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Sunday, April 30, 2017

Albert Hamilton: Courtroom Charlatan

     In 1908, Albert Hamilton self-published a brochure about himself called, That Man From Auburn.  In this piece of self-advertisement, the druggist from Auburn, New York presented himself as an expert in chemistry, microscopy, handwriting identification, ink analysis, photography, fingerprints, and forensic toxicology. He also claimed expertise in the fields of gunshot wounds, bullet identification, blood stain analysis, cause of death determination, anatomy, embalming, and toxicology. To match his impressive qualifications, he awarded himself a medical degree, and from then on was known as Dr. Hamilton.

     Hamilton came into prominence in 1915 when he testified for the prosecution as a firearms identification expert in a rural New York murder case. The defendant, Charlie Stielow, an illiterate farmhand who stood accused of shooting to death the elderly couple who owned the farm where he worked, was facing the death sentence. The jury found Stielow guilty of first-degree murder on the strength of a coerced confession, and the testimony of Albert Hamilton who identified a defect inside the barrel of the defendant's .22-caliber revolver as having left its individualistic mark on one of the fatal bullets. Having earned $50 a day for his work on the case, Hamilton impressed the jury with his enlarged photographs of the murder bullet. It all looked quite scientific.

     In reality, Hamilton's testimony was pure hokum. The science of firearms identification, as it came to be practiced in the mid-1930s, did not exist in 1915. The comparison microscope, an instrument essential to the comparison and analysis of firearms evidence, was invented in 1926. Nevertheless, Hamilton assured the jurors that the fatal bullet had been fired from the defendant's handgun. His findings went unchallenged by the defense, and no one seemed to notice that he hadn't even test-fired the so-called murder weapon. The judge sentenced Stielow to death.

    Two years later, a pair of felons confessed to the murder, and the governor of New York formed a commission to review the case. The governor appointed Charles Waite, an investigator in the New York State Attorney General's office, to lead the inquiry. Waite took Stielow's revolver to a New York City police detective who knew about guns. An examination of the weapon convinced the officer that the revolver had not been fired in at least four years. Moreover, a naked eye examination of the bullets the New York police officer test-fired from the .22-caliber revolver showed vastly different barrel marks than those on the murder slugs.

     As a result of these and other post-conviction findings, the governor granted Charlie Stielow, and another defendant in the case, full pardons. Charles Waite, having been introduced to the possibilities of forensic firearms identification, went on to become a prominent practitioner in the field. In 1922, he formed the Bureau of Forensic Ballistics in New York City. The bureau, the first of its kind, was taken over in 1926 by Dr. Calvin Goddard, an Army surgeon and ordinance officer from Baltimore who became the most important and qualified firearms identification expert in the world.

     In 1923, two Italian-American anarchists, Nicola Sacco and Bartolemo Vanzetti, were convicted of shooting a factory paymaster and his bodyguard to death in South Braintree, Massachusetts. The defendants' attorneys were seeking grounds for a new trial, and called upon the services of Albert Hamilton. Since the Sacco-Vanzetti case had been grabbing headlines for months, Hamilton eagerly got involved in the case.

     Nicola Sacco's conviction was based chiefly on the testimony of three firearms identification witnesses who said the bullet that killed the guard had been fired from his Colt .32-caliber handgun. The experts also believed that the gun the police found on Vanzetti had belonged to the slain guard.

     After examining the firearms evidence, Hamilton reported that the fatal bullet had not been fired from Sacco's gun, and the weapon that had been in Vanzetti's possession was not the weapon that had once belonged to the bodyguard. Relying on Albert Hamilton's report, the Sacco-Vanzetti defense team filed a motion for a new trial. To counter the motion, the prosecution acquired the services of two experts who had not testified at the trial.

     In November 1933, during the hearing on the motion for the new trial, Hamilton conducted an in-court demonstration involving two new Colt revolvers, and Sacco's handgun. The two Colt .32-caliber demonstration revolvers belonged to Hamilton. In front of the judge, and lawyers for both sides, Hamilton disassembled all three revolvers and placed their parts in three piles on the defense table. He then explained the functions of each part, and demonstrated how they were interchangeable. After reassembling the handguns, Hamilton placed the two new weapons back into his pocket, and handed Sacco's Colt to the court clerk. Before he left the courtroom, the judge asked Hamilton to leave his two guns behind.

     Several months later, when the judge asked one of the prosecution firearms experts to reinspect Sacco's revolver, the expert discovered that the barrel to Sacco's gun was brand new. Following an inquiry, Albert Hamilton admitted that the new barrel on Sacco's Colt had come from one of his revolvers. Although it was obvious to everyone that Hamilton had made the switch, presumably with a mistrial in mind, he denied any wrongdoing. Hamilton continued his association with the Sacco-Vanzetti defense, but he no longer played an important role in the case. He had destroyed his credibility as a firearms expert and witness.

     The Sacco-Vanzetti motion for a new trial was denied, and in 1927, the two men died in the electric chair. Prior to their deaths, Dr. Calvin Goddard, the most qualified firearms identification expert in the world, stated that Sacco's gun had in fact been the murder weapon. (Several modern firearms identification experts have examined the ballistics evidence in the case, and agree with Dr. Goddard's findings.)

     The barrel-switching incident in the Sacco-Vanzetti case apparently had little effect on Hamilton's phony career as a forensic scientist. Eight years after the Sacco-Vanzetti debacle, he testified for the defense in a New York murder case. In 1932, Stephen Witherell murdered his father, Charles. The defendant admitted shooting his father at point blank range with a Remington rifle he had stolen from his cousin. An expert with the New York City Police Department identified this rifle as the murder weapon.

     By the time the trial rolled around, Stephen Witherell had recanted his confession. He took the stand on his behalf and denied shooting anyone. In fact, he denied the body in question was even his father's. (Decomposition and the massive gunshot wound to the victim's head had made the corpse unrecognizable.) Albert Hamilton took the stand, and testified that there were two gunshot wounds on the body: the head wound caused by a rifle, and a wound on the victim's hand, made by a handgun. Actually, there was no hand wound at all. The victim had lost two fingers in an industrial accident. Once again, Hamilton had proven that he was incompetent, and a charlatan.

     In 1934, Hamilton tried to insert himself in the Lindbergh kidnapping case by identifying a man named Manny Strewl as the writer of the ransom letters. Hamilton was not a qualified questioned document expert, and the writer of the extortion notes turned out to be Bruno Richard Hauptmann. The carpenter from the Bronx, an illegal alien from Germany with a criminal history in his home country, was executed in 1936 for the murder of the Lindbergh baby.

     Albert Hamilton continued to disgrace himself as an expert witness in several forensic fields for another ten years, making him one of the most notorious forensic charlatans in American history. If there is anything to learn from this man's career, it is that the woods are full of phony experts, and if judges let down their guards, we will have charlatans in our court rooms, and baloney in our verdicts.   

Revisionist True Crime Books

     There are  a number of reasons why historic, celebrated crimes are vulnerable to revision by true crime writers. For one thing, a new angle on an old case, particularly a famous one, comprises an attractive publishing opportunity. Since Americans tend to be more interested in injustice than justice, it's hard for hack writers to resist turning cold-blooded killers into victims of heavy-handed prosecutors and cops. Since complicated, intrigue-filled mysteries are more fascinating than cases involving more straight-forward, obvious explanations, revisionist true crime writers prefer conspiracies over cases that feature lone-wolf criminals.

     Putting together a phony conspiracy theory requires a certain kind of journalistic tunnel vision. The author must carefully avoid the evidence that does not fit into his narrative, and the more outrageous the theory, the more facts the writer has to sweep under the rug or explain away.

     Sometimes in their eagerness to plug a new conspiracy into a historic case, revisionist writers, by ignoring the truth, deprive themselves of a more fascinating, truthful account. The Lindbergh kidnapping case is a good example of replacing a dramatic story with a lot of conspiracy nonsense.  

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Jack Abbott On His Prison Life

I know how to live through anything they could possibly dish up for me. I've been subjected to strip-cells, blackout cells, been chained to the floor and wall; I've lived through the beatings, of course; every drug science has invented to "modify" my behavior--I have endured. Starvation was once natural to me; I have no qualms about eating insects in my cell or living in my body wastes if it means survival. They've even armed psychopaths and put them in punishment cells with me to kill me, but I can control that. When they say "what doesn't destroy me makes me stronger," that is what they mean. But it's a mistake to equate the results with being strong. I'm extremely flexible, but I'm not strong. I'm weakened, in fact. I'm tenuous, shy, introspective, and suspicious of everyone. A loud noise or a false movement registers like a four-alarm fire in me. But I am not afraid--and that is strange, because I care very much about someday being set free. I want to cry when I think that I'll never be free. I want to cry for my brothers I've spent a lifetime with. Someday I will leave them and never return. [After the publication of his prison memoir, Abbott was paroled. Not long after he got out, this psychopathic time-bomb murdered a waiter in New York City. So Abbott did leave his prison brothers for awhile, but he came back to them after a short period of freedom. Assuming that his prison memoir is true to the facts, Abbott, though his violent behavior, invited the institutional violence directed against him. He couldn't live without violence in prison or out.]

Jack Henry Abbott, In The Belly of the Beast, 1981  

Friday, April 28, 2017

Committing The Perfect Crime

     Investment crook Bernie Madoff probably thought he'd committed the perfect crime. He was rich, well-known, loved by his family, and respected by his colleagues. But Ponzi scemes are not perfect crimes, and Bernie got caught. The financial sociopath lost his fortune, his reputation, his freedom and a son to suicide. His wife, the author of a boo-hoo memoir and his surviving son have disowned him. And like a true sociopath Bernie has insulted his victims by calling them greedy.

     Unlike Bernie Madoff, a lot of people get away with crimes big and small. Shoplifters, employee thieves, and even murderers have avoided conviction. But getting away with a criminal act doesn't necessarily make it a perfect crime. Offenders escape criminal detection and punishiment because their crimes weren't professionally investigated. So-called perfect crimes are made possible by imperfect police work, and good luck.

     To avoid a murder conviction the killer should make sure he doesn't leave part of himself at the scene of the homicide or take part of the death site with him. Ideally, the murder victim should not be a spouse, an ex-lover, a business competitor or someone to whom the killer owes money. Moreover, the homicide should be committed as far from the killer's home as possible. And there should be no eyewitnesses or accomplices. The successful murderer should create a believable alibi, and not tell a soul what he has done, not even a priest or a shrink. And if there is financial gain involved, the killer should avoid spending large sums of money for at least a year.

     If arrested and brought into the interrogation room the suspect should say nothing except that he wants a lawyer. Also, no self-respecting criminal agrees to a polygraph test. If incarcerated the suspect should be aware of the jailhouse informant. Successful criminals trust no one and keep their mouths shut.

     Killers get away with murder all the time because police officers contaminate physical evidence at the crime scene. Too many detectives are overworked, lazy, or incompetent. O. J. Simpson committed an imperfect, messy, clue-laden double murder and walked free. Police mistakes, a whacko jury, and an all-star defense team led to the acquittal of an obviously guilty man.

     The commission of a perfect perfect murder should entail the following:

   1. The coroner or medical examiner rules the death either natural, accidental, or suicidal.

   2. The killer does not come under serious police or media suspicion.

   3. The killer gains something significant from the victim's death.

   4. There is no physical evidence such as DNA that will later come back to haunt the killer.

     Before the emergence of modern toxicology and pharmacology, at a time when unhappy wives slowly poisoned their husbands to death (usually with arsenic found in rat poison), the perfect murder was possible--perhaps even easy. Today committing the perfect murder, at least in theory, is much more difficult and extremely rare. 

The Robin Hood Fantasy

People secretly applaud those who do not play by the rules. It's a vital fantasy among the law-abiding bourgeois. Whenever there is an economic dislocation, theft arises. We often fall in love with the little thief if there is a big one at work. The analogs of the robber barons and their rapacious greed are the small-time thieves in the underworld. [Don't forget about the biggest thief of all--the U.S. government.]

Stephen Mihm, A Nation of Counterfeiters, 2008

Two of B. R. Myers' Rules for "Serious" Novelists

1. Be Writerly

Read aloud what you have written. If it sounds clear and natural, strike it out.

2. Play the Part

Take yourself seriously. Practice before the mirror until you can say things like this with a straight face:

"It's because I want every little surface to shimmer and gyrate that I haven't patience for those lax transitional devices of plot, setting, character, and so on, that characterize a lot of traditional fiction."
(Mark Leyner)

B. R. Myers, A Reader's Manifesto, 2002

Fairy Tales: True Crime for Kids

     The children are safely tucked in bed; a light breeze blows in through the window; Mom hushes them and begins to tell a sweet tale of children being abandoned in the woods, lured to a witch's cottage, there to be fattened and roasted in an oven. Medium-rare.

     Critics have long complained about the violent content of some of the classic fairy tales we read to our children. However, what few of these critics realize is that we are reading watered down versions of the fairy tales, and that the originals were far more graphic and brutal.

     Sleeping beauty was not first awakened by a kiss; in the 1636 Italian version of the tale--the first known written version--she was raped by a man who rode off the next morning without leaving even a Dear Sleeping Beauty note. Her "morning after" came nine months later when she awoke to find herself the proud mother of twins.

Richard Zacks, An Underground Education, 1997 

The Master Plot

There are stories that we tell over and over in myriad forms and that connect vitally with our deepest values, wishes, and fears. Cinderella is one of them. Its variants can be found frequently in European and American cultures. Its constituent events elaborate a thread of neglect, injustice, rebirth, and reward that responds to deeply held anxieties and desires. As such, the Cinderella masterplot has an enormous emotional capital that can be drawn on in constructing a narrative. But it is only one of many masterplots. We seem to connect our thinking about life, and particularly our own lives, to a number of masterplots that we may or may not be fully aware of. To the extent that our values and identity are linked to a masterplot, that masterplot can have strong rhetorical impact. We tend to give credibility to narratives that are structured by it. [True crime narratives often incorporate masterplots.]

H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative, 2002

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Writing Quote: Who Buys True Crime Books?

The main audience for true crime works is generally the middle class with more women than men buying the books. There is also a fairly strong teen market, and books of regional interest have specialized markets. For example, both Texas and the Pacific Northwest are strong locales for the true crime market.

Vicky Munro, crimeculture.com, 2000

The Difficulty of Writing True Crime

Every genre has its own peculiar demands and drawbacks. True crime has more than most. Successful true crime writers have to be self-starters. Many times a week, fledgling authors ask me how they can be crime writers. I tell them as gently as possible that the very nature of the genre requires writers who will find a way themselves. We must not only be writers--but detectives. In researching a crime, we must figure out how to elicit information that seems impossible to get. We have to ask people about pain and horror they would rather forget. We must ask detectives and prosecutors to share their investigations and their findings with us. And it isn't easy.

Ann Rule in Writing Mysteries, Sue Grafton, editor, 2002 

Blaming Society for Crime

     What causes crime? Why do some individuals possess tendencies which lead them to commit acts of violence and predation: robberies, assaults, rapes, and other felonies? What sets the habitual or occasional criminal apart from the mainstream of society? More important, what can be done to "change" criminals into productive, law-abiding citizens?

     The theory that has partly governed public policy for many years is that crime is caused by an unjust society. A most eloquent spokesperson for this point of view was Ramsey Clark, who served as assistant attorney general in the Kennedy Administration and attorney general in the Johnson Administration. Here's how Clark described the crime problem in his well-known 1970 book, Crime in America:

     "If we are to deal meaningfully with crime, what must be seen is the dehumanizing effect on the individual of slums, racism, ignorance, and violence, of corruption and impotence to fulfill rights, of poverty, unemployment, and idleness, of generations of malnutrition, of congenital brain damage and prenatal neglect, of sickness and disease, of pollution, of decrepit, dirty, ugly, unsafe, overcrowded housing, of alcoholism and narcotics addiction, of avarice, anxiety, fear, hatred, hopelessness, and injustice. [Clark, in that run-on sentence, certainly covered the cause of crime waterfront. A writer he was not.] These are the fountainheads of crime. They can be controlled. As imprecise, distorted and prejudiced as our learning is, these sources of crime and their controllability clearly emerge to any who would see."

     And how would such conditions be changed? In that same book, Clark exclaims that it's a "matter of will." If society becomes willing, the conditions that cause crime can be changed, and then crime will be greatly reduced.

     Clark's theory has a plausible sound and anybody who visits a large state prison will find scores of inmates from deprived backgrounds. Some of them are not really criminals in the true sense of the word; they are simply badly adjusted and disturbed people who need to be institutionalized. There are others with personal problems that got them into trouble.

    But if a visitor searches out the professional criminals--both in prison and out--he may find that the theory doesn't hold up at all. These are men, and some women, who have numerous advantages in their lives and yet they seem to become criminals by deliberate choice.

Melvin D. Barger, "Crime: The Unsolved Problem," in Criminal Justice? Robert James Bidinotto, editor, 1994 

True Crime is Stranger Than Fiction

True crime writing really demands that you be honest and back up everything you write with facts. I always keep all my notes, copies of court documents and police reports so that I can verify what I've put into print. True crime is just that--it's the truth. And time after time I've discovered that truth can be stranger than fiction.

Robert Scott, authorsontheweb.com, 2002

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Jessica Herrera's Vehicular Homicide Trials: When Is An Accident a Crime?

     As drivers, we all occasionally speed, cross the center line, roll through stop signs, and get distracted. There is no such thing as perfection behind the wheel. No one wants to cause an accident, particularly one that results in injury or death. Whenever a driver's carelessness causes or contributes to a traffic accident that results in the death of another driver or  passenger, a prosecutor has to decide if this act of negligence rises to the level of criminal homicide. In my opinion, ordinary negligence that falls short of recklessness--the total disregard for the safety of others--should be treated as a civil wrong rather than a criminal act. Vehicular homicide should only apply to motorists who are driving extremely fast, are drunk, high on drugs, or fleeing from the police. I do not believe in the criminalization of all fatal traffic accidents.

     On June 11, 2011, in Santa Barbara County, California, Christopher Martinez slowed down on Highway 246 east of the town of Lompoc to turn into a driveway that led back to a winery. The 28-year-old was showing up for his first day of work. As he slowed to negotiate the turn, Jessica Herrera, driving the car behind him, rear-ended his vehicle. The collision pushed Martinez's car into the opposite lane where it was struck broadside by a pickup truck carrying two people.

     Paramedics rushed Christopher Martinez to the Marian Regional Medical Center in Santa Maria with severe head trauma and a collapsed lung. He died the next day.

     A Santa Barbara County prosecutor charged the 22-year-old Herrera with misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter, a crime that carried a maximum sentence of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine. In May 2012, the Herrera trial jurors voted seven to five for conviction which caused the judge to declare a mistrial.

     Prosecutor Mark Smith decided to retry Herrera for vehicular homicide. On February 8, 2013, the second trial got underway in the Santa Barbara County Court in Lompoc. In his opening remarks to the jury, prosecutor Smith accused the defendant of driving too fast for conditions (65 mph in a 55 mph zone) and being inattentive.

     Herrera's attorney, Dillon Forsyth, argued that the crash that took Christopher Martinez's life was a tragic accident. To the jury he said, "There is no evidence a crime occurred. This is a circumstantial case. There is really no credible evidence that what occurred was anything but an accident. The fact is we simply don't know what happened." The defense attorney also pointed out that there were no signs that a driveway was coming up, and that brake lights and turn signals on Martinez's car might not have been working.

     On February 13, 2013, after more than a day of deliberation, the jury reported to the judge that it was deadlocked eleven to one in favor of conviction. Another hung jury, another mistrial.

     I'm surprised that so many jurors in these two trials had voted for conviction. Even assuming Jessica Herrera had been driving ten miles over the speed limit at the time of the accident, I don't believe she should be held criminally responsible for Christopher Martinez's death.

     On February 28, 2013, at a hearing in the Santa Barbara County in Lompoc, Judge James F. Iwasko dismissed the Herrera case after prosecutor Mark Smith said the district attorney's office would not seek a third trial. To have gone forward with a third trial in this case would have amounted to prosecutorial misconduct.  

The Power of Cross-Examination

     The ability to conduct an effective cross-examination is one of the most important skills in the arsenal of the trial attorney, as well as one of the most difficult to master. If the witness, as is usually the case, is telling the truth as he knows it, but that truth is overly slanted in the favor of say, the prosecution, then the defense attorney must bring that truth back toward or past the middle by careful questioning. However, if he is too assertive with a likable witness who appears to be honestly trying to tell the truth, then he runs the risk of alienating the jury and undoing any good he accomplishes in the examination.

     One question on cross-examination that tends to be productive is, "Have you discussed your testimony with the state's attorney or anyone from his office?" The answer almost has to be "yes," because the prosecutor would be foolish to put anyone on the stand without knowing what he or she is going to say. But many witnesses think that it's wrong to admit to having talked about their testimony. Consequently, they will often hem and haw and deny it, and end up looking furtive when they are forced to admit that, yes, they spoke to the prosecutor twice in his office.

Louis Nizer, My Life in Court, 1961

Charles Bukowski on Trial Attorneys

The language of the lawyer is the language of the trickster. It's an inhuman language, a sub-language. And justice is hardly ever served. Justice is just forgotten. Our courts are swamps of dark and devious jargon. It's just a wash of dull, crippled, masked wordage put before a jury of 12 imbeciles or a bored judge.

Charles Bukowski, novelist and poet, March 1992 

Trial Rhetoric

Criminal prosecutors will call a firearm a "weapon," while defense attorneys will call it a "gun." When prosecutors talk about the defendant "aiming" and "firing" the weapon, defense attorneys respond with phrases like "where the barrel was pointing when the gun went off."...All of these advocates have a vested interest in their choice of words (hence the term "mouthpiece").

D. H. Garrison, Jr. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Navigating Pornography at Pasadena City College: What Higher Education Has Cone To

     In 2013, Dr. Hugo Schwyzer was history and gender studies professor at Pasadena City College (PCC) in Pasadena, California, the nation's third largest community college. The 44-year-old professor had a Ph.D. in church history from UCLA. The so-called "male feminist," offered courses with titles like Men and Masculinity, Navigating Pornography, and Gay and Lesbian American History. (See my blog post: "Ridiculous College Courses: Majoring in Stupid." June 2016.)

     In 2005, the Internet professor review site Rate My Professor named Dr. Schwyzer one of the nation's top 50 "hottest professors." (The sexuality guru has admitted having sexual relations with some of his students. Who says if you can't do, teach.)

     A prolific blogger, Schwyzer in 2006, claiming expertise in "body image, sexuality, and gender justice," wrote that he'd like to open a summer camp for teens and adults where he could teach "fitness, basic life skills, spirituality, the whole thing." (Sign me up for the "whole thing" class.)

     New York Magazine, in 2009, published an article about Professor Schwyzer's decision in 2005, when he was 37, to undergo circumcision. (I wish I had something clever to say here, but got nothing.)

     In a tell-all confessional blog entry published in 2011, Dr. Schwyzer informed his readers (I presume mainly his students) of "a binge episode that ended with my attempt to kill myself and my ex-girlfriend with gas." According to the professor's detailed account of the 1998 incident (which has since been taken off the Internet), his former lover came to him for help after she had been tied and and raped by her drug dealer.

     In Schwyzer's Pasadena apartment, he and the woman took drugs and had "desperately hot, desperately heartbreaking sex." Following the desperate, heartbreaking sex, the professor described what took place when the drunk and drug addled woman passed out: "I looked at her emaciated, broken body that I loved so much. I looked at my own, studying some of my more recent scars. (I'd had a binge of self-mutilation earlier in the week, and had cigarette burns on both arms and my torso.) " [In 1998, Schwyzer was thirty years old. Seven years later, he's talking about teaching summer camp teens life skills? Oh boy.]

     Schwyzer continued: "And then it came to me: I needed to do for her and for myself the one thing I was strong enough still to do. I couldn't save her. I couldn't save me, but I could bring an end to our pain. My poor fragile ex would never have to wake up again, and we could be at peace in the next life. As drunk and high as I was, the thought came with incredible clarity. I remember it perfectly now."

     According to the male feminist's story, he turned on the gas in his oven aimed the toxic flow at his unconscious ex-girlfriend, drank more alcohol, swallowed more pills, then stretched out next to her body expecting to accompany the poor woman into eternity. Because the gas fumes failed to do the job, the ex-girlfriend survived the attempted mercy killing. (I don't know if this really happened, or why the professor was never charged with a crime. I wonder how the ex-girlfriend felt about all of this. One thing was certain, it didn't cost him his teaching position at PCC.)

     One of Dr. Schwyzer's students, in a 2012 Rate My Professor review, wrote: "If you get a chance to take his Navigating Pornography class (he's teaching it in 2013), you must! Hugo doesn't tell you what to think but helps you find yourself. Lectures and discussions handle even touchy subjects like sexuality with comfort and clarity. [Wow, I hope this course is mandatory.] He's a stickler for attendance and grammar, but grades fair. Great guest speakers, too!"

     Another Dr. Schwyzer Rate My Professor reviewer wrote: "....the stories he tell is like incredibly fascinating...." (So much for the grammar requirement.)

     Under the auspices of his spring 2013 class Navigating Pornography, Dr. Schwyzer invited the "award-winning" porn actor, James Deen to speak to PCC students and member of the general public. Deen, a PCC alumnus (who said you couldn't go far with a community college degree) has 1,300 porn flick performances under his belt (sorry) including hits like "Atomic Vixens," and "Batman XXX." Deen's February 26, 2013 appearance at the college would, according to the actor, educate students about human sexuality and portray porn acting as a legitimate profession. (Just because its legal doesn't make it legitimate. Outside of California, very few parents would send out notices to friends and relatives announcing that their daughter had just landed a big role in "Swallow the Leader." Any "profession" you hope your children won't go into is not legitimate.)

     James Deen hoped that his presentation would empower students to make their own decisions. "This is an opportunity for people who want to ask questions and talk openly about sexuality." (Learning sexuality from a person who fornicates publicly for money is like receiving cooking tips from a cannibal.)

     When word got out about Dr. Schwyzer's porn star guest speaker, school administrators (Schwyzer referred to them as "suits"), informed the professor that the presentation would have to be a classroom visit rather than a public speaking event. Schwyzer had failed to obtain a facilities use permit required for on-campus public events.

     In responding to his diminished role as a classroom lecturer, James Deen told reporters that "sex is not a dirty, disgusting thing." [Who said it was?] I feel a little persecuted and singled out." Someone should tell Mr. Deen that thirty years ago, they were throwing people like him into prison. Ask the stars of "Deep Throat."

     On his blog site, the PCC pornography navigator addressed the Deen flap this way: "I am deeply disappointed that all those who were eager to hear James will be unable to do so. I am grateful that my students will still be able to hear him. And I look forward to welcoming other porn performers (and public critics of porn) to my class in the future. I remain proud to teach at Pasadena City College." (I'm sure the feeling was mutual.)

     In September 2013, Dr. Schwyzer's academic career came to an end when he admitted that he had been involved in many sexual affairs with his young female students. Moreover, he had recently been charged with DUI pursuant to a traffic accident that caused the serious injury of his female passenger. At this point, Dr. Schwyzer took the opportunity to reveal that for decades he had suffered from "borderline personality disorder and bipolar depression." He said he had been divorced four times.

   

     

John Gardner on the Novelist and Higher Education

     It is true that some writers have kept themselves more or less innocent of education, that some, like Jack London, were more or less self-made men; that is, people who scratched out an education by reading books between work-shifts on boats, in logging camps or gold camps, on farms or in factories. It is true that university education is in many ways inimical to the work of the artist: Rarely do painters have much good to say of aetheticians or history-of-art professors, and it's equally uncommon for even the most serious, "academic" writers to look with fond admiration at "the profession of English." And it's true, moreover, that life in the university has almost never produced subject matter for really good fiction. The life has too much trivia, too much mediocrity, too much soap opera, but consider:

     No ignoramus--no writer who has kept himself innocent of education--has ever produced great art.

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, originally published in 1983. Gardner (1933-1982) was a literary novelist, critic, and English professor. He died young riding his motorcycle. 

College Freshmen Are Depressed

     Every year for half a century UCLA has surveyed freshman classes at schools across the country to get a reading on their mental health. The latest findings aren't encouraging: The emotional health of 2014's crop of college freshmen is at an all-time low. Nearly one in 10 students in UCLA's study said they frequently felt depressed, and their assessment of their overall emotional health is at the lowest level since UCLA started asking the question.

     UCLA surveyed more than 153,000 first-time freshmen who entered 227 four-year private and public colleges and universities of different types and selectivity. When students were asked to rate their mental health compared to their peers, they gave themselves  a score of roughly 50 percent, which is an all-time low. Previous UCLA surveys have highlighted students' declining mental health over time and its connection to lower student success. This phenomenon can certainly explain a growing reliance on campus mental health facilities.

     According to a different study by the American College Health Association, more than half of college students have said they experienced "overwhelming anxiety" in the past year. Depressed students were also more likely to express boredom with their classes and be less likely to study with their classmates.

     While students reported higher rates of depression in the UCLA study, another worrisome sign is the reduced amount of time they're spending with friends, which also hit an all-time low for the annual survey…

     While it's clear that college students still drink significantly, students are arriving on campus with much less experience consuming alcohol than their peers from 20 to 30 years ago. In fact, in the current UCLA study, freshman reported the lowest rate of alcohol and cigarette use in high school than at any point over 30 years.

     Unfortunately, students quickly discover alcohol when they reach college--when 40 percent of them say they've participated in binge drinking within the past month, according to a study from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism….

"College Freshman's Mental Health Hits New Low," CBS News, February 6, 2015 

The First Creative Nonfiction Writing Course

     When I started teaching in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh in the early 1970s, the concept of an "artful" or "literary" nonfiction was considered, to say the least, unlikely. My colleagues snickered when I proposed teaching a "creative" nonfiction course, while the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences proclaimed that nonfiction in general--forget the use of the word creative--was at its best a craft, not too different from plumbing. [Actually, it's probably just as difficult to be a good plumber as it is to be a good writer. Moreover, we have enough writers.]

     As the chairman of our department put it one day in a faculty meeting while we were debating the legitimacy of the course: "After all, gentlemen…we're interested in literature here--not writing." That remark and the subsequent debate had been precipitated by a contingent of students from the school newspaper who marched on the chairman's office and politely requested more nonfiction writing courses--"the creative kind."

     One English colleague, aghast at this prospect, carried a dozen of his favorite books to the meeting--poetry, fiction, and nonfiction--gave a belabored mini-review of each, and then, pointing a finger at the editor of the paper and pounding a fist, stated: "After you read all these books and understand what they mean, I will consider voting for a course called Creative Nonfiction. Otherwise, I don't want to be bothered."

     Luckily, most of my colleagues didn't want to be bothered fighting the school newspaper, so the course was approved--and I became one of the first people to teach creative nonfiction on a university level. This was 1973.

Lee Gutkind in Writing Creative Nonfiction, Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerard, editors, 2001 

Campus Political Correctness and Phony Outrage

Students are ill-served by the culture of the modern college campus which stifles free-thinking in order to protect students from damaging each other's feelings in even the most trivial ways. It's not just that students are offended much too easily, it's almost as if they want a chance to grandstand or win an argument even if the justification for their offendedness makes absolutely no sense.

Greg Lukianoff, Unlearning Liberty, 2013 

Monday, April 24, 2017

Married to a Mobster

I look back and I realize that in the end I got everything I dreamed about having when I was still living with my parents in Bensonhurst [New York City] and longing for escape. I married a handsome man, we became wealthy [on other people's blood and money], we had children, they went to private schools, we lived in a nice big house. So I got everything I always wanted. Some people might say I got everything I deserved. What do they know?

Lynda Milito, widow of slain Gambino soldier Liborio "Louie" Milito in Jerry Capeci, Wiseguys Say the Darndest Things, 20004


Romance Novel Sex Scenes

Years ago we followed the loving couple to the bedroom door, only to have it closed in our face. Now, not only do we go all the way with them in the bedroom, we often find that they don't wait to get there. Sex can take place almost anywhere--in a parked car, in the middle of a field, on the side of a mountain [not a good idea]--just like in real life. Nor does the heroine always have a wedding ring on her finger.

Donna Baker, Writing a Romantic Novel, 1997 

Fatal Falls: Accident or Murder?

High on the list of scenarios for the perfect murder is death by falling from a high place. "Did he fall or was he pushed?" is no joke. Some of the most difficult crime investigations have centered on incidents on mountaintops. When two people are in a high, dangerous place, there are no witnesses on a bleak windswept mountain and not a CCTV camera for miles around. If someone falls to his or  her death, who is to know if it was a slip made by perhaps an inexperienced mountaineer or the fatal plunge after a gentile nudge by an enemy?

Les Brown and Robert Jeffery, Real Hard Cases, 2006

Sunday, April 23, 2017

The Andrew Clarence Bullock Rape Case

     On Friday, December 13, 2013 at eleven-thirty in the morning, a nun in the Order of St. Joseph named Sister Mary Pellegrino encountered a young man in the parking lot behind St. Titus Church in Aliquippa, a western Pennsylvania town 25 miles north of Pittsburgh. The six-foot teenager, wearing a black-hooded sweatshirt, dark pants, and work boots, came up behind the retired 85-year-old nun, tapped her on the shoulder and asked if he could be of help. When Sister Pellegrino declined the smiling youth's offer, he exposed himself, choked her, punched her in the jaw, and raped her as she lay injured in the snow.

     Rushed to Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, Sister Pellegrino underwent surgery to repair her dislocated lower jaw. Although the nun was unable speak to detectives, she described the attack and her attacker in writing.

     At the scene of the crime, investigators photographed a series of boot impressions in the snow. Detectives also questioned people who had seen a 18-year-old named Andrew Clarence Bullock near the church just before the assault. Bullock had been wearing clothing that matched the victim's description of  her attacker's sweatshirt, pants, and shoes.

     A few hours after the assault behind St. Titus Church, Aliquippa police officers questioned Andrew Bullock. The suspect, after initially denying the assault, confessed. Officers noticed that Bullock wore work boots that matched, in size and tread pattern, the shoe impressions in the snow behind the church.

     Police officers booked Bullock into the Beaver County Jail on charges of rape, aggravated assault, and several lesser offenses. The District Judge set his bail at $50,000.

     On Sunday, December 15, 2013, doctors released Sister Mary from the hospital in Pittsburgh. It was hard to believe she survived such a vicious attack. Had she not, Mr. Bullock would have faced charges of first-degree murder.

     In November 2014, following his guilty plea, Beaver County Judge Harry Knafelc sentenced Andrew Bullock to 19 to 37 years in prison. The judge also designated Bullock a sexually violent predator. That meant that once out of prison he will have to register his address with the Megan's Law website.
     

John Cheever on Academic Literary Criticism

The vast academic world exists like everything else, on what it can produce that will secure income. So we have papers on fiction, but they come out of what is largely an industry. In no way does it help those who write fiction or those who love to read fiction.

John Cheever in Writers at Work, Fifth Series, edited by George Plimpton, 1981 

What's Wrong With Judge Baugh?

The Montana judge who said a teen rape victim appeared "older than her chronological age" has sentenced a man convicted of punching her girlfriend to write "Boys do not hit girls," 5,000 times. District Judge G. T odd Baugh also sentenced Pacer Anthony Ferguson, 27, to six months in jail and to pay $3,800 in restitution for fracturing the woman's face in three places during an August 2012 argument. The judge ordered Ferguson to number his list, sign it, and mail it to him by May 23, 2014. [A 27-year-old is not a "boy." What is this, 4th grade?]

Associated Press, December 24, 2013 

Autobiographies of Famous People Are Unreliable

For though fame is a help in selling books, it is of small use in writing them. [That's why they have ghost writers.] And though a reader may be pleased to eavesdrop on the reminiscences of famous people, he will rarely come away from such volumes with more than a nodding acquaintance. The reason for this is that famous people are usually too sensitive of their image to write anything of themselves that may jeopardize it, such as they are bored, frightened, bewildered or hollow as the drums that acclaimed them. Famous people, when they take to autobiography, are chiefly full of tidings about their pedestals and how they got on them, and how modestly they occupy them, and how many other people on pedestals they know.

Ben Hecht, A Child of the Century, 1985 

Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Journal as the Foundation of a Book

No matter how messy or incomplete, journals are the missing links in creative life. For centuries, they've helped beginning and seasoned writers alike trigger new work and sustain inspiration. Anne Frank used hers for the basis of a book she wanted to write after the war. She mined it for details and later rewrote entries and composed scenes. Novelist Virginia Wolf invented herself as a writer in her journal. From age 17 until four days before her death [suicide] at 60, she used journals to move from family sketches to memoir to novels.

Alexandra Johnson, The Hidden Writer, 1998 

The Guillotine

If the laws are such that a person must die for the crimes he or she has committed, surely the most instantaneous and therefore the most merciful method is death by means of the guillotine. Execution by hanging is always open to doubt, the timespan between initial strangulation and final oblivion is not known. The sword and the axe allow too much leeway for the victim to flinch or the executioner to mis-aim. And even the multi-executioners of a firing squad cannot guarantee that at least one bullet will penetrate the heart. Most other methods are similarly flawed, whether they be by gas poisoning, electric chair or whatever. [Lethal drugs don't always get the job done properly either.] In other words, there is nothing so instantly final as a head severed by a machine.

Geoffrey Abbott, Lords of the Scaffold, 2001 

Novels Require A Lot of Facts

Novelists are and always have been split between, on the one hand, a desire to claim an imaginative and representative truth for their stories, and on the other hand, a conviction that the best way to secure and guarantee that truthfulness is by a scrupulous respect for empirical fact…Novels burn facts as engines burn fuel, and the facts can come only from the novelist's own experience or acquired knowledge.

David Lodge, The Practice of Writing, 1996 

Friday, April 21, 2017

Ralph Ellison: A One-Book Author

     Having just published his first novel, Invisible Man, to critical acclaim (it won the National Book Award), Ralph Ellison, in 1952, struggled with his second novel. In a letter that year to his friend and fellow writer, Albert Murray, the 38-year-old Ellison revealed that having written a successful first novel does not necessarily bring happiness or contentment: "I'm trying to organize my next book. I've been a tired, exhausted son-of-a-bitch since I've finished Invisible Man and I want to feel alive again. It's an awful life. For years now I felt guilty because I was working on a novel for so long a time, and now I feel guilty that I am no longer doing so." (Trading Twelves, 2000, edited by Albert Murray.)

     In 1999, five years after Ellison's death, Random House published Juneteenth, a book-length excerpt from his unfinished second novel.

     

Writing Humor Is So Hard It's Not Funny

     Humor is like pornography in that it's easy to recognize, but hard to define. Robin Hemley distinguishes comedy from tragedy this way: "Simply put, tragedy has serious and logical consequences. Cause and effect. Comedy usually doesn't. You throw a person off a tall building in a comedy, he bounces. You throw someone off a building in a tragedy, don't wait for the bounce."

     While I don't read that many books by humorists, I do appreciate humor in novels and works of nonfiction. Memoirs and biographies devoid of humor tend to be tedious and not worth the effort. All really good writers, I think, can write funny stuff. When bad writers try it, the results are disasterous. In the crime fiction genre, my favorite authors--Donald Westlake and Ross H. Spencer--are funny. Here's what some professional writers have said about humor:

Comedy writers have a long-running debate....It is known as the Mickey Mouse Question, and it goes like this: Mickey Mouse is not a funny character. He neither tells jokes nor does anything funny, he has no point of view, no real character, and his girlfriend is an uptight bore. Bugs Bunny, on the other hand, is a brilliantly inventive comic genius, sharp-witted, physically agile, a fearless wise guy who thinks nothing of donning a dress, producing an anvil out of the air, kissing his enemy on the lips, and in the face of death and torture calling out a cheery "What's Up Doc?" Bugs is much funnier than Mickey, no contest. Why, then, is Mickey the billionaire movie star?...Creating a television sitcom means choosing between Mickey and Bugs, between a universe of likable, not-terribly funny people and a universe of vaguely disturbing, very funny people. Networks tend on the whole, not to like funny characters very much. If they had their choice, every sitcom would be a family or group of Mickeys, with maybe a Bugs living next door. Writers, unfortunately, on the whole prefer a big group of Bugs with a Mickey around saying things like, "What's going on here?"
Rob Long

What is the secret of writing funny? If I knew, I would write my own ticket. But I venture this thought: The art begins with a sense of sadness. This is the clown's gift.
James J. Kilpatrick

Humor is the hardest to write, easiest to sell, and best rewarded. There are only a few who are able to do it. If you are able, do it by all means.
Jack London

I don't think a man can deliberately sit down to write a funny story unless he has got a sort of slant on life that leads to funny stories.
P. G. Wodehouse

Analysts have had their go at humor, and I have read some of this interpretative literature, but without being greatly instructed. Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.
E. B. White

With humor you have to look for traps. You're likely to be very gleeful with what you've first put down, and you think it's fine, very funny. One reason you go over and over it is to make the piece sound less as if you were having a lot of fun with it yourself. You try to play it down.
James Thurber

Writing comedy is quite a joy for me. There's an instant reward. If I've written a really funny line, then, for a moment, I become the audience and I laugh. I enjoy it, I know it works.
William Peter Blatty

If you have doubts about whether something's funny, play it straight. Nothing is worse than a lame joke. And if you're not sure humor is appropriate, it probably isn't.
Patricia O'Conner

Writers often have a predilection for humor based on wordplay. Caution is advised, especially when using puns. They can reek of corniness, and they don't alway work on paper.
Roger Bates

You must never make one character laugh at what another says or does....You must never offer the reader anything simply as funny and nothing more. Make it acceptable as information, comment, narrative, etcetera, so that if the joke flops the reader will get something.
Kingsley Amis

Writing humor is more difficult than delivering a punch line to a joke you tell while standing by the office water cooler. For one thing, our society is much more practiced at telling jokes than at writing them. Also, a joke written on paper has no facial expressions, pauses and emphasis to go with it. It's devoid of the most important elements of comedy--timing.
John McCollister

The Dark Fantasy Horror Genre

In pure horror stories--dark fantasy--anything goes, usually straight for the throat. Monsters attack the house, crawl down the chimney, slither or slouch in Zombie ranks closer and closer with each step to the front porch. These fantastic creatures are evil to the core: from slurping, sucking alien monsters to cursed cars that kill their owners. Early in these stories evil begins to appear, usually after a brief opening of calm and tranquility, in small measures.

Philip Martin in The Writer's Guide to Fantasy and Literature, edited by Philip Martin, 2002 

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Suspicious Celebrity Death Cases: The Entertainment Value of Murder

     In California, by law, any time a "celebrity" dies suddenly and unexpectedly, the body must undergo an autopsy. This is because of the media, and the disturbing fact that in America, celebrities are more important than the rest of us. (There are thousands of legitimately suspicious deaths in this country every year that do not receive autopsies because of the shortage of forensic pathologists.) In Hollywood, to die suddenly without an autopsy has become a posthumous insult.

     It's easy to understand, for example, why Natalie Wood's sudden and unexpected death in 1981 made headlines. She was a beautiful and famous Hollywood actress, and her husband, a potential suspect in the case, was also a star. This celebrity death had all the makings of an O.J.-like media spectacle. But, when "Coroner to the Stars" Dr. Thomas Noguchi ruled the death an accidental drowning, he killed the story. Now, decades later, the Natalie Wood case regularly raises its head in the tabloids as a potential murder.

     If, in 1981, a housewife from Buffalo, New York had fallen off a boat into Lake Erie after arguing with her accountant husband, only a handful of people would have heard about the death in the local media. At best this death would have engendered a cursory investigation, then slipped into permanent oblivion.

     The regular re-opening of the Natalie Wood case has been more of a media event that a serious cold case homicide investigation. It's more for our entertainment than it is for the administration of justice. It's time we let this poor woman rest in peace.

   

Homeless Crime Victims

     During the early morning hours of July 3, 17, and 19, 2012, someone in downtown Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and Hollywood, stabbed two homeless men and a women while they slept outdoors. The attacker fled the scenes leaving the wounded victims, all in their 50s, with large hunting knives stuck in their backs. None of the street people were robbed, and they all survived their wounds. Beyond the similar MOs, the assaults were linked by so-called "death warrant" notices left at each stabbing site. The typewritten documents were signed by a person using the name David Ben Keyes.

     Los Angeles detectives found a Facebook entry under the above name which included a photograph of a black man in his mid-30s. Police officers distributed copies of this photograph around skid row neighborhoods where the homeless lived. Street people were advised to spend their nights in shelters until the stabber himself was identified and taken off the street.

     At 8:40 in the evening of Friday, July 20, 2012, a man who identified himself as Courtney Anthony Robinson, called 911 and claimed responsibility for the three stabbings. The 37-year-old said he would surrender to the police at a Hong Kong Express Eatery located in downtown Hollywood. When officers took Robinson into custody, they noticed that he matched the Facebook photograph of David Ben Keyes. When asked why he had stabbed the sleeping street people, the arrestee assured his captors that this information would "come out in the court proceedings." There was no indication that Robinson knew his victims.

     According to data presented on David Ben Keyes' Facebook page, he was a musician and writer from Santa Barbara, California. In his Facebook profile, laden with schizophrenic sounding nonsense about his intent to restructure the "Holy Roman Catholic Church and Empire," Keyes-Robinson claimed to be the CEO of a $250 billion Beverly Hills entertainment corporation. In reality, Robinson was homeless like the people he had stabbed.

     On the day of his Hollywood arrest, Robinson was charged with three counts of attempted murder. He was held under $500,000 bond at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles.

     In February 2015, a jury found Robinson guilty as charged. In the second phase of the trial to determine if the stabber had been sane at the time of the attacks, the same jury found the defendant legally insane and therefore not criminally culpable for the crimes. The judge ordered that he be sent to the Patton State Hospital where he would stay until the psychiatrists deemed him sane enough to be released back to the streets.

     Most crimes against the homeless are committed by mentally ill street people off their anti-psychotic medication. Long ago, people like this were cared for in institutions. Thanks to do-gooders who fought to set them free, they now live on the streets. Some spend their nights in shelters, but many prefer to remain outdoors around the clock. These are the people most vulnerable to assault and murder committed by offenders like Robinson.   

The Role of Fame in Modern Book Publishing

     A character in B. Traven's story "The Night Visitor" who has written several books he has chosen not to publish, contemplates fame: "What is fame, after all? It stinks to hell and heaven. Today I am famous. Today my name is printed on the front page of all the papers in the world. Tomorrow perhaps fifty people can still spell my name correctly. Day after tomorrow I may starve to death and nobody cares. That's what you call fame."

     B. Traven, the pen name of the mysterious author of dozens of novels--notably, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre--believed that all books should be published anonymously. He based this belief on the notion that readers, by knowing in advance who the author is, will expect and demand a certain kind of book.

     Modern publishing is all about fame. Gore Vidal once said that an author should never turn down a chance to be on television. ( Vidal, Truman Capote, and Norman Mailer were notorious media whores.) Today, book publishers pay publicists to get their authors in the news and on radio and TV talk shows.  (Publicity, by definition, is free advertising.) Publishers also like celebrity authors who are already famous. Fans come to celebrity book signings not to acquire the book for reading but for the writer's autograph and a photo op. As a result, it really doesn't bother anyone that celebrity authors do not write (or, I imagine, read) their own books. 

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Psychic Detective Sylvia Browne's Last Case

     I don't believe in fortune tellers, soothsayers, spoon benders, people who communicate with the dead, and so-called psychic detectives. I find the mere pairing of the words "psychic" and "detective" offensive. If I were a chief of police, I would fire any detective caught conferring with one of these fakes. It should therefore not be a surprise that I was not a fan of psychic detective Sylvia Browne. (The 77-year-old author and media manipulator died in November 2013.)

     Browne grew up in Kansas City, Missouri. In 1964 she moved to southern California where she set up shop as a psychic. Ten years later, perhaps in an effort to create the indicia of legitimacy, she founded the Nirvana Foundation for Psychic Research.

     During her career, Browne wrote 50 "nonfiction" books of which 22 appeared on The New York Times bestsellers list. While I have not read any of her books, I lament the trees that died for their existence. In my view, books by psychic detectives should placed in a genre called "untrue crime."

     Sylvia Browne achieved fame and fortune through her regular appearances on the TV shows "Unsolved Mysteries" and "Montel." Her television exposure also helped her promote her books.

     While the psychic detective offered her services in dozens of celebrated crimes, her predictions, in my opinion, never resulted directly in the solution of a murder or the location of a missing body. (In a missing persons/murder case a colleague of mine worked on, Browne told Montel Williams that the body was on the bottom of a small lake in Connecticut. The woman's remains were eventually found several hundred miles away.)

     One of Sylvia Browne's high-profile goofs involved the Cleveland kidnapping case featuring Amanda Berry. Browne told the victim's mother that her daughter was dead when in fact she was being held prisoner in Cleveland, Ohio by Ariel Castro.

     Psychic detectives would not exist if producers quit putting them on television. While it is doubtful any person smart enough to be a producer actually believes in psychics, a large segment of the TV-watching public consists of true believers. That's why psychic detectives are on TV. Moreover, if you're on the tube you're perceived as legit. Media exposure can be a phony stamp of approval.

     For millions of Americans living in a land of magical thinking, ghosts, Bigfoot, and UFOs, psychic detectives are perceived as real visionaries who can see and know things that ordinary people cannot. While psychic detectives give false hope, create investigative wild-goose-chases, and make TV hosts look foolish in the eyes of nonbelievers, I guess they are, in the scheme of things, relatively harmless. Nevertheless, I find them more than annoying because I can't stand fakes who sell more books than me.

      

Arson Motives

   The identification of the fire setter's motive can help establish if the fire was a single event of fire setting or a series of fire setting behavior. Repetitive fire setting is broken down into three classifications: serial arson, spree arson and mass arson. Serial arson is as many as three fires set at different locations with a cooling off period in between. Spree arson is as many as three fires at different location with no cooling off period between fire sets. Mass arson is many fires set at the same time at the same location.

     There are six motive classifications for arson:

l. Vandalism [includes many school fires]
2. Excitement [which includes sexual gratification]
3. Revenge [also referred to as anger fires]
4. Crime concealment [murder, embezzlement]
5. Profit [usually insurance fraud]
6. Extremism [environmental  extremists who set fire to saw mills]

Robert Disbrow Jr., Firehouse Magazine, December 13, 2010 

Charles Bukowski On Style

     I've always been a sucker for the simple, bare line because I've always had this feeling that Literature, that of now and the centuries, was largely a put-on, you know, like pro wrestling matches. Even those who have lasted the centuries (with few exceptions) gave me the odd feeling that they were screwing me over. Basically, I feel that with the bare line it could be harder to get the lie across; besides it reads easier, and what's easy is good and what's hard to read is a pain in the ass.

     So John Fante gave me the bare line with feeling; Hemingway the line that did not beg; Thurber the line that laughed at what the mind did and couldn't help doing; Saroyan the line that loved itself; Celine the line that cut the page like a knife; Sherwood Anderson the line that said beyond the line. I think I have borrowed from all of these writers and I am not ashamed to admit it. I only hope that I have added, what? If I knew what I were doing I could no longer do it.

Charles Bukowski in Charles Bukowski: Selected Letters 1987-1994, edited by Seamus Cooney, 2004 

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Mt. McGregor Correctional Facility: The Mysterious Phantom Prison

     Mount McGregor is a mountain in Saratoga County in upstate New York. In 1913, in the mountain town of Moreau, the state built a tuberculosis treatment retreat called The Sanatorium On The Mountain. The facility closed in 1945 and remained unused until the New York Department of Corrections, in the 1970s, converted the abandoned complex into a medium security prison for men. The McGregor Correctional Facility, because of a series of prison escapes, became known as "Camp Walkaway." In 2014 the state closed the penitentiary.

     The Grant State Historic Site sits on the grounds of the empty prison. The main tourist attraction on the site is Grant's Cottage where Ulysses S. Grant spent the last weeks of his life finishing his memoir. Grant died of throat cancer in 1885. (To this day, Grant's memoir is considered the gold standard in the genre.)

     On July 23, 2014, a WNYT-TV crew led by reporter Mark Mulholland showed up at Grant's Cottage to film a piece in honor of his death 129 years ago. The next day, the television crew returned to the historic site to finish the project.

     As the TV crew shot footage of Grant's Cottage that just happened to include, in the background, a view of the former prison, a New York state collections officer drove up to inform Mulholland that he was not allowed to film anything on Mount Gregor. The officer, who identified himself as Lieutenant Dom, said, "No filming."

     The stunned reporter replied, "We're doing a story on Grant's Cottage."

     Lieutenant Dom, apparently under the illusion that the television people were on the mountain to clandestinely film and do a story on the closed prison, said, "You're up here for different purposes. You'll have to leave the mountain."

     "Are you telling me we can't visit a historic site?"

     "You can visit but you can't film at Grant's Cottage," the officer replied.

     When reporter Mulholland and his colleagues tried to film the cottage from another spot, other corrections officers came onto the scene and blocked their access to the site.

     As Mulholland and his crew started to drive off McGregor Mountain they were stopped by a state trooper who demanded they turn over the footage they had shot of Grant's Cottage. Mulholland couldn't believe a state police officer wanted to confiscate their footage of a public tourist attraction.

     The reporter, after making calls to his TV station and other officials with the state, left the mountain with his Grant's Cottage footage.

     A few days later, a spokesperson for the New York Department of Corrections told a WNYT-TV correspondent that Mulholland and his people had "blatantly disregarded a state police officer who informed them they were trespassing." Moreover, according to this corrections bureaucrat, "department regulations state that photographs and video taken on prison grounds require prior permission." This policy, according to the spokesperson, was for the "safety of all staff, visitors and prisoners."

     It didn't matter that the prison seen in the background didn't have prisoners or institutional visitors. Perhaps the corrections officials were worried that the TV crew was doing an expose about a vacant prison that still employed 76 corrections officers.

     

Researching the Regency Period

     The Regency period of British history has fascinated me for a long time. I've read Jane Austen's books many times, as well as a lot of other fiction and nonfiction about the period. When I first decided to write a novel set in London in the early 1800s, I reread several of my general sources on what life was like in the period, mostly books on the social history of England. Then I read biographies and autobiographies, starting with several about Jane Austen and then branching out into books on Lord Wellington and the Prince Regent (later George IV). I asked my friends for recommendations.

     Then I hit the library, looking for specific things, like a street map of London in 1817 and books on period slang. The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue turned out be be invaluable for dialogue. Along the way, I kept running across other fascinating things that I hadn't known to look for.

Patricia C. Wrede in Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market, edited by Chuck Sambuchino, 2013 

Starting a Mystery Novel Series

An editor rejected my first mystery novel with these words: "I think it would take something really unusual to convince me to take on a new mystery series--an American/Jewish plumber who solves cases by listening at people's drain pipes, or something like that."

William G. Tapply, Elements of Mystery Fiction, 1995 

The Decline of Prison Riots

     Sustained prison uprisings simply do not happen anymore. In 1973, we had 93 riots for every 1 million prisoners; in 2003, we had fewer than three. Prison violence as a whole, in fact, is down dramatically. In 1973, we had 63 homicides per 100,000 prisoners; in 2000, we had fewer than five. Inmate assaults on staff dropped similarly over roughly the same period.

     These are eye-opening statistics--especially given that the incarceration rate in this country has quintupled since 1970, and a remarkable 3 percent of American adults are now under the supervision of the correctional system. Some of the factors that have led to the decline in violence, despite the rising population, are known: Prison demographics have changed, with a higher percentage of nonviolent offenders serving time now than ever before. Many of the most dangerous inmates are now housed in super-maximum-security prisons. New surveillance tactics and restrictions on prisoner movement have been introduced. And prisons are now managed better, thanks in part to federal court interventions. But there is one other factor, almost never discussed, that has contributed greatly to the decline: the development of elite security squads trained to preempt and put down prison disorder of every kind. Often known as Correctional Emergency Response Teams, they have become ubiquitous in correctional facilities over the past 30 years.

Joseph Bernstein, "Why Are Prison Riots Declining While Prison Populations Explode?" The Atlantic, December 2013 

Monday, April 17, 2017

Book Reviewing

     With so many books being published, and so little space devoted to reviewing them, even a bad review can be considered a badge of honor. As painful as bad reviews are, it is arguably worse to have written a book that is totally ignored. Is literary criticism becoming a lost art?

     In an interview published in Novel Short Story Writer's Market 2002, editor Ann Close appraised the review picture as follows: "The review situation has gotten a lot worse. When newspapers and magazines hit bad times, a lot of them dropped their book reviews. Time and Newsweek used to review three to five books every week. [Now Newsweek itself is gone.] They don't do that anymore. But in a way, the Internet has taken up the slack. You can get an enormous amount of information about a book on the Barnes & Noble and Amazon sites....Many other websites have started doing book reviews. It's hard to tell how much impact they've had. Nobody has been able to measure it exactly." [I think on-line literary criticism has had an enormous impact on the reading public. Prior to the Internet, a handful of critics ruled the literary world. Thankfully, those days are gone forever.] 

Writing Good Dialogue

     Well-written dialogue does not imitate the way real people speak. Real talk is repetitive, rambling, and redundant. It is boring and often meaningless. Good literary dialogue, therefore has to be carefully crafted. In his book, Stein on Writing, Sol Stein points out that the majority of published writers write dialogue instinctively with little knowledge of the craft. He defines creative dialogue this way:

     "It is a semblance of speech, an invented language of exchanges that build in tempo or content toward climaxes....Learning the new language of dialogue is as complex as learning any new language....As the writer of fiction masters dialogue, he will be able to deal with characterization and plot simultaneously."

Sunday, April 16, 2017

What is Creative Writing?

     The term "creative writing" offends some people; they think it has something affected or precious about it. Actually it is an innocent phrase developed in American schools and colleges sometime between the two world wars [1920-1940] to designate that kind of writing course which is not Freshman English or Report Writing for Engineers. One suspects that "creative writing" courses grew up partly because ordinary courses in composition had got bogged down in "correctness," gentility, and the handbook-and-exercise method, and some means had to be found to free students for the development of their natural interest and delight in language.

     Creative writing means imaginative writing, writing as an art, what the French call belles lettres. It has nothing to do with information or the more routine forms of communication, though it uses the same skills...

     Like all other forms of creative writing, it is written to produce in its reader the pleasure of aesthetic experience, to offer him an imaginative recreation or reflection or imitation of action, thought, and feeling. It attempts to uncover form and meaning in the welter of love, hate, violence, tedium, habit, and brute fact that we flounder through from day to day.

Wallace Stegner, On Teaching and Writing Fiction, 2002

John Gardner on Learning to Write

Books on writing tend to make much of how difficult it is to become a successful writer, but the truth is that, though the ability to write well is partly a gift--like the ability to play basketball well, or to outguess the stock market--writing ability is mainly a product of good teaching supported by a deep-down love of writing. Though learning to write takes time and a great deal of practice, writing up to the world's ordinary standards is fairly easy. As a matter of fact, most of the books one finds in drugstores, supermarkets, and even small-town libraries are not well written at all; a smart chimp with a good creative-writing teacher and a real love of sitting around banging a typewriter could have written books vastly more interesting and elegant. [This is like saying a human with a love for bananas could leap from tree to tree.] Most grown-up behavior, when you come right down to it, is decidedly second-class. People don't drive their cars as well, or wash their ears as well, or eat as well, or even play the harmonica well....This is not to say people are terrible and should be replaced by machines; people are excellent and admirable creatures; efficiency isn't everything. But for the serious young writer who wants to get published, it is encouraging to know that most of the professional writers out there are push-overs.

John Gardner, The Art of Fiction, originally published in 1983. [Gardner (1933-1982) was a literary novelist, critic, and English professor. What he wrote about publishing and published writers when The Art of Fiction  came out may have been true. Today, it is a lot less true. Published writers are very good, and it is not easy becoming a successful, published writer. Gardner's book on writing is still a classic, and should be read by anyone who aspires to the literary life.] 

Cheating Teachers and Unruly Students in Inner City Schools

     Philadelphia's school teachers have joined public school teachers in cities such as Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles, Columbus, New York, and Washington in changing student scores on academic achievement tests. Teachers have held grade-fixing parties, sometimes wearing rubber gloves to hide fingerprints.

     As a result of investigations, school teachers and administrators have been suspended, fired or indicted by state attorneys general.

     Most of these cheating scandals have occurred in predominantly black schools across the nation. At one level, it's easy to understand--but by no means condone--the motivation teachers have to cheat. Teachers have families to raise, mortgages, car payments and other financial obligations. Their pay, retention and promotions depend on how well their students perform on standardized tests.

     Very often, teachers must deal with an impossible classroom atmosphere in which many, if not most, of the students are disorderly, disobedient and alien and hostile to the education process. Many students pose a significant safety threat….

Walter Williams, "My Desk," Creators.com, February 26, 2014  

Saturday, April 15, 2017

The Second Novel

There might be some truth in the fact that writers whose first novels are autobiographical find it more difficult than other writers to write a second novel, but writers of any stripe have a difficult time following up a first novel. I've heard that as many as half of all first  novelists never write a second.

Robin Hemley, Turning Life Into Fiction, 1994

Identifying Criminals Reflected in Their Photographed Victims' Eyes

     "The pupil of the eye is like a black mirror," says a British researcher…For crime in which the victims are photographed by the criminal (e.g. hostage taking, child sex abuse), reflections in the eyes of victims could help identify perpetrators."

     Researchers showed 32 participants high-resolution photo portraits of faces, and the participants were asked to identify people reflected in the subject's pupils--often the photographer or someone standing next to the photographer. When the reflected person was a familiar one, participants could identify him or her 84 percent of the time….When the reflected figures weren't familiar, participants were still able to ID them 71 percent of the time based on comparisons to mugshots.

Matt Cantor, Newser, December 28, 2013

     

Writer Biographies as Author Self-Help Books

When I'm struggling with my own work I'm often drawn to biographies of writers. Not only do learn fun facts about prominent figures--Henry James suffered terribly from constipation, Kafka chewed every bite of food 32 times, Flannery O'Conner cared for a flock of around 40 peacocks, Montaigne never saw his wife with her clothes off, Balzac fortified himself with a paste made of unroasted coffee beans--I'm also reminded that there's no single path for living a successful creative or personal life. It's inspiring to read about a flawed human being who struggled with his or her demons and afflictions, experienced paralyzing episodes of failure or self-doubt, but somehow managed to do the work anyway, and produce something that enriched the world. That's my version of self-help.

Tom Perrota in The New York Times Book Review, December 1, 2013 

Friday, April 14, 2017

The Power of Crime Scene Observation

     When you walk into a crime scene, probably seventy or eighty percent of being successful is just observing, identifying the areas that are likely to yield useful evidence and then processing the scene. There's no magic wand you can wave over a crime scene and just have fingerprints jump out at you.

     With crime scene processing, you can have the greatest technology in the world to examine a crime scene, but you still have to apply it intelligently. And if you can't figure out where you're going to look for latent fingerprints, then it doesn't matter how much technology you have.

     Go back to Sherlock Holmes. Author Conan Doyle made Holmes a master of observation. He had him using different scientific techniques, but the bottom line was, he was a master of observation.

Crime Scene Team Leader, Connie Fletcher, Crime Scene, 2006 

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Charles Bukowski on Raymond Carver

I met Raymond Carver one time, long ago. We drank all night. In the morning we went out for breakfast and he couldn't eat. I ate his breakfast and mine. I remember him telling me, "I'm going to be famous now. A friend of mine has just been appointed editor of Esquire and he's going to publish everything I send him." I never got much out of Carver and still can't quite see what the fuss is all about. You asked, so I told you.

Charles Bukowski in Charles Bukowski: Selected Letters 1987-1994, edited by Seamus Cooney, 2004

The Russian Writers

I like the great Russian writers best of all--Tolstoi, Chekov, and Dostoevsky. I think it is because they seemed to feel that truth is more important than all the fancy skillful words, than belles lettres. I, personally, don't like writing where the package is fancier and more important than the contents. Perhaps that is why the Russians translate so well, because the important thing to them is what they felt, saw and thought. Life is more important to them than literature.

Brenda Ueland, If You Want to Write, originally published in 1938 

Chisako Kakehi: Japan's Black Widow Serial Killer Case

     Japan is home to one of the fastest aging populations in the world. Japanese people are living longer and fewer of them live with their adult children. (This is also the trend in America.)

     Japanese men and women in their 70s whose spouses have died are lonely and vulnerable to a variety of crimes that includes murder. Many of them, desperate for companionship in their so-called golden years, access online dating services that cater to lonely senior citizens,

The Alleged Black Widow

     In 1964, 18-year-old Chisako, (Chisako, because of her multiple marriages, has many names. We'll use this one for now.) a bright, ambitious high school graduate from Muko, a small industrial suburb of the city of Kyoto, married a truck driver who later started a small printing company. Although Chisako had the intelligence and desire to attend college, her conservative parents, not wanting to waste a higher education on a woman, denied her that opportunity. She ended up working as a bank clerk, a job she felt was beneath her.

     In 1994, Chisako's husband suddenly fell ill and died at the age of 54. The authorities determined his death to be natural, and pursuant to custom in Japan, his body was cremated.,

     In 2004, Chisako, now 48, married the 67-year-old president of a small drug company. Two years later he got sick and died. With no reason to suspect foul play, the authorities listed his death as natural. His remains were also cremated.

     In May 2008, after being married to Chisako for less than two months, a 75-year-old landowner became ill and suddenly died. Two months after that, the 73-year-old clothing boutique owner Chisako was dating suddenly dropped dead. Although this was the fourth man connected to Chisako by marriage or romance to die suddenly, this man's passing did not catch the attention of law enforcement. As a result it was labeled a natural death. It seemed that when it came to partners, this woman had a lot of bad luck. She was, however, becoming rich.

     In 2012, after Chisako's 71-year-old fiance fell off his motorcycle and died, the police, now suspicious, ordered a blood test that revealed the presence of the poison cyanide. This man had been murdered and Chisako became the prime suspect in the case.

     While under investigation for the poisoning murder of her fiancee, Chisako married again, this time to a 75-year-old man named Isao Kakehi. Mr. Kakehi, a longtime widower, had a substantial savings account and owned his own home. One month after marrying Chisako, he ended up dead on the floor of his dwelling. Following the initial cause of death ruling of heart failure, a test of Isao Kakehi's blood revealed a lethal dose of cyanide.

     In November 2014, detectives with the Kyoto Prefectural Police arrested Chisako Kahehi on suspicion of murder in the death of Mr. Kakehi and the death of the poisoned fiance who fell off his motorcycle in 2012. When the fiance died from cyanide poisoning, Chisako was dating at least two other elderly men. Chisako's arrest probably saved their lives.

     Detectives, in December 2014, recovered a small bag of cyanide that had been hidden in a plant pot Chisako Kakehi had thrown away.

     According to investigators, the suspected serial killer's M.O. had been simple and direct. She used the online dating services to find lonely, moderately wealthy men whom she showered with romantic emails professing her undying love. Shortly after she married the man she had targeted, she pressured him to change his will to make her the sole beneficiary of his estate.

     Chisako Kakahi, dubbed by Japan's tabloid media as the "Black Widow," had amassed $8 million of her victims' money. Since she was richer than her last two or three victims, money may not have been her primary motive. She may have killed these men out of anger and resentment against a male-dominated society that did not recognize her worth.

     While the Chisako Kakahi serial murder case is based on circumstantial evidence--no one saw her poison these men and she has not confessed--it's hard to explain these deaths in any other way.

     As of April 2017, Chisako Kakahi has not had her day in court. This serial murder case, however, has highlighted a problem in Japan's criminal justice system. Because of a critical shortage of forensic pathologists in Japan, autopsies were not conducted on six of Kakehi's suspected eight victims. In 2014, only 11.7 percent of "unusual deaths" resulted in autopsies. In England, that percentage is 40 percent. In Sweden, it's 95 percent.

     

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Charles Bukowski on Writers and Writing

     According to Christopher Hitchens, "The reflections of successful writers on other writers, can be astonishingly banal." While probably true, this does not apply to southern California's Charles Bukowski. Before he died in 1994 at 73, Bukowski, the author of thousands of poems, hundreds of short stories, and six novels, had plenty to say about the writer and his craft. While he is one of my favorite authors, I don't think Bukowski was the nicest guy around. His anti-social personality and noir attitude about life is reflected in some of the following quotes. Nice guy or not, Bukowski was interesting, and he could write. A few of his writing related quotes:

Writing is a sick habit to break.

I can write more truly of myself than of anybody that I know. It's a great source of material.

I liked [Ernest] Hemingway for clarity, I loved it, yet at the same time I didn't like the literary feel of it...there was a upper snobbishness attached....When you come in from the factory with your hands and your body and your mind ripped, hours and days stolen from you, you can become very aware of a fake line, a fake thought, of a literary game.

Why do poets consider themselves more elevated than the garbage man, the short story writer and the novelist?

The job of a writer is to write, all else is nonsense that weakens mind, gut, ability and the natural state of being.

Poetry? Well, it's not much, is it? A lot of posing and prancing and fakery, wordplay for its own sake.

I am not so worried about whether I am writing any good or not, I know I write a valley of bad stuff. But what gets me is that nobody is coming on that I can believe in or look up to. It's hell not to have a hero.

I have to write a lot of poems to keep from going crazy; I can't help it. I often write ten to twelve poems a day and then top the whole thing off with a short story.

You know, I've tried the starving writer bit....I write better with a few bucks in my pocket.

I have to drink and gamble [horses] to get away from this typewriter. Not that I don't love this old machine when it's working right. But knowing when to go to it and knowing to stay away from it, that's the trick.

Starvation and obscurity are not necessarily signs of genius.

If there is anything good about my writing it is the roughness, the quality of not being literary.

There is hardly such a thing as a modest writer. Especially a modest bad writer.

It has always been the popular concept for the writer to starve, go mad, suffer, suicide. I think it's time for the editors and publishers to starve, suffer, go made and suicide.

Yes, I drink when I write fiction. Why not? I like things to be entertaining. If I feel entertained at this machine maybe somebody else will feel that way too.... 

Was Anyone Responsible For Avonte Oquendo's Death?

     Avonte Oquendo, an autistic 14-year-old who didn't speak, attended school in Long Island City, Queens, New York. The black, five-foot-three, 120 pound student was enrolled in the school's special needs program. He lived with his mother, Vanessa Fontaine, a social services case manager, and his four older brothers aged 19 to 29. Avonte's school sits on a busy street across from a playground, a dog run, and a jogging path that overlooks the East River.

     At 12:40 PM on October 4, 2013, a school surveillance camera caught Avonte coming out of the building with other school kids. That was the last time anyone saw him. Reacting to the missing persons report filed by his mother, dozens of New York City police officers from the 102 Precinct, aided by two helicopters, conducted a thorough search of the neighborhood.

     Following the initial surge of police activity on the case, Avonte's mother Vanessa, working out of a donated recreational vehicle parked in front of the school, oversaw the deployment of volunteer searchers and the distribution of missing person fliers.

     Vanessa Fontaine also organized candlelight vigils and rallies, raised $95,000 in reward money from anonymous donors, and appeared on several nationally broadcast television programs. While the police received hundreds of tips, nothing panned out.

     Two months after her son's disappearance, Vanessa moved her operation out of the RV and set up shop in a rented office. Thirty days after that, with still no leads on Avonte's whereabouts, activity on the case waned. There were fewer tips coming in, and only a handful of volunteers showed up each day at Vanessa's missing persons headquarters.

     The missing boy's mother filed a $25 million lawsuit against New York City's Board of Education. The plaintiff accused the staff at Avonte's school of failing to protect him.

     On Thursday night, January 16, 2014, body parts and items of clothing found near the Queens shoreline. The remains were later identified as the missing boy's. The search was over and a new phase of the case, determining Oquendo's cause and manner of death, was underway.

     In March 2014, Richard Condon, the school system's "Special Commissioner of Investigation," sent a 12-page report regarding the Oquendo case to the Queen's District Attorney's Office. The report did not allege that any crime had occurred and did not recommend that any school employee should be disciplined.

     As a criminal matter the Oquendo case was closed. Apparently the official manner of the boy's drowning went into the books as accidental. To this date no one from the school has been held accountable for the autistic teenager's fate. The lawsuit, as of April 2017, remains unresolved. 

The Difference Between Talking and Writing

     Talking and writing are different in just the way listening and reading are different. That difference affects everything. As Fran Lebowitz says, "In conversation you can use timing, a look, inflection, pauses. But on the page all you have is commas, dashes, the amount of syllables in a word. When I write I read everything out loud to get the right rhythm."

     But most important of all, the focus of talk is totally different from the focus of prose. A talker focuses on the relationship between her or his subject and the listener….No third party is contemplated. Prose, on the other hand, must focus on an absent and, in fact "invented" figure known as "The Reader." Prose--all prose--addresses this absent but imagined figure and shapes itself and that figure and its needs in an unseen relationship between them.

Stephen Koch, The Modern Library Writer's Workshop, 2003