Thursday, July 19, 2018

All killer, no filler: Week 3 of SEVEN MINUTES WITH

By Steve Weddle

Week the Third of the "7 Minutes With" podcast, brought to you by DoSomeDamage is up.

Subscribe on SoundCloud or iTunes.

This week, your host screwed up the Holly West segment.

Go tell Holly West how much you miss her.

Holly's TV time is spent with Tom Pitts, so we thank him for stopping by on short notice.

I also chatted with Jay Stringer about the World Cup, but Glasgow seagulls overtook the sound and it was unsuable.

As always, Jedidiah Ayres talks about film, while Chris F. Holm suggests some music.

Chris F. Holm picks the tunes:

Essex Green

Elephant Six

Ladybug Transistor

Neutral Milk Hotel

Belle & Sebastian

LuLuc: Sculptor

Nick Drake tribute

Dirty Three

Elvis Costello

Mission of Burma


Beastie Boys

Catherine Wheel 

Jedidiah Ayres talks about movies:

Equalizer 2

Training Day

Brooklyn's Finest

Dark Blue

James Ellroy


Tom Pitts on TV shows:


I'm Dying Up Here


As I said, we thank Tom Pitts, but we miss Holly West. She should be back for the next episode, unless she decided to just move to the beach 4evah.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

The Dogs You Hunt With

By Danny Gardner

I'm working on a standalone book. The inciting incident for our teenage protagonist is the burden of explaining a stack of detention slips to his mother. A bigoted English teacher who doesn't appreciate the sudden influx of black Chicagoans into his lily-white suburb is off the rails. His term papers are graded not for their clarity of subject and depth of analysis, but according to the street gangs, and welfare, and section-8 vouchers the teacher fears. When debating Orwell's 1984, he's offended at our protagonist's alternate (black) take and kicks him out of class. The school secretary hands him a note his mother must sign or he'll be dropped from honors English. The oversimplified refrain for every black family is teachers are infallible, education is the only key to the shackles of our heritage, Talented Tenth, knowledge is power, blah blah blah.  Our hero doesn't know whether he should forge the note his mother has to sign for him to get back into English class or if he should make her aware and incur her wrath. He could be left back over the teacher's lower-case 'w' white supremacy, which would kill his mama, dead as she wanna be. That's pretty good. Liz can pitch that to Scholastic or somewhere. There's plenty of black misery, which is all the rage right now.

A wrinkle: our protagonist is a once magnet-school prodigy turned baby hustler. Words are his basketball. He tested out of high school English, for the second time, in fourth grade. It's a point of pride for him. He scrapes by working until 2am every night as an illegal bar back at the area bowling alley, investing part of his paycheck on House music records, two turntables, and a beat machine, another part on the wholesale candy and snacks he sells from his locker, and the rest goes to his mother. Gang kids try to rob him on the daily but he uses humor and Chitown fighting skills if necessary. His moms, once his champion, self-medicates her widow's grief and is prone to outbursts of verbal and physical violence when she's not embarrassing him by, say, falling off the roof of the house in her underwear as he gets off the detention bus with at least five other inappropriately chatty classmates. Moms has been sober two days in a row so it may be safe to state his case, instead of cop a plea, or make like a forger and thus begin his slide into iniquity. Two solid themes/threads. Enough for a "mama, you gotta get clean" subplot. Once good, now bad mom and son? Television rights. ABC Famalam. But wait—

He's about to go for honesty when his older brother bursts in the front door bleeding profusely from the side of his head. Our protagonist calls the cops as Moms tries calming the brother and being a mother. As she's been out of it a long while, when she meets this shock, she flips her wig. It's Mama in overdrive, but where have you been all this time you kids needed you? Still the same thread. We've just added an older brother.

Two officers arrive, sans EMT, and they don't assist but question the brother and family without an attorney present, much less a responsible adult. There's now blood everywhere. Older brother curses at one cop about their bullshit. Cop pulls his baton and raises it in their living room to strike an already bleeding teenager in front of his mother and little brother, who also curses them out while he attempts to soothe his wounded brother because the cops will really have to kill him because he's, for real, that kind of Chicago Negro. When he wasn't fighting in the street or back-talking cops two at a time, he beat our protagonist, sometimes severely. That's, what, three more layers. What do we call it? Threads? The cops openly mention the Department of Children and Family Services, which is the frickin' Stasi for any parent of color in Illinois. Foster homes are threatened by the white cops. Brother is still bleeding. New dilemma, but more black misery, so we're still good, but I should slow it down with the threads/themes/convolution.

Same chapter, enter mom's alcoholic Vietnam veteran boyfriend who has priors and is recognizable. More cops arrive. Oh, and those detentions and eventual expulsion from honors English class, the only point of pride in his life? They came from a Jewish teacher who defies everything the protagonist had been taught to expect in the relationship between black folk and Jewish folk. He can't wrap his head around how his natural ally in the resistance of racial oppression could be such a racist. In Chicago, Jewish folks were generally black folk's only source of support in the education and healthcare systems to the judicial system all the way to the city government. His friends' parents say vile things about Jews. Early Hip Hop is quoting Louis Farrakhan a lot. Even using samples of his voice. Distrust between black folk and Jewish folks doesn't match up to the Civil Rights Movement lore, but seem more and more rational as this irrational teacher with his own issues continues to hurt him.

I can hear it now. Whoa, dude. Black anti-Semitism? You have more themes than a Ukranian Wordpress developer. Pick something to write about, already. One or two, maybe three because you're black, and it's miserable, thus it'll sell, but you can't put all that into a story.

So, I should maybe leave out how, the next day, his favorite uncle is murdered and all indications point to the Chicago police. Fam takes a field trip to the Cook County Morgue. Mama is broken again. Cop justice. So many themes. Too many themes.

Hey, I agree with you. It was too many themes when I lived those two days of blackness in the 80s. Far too many disparate threads for a fourteen-year-old, although it wasn't a unique day. The next night, after I get sent home from work early because I dropped a tray of drinks on a bowling league captain who yelled "stupid nigger" in my face, my other brother is headed for the open window on the second floor because he thinks God wants him in Heaven early but it's really the psychoactive laced into the joint the white boys with the Heavy Metal t-shirts gave him but didn't tell him about because they thought his affinity for their white boy things made him a clown ripe for a lethal practical joke. This dood is 6'4", 220lbs. I'm 5-foot nuthin' and almost went to the state finals in Wrestling off forfeits because few schools had 98-pounders for me to match with. I somehow have to stop him from going out the window to meet the Creator, make sure my eldest brother with the head wound didn't share the same joint, and get my term paper finished in a madhouse or I'm repeating a grade, surely the needed excuse for my mother to drink herself to death, once and for all.

This is black American life, friends. The basic difficult life stuff anyone, black or otherwise, understands well, yet compounded by many more plot threads that come crashing through the door, all veritable non-sequiturs, yet each shares immediate priority because you, the protagonist of your own life, have no agency, no power, and no actual rights that help you in the present moment. You have to deal with all of it and still get up for school in two hours. You have to get back on the bus to a chorus of taunts about how your drunk mama fell off the roof of your house in her underwear. That's one day of your individual black life, at fourteen years old. You must follow the same rules and values as everyone else around you, plus survive in a totally different world that those who control the definitions of success disregard outright.

Same as I must follow the common conventions of fiction writing as dictated by people who are white, well-educated, and frankly over-educated for the task of authoring the crime fiction they actually turn out. These are the dogs I have to hunt with. We don't all hunt the same. We're not all after the same meat. What constitutes meat in my hunt is immediately sub-standard fare in the hunt. I still need the meat that is meant for me, but I have to hunt their meat as well, because otherwise, I'm hunting on the fringes, alone, without a pack. I've done this successfully, wildly so with all the hard work and money I've put in for two years.

Which doesn't mean shit from Shinola.

I’m working on the follow-up to my Shamus-nominated debut, A Negro and an Ofay, and I've resolved to be a better writer than before, to the point of trashing whole cloth two—yes, two—50,000 word drafts and spending two months studying up on where the reviews say I erred, even giving credence to the cranks who got the book for free and laid out all sorts of nonsense on Goodreads or in emails they sent direct. I want to write a worthy and respected second novel. I’ve gone to some of those places in Elliot’s inaugural tale to see what I could have done better to satisfy some of these charges. That doesn't mean I agree with the dismissive tone many reviewers took toward my novel, even as they praised it. Keep in mind, these reviewers are self-published, have no background in cultural criticism or analysis and certainly no familiarity with the nuances of black life in America circa 2018 much less in 1952, the era the book is set. One podcaster praised the way I "balance so many themes, well enough" for readers to overlook a garbage plot filled with needless convolution, which was derived from my actual life experiences. Another claimed they tired of all the "threads"—at this point the going euphemism for aspects of blackness—and would have rathered a book about Elliot Caprice's interactions with the criminal underworld as a teenager.

"Lissen, maaaaaan…"
The one dig I allowed to incense me was the claim I fashioned a plot to deliver an open complaint about being neither fish nor fowl in the world between black and white myself and that the action (which for me is not about thrills but stark violence that invaded my daily life) is a device to tie up the "disparate" elements. Disparate. As if black folk can pick and choose the elements of our own life stories. He lives in Milwaukee. Go ask black folk in that city if their lives were like Happy Days or The Tales of Elliot Caprice.

I’ve read folks' glee at stories with as much layering as mine in, say, Boston-set crime novels. BBC Television’s LUTHER, which is black without introducing themes of black existence (the preferred manner of meeting an inclusion quota) is more convoluted than a bag of cats. There are fewer themes in my work than the damned Wu-Tang Clan crime fiction in your ear holes on the treadmill right now, but for me, they're considered flaws of amateurism. Then we'll be in the bar at the same time a couple of instances a year and we all have to drink and eat together and I'm supposed to show folks who criticize without appropriate background (and spelling and punctuation) the same respect as Janet Maslin of the New York Times. In that case, it wouldn't be the critic/author relationship. That's the authoritative white man/subordinate black man relationship, the one I abandoned when I told my English teacher to go fuck himself and asked the dean for the appropriate papers to drop out of school, the only instance which I'd forge my mother's signature.

When white folks get annoyed at my many themes and plotlines and threads, they’re looking for the simplicity that they’ve found in books written by white men about white men which have been elevated to canon and represent the standard. Last night, I attended a reading and discussion about the first annotated edition of a Raymond Chandler novel, which I purchased as reference material and I found much value within. Note the standing-room-only crowd held in rapt attention to words published in 1939 most worshippers already know by heart better than the Pledge of Allegiance.

"It's fun, but they're taking a long time to bring Raymond on."
Gary Phillips and I might just be the only black folks up in there, and there aren't too many more people of color beyond Steph Cha, who was more finessed than Steph Curry when she handled the line, "Cute as a Filipino on a Saturday night." Ah, standards.

Women, people of color, and those sensitive to marginalized groups have never painted my work with those brushes. My depiction of the complex tangle of threads, themes, or whatever we call life when we want to discount another’s journey is never extrapolated as flaws. In The Criminal Element, Neliza Drew lays out the proceedings in that irascibly-titled first novel of mine better than I ever could, and with the clarity and lean wisdom of a black grandmother with a community she minds from her stoop. Kate Malmon contributed a review that was so stark in its acceptance of the nuances of my narrative, I wasn't sure if I could trust it at first, it made me feel so relieved. Gabino Iglesias went meta-contextual on 'em, linking our present reality, then not yet Trumpitized, with the past I depict before a crisp examination of the service I pay to the mystery-writing standards I try to uphold.

When reviewers and peers with liquor courage bag on my work in marginalizing ways, it’s more of a report on them, and it’s always delivered in the same tone as someone who claims to babysit their own kids as if it's some occasional sub-responsibility of being the man around the house. People who feel inconvenienced by the struggles of others. No matter how unfair an American white man’s life may be, there’s always a woman or a person of color who deals with the same issues, but with less opportunity and resources and less latitude for error when white men’s solutions don’t work for them. These are the folks I write for. If you are a member of the dominant race and gender and you care about those of us who aren't, I write for you even more, because you're holding all the change and I need you to come up off it, with the quickness, so my grandkids can write whatever they wanna and be judged on the merits.

For the other folks, who if they were really smart closed the browser tab containing this screed, here's what you gon' do, and not gon' do, not if you want it all hugs and kisses in the bar at the next Bouchercon:

Feel free to tell me what you think my book needs less of, and where your appreciation for my work ends, if you have a background in literary and cultural criticism or some sort of developed understanding of a world beyond yours. We can Algonquin Round Table that shit IF your opinion contains at least a base understanding of what I, as an artist, intended to do with the choice and how well I executed against that creative intention. What I won't abide is "x sucked, but read it for y, and z," or "I would have liked to see a simpler plot," or some such because, at that point, the actual crux of my work is so deep in your blind spot, nothing else I do within is apparent. It isn't that I don't want to follow conventional standards for these things. It's that they're insufficient to my own reality, the place from where all writers with a strong point of view work. I'm black, thus my reality is incommensurate to yours, and in these times, irreconcilably so. If you possess enough education and cultural interest to want to write a review no one asked for, don't be lazy. Don't write five-hundred words that boil down to, "As a white man who reads mysteries, I was unmoved." Put some damned rigor behind your work. Show me, don't tell me how superior you are. I’ve accepted the responsibility of continually improving my work. You cats are going to have to as well. Few of you are learned and principled critics but peddlers of opinion on your own platforms, but your platforms could be more valuable if you too improve. Step one: knowing what you're reading. I mean, the title includes the words NEGRO and OFAY. The word nigger is common parlance by page six, and everyone says it. It's set in 1952, not the best time for black folk in America. Chapter one provides all indication your white, male impression of the world may not be the lens you want on your camera body as you focus on these seventy-eight thousand words.

Terms such as themes, threads, 'needless convolution,' social issues are too similar to the euphemisms we hear in the worst conversations that are happening around us right now. We both know it's the softer way of saying "black stuff," same as Social Justice Warrior is the FCC-approved variant of the term 'nigger lover.' If you find yourself feeling the least bit cynical about the depiction of the daily lives of folks who don't look like you, that's your indication maybe your opinion of the work is unclear and, if you intend to maintain it, that's on you, but if you cook it up in a review posted publicly, you put a dime in the juke and we're dancin'.

Now, if you want help with that particular problem with your perception, you already know I'm willing, but if your cry for help is a careless mangling of my work in an amateur review, go'on somewhere. I don't know you. I don't owe you for reading a book I wrote. I wrote it. That's my end. If you're from Publishers Weekly, that's a different game I signed up to play. Don't hold back. Hurt me if you must. Otherwise, don't try to be nice. We're obviously not in the same hunt, and the meat you're after isn't good enough for me anyhow. Sorry it's gotta be like that, but it bees like that. Don't blame me. You're the one who purchased A Negro and an Ofay when you know you're annoyed at displays of black dignity.

- dg

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Crime Shows to Fall Asleep By

Seems that in a period where there's so much free-floating anxiety, sleep becomes even more precious than usual.  It's the one time you completely shut out the noise and tension of today's world.  Of course, there's always the possibility that you'll have bad dreams, but on balance, if you're not a person plagued by frequent nightmares, sleep provides not just rest but much-needed mental escape.

That's why it's important not to overlook a strand of crime narrative that doesn't get discussed enough.  I'm talking about the TV mystery or crime show that serves as a soporific.  We watch all the TV shows on now and make our passionate recommendations or fierce criticisms (of Bosch, Goliath, Gomorrah, Marcella, Sharp Objects, and on and on and on), but what about the shows that go beyond entertainment and into the realm of strictly utilitarian? 

It's late, you want to go to sleep, and you want to watch something in your favorite genre without having to pay much attention. You'd like to watch without caring about whether you fall asleep in the middle.  Obviously, the show can't be too interesting or you may not fall asleep.  I'm sure most people have their shows they watch for this purpose - whether it's a crime show or any other type of show - but here are a few I'm partial to and the reasons why they work.

Sleep Aid Number One: Law and Order:

This show without question takes the top spot, and for a few reasons.  First of all, with all its incarnations and because it's playing on so many networks, you can on any given night almost certainly find some episode on somewhere.  And to be honest, Law and Order is so competently done, it rarely fails to hold your interest.  But you know the etched-in-stone formula, so you don't get overly engaged in the plot and can let yourself go.  You can let yourself fall asleep.  Plus, you've probably seen the episode before, so you know what happens anyway.  On top of which, if you haven't seen the episode and want to see how it ends but do happen to fall asleep, you don't have to worry about never seeing the ending because that episode will be on somewhere else fairly soon.  I do find that I fall asleep most easily to the original Law and Order, with Law and Order: Criminal Intent coming in second for sleep inducement.  SVU, it has to be said, is not as simple to nod off to because it more often gets into plot lines that are surprisingly dark and disturbing.  

Sleep Aid Number Two: Perry Mason:

Perry Mason, the original black and white show with Raymond Burr as Mason, ran from 1957 through 1966 and has never been out of syndication since.  I remember sleeping at my grandmother's as a little kid back in the late sixties and early seventies, and she liked the show.  In New York now, it has its runs late at night on some obscure cable channel we get, and I found my wife watching it to help her slide away into sleep.  

Let me tell you, it works.  In a way, it's the Law and Order of its time.  In production value, in acting, in predictable yet interesting enough storytelling, it is solid.  And who cares if you don't see the investigation to its end and the courtroom case resolved?  You know that Perry, with the help of his private investigator Paul Drake and his secretary Della Reese, will uncover the needed clue that reveals the guilty party and wins Perry the case.  Old-fashioned to the core, but it serves as a kind of TV comfort food.  Perry is on the case, justice will be served, and you slip away into the arms (as they used to say) of Morpheus.

Sleep Aid Number Three: Murder, She Wrote:

It's hard to argue with a show that has been as successful as this one, so I won't try.   I didn't watch Murder, She Wrote when it first aired and I can't claim I set out to watch it in syndication now.  (Side note: There's no doubt that Angela Lansbury, her entire career considered, is one of the greats, whether on stage, screen, or TV - you name it).  But at some point, as with Perry Mason, I found this show was on often in our house around the time it's time for sleep.  

Cabot Cove is one of the strangest places on earth.  It's an idyllic New England town with a murder rate that ranks among the highest in the world.  And there's the old joke - that the killer each episode really has to be Jessica Fletcher, because wherever in the world she goes, someone dies.  Maybe she's only seeming to find culprits.  Anyway, all I have to do is watch 10 or 15 minutes of the show's odd combination of somewhat famous semi has-been actors and young nobodies who never got famous, and I feel my eyelids getting heavy, I'm yawning, and...I'm out.

Three crime shows of steller value, and not to be underestimated.  They don't grip you; they don't keep you up nights watching, all keyed up from their suspense.  Quite the contrary.  On pleasant days and rough ones, I turn to these shows to help me fall asleep.

Anybody want to weigh in on shows they use for precisely this purpose?

Monday, July 16, 2018

Not a Good Eye Witness

We live on a small connector road that's only a few miles long, named for the family that built the farm we live on. Our closest neighbors to one end are half a mile away; I've never measured it, but at a guess our closest neighbors in the other direction are as much as 3/4 of a mile from us...  Maybe even a little more.

We know it's normal for hay to be delivered on flatbeds and we know who comes to mow the lawn. We recognize the trucks of farm hands. 

We know what's normal. 

Last Friday morning waa anything but normal. It started with bringing Murph outside around 5:35 am. She has a run line and I clipped her up and started my routine. I went around the side of the house to get the hose to fill the watering can. 

Our cellar doors were open. 

That made me jump. I went to the back of the house to raise the pump and Murph started barking. Across the road from the barn, on our farm field, there was a car. And two people were outside of the car looking across the field. Now, I hadn't heard the car and when I saw it I could tell that it had been turned off but I still initially thought they'd stopped to look at deer or something. I didn't think much of it.

Then they started walking down the road past my house.

Maybe the car had broken down? We must have 54 feet of fencing running along the road in front of our house.  Maybe more. They walked past the house and past the spot where the drainage culvert runs under the road and turned right... walking down our farm field on the far side of the ravine. 

Murph is continuing to go crazy so by 6 almost everyone is awake and in the kitchen. I watch these two guys, who I woukd have guessed as teens, walk down the field, go to one side and then the other and then return with a third person on a piece of equipment, like an ATV with a bucket on the front. 

We live on 500 acres. I couldn't begin to tell you where all the property lines are... all told, there are three houses on different parts of the property.  Neither of them are the closest houses to us. 

I know what's normal around here. Enough to recognize abnormal when it happens and let the property owner know something is amiss. 

This was when I realized that I hadn't taken a very good look at the guys who'd gone down our field. Sure one was taller, with dark curly hair, while the shorter fellow had sandy hair. I could see the tall one's white t-shirt easily across the field. The shorter guy's blueish-green shirt meshed in with the trees in the distance. 

It was easy enough to walk over and take down the car's details but I realized after I texted Bill and heard that nobody was expected and certainly not at 5:45 am that if there was a real problem I'd be giving the most mediocre, general description ever. 

It reminded me of something Anthony Bidulka said years ago when I was at one of his book signings. He said he pays attention to physical details of people around him because it informs his character descriptions. 

Studies have shown that eyewitness testimony is often unreliable. 

The start of my Friday the 13th last week proved that, even as a writer, I wouldn't be much better than anyone else. Part of the reason was that I didn't see the need to pay attention to these guys until they were walking away from me at a great enough distance to not be able to see much that would be useful for identifying them. 
Want to play a fun game with yourself? When you meet up with a group of friends, guess everyone's age and height. Then confirm that information. How good are you at telling how old someone is or how tall they are? This is a great thing to do at a meeting of mystery writers. Another thing to do? Have different people come in wearing masks and costumes. See if you can use other physical characteristics to identify who is who. 

Writers, remember if you're writing a mystery that not every potential witness is a good witness... but paying attention to the physical characteristics of the people around you enable you to produce rich descriptive details of the characters in your works.

Also... remember that how a person describes another comes down to perspective. A young child may describe Dad as a giant when he may be average height. Descriptions in writing are about seeing the world through the character's eyes, not your own.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Evil Genius: A Titled Review

I just finished watching the true crime documentary Evil Genius on Netflix and man, am I conflicted about my final opinion of it. It was both really good and disappointing at the same time.
On the one hand, it was a very well done look at the infamous "pizza bomber" case, where a delivery driver robbed an Erie, Penn., bank with a bomb locked around his neck. He was quickly caught by police, but the bomb exploded as he sat handcuffed in the middle of the street; he was killed instantly. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)
The four-part series lays out the bizarre crime and ensuing law enforcement investigation nicely. But if you’re looking for answers – like, say, who masterminded the plot and was the actual "evil genius" – you’ll be disappointed. I think this is the fault of the title more than anything else. It’s too definitive for what ultimately played out. The police investigation was unable to determine who came up with the idea to strap a bomb to a pizza delivery man and send him into a bank.
It could have been Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, a woman with a long history of mental illness who was already linked to several suspicious deaths. Or it could have been her former boyfriend, a man named Bill Rothstein. Diehl-Armstrong is the evil genius of the title, but there was nothing specific presented in the documentary that clearly proved it was her instead of Rothstein. Both were intelligent, grandiose personalities who existed on the fringes of society.
Rothstein presented himself better, which made it easier to label the prickly, erratic, anti-social Diehl-Armstrong as the instigator of the plot.I’ll add an aside here that Diehl-Armstrong did have well-known homicidal tendencies. She’d been previously charged with murder and acquitted, and was accused of killing the boyfriend she had during the time of the pizza bomb plot. So she wasn’t some brilliant person who never got caught, and she wasn’t a person who was able to present a different, false face to the world. Those talents appeared to belong to Rothstein. 
So who was really the genius? The documentary does a lot of things well, but answering that question isn’t one of them.