Friday, July 31, 2009

Back to School (back to mystery)

The other day I heard a commentator say that the back-to-school shopping season was second to Christmas for retailers. As we’re responsible for a grandson, I can see why. His sixth grade school supply list runs a full page—notebooks, three-ring binders, folders, ruled paper, No. 2 pencils, erasable pens (whoever heard of such in years past), glue sticks, liquid soap, ad infinitum. He also needs a new roll-around backpack. The old one came apart at the end of school (I think they’re designed with that in mind).

He wants to buy a laptop, which he insists everybody in his class has. I believe that as much as I believe they all have a motorbike and a swimming pool. Anyway, we gave him $100 toward a laptop on his birthday, and he’s agreed to pay the rest out of his savings. We’ll get this and everything else we can find when Tennessee has a sales tax holiday next weekend. It should pack the malls with moms and dads and other fortunate (it says here) grandparents.

School kids need new shoes, shirts, pants, jackets, sweaters. Since grandson goes to a private school, we have to buy special items like shirts with the school logo emblazoned on them. Then there are miscellaneous items like lunchboxes, which aren’t necessarily boxes anymore.

Where’s Obama when you need him? We could use a little back-to-school stimulus. Of course, the stores will love it. But as a mystery writer, how do I get in on this retail bonanza?

We received an email a couple of days ago (I don’t think you can have a kid in school without email) with a 2009-2010 Summer Reading list. That’s right, Summer. After all, it’s only ten months till that magic time rolls around again. And guess what’s first on the list for Seventh Graders?

The Hound of the Baskervilles
by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. For Eleventh Graders, the book is Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

Okay, they’re classics, but they’re mysteries. If these high schoolers learn to read mysteries, someday they might pick up one of mine. Meanwhile, their parents need to hold back a little of that back-to-school cash to spend at the bookstore on The Surest Poison. That'll support the local economy.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Nashville PIs get their guys (killers)

Checking out the mystery novels that originate in Music City, you get the idea that Nashville private investigators solve more murders than in any other city near it in size. The trail started back in 1993 when Steve Womack’s first Harry James Denton novel, Dead Folks Blues, hit the shelves. It won the Edgar Award for Best Original Paperback in 1994.

If you’re not familiar with Harry (and if not, you should be), he’s an ex-newspaper reporter who becomes a PI in Nashville and proceeds to get into all kinds of trouble. Of course, in the process he solves murders that crop up in the course of his work. Following that first book, Harry stakes out his Nashville turf in four more novels (Torch Town Boogie, Way Past Dead, Chain of Fools and Murder Manual) before Womack packs him off to Reno to wrap up a difficult case involving a brothel.

About the time Harry James Denton made his final appearance in the year 2000, along came Willi Taft, a Nashville back-up singer and neophyte private eye. The creation of Mary Saums, a former recording engineer turned mystery writer, Willi solved murders in Midnight Hour, and again in When the Last Magnolia Weeps.

My own Greg McKenzie first appeared in 2002 and provided clues to a few murders, but he was only a retired Air Force investigator then, trying to track down his wife’s kidnappers. It was the third McKenzie novel in 2005, Deadly Illusions, when he and his wife, Jill, became PIs and solved their first Nashville murders. They were at it again in the fourth book, The Marathon Murdcrs.

In 2004, another Nashville PI made his debut. Jared McKean, a former police officer, faced the task of finding a murderer to prove himself innocent of killing a prostitute who framed him. The author of Too Close to Evil is Beth Terrell, who has been working on another mystery in the series which will no doubt wrap up another Nashville murder case.

Nashville has racked up even more fictional homicides since 2007, though they weren’t solved by private investigators. Metro Homicide Lt. Taylor Jackson began pursuing the bad guys with All the Pretty Girls in 2007. Her creator, J.T. Ellison, a former financial analyst and marketing director for defense and aerospace contractors, has kept Lt. Jackson busy with 14, followed by Judas Kiss, with The Cold Room due out next year.

Actually, Nashville has a reputation as a very friendly place, though it’s had its share of high-profile homicides. The case of a 13-year-old Girl Scout who went missing 30 years ago, then was found dead, reached closure recently with a conviction based on DNA evidence. And the latest front-page murder, that of former Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair, has finally been laid to rest after weeks of one disclosure after another.

It’s obvious that if you’re a fictional PI looking for a good place to scare up a murderer or two, Nashville is a dandy place to drop anchor. Matter of fact, Greg and Jill McKenzie are working hard on a new case that doesn’t have a name yet, but will soon. It’s due out early next year.

Do come visit us. But be careful.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Your Hit Parade...sounds from the past

My 12-year-old grandson is always playing some rock or rap song on his radio or CD player. I’m not a fan of his music styles, but I remember how it was when I slunk my way through the teens. We wouldn’t miss the Saturday night radio show, Your Hit Parade, for fear of banishment. It featured the week’s top songs, sung by people like “Wee” Bonnie Baker, Lanny Ross and Bea Wain. We’d stop by the drug store and pick up a sheet that listed the week’s top hits, along with their lyrics. For those we didn’t already know, we promptly memorized the words.

That was before portable radios, so we had to gather in somebody’s house around something like my parents Atwater Kent, a long box with a separate speaker. We’d try to guess which song would be in the top spot. The year 1939 was particularly memorable. The top song of the year, which spent many weeks on
Your Hit Parade, was Glenn Miller’s signature Moonlight Serenade.

It also brought such zany ditties as Kay Kyser’s
Three Little Fishies, with the nonsense lines “Boop boop dit-tem dat-tem what-tem Chu!” It was the year that highlighted God Bless America, popularized by Kate Smith, and the still-heard-around-Octoberfest oompah song Beer Barrel Polka. For jazz buffs there was Woody Herman’s Woodchoppers Ball.

Two more Glenn Miller songs made the list,
In the Mood and Sunrise Serenade, as did Judy Garland’s most famous number, Over the Rainbow. Then there was one of my favorite songs to play on the piano, back when I could still play the piano, Deep Purple. Rounding out the year was another favorite of mine, the haunting Blues in the Night, called by one critic “probably the greatest blues song ever written.”

Blues in the Night was a collaboration between Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen. When researching Your Hit Parade, I found at one point during this period, Mercer had five of the top ten songs on the program. He sang on the show at one point and was a prolific song writer for years, penning scores of hits.

Two Nashville singers went on to fame from spots on the show, Dinah Shore and Snooky Lanson.
Your Hit Parade was popular with teens in the thirties and continued into the forties and fifties as a TV show. Frank Sinatra was once on the TV segment. The sponsor was always Lucky Strike cigarettes. One of the features was a tobacco auctioneer who chanted away for a commercial. One, L. A. “Speed” Riggs of Goldsboro, NC became a household name during the run of the program.

I’ll sign off this trip down Memory Lane with the show's familiar closing theme,
So Long for A While:

So long for a while.
That's all the songs for a while.
So long to
Your Hit Parade,
And the songs that you picked to be played.
So long!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Cast of Charcters for Mysteries?

There’s been a thread running lately on DorothyL, the big mystery listserv, concerning the use of a Cast of Characters in mystery novels. It’s something early practitioners of the genre like Agatha Christie did. I’m not a historical mystery reader, but I understand writers of historicals frequently put in a Cast of Characters to keep everybody straight.

I think it’s a good idea. I keep a list when I’m writing and add names to it when I come up with a new character. It prevents the confusing practice of using names that sound too much alike, or starting more than one character with the same first letter. Sometimes the latter can’t be helped, as in my current work in progress. I have the name of a real person I promised to use in the book, and up pops a character from a previous book with the same first letter. I’m also using a couple of characters with “T” names who appeared in different books. One is a minor character, though, and the names don’t sound much alike.

I understand historicals often use a Cast of Characters to show relationships. It’s the old Family Tree idea. If I did that with my Greg McKenzie mysteries, it would only look like a twig. Greg and his wife, Jill, would be left hanging out on a limb. One book does include a cousin, but that would hardly warrant a trunk and branches.

I’ve thought about putting Casts of Characters for my current five books on my website. New readers could drop by and pick up a program (you can’t tell your players without your program, as the ball game hawkers used to chant). I thought I’d try it out here to see how it works. So if you haven’t read the first McKenzie mystery, Secret of the Scroll, here’s your chance to get started. The characters are listed more or less in order of their appearance.

Cast of Characters

Khaled Assah – Palestinian youth from Ramallah studying archeology in Jordan
Abdullah Kafi – Assah’s cousin from Ramallah, Palestinian town near Jerusalem
Levi Katz – Israeli border police sergeant at Allenby Bridge entry point
Greg McKenzie – retired Air Force Office of Special Investigations agent from Nashville, TN
Jill McKenzie – Greg’s wife, former charter air service owner
Sam Gannon – retired Air Force pilot, friend of the McKenzies and Holy Land tour organizer
Wilma Gannon – Sam Gannon’s wife, Jill McKenzie’s best friend
Tim Gannon – Sam and Wilma’s son, young architect/engineer
Jake Cohen – American working as a travel guide in Israel
David Wolfson – co-owner of Nashville market research firm, Bible Codes buff, friend of Cohen
John Peterson – young CPA, target of Metro Nashville homicide detective over wife’s disappearance
Tessa Peterson – John’s wife, a successful interior designer and mother of a small son
Harland Walker Blackford – Tessa’s father, president of large Nashville bank
Mark Tremaine – Metro homicide detective who goes after Peterson
Pat Intermaggio – another Blackford son-in-law, owns firm that hauls equipment for musicians
Sgt. Christie – Metro patrol officer, brother-in-law of Mark Tremaine
Phil Adamson – Metro homicide detective who checks into Jill’s disappearance
Jay Rogers – the McKenzies’ next-door neighbor
Ricky Rogers – Jay’s observant 12-year-old son
Charles (Chili) Hankins – Nashville Bell South security man
Julian Quancey Welch – Vanderbilt Divinity School Old Testament professor
Ted Kennerly – OSI Special Agent in Charge at Arnold Air Force Base south of Nashville
Kevin – Metro police sergeant, Wilma Gannon’s nephew
Eli Zalman – former Mossad officer now employed by the Temple Alliance
Asher Lipkowitz – colleague of Zalman
Kamal Nazari – Palestinian affiliated with the Guardians of Palestine
Colonel Erikson – Greg’s former OSI commander, now Ted Kennerly’s superior
Alice Baker – neighbor of Kermit Nagy (a.k.a. Kamal Nazari)
Capt. Grubbs – Tennessee Air National Guard C-130 pilot
Yolla – classmade of Khaled Assah, daughter of Jordanian official
Moriah – code name for Moshe Levin
Moshe Levin – former Mossad officer now security chief for the Temple Alliance
Col. Warren Javis – Air Force Attache in Tel Aviv
Mr. Jabbar – Bedouin owner of the Saladin antiquities shop in a Jerusalem bazaar
Kamal – Arab owner of jewelry store in Jerusalem
Father Coughlin – American priest at the Church of St. Peter in Galicantu
Yelena – Russian Jew working for the Temple Alliance
Ambassador Hamilton – American ambassador to Israel

Except for a few walk-ons who merited no more than a paragraph in the book, that covers the cast. Is this the sort of thing readers would be interested in? Please leave a comment.

Friday, July 10, 2009

A visit to The Character Place

During the heat of the summer and the cold of winter, my wife and I try to walk daily at RiverGate Mall, not far from our home in Madison, TN. With all the store closings, they’ve apparently cut back on their air conditioning. It isn’t as cool as it used to be, but it’s sure better than walking out on the street.

While doing my two miles today, I spent my time observing the conglomeration of humanity that strolled or stood chatting about the mall. I found no shortage in the variety—little kids, old folks, tall, short, skinny, fat, stringy hair, no hair, black, white, brown, foreign and domestic. I decided a writer could spend a little time in the mall and find any kind of character he or she would like to depict in a novel.

There was the husky guy with arms like a wrestler, short hair that resembled indoor-outdoor carpet, and a grin belonging to the cat that ate the canary. He looked made to order for an accessory to mayhem.

One thing I’ve noticed in recent times (guys notice these things) is the proliferation of babes baring boobs. Besides deepening necklines that show miles of cleavage, there seems to be a contest for who can lower the tops closest to the half-moon position. You hesitate to stare, but isn’t that what it’s there for? One I saw today had the plunging neckline, shorts nearly short enough to qualify as a bikini, and fur-lined boots. She could as easily have been out on the corner looking for johns.

More interesting are the little old ladies. I watched one stroll along with a sparkling smile beneath snow-white hair. She wore a dark blue dress trimmed in white and carried a handbag I wagered could do as much damage as a brickbat. She moved with an easy grace and would have found a home in some crafty cozy.

The younger kids are fun to watch, particularly girls just entering their teens. Dressed in short shorts, they appear all legs. They giggle a lot and talk fast and give the impression of being more than a little self-conscious. They tend to cover their mouths when divulging a confidence and cut their eyes sharply when a cool guy passes.

Old guys seem to enjoy sitting more than walking. I suspect they’re sitting there worrying about how much the wife is putting on the credit card. Now and then you’ll see one with his eyes closed, chin resting on his chest. Some of them gather in areas with a cluster of chairs and give the impression of telling war stories. You know that’s the case when one of them has USS Whatever in white letters on his black ball cap.

One thing you notice quickly in visiting The Character Place is the confirmation of all the stories you read about and see on TV regarding the beefing up of America. Obesity is live and well. The mall is full of heavyweights. I don’t know if mystery writers are afraid of ticking off their readers, but I don’t recall reading much about overweight characters. If reality is the goal, half of our characters should be on the hefty side. My Greg McKenzie protagonist is calorie-challenged, but he’s not in the seriously overweight category. I only recall one character, and she was in my first book, who was definitely fat. Greg described her this way:

“May was one of those in the office who thought I’d gotten a raw deal. She was a bit rotund, all right, not a girl you’d likely invite to the senior prom. But I had learned a long time ago that treating people with respect, regardless of who they were or how they looked, usually paid dividends.”

Do you have a Character Place where you check out your fellow human beings?

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Scheduling Writing by Christine Duncan

Christine Duncan is an Arvada Colorado mystery writer. She got her start in writing for the Christian market writing for Sunday School magazines. Her credits include Accent Books and Regular Baptist Press. Her Colorado based, Kaye Berreano mystery series debuted in 2002 with the book, Safe Beginnings, which dealt with arson in a battered women's shelter. Safe House, the second book in the series is out in paperback this month. Although the Kaye Berreano mystery series is set in a battered women's shelter, Christine's husband wants the world to know it's not because of anything he did! Read on and enjoy her discussion of Scheduling Writing.

Somehow people get the idea that writers spend all day writing/editing in some quiet room someplace. I often get questions on my schedule. The answer? I'm uh, working on it--the schedule I mean.

First off, I need that quiet room. It does not exist in my house. It's not at my husband's office either--where I spend a lot of my day. I have heard of a lady somewhere in the back part of the high country of Colorado who has a quiet room on the third Thursday of the month when her husband goes out of town and her children are off to boy scouts after school and her mother and friends are playing pinochle. I have offered to rent it out, but she tells me the rent is way beyond my poor writer's means.

Lacking the quiet room, I will take an orderly segment of the day. You know, an hour when you can just concentrate on one thing. I work for my husband so it should be possible to squeeze some writing in somewhere. He's even amenable to it as long as I get my work done. So I just need to find some order somewhere to focus. What I really want is a schedule.

My husband tells me that it is impossible, as I am the multi-tasker in the family. This is just my husband's nice way of putting this. Where I come from, they call that the go-for. You know, the customer wants this, go for.... I go pick up drawings or sometimes, I deliver them. Occasionally I go to pick up the check, go to the bank, pay some bills, so then I get to go to the post office. I go to the office supply place, go pick up lunch. I'm not exactly following any plan here--just doing whatever, whenever it's needed. It's not conducive to concentrating on anything, let alone writing. I'm not complaining--work is good. I like to eat, but it's not a way to get a schedule. So I have a day job. Most writers do.

So, like many, I write when I can find the time. Some people I know get up early to write. I already get up early to pray and to run. By the time breakfast comes around, I'm sweaty, and starving--but usually peaceful. I can't fit writing in there.

As a result, I try to fit writing into the other end of the day. I have a deal with myself that I can't go to bed until I've written at least one page, handwritten. This works for me.

I like to sleep--a lot. So I will sit on the loveseat after all my favorite shows have gone off the air for the night and write. Often once I get started, I will write more and go to bed feeling virtuous. Sometimes, occasionally, it will all look like drivel and the one page is a very hard slog. The amazing thing is that when I go to put the whole deal into the computer later, I can't always tell what I thought was drivel and what gave me that feeling of accomplishment.

You know, come to think of it, I guess this is a schedule in a way. Next time people start to ask me when I write, I guess I will say I write at night, just before I go to bed. It sounds organized, doesn't it? Hmm. I may have something here. So...when do you write?

Visit Christine at her website or at her blog.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

A look into a modern crime lab

I arranged a tour of the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation Crime Lab for my Sisters in Crime Chapter and accompanied a small group there yesterday. Our tour guide was an old friend from years ago, back in my magazine editor days. He has the title of Law Enforcement Information Coordinator, and he's a fount of knowledge on the Nashville crime scene. He has filled such diverse positions as deputy sheriff, TV news photographer, crime scene photographer, and police investigator.

The tour wasn't as thorough as I'd hoped, but it was laced with stories of humorous goings-on in law enforcement. In contrast to the tour I took a few years ago while researching The Marathon Murders, we only walked the corridors and looked in windows. I had taken the deluxe tour, going inside the labs and talking to technicians.

Everyone seemed to enjoy our visit, though, and I saw lots of notes being taken. Our first stop was outside the garage-like bays where vehicles are put for evidence retrieval. They have suction devices that can extract most anything from anywhere in a car or truck. Sometimes they literally take a vehicle apart looking for evidence of a crime.

As we passed through another corridor, Metro Nashville police officers and others were delivering and picking up evidence containers. Although Nashville is preparing to start construction on a new crime lab, it depends on the TBI for most of its sophisticated forensic work.

Serology occupies a large area, where all sorts of blood studies are made, including blood alcohol tests. We saw a machine that can take a small blood sample and duplicate it exactly for use in running various studies. In the old days, a small blood sample could be tested only once, then it was unfit for further use.

The fingerprint section featured a display showing how latent fingerprints could be retrieved. It included using superglue fuming to establish prints on a non-porous surface. The TBI stores more than a million prints in its facility and has access to another 55 million through IAFIS, the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System.

The DNA lab was one that has taken on ever more importance. Our guide told of several high profile cases that have been solved there. One still making its way through the courts involved the 1975 murder of a young girl who disappeared while selling Girl Scout cookies in her neighborhood. For years police thought the killer was a older boy who lived nearby. When DNA came along, he was absolved. Last year a man convicted of raping a college student in 1975 was linked by DNA to the murder of a Vanderbilt University coed about the same time. Since all the crimes took place within weeks of each other, investigators had the man's DNA checked against semen found on the young Girl Scout and got a match.

The firearms lab is one of the largest and most active. We saw the room where serial numbers are restored on weapons, even after being filed off. It involves an acid process that eats away layers of metal, revealing the numbers. The metal is stressed all the way through with the original stamping. In another area, missing parts of a gun are replaced so it can be fired. We saw a mannequin-like torso that is dressed and shot at from various distances. The effects are compared with a victim's clothing to determine how far away the shooter was.

"If a guy says the gun went off during a struggle and the tests show it was fired from ten feet away," our guide said, "he'd better have long arms."

The Micro Analysis section was quite interesting. Using electron microscopes, they can blow up a grain of gunpowder to the size of a lemon and identify where it came from. Other bits of trace evidence can yield similar results.

Each of the different sections of the lab had a window-box display showing what went on inside. In the area that dealt with drugs, our guide pointed out the materials involved in the production of methamphetamine, the infamous "crystal meth" that has become one of our worst drug problems. We learned of a low-rent motel not far from the TBI headquarters that had to be bulldozed and buried because of its contamination by people cooking meth.

Although our tour was not as intense or close-up as my earlier visit, we got a good look at how a modern forensic lab works miracles in finding evidence to convict criminals. But we were reminded that all of this takes time. An investigator may spend days completing the study of one small piece of evidence. It isn't the instant gratification process portrayed on the CSI shows.