain that seems both ancient and timeless, where rituals may be repeated over and over for eternity.

In my view, this film is a masterpiece.

It's available to stream, from what I've read, on Kanopy.

Les Saignantes (English: Those Who Bleed), directed by Jean-Pierre Bekolo (2005):

This film from Cameroon is set in an African country in the year 2025 and combines science fiction and horror with political satire.  The plot follows a pair of seductive women who use their sexual power to infiltrate the sanctum of their country's political elite.  Their goal, as it appears: to get rid of the utterly corrupt men who have ruled and robbed the country for decades.  They are bleeding the men who have bled the country dry.  Complications ensue, of course, and disposing of all their victims, eliminating all that male governmental rot, is not as easy as they first thought.

The movie has a very stylized, colorful look but it also has a roughness to it.  The editing is jagged, downright choppy, and the whole thing makes for a strange experience. Different genres mix, including aspects of erotica and even musicals, and the plot itself seems to dissipate as the film moves along.  But its message about corruption doesn't, and the strong female characters in Black Panther have nothing on the pair in Les Saignantes, who give the men around them precisely what they deserve.

This one is hard to find, so you'll probably have to search.  But it's worth finding if you want an odd and thought-provoking Afrofuturistic experience. 

Monday, March 19, 2018

Monday Meet: S. A. Cosby

I met S.A., Shawn to pals,at the very first Noir at the Bar in Richmond. He quickly became a regular and a favorite among Richmond readers. Shawn further committed to the community by organizing and hosting for Richmond's N@B.

Shawn's known for his brutal short fiction, having published tales with respected magazines such as Thuglit, Yellowmama, Hardboiled Wonderland, and The Phoenix Quill. His work can also be found in several anthologies; Steam and Steel: Thirteen Riveting Tales: A Steampunk Anthology, Fast Women and Neon Lights, and Sound and The Fury: Shakespeare Goes Punk.

One of my favorite S.A. Cosby shorts is Slit the Belly, a tale of heartbreak and revenge. If you like crime-fiction with a noir twist you will love this piece, originally published with Crime Syndicate Magazine, Issue 3. For your enjoyment, scroll down to the bottom of this post, and read Slit the Belly.

The gritty urban-fantasy Brotherhood of the Blade, released in 2012 by Hatton Cross Publishing, was Shawn's first novel. His newest release, My Darkest Prayer, will be released in December of this year by Intrigue Publishing.

My Darkest Prayer tells the story of Nathan Waymaker, the hard-drinking, former deputy currently shuttling stiffs around for his cousin's funeral home. When a local minister is found dead, the man's congregation suspects foul play and asks Nathan to help with the investigation. What starts out as an easy payday for Nathan soon morphs into a maelstrom of sex, lies, and murder. He finds himself in the depths of small-town corruption, struggling to stay alive and all the while trying to keep his own dark secret hidden.

Always working, Shawn will be reading at the inaugural Wilmington, Delaware Noir at the Bar on May 7. This date is part of the second annual Noir at the Bar Crawl, where local and nationally published writers read at different locations up and down the east coast. Wilmington's date is hosted and organized by editor, reviewer, and blogger David Nemeth (Do Some Damage dude) and this event is shaping up to be very exciting. Scott Adlerberg (fellow Do Some Damager), Richard Goffman, Tony Knighton, and Eryk Pruitt will also be reading that night.

As Shawn gets closer to his publishing date and as he schedules new events we will keep you up to date. Hope you enjoyed this introduction to a very talented writer.

Keep up with Shawn and all of his writing news at his Facebook page S.A. Cosby author.

Slit the Belly
by S.A. Cosby

Tron banged on the old screen door so hard the whole house seemed to shake. Day-Day heard shuffling footsteps approach the door. He reflexively touched the butt of the Glock in his waistband rubbing against the small of his back. A robin whistled from a nearby magnolia tree. What sounded like a pretty good-sized dog barked in the distance.

An old man with skin as black as midnight in a mineshaft opened the door. “Can I help you boys?” he said.

“We looking for Trucky,” Tron said in a deep voice. It reminded Day-Day of Darth Vader.

“He ain't here. He went to the store but should be back presently. You fellas wanna come in and wait for him?” the old man asked.

“Yeah. We can do that,” Tron said. The old man smiled and walked back into his kitchen. Tron and Day-Day followed him. The old man sat down at circular metal table. Day-Day and Tron sat across from him. A steaming cup of coffee sat in front of the old man.

“I'm Alvin Lee, Trucky's grandfather,” the old man said, holding out his hand. “What they call you boys?”

Tron looked at the hand then back at the old man's face.

“I’m Tyrone and this is Duane,” Tron said. Legally that was true. Those were their given names. No one in the street would even flinch at those names. But tell them Tron and Day-Day were coming and homeboys suddenly found religion. Alvin pulled his hand back and took a sip of his coffee.

“Trucky got so many friends it's hard to keep track. They coming by all times of the day and night. He’s always had a lot of friends. I think it’s his way of dealing with his parents dying. My daughter and son-in-law was killed in a car accident. We took Trucky in after. Then his grandmother passed. Lost my little girl and my wife in the same year,“ Alvin said.

“Damn,” Day-Day said. He’d killed four people in his life but never wiped out a whole family.

Alvin nodded as if he understood. Tron looked over the old man's shoulder at the rooster clock on the wall.

“How long Trucky been gone?” Tron said. Alvin answered his question with a question.

“How you boys know Trucky?”

Tron smirked. It looked like a snarl to Day-Day. “We just know him,” he said.

Alvin smiled. “I know how that is. I ain't so old I don't remember what it’s like to have running partners. Believe it or not I used to roll with some rough boys back in the day. Some real Nicky Barnes and Frank Lucas type of brothers.“

“For real?” Day-Day said. Tron shot him a look. Alvin nodded his head.

“Yes sir. And before me my daddy was a rum runner for a fella out of Franklin County. Carried moonshine up the Potomac to the juke joints. Trucky, though, he ain't about that kind of life. He always been nice, you know? He not cut out to slit no bellies,” Alvin said.

“Huh?” Day-Day said.

Alvin laughed. He laughed long and hard. The skin on Day-Day's neck pimpled with gooseflesh.

“My daddy told me if things got out of hand on the boat or one of them northerners come up short sometimes you had to dump them overboard. But you slit they belly first and poke holes in they lungs so they don't float back to the surface.” Alvin smiled again.

“Damn, man. That’s messed up,” Day-Day said.

Alvin laughed again, softly this time. “Yeah, I guess it is. But you do messed up things and messed up things might happen to you, too,” he said.

“What Truckey go to the store for?” Tron said.

Alvin’s hard, brown eyes studied Tron.

“He said he had to get some things,” Alvin said after a moment.

“Like what?” Tron asked.

“I don't know. Things,” Alvin said.

“What store he go to? We passed a 7-11 on our way here and ain't seen him,“ Tron said.

Day-Day sighed. It was about to go down. He was actually sort of enjoying the old man's stories.

Alvin sipped his coffee and set it down, then put his hands flat on the table.

“Ya know when he told me you boys was coming I thought ya'll would be some real hard rocks. But ya'll just some wanna be gangsters. Baby shit soft,” Alvin said.

Tron cocked his head to the side and stared at the old man.

No one said anything for a few moments. Day-Day could hear the clock on the wall ticking in the silence. He decided fuck it, reached for his Glock.

Alvin's hand went under the table.

A muzzle flash lit up the underside of the table like a fireworks display. Day-Day felt something hot punch him in the guts. He slid out of his chair and onto the floor, blood pouring down his thighs and soaking into his jeans. Tron shoved himself backwards from the table as Alvin stood up holding a sawed-off shotgun, pumped the action and fired a second round into Tron’s face, which evaporated as his body collapsed to the floor. A thin ribbon of smoke unfurled from the shortened barrel as Alvin walked around the table and casually aimed it at Day-Day's head.

“Me? I ain't got no heart,” Alvin continued. “I did twelve years in Mecklenburg. My heart is gone. And now my grandson gone, too. He was so scared of you boys he hung himself this morning in the shed out back.“

Alvin pumped the action on the shotgun and expelled a still smoking shell. It clattered to the floor by Day-Day’s head with a dry, hollow sound. Day-Day heard someone gurgling and realized it was him.

Alvin smiled once more. “Lucky for me there's an old outhouse in the woods, so ain't gonna have to slit either of you open, just throw you down the shit hole where you belong.” He pulled the trigger. Just before the pellets entered his brain Day Day tried to speak. He tried to say he was sorry. But the only thing that came out of his mouth was blood.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Let's Go to Reno

A real one-armed bandit, where you have to pull a handle.
Not like those horrible new ones where you just push a button.
I have this in my living room. Why, you might ask? Because it reminds me of my childhood. I grew up in Reno, Nevada. And I’ll be heading back this week for Left Coast Crime. It’s a convention for fans of crime fiction. It’s a great time – full of panel discussions, laughter and murder plots.
It will be good to go back to my hometown. I do it fairly often, but I rarely go into the “Reno” parts. Reno is two cities: the normal one with schools and houses and doctors’ offices and road construction. And the Nevada one, with casinos and $2.99 steak & egg breakfasts 24-hours a day and a walk-up window in the county clerk’s office for instant wedding licenses.
The Great Reno Balloon Race in 1984. Balloons come down everywhere –
the sides of roads, parks, anyplace the wind blows. One landed on my high school football field one year.
There are ways that the gambling industry infiltrates the normal Reno, however. Many, many people are in the business – working everything from blackjack tables to restaurants to accounting departments.
There are slot machines in the grocery stores.
Teenagers cruise the strip on Saturday night. An actual strip.
The business that adopted my high school was a major casino. It provided rewards for student achievements, and sponsored things like assemblies. Once, it brought comedian Rich Little to perform for the students. I later realized this kind of thing was not a normal occurrence at most people’s high schools.
So my childhood was a mix of the ordinary and the ordinary-to-me. Now I get to see my mystery community experience my hometown. And I can’t wait to see what they think – and what they write about it. 
Me in my driveway sometime in the ’80s. Note the lack of trees in the background. This is the terrain you’ll see when you fly into Reno. High desert.