After the Golden Years

At my movie review blog, I’ve been combining my love of movies and mysteries by doing lists of the 10 best mystery movies for each of the past 5 decades, after the golden age of the 1930s through the 1950s. There have been times when the choices have been scarce – the 1980s were not good years for mysteries on the whole – but the genre has always come back strong. The Academy Awards got over their prejudice about mysteries with Chinatown in the 1970s, and in the last two decades they’ve accounted for dozens of awards.

To read the posts, please click on the below links:

1960s

1970s

1980s

1990s

2000s

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Want To Hear A Story?

The website Crime City Central has posted a new podcast of one of my stories. The editor had contacted me after seeing my recent short story in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine to see if I’d have a story available that they could adapt. I was very pleased to participate. If you’d like to listen to it, please click here.

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Broadchurch – An Appreciation

Recently BBC America aired the 8-part mystery Broadchurch, originally presented in England by ITV, an independent competitor of the BBC. Rather than wait a week between episodes I DVRed the series so I could watch it back to back. It rewarded me by being one of the best mysteries I’ve seen on television, with the complexity and characterization that you usually find in a novel. That it was an original story made it all the sweeter.

Normally with episodic TV in the US, you have the mystery wrapped up in 43 minutes. They’re short stories on the screen. Occasionally a mystery series will have an arc that lasts for more than one episode but it’s usually related to one of the main characters while they still go about their solving mysteries each week.

There have been attempts at a full season mystery. While more in the thriller genre, 24 was a season-length story arc. Some seasons were very good – Day 2 and Day 4 in particular – while at other times it felt like the writers ran out of steam on one plot and switched ideas in mid-season. The Killing on AMC was supposed to be a one-season story, but they cheated the audience by not sticking to that plan and trying to stretch it to two. It also didn’t help that you felt like you had to wring out your clothes after each episode because of all the rain.

England has never followed the American style of 22-24 episodes in a year. Their seasons were usually 10 to 12 episodes, as every Doctor Who fan knows. HBO and Showtime picked up that format with their original series, and AMC followed their lead. It means the stories are more concentrated, and it’s definitely working well for them.

Broadchurch shows just how effective it can be to focus a show as a stand-alone program that just runs one season.

A short introduction for those who haven’t seen the series yet: The first image we see is of a boy standing on the edge of the cliffs, blood dripping from a wound on his hand. The camera pans in an arc until its hanging over him as he looks down at the beach far below him.

The next day, the inhabitants of Broadchurch go about their business. In the Latimer house, Beth (Jodie Whittaker) gets her teenaged daughter Chloe (Charlotte Beaumont) ready for school and her plumber husband Mark (Andrew Buchan) ready for work. She believes her 12-year-old son Danny has already left to do his paper route before heading for school, but then she finds his lunch pack still on the counter. When Mark leaves to meet his assistant, the camera follows him as he strolls down the town’s High Street (Main Street in US terminology) and greets many of the residents. It’s a shot worthy of Hitchcock or Orson Welles but without the overindulgence of Brian DePalma. In the course of a few minutes, we’re given the setting and introduced to most of the characters – or, to be exact, the suspects.

One person Mark greets as he passes is Detective Sergeant (D.S.) Ellie Miller (Olivia Coleman) who’s out with her husband Joe (Matthew Gravelle), her 12-year-old son Tom (Adam Wilson), and her infant child. The Millers have just returned from holiday, and Ellie enters the police station believing she’s to be promoted to Detective Inspector. Instead she’s told by the Chief Superintendent that while she was gone the job was given to an outsider, Alec Hardy (David Tennant).

Hardy is out early that morning on a vandalism report at a farm down the coast. He’s then called to the beach with a report that a body has been found. When Miller joins Hardy at the scene, she recognizes the victim immediately as Danny Latimer.

There are no shortage of suspects, among them the local newsagent (David Bradley), the parish priest (Arthur Darvill), Mark’s assistant (Joe Sims), and the odd woman who lives by the coast (Susan Wright). And why is Miller’s son Tom, who was Danny’s best friend, deleting emails they exchanged?

Tennant is wonderful as Hardy, who’s haunted by a previous case and hiding secrets of his own. Coleman is the viewer’s surrogate, struggling to maintain her relationships with the townspeople even as the case turns her cynical. Arthur Darvill is known to US audiences mostly for playing sweet, bumbling Rory on the past three seasons of Doctor Who, but his role here as Rev. Paul Coates is a polar opposite. David Bradley played the Hogwarts caretaker Argus Filch through the entire Harry Potter series. In Broadchurch, his role as newsagent Jack Marshall is an ultimately tragic character. The emotional center of the story, though, is Jodie Whittaker. The first episode is compelling as she searches for her son, Danny, with a growing sense of doom, and when she discovers her son’s body the grief is palpable.

The series was written by created by Chris Chibnall, who also wrote all but one of the episodes and was an executive producer. Chibnall had worked on both Doctor Who and Torchwood as well as the Law & Order: UK spinoff. The one episode Chibnall didn’t write (Episode 6) was penned by Louise Fox, who’d mostly written for Australian TV. James Strong and Euros Lyn were the directors of the series – Strong did 5 episodes while Lyn did 3. Both of them had worked with Tennant on Doctor Who. They often use off-kilter medium shots which effectively changes the audience’s perception of a scene.

The series was filmed with only a couple of the actors actually knowing the killer’s identity. When it was aired, it became a sensation in the U.K., breaking records with the number of tweets on Twitter about the series and garnering over 10 million viewers for its finale.

Chibnall intended it to be a single series, even though a second series has been announced in the U.K. Fox TV is planning to do a US version of the show for its 2014-2015 season. That can sometimes be bad news, but there’s hope the US version will maintain the quality of the original. For starters, they’re bringing in Chibnall to do the adaptation, and it was recently announced that Tennant would again star as the lead detective. I hope it will find a strong audience in the US, just as it did in Britain.

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New Short Story Published

One aspect of the writer’s life that many on the outside don’t understand is the length of time it takes to get something published. In the winter of 2011, I wrote a short story called “The Covering Storm,” a murder story set during the 1900 Galveston Hurricane. I enjoyed writing the story, especially researching the details of life in Galveston as well as the hurricane itself. I submitted it to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and about six months later the editor, Janet Hutchings, purchased the story.

I knew from when I met Janet while I was attending the Edgars in 2012 that EQMM has a backlog of purchased stories. She wanted my story, which sent me into orbit, but wasn’t sure when it would make it into the magazine. I was fine with that, and waited patiently for it to appear.

The wait is now over. In the new edition of EQMM (for November 2013) my story is the second one in, after a story by Mystery Writers of America president Charlaine Harris. I was also pleased that I’m mentioned by name in the blurb about the issue on the magazine’s website. To see it, click here.

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Days of the Roundtable

**I recently attended the Killer Nashville Conference. It was an exciting time, and I’ve written a general article about the conference that will be published in Suspense Magazine. Here, though, I’d like to go over some of the individual parts of the conference**

One of the parts of the writer’s life that I’ve found intimidating is pitching a story. I feel i’m better on the printed page than talking extemporaneously, and my previous experiences with pitching a novel I’ve written only confirm that.  It’s about as nerve-wracking as parachuting, but without the pleasant view going down.

DSCN0855

My Friday afternoon roundtable at Killer Nashville. On the far left of the picture is Evan Gregory of the Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency, and next to him is Judith Shepard of the Permanent Press.

At Killer Nashville, they came up with a new format for pitching your work that was so much better. Several times during the conference, they had what they called Roundtables with the agents and publishers who were present. Two of them would sit at a table with 7-10 writers who have brought the first two pages of their manuscript with enough copies for everyone at the table to have their own to follow along. There was a volunteer facilitator there as well who set the order. Then either the author or the facilitator would read the pages out loud.

Once the reading was finished, the agents and editors would give comments back – things they liked, things that the writer could work on, etc. The agents were given 3×5 response cards on which they’d write the name of the author and his work, then choose one of 5 options:

  1. Please send me the entire manuscript.
  2. Please send me _____ pages and ___-page synopsis.
  3. Please query me after the manuscript has been revised.
  4. The manuscript is submission-ready but not a good fit for me.
  5. The manuscript has promise, but it still needs some work before it’s ready for submission.

Two agents, Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency and Evan Gregory of the Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency, asked for queries from me after the manuscript had been revised. (I didn’t write this post earlier because since I came home I’ve been revising the manuscript.) I was enormously excited, though, that Judith Shepard, who with her husband Martin runs The Permanent Press, asked for my entire manuscript.

The manuscript is now boxed and ready to send out on Monday, and I’ve queried the agents. Now comes the other hard part of the writer’s life – waiting for a response.

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The First Profiler

The case that began criminal profiling has faded in memory, replaced by newer bombing horrors such as the Boston Marathon Bombing or the attack on the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. But those cases were solved in a matter of days. The first case where a psychological profile of an active criminal led to his capture – the Mad Bomber of New York City – was active for sixteen years. The NYPD had tried all the usual investigative procedures to catch the bomber and failed, so the lead investigator was open to an unusual procedure.

The Case Begins

In 1940, a wooden tool box was left on a window sill at a Consolidated Edison power plant. When opened, it revealed a pipe bomb. A note left with the bomb read “Con Edison Crooks – this is for you.” The note was written in block letters and signed “F.P.” This bomb might never have been meant to detonate. Instead, it could be viewed as a calling card from the bomber, to announce his presence. In late 1941 another dud bomb was discovered on the street a few blocks from the Con Ed headquarters. Within a few months, the country entered World War II, leading to an unusual communication from “F.P.” to the police in which he stated he’d suspend his bombing campaign for the duration of the war because of his patriotic feelings. “Later I will bring the Con Edison to justice,” the bomber said in conclusion, “They will pay for their dastardly deeds.”

For the next ten years, no bombs were planted, and “F.P.” contented himself with sending crank letters and post cards to the police, newspapers and Con Edison. Then on March 21, 1951, a bomb was planted in a sand urn for cigarettes outside the Oyster Bar at Grand Central Station. This one detonated, though it caused no injuries. During the next six years, 30 bombs were planted. Nine were duds, but the other 21 exploded successfully. The targeting was random. The bombs could be left in a telephone booth, a restroom, or inside a storage locker, but always in an area of high traffic. Both Grand Central Station and Pennsylvania Station were each hit five times, while the New York Public Library was bombed three times. The scariest change of modus operandi was when the bomber began inserting his bombs into seats at movie theaters. One went off at Radio City Music Hall where an audience of several thousand had gathered to watch “White Christmas” with Bing Crosby.

It was an incredible string of luck that no one was killed during the bombing campaign. Still, 15 people were maimed or seriously injured, and fear was instilled in the populace. The bombings also led to a string of false warnings, one that necessitated the evacuation of the Empire State Building and a search of all 102 of its floors. Another time, the police had to search 3000 lockers at Grand Central Station. It took hours since half of the lockers were in use and only one master key was available. The tipping point was on December 2, 1956, at the Paramount Theater. Shortly before 8pm, a bomb exploded, injuring six, three of them seriously. After that, the police commissioner called on the NYPD to engage in the greatest manhunt in their history.

Enter The Profiler 

Dr. James Brussel

Psychological profiling was not new, but it was still evolving. During World War II, the OSS had commissioned a psychological profile of Adolf Hitler. In 1972, it was declassified and published as “The Mind of Adolf Hitler.” The psychologist who did the report, Walter Langer, correctly predicted that Hitler, when faced with defeat, would choose suicide over capture. Profiles were also used after the war in counter-intelligence. One psychologist who participated in this was Dr. James Brussel, who was in charge of Neuropsychiatry at Ft. Dix during WWII and then for the whole US Army during the Korean War.

The chief of the crime lab, Inspector Howard Finney, was frustrated by the force’s inability to even approach identifying the Mad Bomber. Some of the bombs were left in place for weeks before detonating, so canvassing for suspicious individuals in the area was a fruitless endeavor. Finney approached a friend of his, Captain John Cronin of the Missing Persons Bureau, to see if he had any suggestions of what to do. Cronin did, and arranged a meeting for Finney with a friend of Cronin’s, Dr. Brussel. He’d left the Army by then and was a psychologist working for the N.Y. State Commission on Mental Hygiene. Brussel was also a trained criminologist. Finney gave Brussel access to all of the case files, including the letters that the bomber had written.

Brussel read through the files, analyzed F.P.’s writing style, and looked at how he carried out his campaign. He soon delivered his profile. Among other things, it stated that the bomber was:

  • Paranoid, with an Oedipal complex, who may have lost his mother early in life and now lived with one or more female relatives.
  • Around 50 years old.
  • A meticulous man who was obsessively neat.
  • An immigrant Roman Catholic Slav from Central or Eastern Europe.
  • A former employee of Con Edison who was injured on the job and who bore a grudge against the company.
  • A resident of Southwest Connecticut, not New York City.
  • Wanting to be caught.

Brussel also had one final prediction that he gave Finney: when they caught the bomber, he would be wearing a buttoned-up double-breasted suit.

Appealing to the Public

Standard procedure in cases at that time was to keep a tight lid on information about the suspect. Brussel, however, suggested publicizing the profile throughout the city using the newspapers, radio, and television. Brussel thought the bomber wanted credit for his work, and if Brussel had gotten something wrong, he’d try to correct the mistakes. In that arrogance he could reveal vital clues about himself. Indeed, Brussel received a brief call from F.P. telling him to stop his involvement in the case. It demonstrated the bomber’s resourcefulness – Brussel’s number was unlisted.

The publicity did generate a tidal wave of false leads and crankpot calls, but it got the profile to the public, and this helped break the case. Con Ed had several people comb through its personnel records, looking for someone who fit the profile. This was a challenge because the company was formed by the merger of several smaller power companies in the 20’s and 30’s. The earlier files were poorly organized, if they were organized at all.

One of the clerks working on the project, Alice Kelly, was going through the records of United Electric & Power Company. She found an employee who claimed that an on-site accident at the company led to his contracting tuberculosis. That couldn’t be proven, and so the claim was denied, but the now-former employee wrote several complaint letters to the company saying that they would pay for their “dastardly deeds.” The name of the man was George Metesky. At the same time, F.P. wrote to the Journal-American newspaper, and as Brussel suggested he revealed himself by detailing his accident. Alice Kelly brought the file on Metesky to her supervisor, who passed it on to the police.

The End of the Campaign

George Metesky lived in Waterbury, Connecticut, with two unmarried sisters. He was a member of a local Catholic parish, as were many of the Slavic enclave there, though neighbors knew he often made trips to New York City, supposedly to attend St. Patrick’s Cathedral. He kept to himself and had a workshop in his garage. On a January night in 1957, the police descended on the house and arrested Metesky as the Mad Bomber. He didn’t resist and freely confessed that he was F.P., which he explained stood for Fair Play. Metesky was in his pajamas and bathrobe when the police arrived, so they gave him a chance to get dressed. When he came out, he was wearing a double-breasted suit, buttoned up.

George Metesky

Metesky was judged criminally-insane and committed to an asylum for sixteen years. When released, he returned to the house in Waterbury and lived there quietly until he died in 1994 at the age of 90. His death didn’t make the newspapers. Brussel went on to consult on a number of murder investigations, most notably that of the Boston Strangler. His involvement in the Mad Bomber case changed forever the way police work was done, and was the starting point on the path that led to the modern criminal profilers.

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Two Wonderful Words

Today I added two wonderful words to the manuscript I’ve been writing: The End.

After  a very intensive 3 months, I have a complete first draft – working title: The Stable – that runs 98,000 words – 380  pages using Times New Roman font. This was a fascinating experience for me since the plot for the book came to me almost complete. I had scenes in my mind that occurred throughout the book from the moment I began writing – in fact the hard part was writing the scenes in between when I  was bursting to get down this great interaction of the characters that wouldn’t  happen for another 100 pages.

I didn’t outline until I was almost halfway through. Then I did put down detailed notes for the upcoming scenes. But for the most part I sat at my computer and typed. Other manuscripts I’ve written have taken a year or so to write, but not this time.

It required sacrifices to get it done. I haven’t been posting here, and my time on Facebook and Twitter were extremely curtailed. I hope I have some friends left! I gave up my morning exercise time so that I could write before going to work as well as when I came home in the afternoon. Recently I’ve been getting up at 4 am or 5 am to start writing.

I’ve done the first edit on 225 pages, and my wife Dawn has also read those pages and edited them. The last 155 pages were like the Tour de France – multiple days spent either in endurance trials or sprints until I finally came to the finish line. Now I’ll go back and buff and polish.

At the end of August, I’ll be attending the Killer Nashville Writer’s Conference. (Guess where it’s held?) I’m hoping to find an agent there, but there are a couple of agents that I met in New York for the Edgars in 2012 that I’ll be querying as well.

I’ll post updates about how the search is going and I’ll also write up some pieces based on research I did for this novel. I’ve got time to do it now!

Until I start my next book…

 

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Explosions and Implacable Investigations

In light of the bombing at the Boston Marathon, I thought some background on explosives and the investigative techniques used to track down bombers would be helpful.

The main difference between an explosion and a simple fire is the rate at which they consume their fuel.  A fire burns its fuel at a gradual rate, but a bomb uses up its fuel almost instantaneously.  Finding the remnants of the bomb can be a challenge, since the device is blown apart over a wide area.  However, a non-incendiary bomb often leaves behind evidence, simply because that evidence is blown away from the explosion.  When terrorists attacked the World Trade Center with a van filled with high explosive in 1993, over 700 FBI agents combed through the rubble.  They found a piece of a vehicle that included the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN); the way it was ripped apart was a sign it was the vehicle that delivered the explosive.  The VIN was for a van that had been rented and then later reported stolen.  When the renter, Mohammad Salameh, came to the rental agency to get his $400.00 deposit back, the FBI was waiting for him.  His arrest led to the other co-conspirators in the case.

Bomb experts can tell a lot by the construction of the bomb: what explosive was used, how the device was triggered, how it was delivered.  Lab technicians will dissolve explosive residue with a solvent such as acetone and then analyze it, likely using gas chromatography as well as mass and infrared spectroscopy.  That will give investigators the particular explosive that was used, and they will track down sellers and buyers of that explosive.  In Boston, the bomber used ball bearings as shrapnel to increase the bomb’s effectiveness.  You can bet the FBI is looking into ball bearing purchases in the Boston area over the past year.

One relative blessing at the Marathon was the devices appear to have been constructed using low explosives rather than high explosives.  Explosives are categorized by the speed of the concussive blast they create.  As a point of reference, the charge in a cartridge shoots a bullet from a gun at around 1000 feet per second.  A low explosive creates a concussive blast that travels in the 3000-7000 feet per second range.  That’s still devastating, especially when it’s propelling ball bearings at that rate, but if it had been high explosive the damage would have been exponentially worse.  High explosive has a concussive wave speed in the 20,000-25,000 feet per second range.

High explosives can be nitroglycerine-based, such as dynamite and TNT.  These days they’ve mostly been replaced by what’s called ANFO, which stands for Ammonium Nitrate – Fuel Oil.  Mixing those two items creates a stable and very powerful explosive.  Unfortunately these items are easily available.  In 1995, a Ryder truck filled with commercial fertilizer and diesel fuel blew up in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.  Once again a VIN was the key to the investigation.  The FBI recovered the rear axle of the truck that included the VIN and traced it to a shop in Junction City, KS where it was rented.  A false ID was used, but people at the shop helped a sketch artist produce a picture of the renter that was a remarkably accurate likeness of Timothy McVeigh.

In style, the Boston bombing has similarities to the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta in 1996 in that a back pack was used and the target was a crowd attending a sporting event.  Shrapnel was also what caused the deaths and injuries there.  The bomber in that case, Eric Robert Rudolph, used high explosive in three pipe bombs that were surrounded by nails.  Thanks to a vigilant security guard, Richard Jewell, the back pack was noticed and authorities had begun evacuating the area when the bomb detonated, or the death toll might have been higher.

There are two lessons from the Centennial Olympic Park incident.  One, initial assumptions are likely wrong.  In that case, Jewell was falsely identified by news organizations as a suspect in the bombing.  It turned Jewell’s life into a nightmare, when he should have been hailed as a hero.  Shortly after the Boston bombing there were broadcast reports that a Saudi national was being questioned, with the implication of him being an al Qaeda-style terrorist.  Bombs, though, create their own smokescreens.

The second lesson is that the investigation will be implacable.  After the Centennial Olympic Park bombing, the investigation came to a standstill for a year, until Rudolph exploded bombs at an abortion clinic and a lesbian nightclub in the Atlanta area.  Later another clinic in the Birmingham, AL, area was bombed.  The reconstructed bombs showed that the same bomber had done all four attacks, and a partial license plate number seen at the Birmingham bombing led the FBI to Rudolph.  Rudolph evaded arrest and went on the run in the Appalachian area of the Carolinas.  He was put on the 10 Most Wanted list and there was a million dollar reward on his head.  It was over five years before he was caught, but the manhunt remained active and he was finally arrested in Murphy, North Carolina in May of 2003.  He’s now serving four life terms without the possibility of parole at the Federal super-max prison in Colorado.  That prison is also the home of other terrorist bombers.

They will have a cell ready there for whoever committed the Boston Marathon attack, and the police and federal authorities will pursue this case until the bomber is identified and captured.

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A New Short Story Available Online

You can now read one of my stories on-line.

I’d written earlier that my submission was chosen as a runner-up in the Legal Fiction contest held by the Journal of Legal Education, the publication of the Southwestern Law School located in Los Angeles.  I was competing against their readers, who are legal professionals – judges, prosecutors, attorneys and professors – so to be selected was a great honor for me, especially with who made up the panel of judges:

    • Michael Connelly (bestselling author of Harry Bosch series as well as the legal thrillers The Lincoln LawyerThe Brass Verdict, and The Reversal)
    • author Denise Hamilton (Damage ControlThe Last Embrace)
    • writer Marshall Goldberg (“L.A. Law,” “Paper Chase,” “Newhart,” “It’s Gary Shandling’s Show”)
    • Charles Rosenberg (legal consultant to “Paper Chase,” “L.A. Law,” “The Practice” and “Boston Legal,” and author of the recently released legal thriller Death on a High Floor).

If you click here it will take you to the on-line edition of the magazine with PDF files of the stories.  Mine is the second one down in the Runner-Up section, “Advice of Counsel.”  I hope you like it.

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Podcast

Earlier this year I’d recorded a podcast for Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine of my first mystery short story, “A Good Man of Business.”  A friend who has digital recording equipment served as the engineer.  I also composed music for the opening and closing of the piece.  Since the story has a Christmas theme, EQMM’s editor Janet Hutchings decided to save it for the December post.

The podcast has now been posted, so if you’d like to hear the story go to this link: <http://eqmm.podomatic.com/entry/2012-12-03T08_59_34-08_00>  I hope you enjoy it.

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