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Friday, April 30, 2021

Jerome Murdough's Jail Cell Death

     After graduating from a Queens, New York high school in 1976, Jerome Murdough joined the Marine Corps. He served a tour in Okinawa, Japan before his honorable discharge. Shortly after he returned to New York City, Murdough started drinking heavily and taking drugs. In his thirties, after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, he found himself living on the street and in homeless shelters. He had joined the growing number of mentally ill Americans living on the fringes of urban society. To maintain a semblance of sanity, Murdough had to keep taking his anti-psychotic medication. He also took anti-seizure pills and continued to medicate himself with alcohol.

     Over the years, New York City police officers, on a dozen occasions, arrested Murdough for the misdemeanor offenses of drunk in public, trespassing, and drug possession. On February 7, 2014, a police officer in Harlem, New York arrested the 56-year-old homeless man for trespassing. Murdough had been sleeping in an enclosed stairwell in a public housing project.

     The arresting officer booked Mr. Murdough into Rikers Island, the nation's second largest jail system. At any given time, Rikers Island is the temporary home of 1,200 prisoners, almost half of whom are mentally ill. At his arraignment, the judge assigned Murdough an attorney from the public defender office, and set his bail at a prohibitive $2,500.

     On February 14, 2014, a week into his incarceration, jail officials transferred Murdough to the Anna M. Kross Center, the jail system's massive mental health unit. They placed him into a 6-by-10 foot cinderblock cell at 10:30 that night. Pursuant to jail policy pertaining to prisoners in the mental observation unit, corrections officers were supposed to check on Murdough every fifteen minutes.

     At 2:30 the next morning, four hours after Murdough's transfer to the mental health unit, a corrections officer discovered Murdough dead on his cot. The first thing the guard noticed was the intense heat coming out of the cell. The temperature in the enclosure had risen to well about 100 degrees due to an heating system malfunction.

     While the forensic pathologist with the New York City's Medical Examiner's Office was unable to articulate the exact cause of death without more testing, initial indicators point to extreme dehydration otherwise know as heat stroke. Since psychotropic medications can impair the body's ability to cool itself by sweating, Murdough's prescription regime may have been a contributing factor to his death.

     Jerome Murdough's 75-year-old mother learned of her son's fate a month after he baked to death. She learned of  his passing from a reporter with the Associated Press. Mrs. Murdough hadn't been in contact with her son for three years.

     On April 3, 2014, a spokesperson for New York City's jail system announced that the warden of the mental health unit had been demoted over the incident. Two corrections officer were placed on thirty-day suspensions for not "following basic procedures."
     In October 2014, pursuant to a civil suit filed by Jerome Murdough's family, the city of New York authorized a $2.25 million settlement.

The Eye-Drop Poison Case

     Dr. Harry Johnston, since June 2009, had been treating Thurman Nesbitt for a mysterious illness. The 45-year-old patient, a resident of McConnellsburg in central Pennsylvania, suffered from nausea, low blood pressure, and breathing difficulties. Dr. Johnston, suspecting that his patient was being poisoned, had his blood analyzed. On July 27, 2012, the serology tests revealed the presence of tetrahydrozolin, a chemical found in over-the-counter eye-drops.

     On August 10, 2012, troopers with the Pennsylvania State Police arrested Nesbitt's girlfriend, Vickie Jo Mills. The 33-year-old McConnellsburg woman, on probation for forgery, admitted putting Visine drops into her boyfriend's drinking water. Mills told her interrogators that she had been making Nesbitt sick since June 2009. She said it had never been her intention to poison her boyfriend to death. To the obvious question of why she had done this, Mills explained that she had made Nesbitt sick in an effort to get him to pay more attention to her.

     Most women who use illness to attract attention make themselves sick pursuant to a syndrome called Munchausen. In Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy, these women make their children sick. It's not clear why Mills thought poisoning her boyfriend would improve their relationship.

     The Fulton County prosecutor charged Vickie Jo Mills with ten counts of aggravated assault which carried a combined maximum sentence of 240 years in prison and a $300,000 fine. Shortly after her arrest, the authorities released Mills on a $75,000 surety bond.

     On October 16, 2002, the district attorney dropped nine of the ten counts in return for the defendant's guilty plea. A Fulton County judge, on February 14, 2013, sentenced Mills to two to four years in prison.

     It's odd that something you can put into your eyes will make you sick if you put it into your stomach.

The Death Penalty Debate in America

     To some extent, the debate about capital punishment has been going on almost since the founding of the Republic. At that time, each state, following the English tradition, imposed death for a long list of felonies. But the same humanism that posited the equal value of all men and animated democracy necessarily led to many questions about a punishment that vested such fierce power over citizens in the state and assumed individuals were irredeemable. Thomas Jefferson was among the earliest advocates of restricting executions, and in 1794, Pennsylvania limited capital punishment to first-degree murder. In 1846, Michigan became the first American state to outlaw capital punishment for killers.

     For most Americans, the death penalty debate goes no further than asking whether they "believe" in capital punishment. There is good reason for this, of course, because the threshold issues define us so profoundly as individuals and as a society that it is almost impossible to move past them. What are the goals of punishment? What do we think about the perfectibility of human beings and the perdurability of evil? What value do we place on life--of the murderer and the victim? What kind of power do we want in the hands of government, and what do we hope the state can accomplish when it wields it?

Scott Turow, Ultimate Punishment: A Lawyer's Reflections on Dealing with the Death Penalty, 2003

The Celebrity Journalist

Journalists are now celebrities. Part of this has been caused by the ability and willingness of journalists to promote themselves. Part of this has been caused by television, the television reporter is often more famous than anyone he interviews.

Nora Ephron, 2003

The Complete Sentence

That's the hardest thing to do--to stay with a sentence until it has said what it should say, and then to know when that has been accomplished.

Vivian Gornick, American critic, essayist, and memoirist, The Paris Review, 2014

They Lived Happily Thereafter

What a romance novel does is describe the progress of the love story, from meeting to that moment when the heroine and the hero decide to commit to each other. At that point they expect to live happily thereafter. Whether they do or not is another story--the straight novel, if you like, after the romance.

Donna Baker, Writing a Romance Novel, 1997

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Nathan Dunlap: Saving the Life of a Cold-Blooded Mass Murderer

     In December 1993, a supervisor employed by the Chuck E Cheese family eating place and entertainment center in the suburban city of Aurora, Colorado outside of Denver, fired 19-year-old Nathan Dunlap for refusing to work extra hours. The pizza cook told his fellow workers that the boss had made a fool of him, and that he planned to get even.

     On December 14, 1993, Dunlap, while playing basketball with friends, said, in reference to his former place of employment, that he was going to "kill them all and take the money." Later that day, Dunlap walked into the Chuck E Cheese establishment and, in cold blood, shot five employees, killing four of them.

     A jury, in 1996, found Nathan Dunlap guilty of four counts of murder. The judge sentenced the convicted killer to death. Three years later, the Colorado Supreme Court upheld Dunlap's conviction.

     In early May 2013, after the U. S. Supreme Court declined to hear Dunlap's clemency appeal, an Arapahoe County judge scheduled Dunlap's execution for the week of August 18, 2013. Dunlap would be the first prisoner executed in the state in fifteen years. Friends and relatives of the murdered Chuck E Cheese employees were elated.

     Those who had been waiting twenty years for Dunlap's execution were crestfallen when Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, at a May 22, 2013 press conference, announced that he had granted "Offender No. 89148" a temporary reprieve. (During the news conference, Governor Hickenlooper never mentioned Dunlap by name. When asked why, he said, "I don't think he needs any more notoriety.")

     The governor's reprieve guaranteed that Dunlap would live until January 15, 2015, the last day of Hickenlooper's first term. If he lost his bid for re-election, the new governor could let the reprieve stand, or go forward with the execution. Dunlap's fate became a gubernatorial campaign issue.

     In justifying his decision to spare Dunlap's life, Hickenlooper rhetorically asked, "Is it just and moral to take this person's life? Is it a benefit to the world?" (A lot of people would answer, "Yes!")

     In reacting publicly to the governor's reprieve, Arapahoe County District Attorney George Braucher said, "There's going to be one person, one person in this system who goes to bed with a smile on his face tonight. And that's Nathan Dunlap. And he's got one person to thank for that smile. That's Governor Hickenlooper."

     The father of one of Dunlap's victims, in speaking to a reporter with the Denver Post, said, "The knife that's been in my back for twenty years was just turned by the governor."

      Governor Hickenlooper was elected to a second term in office. It was not clear what role the Dunlap reprieve played in that victory,

     In April 2017, a U.S. District Court judge denied the Dunlap legal team the right to lobby Governor Hickenlooper for permanent clemency. The death house defense team wanted to spend $750,000 in taxpayer money to present psychiatric evidence that Dunlap's murders were the result of a traumatic childhood.

    On November 20, 2017, Governor Hickenlooper denied clemency for Nathan Dunlap.
     Colorado governor Jared Polis, in March 2020, signed a bill abolishing the state's death penalty, thus saving Nathan Dunlap's life.

Sherlock Holmes: The Protagonist as Beloved Public Figure

A. Conan Doyle grew to detest his detective Sherlock Holmes and killed him off with satisfaction. The rest of the world didn't agree: London stockbrokers wore armbands, the public deluged newspapers with letters of mourning and outrage, and a woman even picketed Doyle's house with a sign that called him a murderer.

Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo, It Takes a Certain Type to be a Writer, 2003 

John Scalzi On Science Fiction And Fantasy Writers

     Many of the writers who have inspired me most are outside the science fiction genre. Humorists like Robert Benchley and James Thurber, screenwriters like Ben Hecht and William Goldman, and journalist/columnists like H. L. Mencken, Mike Royko and Molly Ivins. They inspire me because they were good with words and they were also in command of their genres…

     I believe the best way to grow a genre--in this case science fiction--is to bring new elements into it. This is why I always recommend to aspiring science fiction and fantasy writers that they read outside the genre as much as they read inside it…

     My favorite thing about science fiction and fantasy right now is that it has so many genuinely good writers in it. I am biased, but I can say that the best writers in our genre can hold their own against any writers in any genre…

John Scalzi, "Science Fiction Author John Scalzi Explains How Not To Be Boring," by Brian A. Klems, writersdigest.com, July 20, 2011 

Believing the Unbelievable

Writers of nonfiction, particularly in the true crime genre, have a huge advantage over crime novelists, their fiction writing counterparts. Made up crime stories, to be believable, have to make sense. Otherwise, the fiction reader will lose interest because the story is unrealistic and unbelievable. A true crime story, on the other hand, regardless of how bizarre, pathological and mind-blowing, simply has to be true. The most celebrated crimes in American history--The Webster-Parkman Murder Case, The Lizzie Borden Ax Murder Case, The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case, and the O.J. Simpson Double Murder Case--exemplify the adage that fact is indeed stranger than fiction.

"Literary Fiction": The Unread Genre

     All of the most prestigious awards for fiction each year are given to the works of literary fiction, which makes it sometimes easy to say that writers who write literary novels are better writers.

     In reality, neither of the two categories of writers necessarily deserve the distinction of being better writers. Different writers is a better word choice…

     Is essence, the best genre fiction contains great writing, with the goal of telling a captivating story to escape from reality. Literary fiction is comprised of the heart and soul of a writer's being, and is experienced as an emotional journey through the symphony of words, leading to a stronger grasp of the universe and of ourselves. ["Emotional journey? Symphony of words? Literary fiction is different because no one reads it.]


Steven Petite, huffingtonpost.com, April 28, 2014 

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Alisha Noel-Murray Murder-For-Hire Case

     Omar Murray, a Jamaican-born ironworker resided with his wife Alisha Noel-Murray in a Brooklyn row-house owned by Alisha's mother. The couple, married three years, had moved into the Brownsville neighborhood in early 2012. Omar was thirty-seven. His wife, a home health aide with Visiting Nurse Service of New York, was just twenty-five. A religious man, Omar regularly attended the Full Gospel Assembly of God Church in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.

     On Sunday, February 24, 2013, as Omar Murray entered his Lott Avenue house at one in the afternoon, he was approached by a man who shot him once in the chest. The victim stumbled into the house and collapsed in the entrance hallway. At the time of the shooting, Alisha was in the house recovering from surgery. She locked herself in her bedroom and called 911. Mr. Murray died a few hours after being rushed by ambulance to the Brookdale University Hospital.

     The next day, New York City Detectives arrested three local men in connection with the murder. Dameon Lovell told interrogators that the dead man's wife had been his lover. Together they had come up with the idea of having Omar murdered in a staged robbery. The 29-year-old murder-for-hire co-mastermind said that Alisha Noel-Murray wanted to cash in on her husband's two life insurance policies.

     In 2009, shortly after they were married, the couple took out a policy with National Benefit for $530,000. Sometime Mr. Murray's life was insured for an additional $150,000.

     Kirk Portious, a 25-year-old with a history of violent crime, confessed to being the hit-man. The prosecutor charged Portious and Lovell with first-degree murder. The third man taken into custody, 22-year-old Dion Jack, drove the getaway vehicle. He was charged with hindering prosecution. The judge set his bail at $5,000. Portious and Lovell were held without bond in the jail on Riker's Island.

     Funeral services for the murder victim were held at the Full Gospel Assemble of God Church on Friday night, March 8, 2013. Omar Murray's widow, who had not been charged with a crime, sat in the front pew chewing gum. Omar's uncle, in speaking to a New York Daily News reporter outside the Crown Heights church, said, "To see her [Alisha] sitting there with her crocodile tears makes me sick. We know she killed our Omar. Where is the justice?"

     Alisha Noel-Murray, to the same reporter, said, "I'm not hiding from no one....This is ridiculous."

     In June 2016, Alisha Noel-Murray was charged with first-degree murder in connection with Mr. Murray's death. Both life insurance companies refused to pay benefits on the ground local prosecutors had charged her as a murder-for-hire mastermind. She sued the National Benefit Life Insurance company and lost.

     Portious and Lovell awaited their murder trials while incarcerated on Riker's Island.

     In March 2017, Dameon Lovell pleaded guilty to second-degree murder in exchange for a 25 year to life prison sentence.

     On June 8, 2017, a jury in Brooklyn, New York found Alisha Noel-Murray guilty of first-degree murder. Dameon Lovell's testimony helped convict her. A week later, a separate jury found Kirk Portious, the hit man, guilty of the same offense.

     The judge, in July 2017, sentenced Noel-Murray and her hit man to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The Difference Between Science Fiction and Fantasy

     What does it mean to say that science fiction tries to make its speculations plausible while fantasy does not? Basically, fantasy writers don't expect you to believe that the things they're describing could actually happen, but only to pretend that they could for the duration of a story. Fantasy readers understand that and willingly play along. Science fiction writers, on the other hand, try to create worlds and futures that really could exist and do the things they describe. Their readers expect that of them, and write critical letters to editors and authors when they find holes in the logic (or the assumptions) that would make a science fiction story impossible.

     Often the same basic story material can be treated as either science fiction or fantasy, depending on how the writer approaches it. For example, the old fable of "The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs" is fantasy because real geese don't lay golden eggs and the story makes no attempt to convince you they could. It merely asks you to consider what might happen if one did. Isaac Asimov's story "Pate de Foie Gras" takes this basic idea and turns it into science fiction by postulating a biochemical mechanism so that readers can judge for themselves whether it might actually work.

     Fantasy is fun; but for some readers there is something extra special about a story that not only stretches the imagination, but just might be a real possibility.

Stanley Schmidt, Aliens and Alien Societies, 1995

Dealing With The Urge to Write a Novel

If you want to write a novel, the best thing you can do is take two aspirins, lie down in a dark room, and wait for the feeling to pass.

Lawrence Block, Writing the Novel, 1985 

Internet 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. 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." Internet literary criticism has had an enormous impact on the reading public. Prior to the Internet, a handful of critics ruled the literary world. Those days are gone forever. 

The Flawed Romance Heroine

I feel that a character's flaws are what allows the reader to relate to her. I'm well-known for not being a fan of the "perfect" heroine. Our admiration may be aroused by perfection, but that is a distant emotion. Empathy comes from a shared sense of humanity, and that's what interests me. The flaws that I choose are flaws that interest me; flaws that seem to challenge the character is some way.

Laura Kinsale, likesbooks.com, 2003

Pulp Fiction Writer Peter Rabe

A guy named Peter Rabe wrote a batch of books for Gold Medal [mass market paperback publisher] in the 50s, and he was absolutely the single largest influence in my writing style. I was completely in love with the way the man wrote. [Clear and lucid. Peter Rabe (1921-1990) wrote under the names Marco Malaponte and J. T. MacCargo. According to Kein Graff at Booklist, "Rabe can pack more into 10 words than most writers can do with a page."]

Donald E. Westlake, American crime novelist, 2001

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Elisa Lam's Mysterious and Suspicious Death

     The Cecil Hotel, a downtown, 600-room, fourteen-story building at 7th and Main near Los Angeles' Skid Row district, could be a setting in a southern California noir film. (I'm thinking of the hotel in the movie "Barton Fink.") In the 1920s and 30s several guests and visitors were murdered in the place. A woman jumped to her death from a hotel window in the 1960s. In 1985, Richard Ramirez, "The Night Stalker," occasionally roomed on the fourteenth floor. The hotel put the serial killer in proximity to prostitutes, fourteen of whom ended up dead by his hand. In 1991, during Jack Unterweger's stay at the hotel, the Austrian murdered several of the neighborhood's working girls. The Cecil's new owners made improvements to the 2-star budget hotel in 2007. Half of the hotel's inhabitants are permanent residents.

     On January 26, 2013, Elisa Lam, a 21-year-old University of British Columbia student from Vancouver, Canada, checked into the Cecil Hotel. During the first five days of her vacation to Los Angeles Elisa called her parents regularly. She stopped phoning on January 31, and the next day her worried parents, the owners of a Vancouver restaurant, reported their daughter missing to the Los Angeles Police Department. 
     Police officers searched the hotel without result. In reviewing surveillance camera footage detectives came across a two-minute clip of the missing woman standing by herself in a hotel elevator. Lam was seen pushing all of the floor-buttons, obviously frustrated that the elevator door didn't close. For a minute or so she seemed to be hiding in the corner of the elevator before stepping out into the lobby or a hallway. She was seen just outside the elevator gesturing as though she was talking to someone off-camera. 
     On Tuesday morning, February 19, 2013, a maintenance worker on the hotel roof investigating complaints of low water pressure, made a terrible discovery. To his horror he found a young woman's body in one of the four cylindrical tanks that provide the hotel's water. The corpse had been floating in the cistern for two and a half weeks. As suspected, the maintenance man had found Elisa Lam.  
     Guests at the Cecil Hotel had been drinking, brushing their teeth, and showering in water contaminated by a decomposing corpse. During the week before the maintenance man's roof-top discovery, there had been customer complaints of funny tasting drinking water, and showers that started off with a black spray. 
     The Cecil Hotel has remained open, but has been placed on "flush only" status by the Los Angeles County Health Department. (Following the discovery of the body, the city added more chorine to the hotel's drinking water.) After the recovery of Lam's remains, guests checking into the $64 a night hotel were required to sign waivers warning them they were staying at the Cecil "at their own risk and peril." (People were still checking-in?) 
     Los Angeles detectives treated the case as a suspicious death but did not determined what happened to Lisa Lam or how her body ended up in the hotel water supply. (I presume there was no evidence of foul play in her room.) To get to the hotel roof one had to have access to a locked and alarmed door. The only other way to the top of the building involved climbing the fire escape. 
     According to her parents, Elisa's travel plans had included a trip to Santa Cruz in the central part of the state. No one knew why Santa Cruz was on her vacation itinerary. A few news sources indicated that the young woman might have been "mildly depressed".

     On February 29, 2013, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner's office announced that the autopsy did not reveal Elisa Lam's specific cause of death. That meant she hadn't been shot, bludgeoned, stabbed or knifed to death. That left strangulation, smothering, or drowning. Apparently the forensic pathologist was unable to determine if she had been dead or alive when she went into the water.

     Toxicological tests determined that Lam had not recently consumed alcohol or recreational drugs. In her system she did have antidepressant medication prescribed for depression and bipolar disorder.

     The Los Angeles County Medical Examiner's office announced, on June 20, 2013, that Elisa Lam's death had been an accident. Really? How does one accidentally drown in a roof-top water tank? Did a witness see Lam on the hotel roof? Was she swimming in the tank? This ruling didn't make any sense. 

The Big Con

We convinced everyone college was 100 percent necessary, and then we made college unaffordable. It mostly started in 1978 when more loans and subsidies became available to greatly expand the number of students. The cost of college tuition has risen by six times the rate of inflation since the 1970s.

Jake Novak, CNBC Feb 23, 2020

True Crime Publishing

Why are some true crimes turned into books, while others barely make the national papers? It will hardly come as a staggering surprise to find that publishers choose only those cases that are out of the ordinary: so, while murder is a favorite topic for books, "domestic" murders are not, unless several people in the family are killed. [Or the killer or victim is famous.] The sort of case that attracts a book publisher is likely to involve large-scale crime, a mass or serial murder or a murderer who has been freed and has killed again or perhaps a murderer who almost got away with it.

Philip Rawlings, britsoccrim.org, April 1995

Stephen King On Story Versus Fancy Prose

     All my life as a writer I have been committed to the idea that in fiction the story holds value over every other facet of the writer's craft; characterization, theme, mood, none of those things is anything if the story is dull. And if the story does hold you, all else can be forgiven.

     I'm not any big-deal fancy writer. If I have any virtue it's that I know that. I don't have the ability to write the dazzling prose line. All I can do is entertain people. I think of myself as an American writer.

     My greatest virtue is that I know better than to evade my responsibilities by the useless exercise of trying to write fancy prose. I entertain people by giving them good stories dealing with the content of ordinary American lives, which is the best, truest tradition of American fiction.

Stephen King, Windows: Essays and Fiction on the Craft of Writing, 2000

Believable Fantasy

I learned years ago from Lester del Ray that the secret to writing good fantasy is to make certain it relates to what we know about our own world. Readers must be able to identify with the material in such a way that they recognize and believe the core truths of the storytelling. It doesn't matter if you are writing epic fantasy, contemporary fantasy, dark urban fantasy, comic fantasy, or something else altogether, there has to be truth in the material. Otherwise readers are going to have a tough time suspending disbelief long enough to stay interested.

Terry Brooks, Sometimes The Magic Works, 2003

Raymond Chandler's "Farewell, My Lovely"

I do not think Raymond Chandler should be judged by conventional literary standards. This is not fiction in the sense that Tolstoy or Balzac or Hemingway wrote fiction. As crime fiction, it belongs to a genre whose kinship is with other kinds of pop art, including the cartoon, the old radio serial, and what is known as science fiction. Of its kind, [Chandler's] Farewell, My Lovely is a masterpiece. It belongs to a class of writing for which we have no name.

Clifton Fadiman in Fifty Years, edited by Clifton Fadiman, 1965 

Monday, April 26, 2021

Best Crime Movies

 Fargo  (1996)

     Set in North Dakota and Minnesota, this dark comedy features a car salesman who arranges to have his wife kidnapped for ransom, and a pregnant, small town police chief who investigates a pair of related highway murders. Any film that has one killer stuffing another into a wood chipper can't be bad. This film works on all levels.

The Informant  (2009)

     A fact-based comic drama about a pathologically lying FBI whistle-blower in the mid-1990s Archer Daniels Midland lysine price-fixing conspiracy. The film is an adaptation of journalist Kurt Eiechenwald's 2000 book of the same name. Matt Damon, the whistle blowing company embezzler, is brilliant as a stiff from Indiana with a background in science who gets in over his head.

Insomnia  (1997)

     A psychological thriller set in a small Alaskan town near the Arctic Circle about a true crime novelist (Robin Williams) who murdered a high school girl, and the world-weary Los Angeles Detective (Al Pacino) out to arrest him. The exhausted cop (who can't sleep because the sun never sets), tries to cover-up the accidental shooting of his partner by switching ballistics evidence. A riveting small town tale set in a northern wilderness.
    
One Hour Photo  (2002)

     This tense, leisurely paced psychological drama features a lonely and alienated box store camera film developer (Robin Williams) who develops a pathological fixation on a man, his wife and their boy who he thinks is the ideal American family. His disillusionment triggers an event that leads to his undoing. This film is more about mood and the bleakness of one man's life than it is about criminal violence.

Se7ven  (1995)

     A gritty detective yarn featuring a pair of homicide investigators (Brad Pitt and Morgan Freeman) trying to identify and stop a serial killer whose victims have violated one of the seven sins of gluttony, envy, lust, pride, sloth, greed, and wrath. In the end, the young detective is faced with a sickening dilemma pertaining to the sin of wrath. This film is as graphic and good as it is brutal.

The Departed  (2006)

     Set in Boston, Massachusetts, the rise and bloody fall of Irish crime boss Francis Costello (Jack Nicholson). The film features two state cops (Leonardo Di Caprio and Matt Damon), one corrupt and the other working undercover to identify him. Loosely based on the life of the real Boston mobster, Whitey Bulger who, after years as a fugitive, was eventually arrested in California. A great film with a lot of big stars in big roles. (In 2018, Bulger was beaten to death by fellow inmates who considered him a rat.)

Donnie Brasco  (1997)

     In the 1970s FBI agent Joe D. Pistone infiltrated the Bonanno crime family in New York. The agent's (Johnny Depp) undercover stint led to the conviction of dozens of Mafia figures. The FBI pulled the agent, using the name Donnie Brasco, off the case just before his cover was blown. A realistic depiction of a crime family, its hierarchy, and the type of people who become "made" men.

Goodfellas (1990)

     Unlike "The Godfather" that in some ways romanticized and glorified the Mafia of the 1940s and 50s, the wiseguys portrayed in Goodfellas are realistically portrayed as violent thugs in cheesy suits. The film is based on the true story of Henry Hill (Robert De Niro), the Irish hood from Brooklyn who masterminded the 1970s multi-million-dollar Air France heist at JFK. In the end, drugs, greed and recklessness bring down this crew of fascinating degenerates. An adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi's 1986 book, Wiseguy.

Pulp Fiction  (1994)

     This Quentin Taratino, Los Angeles noir classic, features a pair of philosophizing hit men (John Travolta and Robert Jackson), a boxer (Bruce Willis) on the lamb because he didn't throw a fight, and an underworld crime scene cleanup specialist (Harvey Keitel). The film, comprised of loosely connected episodes told in flashbacks and flashforwards, broke new ground in visual storytelling.

Dead Presidents  (1995)

     This loosely fact-based film about a group of men returning to the Bronx after combat duty as Marines in Vietnam. The action comes to a head when an armored truck heist goes terribly wrong. The film transforms violence into choreographed art.

The Onion Field  (1979)

      This film adaptation of Joseph Wambaugh's 1973 nonfiction book of the same name (Wambaugh also wrote the screenplay), tells the story of the 1963 execution style murder of LAPD officer Ian Campbell. Gregory Ulas Powell and an accomplice abducted Campbell and his partner Karl Hettinger at gunpoint and drove them to an onion field near Bakersfield where Powell murdered Campbell. In 1972 Powell's death sentence was commuted to life. Powell, played in the movie by James Woods, never expressed remorse for the cold-blooded murder. Powell died in prison on August 12, 2012 from prostate cancer. The film, an indictment of the California criminal justice system, makes the time and effort to convict these two killers--endless defense motions, court delays, appeals and the like--a part of the story. Young movie goers today may find this classic film a little slow. 

Training Day  (2001)

     This police drama, covering a single day, follows the on-duty actions of a corrupt LA narcotics cop (Denzel Washington), his crew of dirty officers, and a trainee (Ethan Hawk). In this film, except for the trainee who has traded in his uniform for plainclothes, you can't tell the good guys from the bad guys. An unflattering look at Los Angeles, the drug culture, and the cops.

The Firm  (1993)

     A young hotshot lawyer (Tom Cruise) realizes his prestigious Memphis law firm is corrupt and behind the murders of two former law partners. The young lawyer is caught between the FBI and his murderous employer. The film also stars Gene Hackman as the new attorney's legal mentor. A tense, Sydney Pollack thriller.

Serpico  (1973)

     The true story of New York Police Officer Frank Serpico (Al Pacino) who blew the whistle on the culture of police corruption in the 1960s and 70s. Serpico's courage led to the Knapp Commission Hearings in 1971 and a series of  police reforms. Based on the nonfiction book of the same title by Peter Maas.

Ronin  (1998)

     An international crime thriller set in France about former special forces operatives and intelligent agents (Robert De Niro et. al.) whose mission involves stealing a mysterious package from a heavily guarded convoy. Some great car chase scenes.

Casino (1995)

     A Martin Scorsese film about the real life Las Vegas casino manager Frank Rosenthal (Robert De Niro) who ran three casinos in the 1970s and 80s. A gripping and vivid adaptation of Nicholas Pileggi's book of the same title, the film depicts Las Vegas during its gangster era. The movie also stars Sharon Stone as De Niro's out-of-control wife. Also starring Joe Pesci as an out-of-control gangster who, like De Niro, comes to a bad end. Both men had outlived their time as Las Vegas moved out of its gangster era.

Pioneers of Fingerprint Identification

     In 1901, Scotland Yard became the world's first law enforcement agency to routinely fingerprint its arrestees. Fingerprints came to America in 1904 when the St. Louis Police Department established its fingerprint bureau. Before fingerprinting, arrestees in Europe and America, beginning in the late 1870s, were identified by sets of eleven body measurements, a system created by the Frenchman, Alphonse Bertillon. By 1914, the year of Bertillon's death, fingerprinting had replaced anthropometry in every county but the United States where, in several jurisdictions, the outdated, cumbersome identification system stuck around until the early 1920s. Until Alphonse Bertillon and the fingerprint pioneers came up with methods of scientifically identifying criminals, law enforcement remained in the dark ages. For this reason, Alphonse Bertillon is considered one of the founding fathers of modern policing.

     Beyond the use of fingerprint science to maintain and classify arrest records, and to identify arrestees who are wanted in other jurisdictions, crime scene fingermarks, so-called latent fingerprints--constitute one of the most common forensic techniques of linking suspects to the sites of their offenses. While latent prints can be made visible by various chemicals, iodine fuming, superglue fumes, and laser technology, the most common method of bringing out and preserving this type of crime scene evidence, particularly on hard surfaces, involves the application of a fine powder and lifting tape. (This explains the phrase, the latent was lifted from the scene.)

     In 1911, a  Chicago judge, in a first of its kind case, allowed a latent fingerprint into evidence as proof of the defendant's guilt. Since then, crime scene latent fingerprint identifications have sent tens of thousands of criminals to prison. The beauty of crime scene fingerprint examination involves the fact it doesn't take high technology, or great skill and education to recover this form of trace evidence. Moreover, the comparison of crime scene latents and known fingerprints does not require an advanced degree in science. Jurors can look at a courtroom exhibit in the form of side-by-side, enlarged photographs of the two prints depicting their points of joint identify. Unlike DNA identification which requires a leap of faith in science, the matching of a known and unknown fingerprint simply requires good eyesight, and faith in the integrity of the evidence. (Granted, there have been lapses in the fingerprint integrity aspect of latent fingerprint identification.)

     Today, crime scene latents can be fed into a supercomputer--the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS)--and matched with single, digitized fingerprints stored in the computer's massive data base. Identifying unknown crime scene latents this way is one of the few instances where forensic scientists can solve and prove cases. When AFIS became operational in the late 1980s, crusaders for the professionalization of criminal investigation, and the increased use of forensic science in crime solving, envisioned the dawn of a new era in law enforcement much like the introduction of fingerprint science at the beginning of the Twentieth Century.

     America's forensic science pioneers of the early Twentieth Century hoped for a future in which the police would defeat crime through latent fingerprint identification and other forms of forensic science. These early crusaders for scientific crime investigation could not have foreseen how the war on drugs would drain law enforcement resources away from forensic science and criminal investigation. These men would have been shocked and dismayed by the low status and poor results of crime solving in modern law enforcement. 

Two Romance Novel Rules

Two rules: All romance novels must have a happy ending that revolves between the hero and the heroine in the form of a lifelong commitment, and the love story revolves around one hero and one heroine--no adultery.

Charis McEachern, Writer's Digest, March 1999 

Who Needs Another Children's Book?

A child only reads 600 books in the course of his childhood, and all of those 600 have already been written. There are hundreds of contemporary books for children--many of them first class. There are also the classics. So what need is there for you to write another children's book? You should enter this literary field because you have a strong urge to tell the kind of story that you think children will enjoy. And preferably, because there is some particular story that is clamoring to be let out of your mind.

Joan Aiken in Fiction Writer's Market, edited by Laurie Henry, 1987 

Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Linda Stoltzfoos Murder Case

     Lancaster County and the surrounding area in eastern Pennsylvania is home to the second largest old-order Amish enclave in the United States. Eighteen-year-old Linda Stoltzfoos, a member of that community, resided on a farm with her family in the East Lampeter Township village of Bird in Hand a few miles east of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

     On Sunday morning, June 21, 2020, Linda Stoltzfoos attended church services at an Amish home about a mile from her residence on Stumptown Road. A little after half-past noon, following the service, she left on foot en route to her farm. Before leaving, she told her friend Lillian Ebersole that she planned to change out of her formal church clothes before attending the 2:30 PM all-day church youth meeting on Beechdale Road in Upper Leacock Township. From the church service, Linda Stoltzfoos began the 19-minute walk to her house. She headed south on the east side of Beechdale Road in bare feet with her shoes in hand.

     At two o'clock the next morning, Linda Stoltzfoos' father called the East Lampeter Township Police Department to report his daughter missing. The missing girl's family believed that after church she had gone straight to the youth group get together. Her friends believed that when Linda got home from church she didn't feel well and missed the youth event. The brown haired, five-foot-ten, 125 pound Amish girl, when last seen, was wearing a tan dress, white apron and a black head covering.

     Surveillance footage from the 500 block of Beechdale Road five miles east of Lancaster showed a man approach Linda Stoltzfoos a few minutes after she departed the church service. He came from a red Kia Rio with black trim, a rear spoiler, and a "LCM" sticker on the trunk. The video footage also depicted Stoltzfoos walking with this man to the car. The girl's family and friends did not believe she had accompanied this man voluntarily.

     Investigators identified the owner of the red Kia as 34-year-old Justo Smoker, a resident of the 3200 block of the Lincoln Highway in Paradise, a village five miles east of Lancaster. In 1993, Vernon and Deb Smoker from Lancaster, Pennsylvania adopted seven-year-old Justo. The boy had been living on the street. At Pequea Valley High School Justo Smoker was a wrestling star but at age 21 turned to crime. Between 2004 and 2007 he committed, in Lancaster County, a string of armed robberies and burglaries. He was convicted at least three times for these offense and sentenced to prison. Although he spent a good portion of his adult life behind bars, he did not come close to serving the full terms of his sentences. Otherwise, he would not have been out of prison when Linda Stoltzfoos went missing.

     In the course of the missing persons investigation, several witnesses saw an Amish girl riding in a Red Kia driven by a dark complexioned man who was possibly Hispanic. Justo Smoker met this general description. Moreover, the FBI placed Smoker in the vicinity of the abduction through his cellphone.

     On July 10, 2020, a Pennsylvania State Police forensics team found a bra and a pair of stockings buried along Harvest Road in a rural area the village of Ronks. Witnesses had seen Smoker's car parked near the village which is three miles from the Stoltzfoos farm. The missing girl's parents informed investigators that these garments were what their daughter would have been wearing on the day she went missing. Linda Stoltzfoos herself remained missing.

     Police officers took Justo Smoker into custody on the evening of July 10, 2020. The suspect was arrested at his place of employment, Dutchland Inc., a manufacturing and construction company in Gap, Pennsylvania, a village in Lancaster County's Salisbury Township. The next day, he was charged with felony kidnapping and misdemeanor false imprisonment. The kidnapping suspect was held in the Lancaster County Jail without bail. At his arraignment Smoker pleaded not guilty. The search for Linda Stoltzfoos continued.

     Loren Johns, the recording secretary of the Swiss Anabaptist Genealogy Association and the creator of the largest database of anabaptist families with more that 700,000 records, announced on July 14, 2020 that Justo Smoker's great grandmother Fannie L. Fisher and Linda Stoltzfoos' great great grandmother Susan S. Stoltzfus were sisters. This made Smoker and Linda Stoltzfoos third cousins once removed. This did not mean, however, that the two knew each other.

     On July 15, 2020, according to a corrections officer at the Lancaster County Jail, Justo Smoker stated that he could not be prosecuted for Linda Stoltzfoos' murder if her body was never found.
     On April 22, 2021, searchers found Linda Stoltzfoos' body wrapped in a tarp buried 42 inches in the ground behind Dutchland, Inc., the company in Gap that had employed Smoker. Investigators believed her body had been moved from its original burial site on Harvest Road. The following day, Lancaster County Coroner Dr. Stephen Diamantoni announced that the cause of death was asphyxia caused by manual strangulation with stabbing as a contributing factor. The manner of death: homicide. The victim had been positively identified through dental records.
     According to Lancaster County District Attorney Heather Adams, DNA samples taken from the bra found on Harvest Road matched Justo Smoker. 

The Ultimate Personality Disorder

     How and why do serial murderers kill again and again? Serial killing is an addiction, some experts say. Simply explained, once they begin killing (and sometimes they kill the first time by accident), serial killers find themselves addicted to murder in an intense cycle that begins with homicidal sexual fantasies that in turn spark a desperate search for victims...Once a killing cycle is triggered, it is rarely broken.

     The worst aspect [of serial killing] is that murder fantasies are often the only thing the budding serial killer has that gives him comfort and solace. Once he crosses the line and actually realizes his fantasy, and discovers that the actual murder is not as satisfying as his fantasy, he is driven into the depths of depression and despair, from which rise even more intense homicidal fantasies driving him forward to kill again...With time, trapped in this addictive cycle, serial killers become more frenzied...The frequency and violence of their murders escalate until they are either caught or "burn out''--reach a point where killing no longer satisfies them and they stop on their own accord. Others commit suicide, move on to commit other crimes, or turn themselves into the police.

Peter Vronsky, Serial Killers: The Method and Madness of Monsters, 2004

The Lurid Genre

     Give me a book that begins with a time and a date and an address, something along the lines of: "At 9:36 on March 24, 1982, Deputy Frank McGruff of the Huntington County Sheriff's Department was dispatched to 234 Maple Street in Pleasantville, North Carolina, a quiet suburb 10 miles west of Raleigh, to follow up on reports of gunshots and screams."

     There is nothing more generic that this sort of sentence, and yet  there's nothing more seductive, either. The sentence carries promises: the regular-guy lawman, the horrific crime scene, the enigmatic object found lying  in the foyer, the minute-by-minute timeline of that fatal half-hour, the witness reports that don't add up, and the multiplication of scenarios and theories and complications.

     I've always felt somewhat sheepish about my appetite for true crime narratives, associated as they are with fat, flimsy paperbacks scavenged from the 25-cent box at garage sales, their battered covers branded with screaming two-word titles stamped in silver foil, blood dripping luridly from the last letter.  The most famous practitioners of this genre--Joe McGinniss, Ann Rule, Vincent Bugliosi--come coated with a thin, greasy film of dubious repute and poor taste.

     True crime is also the mother's milk of tabloid journalism, of endless trashy news cycles in which the same photo of a wide-eyed innocent bride (where is she?); a gap-toothed kindergarten student (who killed him?); a bleary-eyed, stubbled suspect (why did he do it?) appear over and over and over again.

Laura Miller, "Sleazy Bloody and Surprisingly Smart: In Defense of True Crime," salon.com, May 29, 2014 

Ann Rule's Work Habits

When I'm in a writing mode (eight months of the year), I am at my computer at least six days a week from ten in the morning to about 7:30 in the evening. I require ten pages a day--my personal commitment.

Ann Rule, writersreview.com, 2002. The prolific true crime author died in 2015 at age 74.

Depression Era Horror Fiction

The Great Depression only enhanced America's interest in things supernatural and horrifying. A number of horror-themed radio shows sprung up including "The Shadow" (1930) and "The Spider" (1933). Both spawned successful spinoffs in the form of novellas and comic books. Yet the 1930s also marked the last decade of the pulp magazine. Publisher Henry Steeger visited the French Grand Guignol Theater for inspiration and returned to revive the Dime Mystery Novels series. He added Terror Tales and Horror Stories over the next two years. All these pulps survived until 1941. The very real horrors of World War II overshadowed fictional ones. It wasn't until the 1950s that the horror genre hit its stride.

Kristin Masters, blog.bookstellingyouwhy.com, October 24, 2013 

Saturday, April 24, 2021

The Rob Morrison Domestic Abuse Case

     Spousal abuse is a serial crime committed by angry husbands across America's socio-economic landscape. Wives are beaten in trailer parks, upscale apartment buildings, suburban tract homes, and in million-dollar houses in gated neighborhoods. Husbands seldom abuse their wives in public or in front of friends and relatives. Because it's largely a hidden crime, no one knows how many wives are exposed to domestic violence.

     Every so often we are reminded of the domestic abuse problem when a well-known, successful man is arrested for hurting his wife. If she is a celebrity as well, it's a big news event. If the alleged perpetrator and his victim are both members of the news media, it's an even bigger story.

     The domestic violence arrest of a New York City anchorman married to a TV reporter was a reminder that even successful, high-profile women are vulnerable to spousal abuse.

     Former Marine and combat correspondent who covered the war in Afghanistan, Rob Morrison, in 1989, began anchoring NBC television's weekday morning show, "Today in New York." He and his wife Ashley, a reporter for CBS-TV, lived in an apartment on Manhattan's upper West Side. Between 2003 and 2009, Ashley, alleging spousal abuse, called the New York City Police Department seven times. While only one of these calls resulted in her husband's arrest (the files of this case were sealed), NYPD police reports paint Rob Morrison as a hard-drinking, verbally abusive bully with a taste for internet pornography.

     In 2009, the couple purchased a million-dollar house in the upscale, suburban town of Darien, Connecticut. Ashley worked as a correspondent on the CBS news show, "MoneyWatch." Rob left NBC that year to anchor, in New York City, a CBS program called "News at Noon." During his first year at CBS, Rob wrote a column for the Huffington Post about raising his son titled, "Daddy Diaries: Confessions of a Stay-At-Home Anchorman."

     Around two in the morning on Sunday, February 17, 2013, officers with the Darien Police Department rolled up at the Morrison residence. Ashley Morrison's mother, Martha Risk, had called 911 from her home in Columbia, Indiana. The mother reported that her son-in-law, during an argument with her 110 pound daughter, had grabbed her by the throat. Rob Morrison, the subject of the long-distance complaint, told the responding officers to "get the hell out of my house."

     Rob Morrison's scratched and bleeding nose and swollen lip, and the red hand-marks on Ashley's neck, provided the Darien officers with enough physical evidence of domestic violence to support an arrest. According to the police report, as officers escorted Rob Morrison from the house in handcuffs, he said that if released from custody, he'd return to the dwelling and kill his wife. (Morrison denied making that threat.) Throughout his encounter with the police, Morrison remained belligerent.

     Later that Sunday, notwithstanding the alleged death threat against his wife, Morrison walked out of jail after posting a $100,000 bond. The next day he showed up for work at the TV station, and when asked about his nose and fat lip, Morrison didn't mention his arrest, or the domestic violence charges that had been filed against him. 

     On Tuesday, February 29, 2013, in a Stamford, Connecticut court, Rob Morrison was formally charged with felony strangulation, second-degree threatening, and disorderly conduct. Judge Kenneth Povodator ordered the defendant out of the house in Darien, and pursuant to an order of protection, instructed him to stay 100 yards from his wife, except when they were at work. Judge Povodator, in referring to the Darien police report, said, "It not only reflects a serious incident, it reflects the likelihood of a serious history [of domestic violence]."

     In speaking to reporters after the hearing, Morrison blamed his problems on his wife's mother, the source of the 911 domestic disturbance call. He said, "Don't piss-off your mother-in-law is the moral of this story."
   
     On Wednesday, February 20, 2013,  Rob Morrison announced that he had resigned from his $300,000-year-job at WCBS-TV. To reporters he said, "My family is my first and only priority right now, and I have informed CBS management that I need to put all of my time and energy into making sure that I do what's right for my wife and son....I did not choke my wife. I've never laid hands on my wife. I was just as surprised by that particular charge as probably everyone else."

     Had Morrison not resigned, he may have been suspended, or fired. Moreover, there were people who were not surprised by the domestic violence charges against the anchorman. One of those persons was Morrison's mother-in-law, Martha Risk who, on February 20, told a reporter with the New York Daily News that Rob Morrison had been abusing Ashley for ten years. She said, "You wonder when you are going to get another call, if it's going to be [from] the hospital. How bad is she hurt this time? You have such a horrible feeling in yourself....This has gone on for too long." Risk told the reporter that when her son-in-law called her early Sunday morning, he was "drunk as a skunk." The moment he hung up she called 911.

     In April 2014, the local prosecutor dropped the charges against Morrison following his completion of a domestic violence program. But in mid-June, less than two months after going through the program, Darien police arrested Morrison for domestic harassment. Within a period of three days he had allegedly called his estranged wife 121 times.

     Ashley Morrison told police officers she was afraid that if she caused her estranged husband to be arrested he would kill her. Fearing for her life, she and her son fled to Florida about the time officers took Mr. Morrison into custody.

     At Morrison's arraignment, the judge issued a more restrictive protection order, then set the suspect's bail at $50,000. Shortly thereafter, the ex-TV man posted bail and went home.

     In October 2014, Morrison pleaded guilty to the misdemeanor charge of breach of peace. Judge Erika Tindill sentenced him to six months probation.

     To reporters after the plea hearing, the former television anchorman said he avoided going through a trial in order to move on with his life. "In my mind," he said, "this is a way to move forward."

Pulp Fiction

My own idea is that fiction falls into three main categories: literature, mainstream fiction, and pulp fiction. To label a novel "pulp" is not the same as saying it's a bad novel, or will give the reader no pleasure. To condemn pulp writing out of hand is like condemning a girl as loose simply because she came from unpleasant family circumstances.

Stephen King, Secret Windows, 2002 

Ann Rule's True Crime Writing Tips

If you want to be a true crime writer, the best thing you can be is immensely curious. And, you should go to criminal trials. Here are tips and etiquette for trial watching.

l. You can usually get a press pass, but there's often a deluge of writers trying to obtain one. Call the prosecutor's assistant.

2. Study the witnesses, watch the jury, and soak up the entire experience.

3. Try to obtain the court documents from the court reporter or the prosecutor, or purchase them.

4. Observe the other reporters in the room, and analyze what they are doing.

5. If you're sitting out in the hall with potential witnesses, don't ask them about anything. Keep our eyes and ears open and your mouth shut.

6. Don't take newspapers into the courtroom.

7. Know what you're getting yourself into. You don't want to start a book unless you're really in love with the story.

8. Absorb detail. When I'm writing a true crime book I want the reader to walk along with me…As far as writing, you can novelize, but keep all of your facts straight.

9. Don't use the real name of a rape or sexual crime victim in your writing.

Ann Rule in "Ann Rule on Breaking Into True Crime," writersdigest.com, by Zachary Petit, July 13, 2012

B. Traven's Concept Of Anonymous Authorship

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. Since writing for publication is an ego-driven activity, it's not surprising that authors would be vehemently against the idea. Most readers would be as well. Once a reader finds an author or authors they like, they are usually hesitant to try anyone new.

Crime Novelist Helen Eustis

     On January 11, 2015, 98-year-old crime novelist Helen Eustis died at the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. The Cincinnati native was best known for her novel The Horizontal Man, a story about a murdered English professor. The book, informed by her experience as a student at Smith College, won the Mystery Writer's of America Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1947 for best debut novel.

     Eustis wrote The Fool Killer, a mystery adapted into a 1965 film of the same name starring Anthony Perkins. She also wrote award-winning short stories and translated books by mystery writer Georges Simenon as well as other European crime novelists. 

Friday, April 23, 2021

Brazil's Motorbike Serial Killer

     During a nine month period beginning in January 2014, a man on a motorbike in the central Brazilian city of Goiania, used a .38-caliber revolver to shoot 39 people to death. The serial killer approached his intended victims on his motorbike, shouted "robbery!," shot them at close range, then drove off without taking anything from the people he murdered.

     Sixteen of the serial killer's victims were young women, the youngest being a 14-year-old girl shot to death at a bus stop in February 2014. The rest of the murder victims included homeless people, homosexuals, and transvestites.

     The Goiania police caught a break on October 12, 2014 when the killer on the motorbike shot at but didn't kill his intended victim. The young woman told detectives that she knew the shooter from seeing him at a local bar.

     On Tuesday October 14, 2014, the Brazilian police arrested 26-year-old Thiago Henrique Da Rocha at his mother's house in Goiania. The serial murder suspect, during a prolonged police interrogation, confessed to the 39 criminal homicides committed in 2014. He also admitted killing people as far back as when he was 22-years-old. Da Rocha told his interrogators that he wasn't sure how many people he had murdered. All of the shootings, he said, involved victims chosen randomly.

     Da Rocha lived in Goiania with his mother. A search of her house resulted in the discovery of the .38-caliber murder weapon. The police also seized a pair of handcuffs and several knives.

     Shortly after Da Rocha's arrest, the Goiania police chief, at a press conference, said, "Da Rocha felt anger at everything and everyone. He had no link to any of his victims and chose them at random. He could have killed me, you or  your children."

     When detectives asked Da Rocha what caused all of this rage, he told them that he had been sexually abused by a male neighbor when he was 11-years-old. So, why did he take out his anger on so many women? Rejection, he said. A lot of women had rejected his romantic overtures. In addition to the sexual assaults and the female rejection, he had been bullied at school. "I was quieter than the other kids," he said. "I suffered mental and physical aggression. I don't know if that has anything to do with it, but these things accumulate inside you." 

     A few days following his arrest, Da Rocha supposedly tried to kill himself by slashing his wrists with a broken light bulb. Jail guards interceded before he was able to seriously cut himself.

     Da Rocha asked a jail guard if he would face a murder trial if he killed a fellow inmate. He said he still felt the urge to kill. He said his feelings of "fury" only abated when he killed a person.

     The handsome serial killer, no doubt the recipient of marriage proposals, became an instant celebrity upon his arrest. In speaking to Brazilian reporters from his jail cell, Da Rocha explained that the killing of a victim in cold blood did not make him happy. He said the next morning "I wasn't happy, no. There was the feeling of regret for what I had done."

     To reporters hanging on every word, Da Rocha said, "If I have a disease, I'd like to know what it is, and also if there is a cure."

     In a statement that revealed the depth of this young killer's sociopathy, Da Rocha said, "I'd like to ask for forgiveness, but I think it's too difficult to ask for forgiveness right now." Even for a sociopath, the extent of this narcissist's self-centeredness is staggering. Because he enjoyed the limelight, Da Rocha was a crime reporter's dream criminal.

     In May 2016, after Thiago Henrique Da Rocha was convicted of eleven cold-blooded murders, the Brazilian judge sentenced the serial killer to 25 years in prison. The idea this man  will someday walk free is infuriating and impossible to understand.  In Brazil, the life of a murder victim has little value.  

"Anti-Social Behavior"

I guess it was sometime in the 1960s that criminologists came up with the useless and imprecise term "anti-social behavior." Like most social science jargon, the phrase, while virtually meaningless, sounds intellectually profound. But what in the hell does it mean? In some places exercising free speech is considered anti-social behavior. So is buying a gun; being rude and insensitive; protesting government policy; or acquiring a legal abortion. In other words, this vague, pliable term can be used to describe everything from mass murder to littering. It's mainly a value judgment. People cannot effectively communicate using jargon which is the enemy of precise language, understanding, and clarity of thought. Bad behavior can be more precisely described, for example, as offensive, inappropriate, stupid, dangerous, greedy, immoral, deviant, dishonest, or criminal. Moreover, bad behavior comes in degrees of badness. Since the introduction of "anti-social," our ability to communicate clearly and with meaning has been further attenuated by politically motivated catchphrases like "social justice", "equity," and "root cause."

Surviving High School English

A high school English teacher almost murdered my impulse to write. Through her obsession with diagraming sentences, she turned the act of composition into a stressful and unpleasant technical exercise. Her dangling participles and split infinitives drove me to question if I had what it took to be a writer. I was saved by reading pulp fiction written by men who had never made it out of high school, and surly couldn't diagram sentences any better than me. I didn't become a writer because of this English teacher, I became a writer in spite of her. I guess if you can't overcome high school English you have no business being a writer. 

Characters Drawn From Real People

I should say that the practice of drawing characters from actual models is not only universal but necessary. I do not see why any novelist should be ashamed to acknowledge it. [Perhaps one who is afraid of being sued.]

W. Somerset Maugham in Writers on Writing, edited by Walter Allen, 1948 

Playing Fair With the Detective Story Reader

The most frequently repeated rule of detective fiction is the most nonsensical. It says, "you must play fair with the reader," meaning that in the course of the narrative the reader must see and hear everything that the detective sees and hears. I don't know why mystery writers have insisted on it, since every good writer of detective stories has violated this rule over and over again. [And they do so at the expense of the reader.]

Rex Stout in The Writer's Book, edited by Helen Hull, 1959 

Flashback Free

I try to make my books linear, which means that the starting point is at the beginning and it travels along a chronological line toward the end, with no flashbacks. I do this because it makes for an easier read. [Novels without flashbacks should advertise this fact on the cover with a flashback free symbol.] 

Janet Evanovich, How I Write, 2006 

Thursday, April 22, 2021

The Deon Nunlee Rape Case

     On October 30, 2013, in Detroit, Michigan, police officer Deon Nunlee and his partner were on patrol working out of the 8th Precinct. They were assigned to the late shift when dispatched to a home at three in the morning to investigate a domestic violence complaint.

     Officer Nunlee, 40, had been on the force eight years, and although he didn't have a perfectly clean work record, he had never been disciplined for a serious breach of professional misconduct.

     When the officers rolled up to the complainant's residence, the 31-year-old victim reported that she had been assaulted by her boyfriend. Officer Nunlee's partner stayed with the suspect while Nunlee took the victim to an upstairs bedroom. Instead of taking the woman's assault report, officer Nunlee allegedly assaulted her sexually.

     As the officers left the house that night (I don't know if they arrested the boyfriend), Nunlee informed the victim that he would return to the house after he got off duty. (He did not return to the dwelling.)

     Shortly after the officers departed the scene, the woman notified two of her friends that she had been sexually assaulted by a cop. A few hours later, she reported the crime to the authorities. That day a police administrator placed officer Nunlee on desk duty pending the outcome of the investigation into the accusation.

     On February 10, 2014, a crime lab scientist reported the results of the rape kit test. Deon Nunlee, according to DNA analysis, had engaged in sexual activity with his accuser. The chief of police suspended him without pay.

     On March 14, 2014, police officers booked Deon Nunlee into the Wayne County Jail on charges of second-degree sexual conduct, assault with intent to penetrate, and one count of misconduct in office. After being informed of his Miranda rights, the suspect declined interrogation. A 36th district court judge set Nunlee's bail at $50,000.

     On the day of the officer's arrest, Detroit Police Chief James Craig, at a press conference, said: "This case is an anomaly. This is not what our police officers do. This officer who decided to engage in criminal misconduct does not represent the 2,500 sworn men and women who wear this uniform."

     On November 18, 2014, after pleading guilty to second-degree rape, the Wayne County Judge sentenced the former police officer to 19 months to 15 years in prison.

Pushing the Envelope on Forensic Hair and Fiber Identification

     Forensic analysts who microscopically compare crime scene hair follicles with samples from a suspect's head or other part of the body note similarities or differences in hair length, thickness, texture, curl, color, and appearance of the medulla, the strip of cells that runs up the center of the hair shaft. A follicle, however, cannot be individualized like a fingerprint. A hair identification expert can declare, for example, that the defendant's hair looks like a crime scene follicle, or is consistent in appearance with the questioned evidence, but they are not supposed to testify that a follicle at the scene of a crime could have come from the defendant and no one else. What nobody knows about forensic hair identification is this: if two follicles look alike in all respects, what are the chances they have come from the same person? Just how strong an identification is this, and how incriminating?

     Hair identification experts also analyze crime scene strands of fiber and compare them with samples of clothing, carpets, blankets, and other fabrics associated with the defendant. Fibers can be distinguished by material, shape and color--there are 7,000 dyes used in the United States. A fiber expert can testify, for example, that a fiber on a murder victim's body is consistent in appearance with carpet fibers from the trunk of the defendant's vehicle. To go further than that is crossing the line, scientifically.

     Up until the mid-1990s, hair and fiber experts were routinely pushing the scientific envelope by identifying crime scene follicles and fibers the way an expert would identify a latent fingerprint. In hundreds, if not thousands of cases, defendants went to prison on the strength of this form of expert testimony. When DNA came on the scene, abuses in hair and fiber identification were exposed, and the scientific unreliability of these matches was dramatically revealed.

     In Texas alone, between 1995 and 2002, DNA analysis exonerated 30 men who had been convicted solely on crime scene hair identification. Dr. Edward Blake, the Berkeley, California DNA pioneer, put forensic hair identification in perspective: "They did it because they could get away with it. A defendant in Idaho and another in Florida were sent to death row in cases where the only evidence against them were jailhouse informants and crime scene hair identifications."

Jacqueline Susann: Bestselling Hack

Don Preston, the editor behind Jacqueline Susann's best-selling but numbingly vacuous novel, Valley of the Dolls (1966), said this about the unedited manuscript and its author: "She is a painfully dull, inept, clumsy, undisciplined, rambling and thoroughly amateurish writer whose every sentence, paragraph, and scene cries for the hand of a pro." Susann herself, when responding to her universally terrible reviews, said: "Too many male writers are writing for the critics. I don't write for men with pipes and leather on their elbows. I write for the public." While I agree with that sentiment, without editors like Don Preston, Jacqueline Susann would be writing for the slush pile.

Science Fiction Novels With Mystery Plots

Science fiction readers are frequently also mystery fans, and books that combine a science fiction setting with a mystery plot range from more or less straightforward detective stores with a future setting to uncompromising science fiction stories that have solving a mystery as a key plot element.

Peter Hack in Science Fiction Writer's Market Place and Sourcebook, edited by David G. Tompkins, 1994 

Finding the Beginning to Your Story

It would be nice, I suppose, to begin at the perfect point in the story, in the perfect way, using the perfect voice to present exactly the desired scene. Unfortunately, you have no choice but to be wholly clueless about all of this. The rightness of things is generally revealed in retrospect, and you're unlikely to know in advance what is right and wrong in a story that has not been written. So instead of waiting until everything is perfect, begin anyhow, anywhere and any way. The result will probably not be exactly right. It may not be even close. So what? You're going to persist until you get it right.

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

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

The Carlos Diaz Attempted Murder-Arson Case

     Carlos Diaz and Cathy Zappata were married in 2007. He worked at W. D. Auto Repair at Tenth Avenue and 207th Street in Harlem, New York. A year later, the couple had a son. In 2010, Diaz lost his job at the body shop, and shortly after that his marriage fell apart. He became homeless, moving from one parking lot to another where he slept in his van.

     Although estranged from his wife, Diaz refused to accept the fact they were finished as a couple. He resented it when she, to improve her looks, had cosmetic breast surgery and liposuction. She also made him jealous by going out with other men.

     On January 15, 2013, Diaz became enraged when he discovered that his estranged wife had sent a nude photograph of herself by cellphone to another man. The next morning, at eight o'clock, Diaz asked Cathy to meet him at a Pathmark parking lot on Ninth Avenue at 207th Street where he had spent the night in his van. The lot was a block from the auto body shop where he had once worked.

     As Cathy sat behind the wheel of her car, Diaz sprayed the 38-year-old's face, head, and neck with lighter fluid, then ignited the accelerant with a blowtorch. With her entire head engulfed in flames, Cathy managed to exit the vehicle and extinguish the fire by rolling in a puddle of water. The victim was rushed to Harlem Hospital's burn unit with second-degree burns on her lips, eyelids, nose, cheeks, and neck. Her hair had been burned off to the scalp. Doctors listed her condition as critical.

     After setting his estranged wife on fire, Diaz, in possession of a can of gasoline, entered the W. D. Auto Repair garage. He found the owner, Helson Marachena, the man who had fired him, in his office. Diaz doused the room with the accelerant, but when he tried to set fire to the place, his lighter wouldn't fire. The malfunctioning lighter gave Mr. Marachena the opportunity to escape.

     Later in the day, the 35-year-old arsonist turned himself in to the New York City police. When questioned by detectives, Diaz said, "I had to teach her a lesson. To give her a little pain. Now she can worry about our kid and get serious instead of focusing on going out with other men." In relating how he felt when he discovered the nude photograph on his wife's cellphone, Diaz said, "I couldn't think straight. I wanted to pass out. I had to do something. I had to be a man about it. She hurt my pride." Diaz described his perception of his marriage this way: "She was my right arm. I did everything for her. I forgot all about my own life. I just worked to support her and to pay the rent. And this is what she does."

     Charged with attempted murder, arson, assault, and attempted assault, Diaz was held at the city jail on Riker's Island. A magistrate denied him bail.

     On December 15, 2015, a jury in New York City took just four hours to find Diaz guilty of attempted murder and the other charges. Three weeks later, the judge sentenced Diaz to 35 years to life in prison.

     Jealous boyfriends, discarded husbands, and rejected suitors can be dangerous. In the annals of crime, men like Carlos Diaz have done terrible things with fire, including mass murder. It's extremely difficult for women to protect themselves from angry, sociopathic losers who justify their acts of violence. 

Sherlock Holmes' Overblown Powers of Deduction

You mentioned your name, as if I should recognize it, but I assure you that, beyond the obvious facts that you are a bachelor, a solicitor, a Freemason, and an asthmatic, I know nothing whatever about you.

Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Norwood Builder," 1903

Book Cover Blurbs: Don't Believe Them

     Writers published by the biggest New York houses get [blurb] requests all the time. Typically they come from the editors at these publishing houses. It will be an email, or an actual book in the mail with a note attached that says something like this: "Jane Doe's first novel is an exciting new take on an old story and we'd be so pleased if you'd give it a look. And if you deem it worthy, a few words of support on Jane's behalf, sent to us by such and such a date, would give her novel a tremendous lift!"

     The more famous and respected the writer, the more of these blurb requests he or she will get. They might come from friends of the famous writer, too, or from his or her editor or agent and their friends. One imagines that Jonathan Franzen, for example, could spend hours and hours responding to the blurb requests he gets. Some writers are famous in the book trade for blurbing a lot (too much), and others for never blurbing at all.

Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times, November 6, 2013

There is Nothing More Phony Than a Bestsellers List

There is nothing more fraudulent than The New York Times and other bestseller lists. First, these lists account for books sold by a limited number of preferred booksellers. Second, books the publishers of these lists do not like are undercounted. Bestseller rankings are as bogus as The Academy Awards. In the world of publishing and entertainment awards, nothing is on the level, and most people know it.

Genre Fiction Readers Expect Originality

     Horror is a genre with certain identifiable characteristics. When people who enjoy horror read your story, they are not reading it in a vacuum. They are reading it as part of a genre, constantly comparing your story to other horror stories they've read. If I had never read Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" and then a story very much like it, readers who know Poe's story may not be quite as thrilled with my big surprise ending as I had hoped. To them it's no surprise. They've read it before, only a better version.

     To be a creative, innovative horror writer, you must read a lot of everything--and a lot of that everything must be horror. You may be thinking: How can I be creative and original with all these other authors' ideas floating around in my head? This is critical: The sheer amount of material floating around in your head will actually prevent you copying from any one author in particular.

     Instead, you will find a tiny piece of character from this book, a tiny piece of plot from that book, a certain stylistic technique from that other--to combine into something totally new. It is the writer who reads only Stephen King who will turn out stories that sound like Stephen King--on a very bad day.

Jeanne Cavelos in On Writing Horror, Mort Castle, editor, 2007  

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Was Kendrick Johnson Murdered?

     Kendrick Johnson attended Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Georgia. The thin, muscular 17-year-old played on the football and basketball teams. After attending his fourth period class on Thursday, January 10, 2013, Kendrick went missing. The next morning someone discovered the student's body stuffed upside-down inside a  rolled-up wrestling mat that stood on its end in the school gymnasium. He was dead.

     Lowndes County Sheriff Chris Prine, in charge of the death scene investigation, quickly concluded that the high school student's death had been accidental. According to Sheriff Prine, Kendrick must have gone into the mat head-first to retrieve a shoe or some other item. The sheriff theorized that Kendrick got stuck inside the mat and suffocated.

     On January 25, 2013, the director of the Valdosta-Lowndes Regional Crime Laboratory where a forensic pathologist had performed the autopsy ten days earlier, informed members of the media that Johnson's body had "showed no signs of blunt  force trauma." Sheriff Prine assured reporters there were no other signs of a struggle on Johnson's body.

     Kendrick's parents, Kenneth and Jackie Johnson, took issue with the manner of death determination and complained that officials with the sheriff's office and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation were not talking to them about their son's death.

     In mid-April 2013, Lowndes County Coroner Bill Watson told a reporter with the Valdosta Daily Times that Kendrick Johnson's body had been moved before the coroner arrived at the gym. According to Mr. Watson, the sheriff had waited six hours before informing him of the gruesome discovery. (Under Georgia law, the local coroner's office must be notified immediately in cases of sudden, violent, or unexplained death.) Regarding the delay in notification and the moving of the body, Coroner Watson said, "Well it compromises my investigation one-hundred percent. I don't know what the county [sheriff's office personnel] did when they got on the scene. The [death] scene, in my opinion, had been compromised."

     On May 4, 2013, the authorities finally provided the media with a copy of the autopsy report. According to the forensic pathologist who performed Kendrick's autopsy, the young man had died from "positional asphyxia." He had suffocated as a result of being trapped upside-down in the rolled-up mat. Lowndes County Coroner Bill Watson, based upon this cause of death determination, had no choice but to rule that Kendrick Johnson had died as a result of a freak accident.

     Kenneth and Jackie Johnson, convinced that their son had been murdered, and the authorities were involved in a cover-up, asked a judge to authorize an exhumation. In May 2013 the judge granted the request which led to a second autopsy. That postmortem examination was performed by Dr. William R. Anderson, a forensic pathologist with the private firm Forensic Dimensions, a company located in Heathrow, Florida. The Johnsons paid for Dr. Anderson's postmortem review.

     The dead boy's parents were also pressing for a federal investigation into the closed case. In support of this request, the Johnson couple alleged that crime scene evidence had either been destroyed or tampered with. The sheriff's office had also denied the parents the opportunity to view high school surveillance camera footage of their son during the hours before he went missing. The parents also claimed that postmortem photographs of Kendrick revealed lacerations on his face and body.

     On May 23, 2013, Kenneth and Jackie Johnson released copies of two reports that had been written by a pair of paramedics with the South Georgia Medical Center Mobile Healthcare Service. According to the paramedics, Kendrick's body showed obvious signs of a struggle. Moreover, they found the student's body in a pool of blood and vomit. One of the paramedics wrote that he considered the high school gym the scene of a criminal homicide. The sheriff, however, insisted that morning that Kendrick Johnson's death had been a tragic accident.

     The results of the second autopsy performed by Dr. William R. Anderson were released in early September 2013. In his report, Dr. Anderson concluded that Kendrick Johnson had died from "unexplained, apparent non-accidental blunt force trauma to his right neck and soft tissues."

     The attorney representing the Johnson family told reporters that she was sending a copy of Dr. Anderson's autopsy report to the civil rights division of the U. S. Department of Justice. The cause and manner of Kendrick Johnson's death had not been changed. Officially, he died of a freak accident.

     On October 10, 2013, Kendrick Johnson's parents revealed that when Kendrick's body was exhumed for the second autopsy, Dr. Anderson discovered that the boy's internal organs were missing. "I feel outraged about them stuffing my son's body with newspaper," Jacquelin Johnson said. The parents told reporters they believe the missing organs was further evidence of foul play and a cover-up in their son's death.

     Michael Moore, the United States Attorney for the Middle District of Georgia announced on October 31, 2013 that the FBI would investigate the circumstances surrounding Kendrick Johnson's death. "We're happy," Jacquelyn Johnson said. "The only thing we ever wanted was the truth."

     In December 2013, FBI agents questioned several of Johnson's Lowndes High School classmates as well as Lowndes County coroner Bill Watson. Agents also spent time with the deceased boy's parents. The parents, in February 2014, filed a lawsuit against the funeral home that handled their son's remains. According to the plaintiffs, funeral home personnel intentionally destroyed his internal organs in an attempt to interfere with the investigation into their son's murder.

     On March 13, 2014, in Macon, Georgia, four of Johnson's classmates as well as students from nearby Valdosta High School appeared before the federal grand jury looking into the death.

     CNN reporters, on March 17, 2014, announced that they had acquired, through the Georgia Open Records Act, an anonymous email dated January 27, 2014. According to the police tipster, one of Johnson's classmates confessed to killing the young man. This person had not, however, confessed directly to the email sender. In an effort to identify the tipster, a Lowndes County assistant district attorney ordered a communications company to hand over its internet records pertaining to this email.

     In June 2016, an official with the United States Attorney's Office announced there was insufficient evidence of foul play in Kendrick Johnson's death to merit the filing of criminal charges.

     In July 2017, a federal district judge dismissed the Johnson family $100 million civil lawsuit filed six months earlier against dozens of state and local officials.
     In April 2019, the new Loundes County Sheriff, Ashley Paulik, asked the federal government to release its file on the investigation into Kendrick Johnson's death. The request was denied, but after federal officials met with Kendrick's parents, the government, in November 2020, sent the Loundes County Sheriff 17 boxes of material pertaining to its investigation. 
     Sheriff Paulik, in March 2021, reopened the Kendrick Johnson case.

Dueling Forensic Science Experts

     The increasing presence of dueling expert witnesses, encouraged by the procedural and adversarial nature of the criminal trial process, is a problem without a satisfying remedy. As a trial technique, defense attorneys often put expert witnesses on the stand whose main job involves muddying the waters and confusing the jury. Trial lawyers call this ploy "blowing smoke."

     If there is an answer to this muddying the waters technique, it will have to come from within the legal and forensic science professions in the form of a tighter code of ethics. Regarding battling experts, judges could help by imposing stricter standards in the area of who qualifies as an expert. (Lawyers like expert witnesses because they can render opinions. Regular witnesses cannot.) This would help keep out the phonies and reduce the opportunity for opposing testimony, particularly in the field of forensic questioned document examination where half the "experts" are under-qualified. The problem also exists in the field of forensic pathology in disputes regarding cause and manner of death. It is also not unusual to see blood spatter analysts on both sides of a case.

     Many jurors, when confronted with conflicting forensic science analysis, disregard the evidence completely. Forensic science was supposed to bring certainty and truth to the criminal justice system, not confusion. 

The Forensic Pathologist in Serial Murder

In serial murders, the random factor inspires the most fear--the idea of a wandering murderer, moving from community to community, unknown to all. Anonymous killers are the most difficult to find. There are all kinds, from Jack the Ripper to Son of Sam, and we really don't know how many of their murders are solved. They have us at another disadvantage--many of them operate across state lines, while we are confined to our own territory. The FBI has begun to profile the deaths by computerizing the murder method and the victim's characteristics, but catching multiple murderers still depends mainly on good police work. Most of those who are caught know their victims, and their methods fall into patterns. The role of the medical examiner is to confirm the victims--that is, to certify that they are victims of a particular killer--and to find the pattern.

Dr. Michael M. Baden, Unnatural Death: Confessions of a Medical Examiner (with Judeth Adler Hennessee), 1989

Humor in Nonfiction

     Humor is the secret weapon of the nonfiction writer. It's secret because so few writers realize that humor is often their best tool--and sometimes their only tool--for making an important point.

     Few Americans understand this. We dismiss our humorists as triflers because they never settled down to "real" work. The Pulitzer Prizes go to authors like Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, who are (God knows) serious and are therefore certified as men of literature. The prizes seldom go to people like George Ade, H. L. Mencken, Ring Lardner, S. J. Perelman, Art Buckwald, Jules Feiffer, Woody Allen and Garrison Keillor, who seem to be just fooling around. 
     They're not fooling around. They are as serious in purpose as Hemingway or Faulkner--a national asset in forcing the country to see itself clearly. Humor, to them, is urgent work. 
William Zinsser, On Writing Well, originally published in 1975 

Great Writers, Troubled People

Charles Bukowski and John Fante--cruel; Ernest Hemingway and Gore Vidal--vain; John Cheever and F. Scott Fitzgerald--drunks; Truman Capote and Hunter S. Thompson--drug addled; Sylvia Plath and David Foster Wallace--suicidal; J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon--reclusive; Norman Mailer and William Burroughs--violent; Fred Exley and Ralph Ellison--blocked; and Leo Tolstoy and Jonathan Swift--mentally ill.

Spare Versus Thin Fiction

     Fiction writers tend to fall into two broad camps: those who overwrite and those who underwrite. And, while a novelist may be able to get away with writing a spare story, a thin story will never ignite the reader's imagination. A spare story is one in which the writer deliberately chooses to pare down every element, using a small cast of characters, only one or two subplots, and little exposition and description. A well-crafted, yet spare story can work when every word counts and there is enough information to take the reader on a fictional journey. Ernest Hemingway usually wrote spare stories, but readers still feel immersed in his stories and understand the ramifications of the plot on the lives of his characters.

     A thin story, on the other hand, is not based on deliberate choices, but rather on inexperience. In a thin story, the writer does not supply enough sensory data, creating a story line that can't be followed with confidence because of a lack of needed information. Spare stories spark the reader's imagination, but thin stories do not have enough data to do so, leaving the reader confused. In these anemic offerings, the reader is often adrift, longing for detail to place him in the scene, a hint about the themes or deeper meanings, or any doorway into the writer's intentions. 

Jessica Page Morrell, Between the Lines, 2006