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Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Forensic Non-Science

The public holds exaggerated views of the quality of the scientific foundations of a surprising number of forensic sciences, as well as of the courts' scrutiny of that evidence...In a number of forensic science disciplines, forensic science professionals have yet to establish either the validity of their approach or the accuracy of their conclusions. Much forensic evidence including, for example, bite marks and firearm and tool mark identifications is introduced in criminal trials without any meaningful scientific validation, determination of error rates, or reliability testing. Studies of wrongful convictions based on DNA exonerations have found forensic errors and exaggerations to be second only to eyewitness errors.

Dr. Michael J. Saks, December 2016

Prison as a Lifestyle Choice

Often I meet prisoners who have committed the most terrible crimes, but repentance is rare, except in front of the parole board where it is quite common. Of course, the majority of prisoners have committed only petty offenses, small (but repeated) crimes against property, or rather against the people who own the property. They are often pathetic and inadequate individuals, thoroughly accustomed to prison life; the warmth and three square meals a day provided unconditionally in prison are for them an incitement for further crime. As for the loss of freedom, they welcome it: being told what to do all their waking hours obviates the need for thought and decision, processes which are infinitely painful for them.

Theodore Dalrymple in Crime and Criminals, 1995 edited by David Bender and Bruno Leone

From C-List Celebrity to Writer

      In 2013, John Cochran, a recent graduate of Harvard Law School, won the TV reality show Survivor: Caramoan (Philippines). The previous year, the  self-described nerd came up short as a contestant on Survivor: South Pacific. As a result of his extended media exposure, he qualified as a C-list television celebrity. This meant he would probably spend the rest of his life trying to maintain that status. For most people, the taste of even minor fame ends up being a life-long curse.

     Survivor host Jeff Probst, after announcing the winner of the million dollars that came with the title "sole survivor", asked Mr. Cochran if he intended to practice law now that season 26 had come to an end. In other words, was he returning to a real-life existence. Cochran, a fan of the show since he was thirteen, answered that he was not entering the field of law. In response to Probst's inquiry regarding his plans, Cochran said he'd like to write. The man who  had "outplayed, outwitted, and outlasted" his reality TV competitors, in explaining why he thought he had the talent to write, said, "I have the gift of gab." Well there you go. If you can talk you can write. But what would a person who had spent his entire life in a classroom write about?

     The vast majority of real writers--people who can write and have acquired expertise in a subject or field they can write about--are not famous. Because publishers don't have the money to turn them into celebrities through advertising, book-tours, and publicists, few people know about their books. Most writers need day jobs to survive and support their writing.

     Publishers love celebrities because they don't have to spend money to make them famous. Celebrity worshipers will come to their book-signing events for photo-ops and autographs. The book on sale is nothing more than a souvenir. Celebrity journalists will invite them to appear on TV shows to talk about and promote their work. And of course, celebrities don't even have to write their books. Ghosts writers do that for them.
     For a celebrity to become a writer is easy. For a writer to become a celebrity is not. The hard part for the celebrity is to remain a celebrity, and to remain an author.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Clowns in the Courtroom

Attorney: She had three children, right?
Witness: Yes.
Attorney: How many were boys?
Witness: None.
Attorney: Were there any girls?
Witness: Your Honor, I think I need a different attorney. Can I get a new attorney?

Attorney: How was your first marriage terminated?
Witness: By death.
Attorney: And by whose death was it terminated?
Witness: Take a guess.

Attorney: Can you describe the individual?
Witness: He was about medium height and had a beard.
Attorney: Was this a male or female?
Witness: Unless the circus was in town I'm going with male.

Michelle Boren, Disorder in the American Courts, 2014 

An Eye For An Eye

The biblical precept, "An eye for any eye and a tooth for a tooth" belongs to an era that predates courts. It enjoins the injured party not to wreak vengeance beyond the injury he has suffered. In this sense it is the beginning of the idea of justice.

Ronald Irving, The Law Is An Ass, 2011 

Journalists: Interview Subjects at Home

When I do interviews, I never take my subjects to a restaurant for lunch. It's one of the worst things a journalist can do. Stay on their turf. Interview them in their world. If they say, "Now I've got to go and pick up my kids from day care and go to the grocery store," you say, "Great. I can write while we're on the bus." I'm not just hearing their stories. I'm watching them live. I find my truth in what they say and how they live.

Katherine Boo in Telling True Stories, edited by Wendy Call, 2007 

Breaking the Conventions of Genre

All writers must confront the tricky problem of how much to abide by the conventions of their genre. Hew too closely and you'll bore readers; deviate too far and you risk baffling and frustrating them. Literary books take the risk; the successful ones venture into new territory and persuade readers to come along.

Melanie Thernstrom, The New York Times Book Review, April 5, 2020

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Psychics and The Fools Who Consult Them

     Many people are no longer satisfied that conventional religious institutions can meet their spiritual needs. So they visit psychics and other New Age types. People are paying psychics to predict the future, and they're just not getting what they paid for.

     [As a journalist] I went undercover to visit ten psychics, looking for predictions about my future. The disparity between what each told me was quite telling. Each psychic began by asking me to cut a deck of cards or close my eyes and think about my problems. But beyond that, the similarities among them ended. Each psychic had a different prediction for me. The first nine psychics I saw suggested that I become a car salesman, a builder, a politician, a psychic, an actor, a businessman dealing with resorts, and finally, a bricklayer. The tenth told me to prepare to retire with the money I was going to inherit.

     One psychic predicted that I would have a sex change operation. He was the same one who told me that I had a secret enemy, and suggested that I urinate in a milk carton, write the names of anyone who might be angry with me on the outside of the carton with a felt-tip pen, then place the full carton in my refrigerator to ward off danger.

Chuck Whitlock, Chuck Whitlock's Scam School, 1997 

Torching the Hollywood Elite

Excerpt from English actor/comedian Ricky Gervais' opening remarks at the 2019 Golden Globes award ceremony:

No one cares about movies anymore. No one goes to cinema, no one really watches network TV. Everyone is watching Netflix. This show [the Golden Globes] should just be coming out, going: "Well done Netflix. You win everything. Goodnight." But no, we got to drag it out for three hours. You could binge-watch the entire first season of "Afterlife" instead of watching this show. That's a show about a man who wants to kill himself because his wife dies of cancer and it's still more fun than this. Spoiler alert, season two is on the way so in the end he obviously doesn't kill himself. Just like Jeffrey Epstein. Shut up. I know he's your friend but I don't care.

Ricky Gervais, January 5, 2019

Workshopped Fiction

Workshopped fiction displays the hallmarks of committee effort; emotional restraint and lack of linguistic idiosyncrasy, no vision, just voice; no fictional world of substance and variety, just a smooth surface of diaristic, autobiographical, and confessional speech.
Chris Altacuise, 2003 

Reviewing a Friend's Novel

It is extremely painful to write just what you think about your contemporaries' work, when you are meeting them every day at the club, or at some party. Where personal relations are involved, it is almost impossible to be impartial, because being disagreeably "fair" about the work of a friend does give one a feeling of betrayal. Sooner or later one decides never to review the works of one's friends.

Stephen Spender in Opinions and Perspectives, edited by Francis Brown, 1964 

Saturday, November 27, 2021

The Art and Science of Crime Detection

Crime detection [in 1927] is not a secret art; anybody can do it if he has the wits, and the time, and patience to get all the facts, and if he knows enough of the ways of men and women. [That may have been true then, but not today. The modern detective must possess, among other skills and know-how, knowledge of substantive and procedural criminal law, computer navigation, forensic science, crime scene interpretation, criminology, forensic psychology, surveillance techniques, and methods of witness interview and criminal interrogation.]

Mary Wilkins Freeman (1852-1930) mystery novelist 

Take Your Thriller to Bed

Some people feel that the beach is the best place to read thrillers. They are wrong. The best place is in bed, in the wintertime, when the cold and dark match your mood--and when you are more susceptible to stories about creepy characters with unpleasant motivations.

Sarah Lyall, The New York Times Book Review, February 2, 2020

The Big Book Advance

     Within a period of four years, novelist Heather Demetrios received, for her first five books, advances amounting to $350,000. Demetrois quit her New York City job, and did not pay off her college loans. None of her novels did well. As a result, her next two advances were $35,000 and $20,000. In her August 17, 2019 article, "How to Lose a Third of a Million Dollars Without Really Trying," published in Forge, the novelist chronicled her writer's tale of woe. An excerpt:

     "If just one person had sat me down when I signed my first book contract and explained how publishing works, how nothing is guaranteed, and how it often feels like playing Russian Roulette with words, I would have made much sounder financial and creative decisions. I would have set a foundation for a healthy life as an artist, laying the groundwork to thrive in uncertainty, to avoid desperation, panic, and bad decisions that would affect me for years to come."

     "How would my life be different if a fellow writer or someone in the industry had told me that the money I'd be receiving for my advances was absolutely no indication of what I could make on future book deals? What pain could I have avoided if they had advised me not to spend that money as though there would be more where that came from? I suspect I may have avoided near nervous breakdown and not come so perilously close to financial ruin and creative burnout. But no one came forward."

     One could argue that people who aspire to be full time writers should first educate themselves on how publishing works. On this subject, there is a wealth of information available to aspiring writers. Moreover, publishers are not financial advisors. Apparently Demetrois wasn't taught the economics of the writing life in college.This is not surprising because liberal arts educations are not vocational, or practical. 

The 19th Century Diary

Because they had to preserve the family secrets, nineteenth-century women wrote for themselves as diarists much more frequently than they wrote memoirs. The diary allowed confidences no one else was supposed to hear. The mere act of sitting down to write an autobiography broke the code of female respectability, because doing so required a woman to believe that her direct experience, rather than her relationships with others, was what gave meaning to her life.

Jill Ker Conway, When Memory Speaks, 1998 

Friday, November 26, 2021

The Homeless Problem

Most people are homeless because they are mentally ill, have a personality disorder, or are addicted to drugs. Everyone knows that. These seriously impaired people can't afford places to live because they are unemployed, and they are unemployed because of the way they are. Homelessness didn't cause their afflictions, it's the other way around. Therefore, giving them places to live will not solve their problems. In their houses, apartments, and homeless shelters they will still have personality disorders, be mentally ill, and/or abuse drugs. Homelessness can't be eradicated without fixing the people who are homeless. If for any reason that can't be accomplished, then there is no solution to the problem. While this is so obviously true, no politician will come on television and acknowledge that the lack of housing isn't the problem. These people are the problem. For society's sake, they need to be gathered up and cared for in shelters and other institutions. Politicians won't say this because it is true, and in politics, nothing kills a career more than telling the truth. As long as the country is run by hacks, incompetents, and crooks, vast numbers of people living on sidewalks, beaches, parks, and beneath interstate overpasses will remain a part of our national landscape. 

Crime Myths

In order for the momentum of a crime myth to be prolonged…myths must be accompanied by certain characterizations. Momentum is achieved if the crime problem has traits that either instill fear or threaten the vast majority of society in some appreciable way. Not unlike Greek mythology, modern crime myths must follow certain themes for success. There must be "virtuous' heroes, "innocent" victims, and "evil" villains who pose a clear and certain threat to the audience. Only then can a crime myth reach its potential. [There were two crime myths that dominated the 1980s: hundreds of serial killers running loose, and an epidemic of stranger kidnappings of children. More recently: the myth of a growing army of zombie meth and bath salts addicts roaming our streets in search of victims.]

Victor E. Kappeler, Mark Blumberg and Gary W. Potter, The Mythology of Crime and Criminal Justice, Third Edition, 2000

Don't Show Your First Draft to Anyone

I would advise the beginning writer to write the first drafts as if no one else will ever read them--without a thought about publication--and only in the last draft to consider how the work will look from the outside.

Anne Tyler, 2001

The Appeal of The Flawed Character

     No one wants to read about perfect characters. Since no reader is perfect, there is nothing more disagreeable than spending free time immersed in a story about an individual who leaps tall buildings of emotion, psyche, body, and spirit in a single bound. Would anyone want a person as a friend, tediously perfect in every way? Probably not. Thus, a character possessing perfection in one area should possess imperfection in another area.

     Sir Arthur Conan Doyle understood this, which is one of the reasons that his Sherlock Holmes has stood the test of time for more than one hundred years and counting. Holmes has the perfect intellect. The man is a virtual machine of cogitation. But he's an emotional black hole incapable of a sustained relationship with anyone except Dr. Watson, and on top of that, he abuses drugs. He has a series of rather quirky habits, and he's unbearably supercilious. As a character "package," he emerges unforgetably from the pages of Conan Doyle's stories. Consequently, it's difficult to believe that any reader of works written in English might not know who Sherlock Holmes is.
Elizabeth George, Write Away, 2004

Thursday, November 25, 2021

Public Hangings

In Western communities [in the U.S.], lynchings were the preeminent social event, especially if the bank robber was well known. A local holdup man, or a stranger who had received enough publicity, could and did draw a crowd. Vendors sold popcorn, flags, peanuts, and cold drinks, giving the event a carnival atmosphere. Many small towns didn't have a court system, so there were a lot of impromptu executions. For towns that did have a sitting judge these hangings could be advertised a week or two in advance in order to give people a chance to attend. Hangings were a big boost to the local economy and a good chance for neighbors to get together. Of course, more than a few hasty hangings were not done in a professional manner, and many a bad guy slowly strangled to death with a sizable audience looking on.

L. R. Kirchner, Robbing Banks, 2003

Registered Sex Offenders

As of fall 2019, there were an estimated 752,000 people listed on state sex offender registries. Most people are so registered in Texas followed by California, New York, and Michigan. The District of Columbia and Vermont had the lowest number of registered sex offenders. These figures do not include people listed on the federal sex offender registry. If our criminal justice system was more concerned about the victims of these people, instead of being on lists, many of these predators would be in prison.

Protecting Items Shoplifters Want

     In our anything-goes time, shoplifting forbidden objects is more difficult than you might think. Take cigarettes: A lot of people used to shoplift them, particularly young people. That is no longer possible now that the law mandates that cigarettes be placed behind the cash register. You have to commit an armed robbery to steal smokes. Or take pornographic magazines, once widely stolen. Today, with Internet porn available at the click of a mouse, why bother shoplifting Playboy?

     But take condoms. After two decades of selling them on the open shelves, chain pharmacies, citing shoplifting in the 1990s, began locking them up. In the spring of 2006, an article about CVS doing so in its twenty-two D.C. stores appeared in The Washington Post.

Rachel Shteir, The Steal, 2011 

Everyone Has an Idea for a Novel

Getting ideas is the least difficult part of the fiction writing process. What's hard, really hard, is making those ideas come together in a well-conceived, compelling story. So many of these ideas that seem wonderful at first blush end up leading nowhere. They won't sustain the weight of a story. They won't spin out past a few pages. They won't lead to something insightful and true.

Terry Brooks, Sometimes the Magic Works, 2005 

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Crime in America

The founders [of our nation] would be astounded and alarmed at the level of serious crime in contemporary society. They could not have imagined that crime, and the fear of it, would so dominate people's daily habits and the political life of the nation. By their standards, they would certainly be gravely worried about the fate of the democracy they had worked so hard to establish.

Samuel Walker, Popular Justice: A History of American Criminal Justice, 1998

Language Over Story

If a novelist cares more for his language than for other elements of fiction, if he continually calls our attention away from the story to himself, we call him "mannered" and eventually we tire of him.

 John Gardner, On Becoming a Novelist, 1983

Stephen King On What Is Good Fiction

Good fiction always begins with story and progresses to theme; it almost never begins with theme and progresses to story.

Stephen King, On Writing, 2000

Creating Vivid Characters

If you can't create characters that are vivid in the reader's imagination, you can't create a good novel. Characters are to a novelist what lumber is to a carpenter and what bricks are to a bricklayer. Characters are the stuff out of which a novel is constructed.

James N. Frey, How to Write a Damn Good Novel, II, 1994

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

W.H. Auden on Murder

Murder is unique in that it abolishes the party it injures, so that society has to take the place of the victim and on his behalf demand atonement or grant forgiveness. It is the one crime in which society has a direct interest.

W. H. Auden (1907-1973) English-American poet

Plots Need Emotion and Action

There's a difference between an emotional plot and an action plot. If you write stories with emotional plots, it's really hard to get the other. But you've got to have both. The reader gets attached to all the characters, so there's emotional growth and inner turmoil. But it's triggered by something with such great dramatic possibilities. You have to have that outer tension of some kind. It doesn't have to be something cliche, like a car chase. But you need something on the outside. You can't just have inner tension.

Patricia Henley in Novel Ideas, Barbara Shoup and Margaret Love Denman, editors, 2001 

A Contemporary Review of a Future Classic

Whitney Balliett reviewed a novel for The New Yorker in 1961, saying, "[The author] wallows in his own laughter and finally drowns in it. What remains is a debris of sour jokes, stage anger, dirty words, synthetic looniness, and the sort of antic behavior that children fall into when they know they are losing our attention." The book was Catch-22 by Joseph Heller.

James Charlton and Lisbeth Mark, The Writer's Home Companion, 1987

"Of the Coming of John" by W.E.B. Du Bois

     In 1903, W.E.B, Du Bois included in his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, a brilliant but haunting short story, "Of the Coming of John." In Du Bois's story, a young black man in coastal Georgia is sent off hundreds of miles to a school that trains black teachers. The entire black community where he was born had raised the money for his tuition. The community invests in John so that he can one day return and teach African American children who are barred from attending the public school. Casual and fun-loving, John almost flunks out of his new school until he considers the trust he's been given and the shame he would face if he returned without graduating. Newly focused, sober, and intensely committed to succeed, he graduates with honors and returns to his community intent on changing things.

     John convinces the white judge who controls the town to allow him to open a school for black children. His education has empowered him, and he has strong opinions about racial freedom and equality that land him and the black community in trouble. The judge shuts down the school when he hears what John's been teaching. John walks home after the school's closing frustrated and distraught. On the trip home he sees his sister being groped by the judge's adult son and he reacts violently, striking the man in the head with a piece of wood. John continues home to say goodbye to his mother. Du Bois ends the tragic story when the furious judge catches up with John with the lynch mob he has assembled.

Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, 2014

Monday, November 22, 2021

Above the Law: The Jeffery Epstein Case

Perhaps the most important lesson of the Jeffery Epstein sex trafficking case is that the American criminal justice system does not come close to our founding fathers' concept that we are all equal under the law, and that no one is above the law. Moreover, it reminds us of the decadence of the rich and powerful in this country. Unfortunately, it has always been this way and will probably remain so. This criminal justice double standard will continue because the rich and powerful control our politicians. In other words, certain privileged criminal degenerates avoid justice.

The Key Element of Mystery Fiction

     Investigation is the meat and potatoes of mystery fiction. The sleuth talks to people, does research, snoops around, and makes observations. Facts emerge. Maybe an eyewitness gives an account of what he saw. A wife has unexplained bruises on her face. The brother of a victim avoids eye contact with his questioner. A will leaves a millionaire's estate to an obscure charity. A bloody knife is found in a laundry bin. A love letter is discovered tucked into last week's newspaper.

     Some facts will turn out to be clues that lead to the killer's true identity. Some will turn out to be red herrings--evidence that leads in a false direction. On top of that, a lot of the information your sleuth notes will turn out to be nothing more that the irrelevant minutiae of everyday life inserted into the scenes to give a sense of realism and camouflage the clues.

Hallie Ephron, Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, 2005

The Classic Short Story

There is something about the pace of the short story that catches the tempo of this country. If it is written with sincerity and skill it portrays a mood, a character, a background, or a situation. Sometimes it is not only typically American, it is universal in its feeling; sometimes its inherent truth is not a thing of the month, but of the years. When this is true, that short story is genuinely a classic as any novel or play.

Edna Ferber, One Basket, 1964 

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Acid Assaults

     In December 2012, a female employee of a company in Gotemba, Japan, a city 120 miles southwest of Tokyo, burned her feet in acid that had been poured into her shoes. The victim worked in a laboratory that produced carbon-fiber products. (In Japan it is customary for employees to remove their shoes when entering controlled areas.)

     The victim's feet were severely burned by hydrofluoric acid, a highly corrosive chemical. After gangrene settled into the assault victim's left foot, doctors had to remove the tips of five of her toes.

     On March 28, 2013, a prosecutor in Gotelmba charged Tatsujiro Fukazawa with attempted murder in the acid attack. The suspect worked in the laboratory with the victim. According to the police, Fukazawa had feelings for the woman who had rejected his romantic overtures. The acid planting was in revenge for that rejection. Although Fukazawa pleaded not guilty to the charges, he was convicted of the assault in 2015, and sentenced to seven years in prison.

     In 2013, two British girls were doused with acid while doing volunteer work in Zanzibar. Two years later, a South African teenage girl poured acid on her boyfriend's private parts. "I was just angry," she said "and all I wanted to do was to make him feel the pain I was feeling."

     According to the Acid Survivors Trust International, 1,500 people are attacked with acid every year. In addition to Japan, India has a long history of horrific acid attacks against women. In Afghanistan, Islamist extremists have thrown acid on girls' faces to scare them away from attending school.

    Anyone familiar with the annals of crime is aware that the ways people have found to be cruel to each other, to inflict pain and suffering, has no limit. 

Don't Write a Memoir to Preserve Memories

My advice to memoir writers is to embark upon a memoir for the same reason that you would embark on any other book: to fashion a text. Don't hope in a memoir to preserve your memories. If you prize your memories as they are, by all means avoid writing a memoir. It is a certain way to lose them. You can't put together a memoir without cannibalizing your own life for parts. The work replaces your memories.

Annie Dillard in Inventing the Truth, edited by William Zinsser, 1998 

Comedy Derived from Character

     One of the most famous lines in the history of comedy is from "The Jack Benny Show." Throughout his career, Benny developed the persona of the ultimate skinflint. On one show, a robber pulled a gun on Benny and threatened, "Your money or your life." Finally Benny spoke: "I'm thinking it over."

     For the cheapskate Benny persona, this was a rough decision that required some real thought. And it is a perfect example of comedy derived from character. This was not a joke superimposed onto a situation; it grew organically out of the Benny character.

David Evans in How To Write Funny, John B. Bachuba, editor, 2001 

Science Fiction Pioneer Edward Everett Hale

     The term "science fiction" hadn't been invented in 1870 when the American magazine Atlantic Monthly published the first part of Edward Everett Hale's delightfully eccentric novella The Brick Moon. Readers lacked a ready-made pigeonhole for it, confronted by a fantasy about a group of visionaries who decide to make a 200-foot-wide sphere of house-bricks, paint it white, and launch it into orbit.

     Jules Verne's From The Earth to the Moon had appeared five years earlier, so Hale's work was not unprecedented, but while Verne chose to sent his voyagers aloft using a giant cannon, Hale opts for the equally unfeasible but somehow more pleasing solution of a giant flywheel.

Andrew Crumey, "The Brick Moon," theguardian.com, May 14, 2011 

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Mom Sued For Ugly Baby

     In China, the old gag that goes, "At birth I was so ugly, the doctor slapped my mother," may be more reality than humor.

     Jian Feng married a beautiful woman who didn't tell him that she had been made attractive by a plastic surgeon in South Korea. Mr. Jian's bride had spent $100,000 for cosmetic surgery on her eyes, nose, and lips. Prior to the work done on her face, Mrs. Jian had been physically ordinary, and at best, plain. She would not have landed the superficial Mr. Jian without the surgery, and had he known that her beauty was not genetic, he wouldn't have married her. Mr. Jian assumed that his wife's beauty had been a gift of nature, and not the work of a gifted surgeon.

     On 2011, Mrs. Jian gave birth to a baby girl. The father, expecting the infant to reflect his own good looks and his wife's radiant beauty, was handed a child he considered downright ugly. He found the baby so unattractive, Mr. Jian was certain he couldn't have been the father. He not only accused his wife of having extramarital sex with another man, he accused her of having illicit sex with an ugly man. There was no way Mr. Jian was going to raise and support someone else's homely child. The infuriated husband demanded a DNA paternity test.

     Mrs. Jian found herself in a lose-lose situation. She could falsely confess to having sex with an unattractive lover, or tell her husband about the cosmetic surgery. The hapless, but faithful wife came clean about her past facial enhancement.

     Mr. Jian's spirits were not lifted by the fact his wife had not cheated on him, and that the baby in question was his own flesh and blood. He not only divorced his wife, he filed a civil suit against her on the grounds that their marriage had been based on false pretense. (She should have counter-sued on grounds that she had married him under the pretense he was a decent person.) In November 2012, the judge (presumably a man), by essentially declaring the baby a defective product purchased as a result of false advertising, awarded Mr. Jian the U.S. equivalent of $120,000 in damages.

Writing to O.J.

     I have been accused of the crime of murder, a double murder. The State of California charged me on June 17, 9994 with the deaths of my former wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, and arrested me later that same day. Since the day of my arrest I have had to defend myself not only in court but in the eyes of the public and the news media. In this book I am speaking publicly for the first time since my arrest, for two reasons.

     First and foremost, I want to respond to the more than 300,000 people who wrote to me. I want to thank you, I want to tell you those letters were a godsend. People wrote not only in the United States but from all over the world. Their letters started coming right after my arrest. Most were supportive, most of them gave me hope--all of the made me feel still part of the world. I first heard about my mail when a female deputy sheriff, on my second day in jail, said, "We've got a problem. We've got too many letters for you." They had received more letters for me in one day than they had for all the other prisoners, some 6,000 prisoners, at the Los Angeles County Jail. [These letters were written before the Simpson murder trial.]

O.J. Simpson, I Want to Tell You, 1994

A Generation of Semi-Literates

     Can you tell a pronoun from a participle; use commas correctly in long sentences; describe the difference between its and it's?

     If not, you have plenty of company in the world of job seekers. Despite stubbornly high unemployment, many employers complain that they can't find qualified candidates.

     Often, the mismatch results from applicants' inadequate communication skills. In survey after survey, employers are complaining about job candidates' inability to speak and write clearly….

     Experts differ on why job candidates can't communicate effectively. Bram Lowsky, an executive vice president of Right Management, the workforce management arm of Manpower, blames technology. "With Gen X and Gen Y, because everything is shorthand and text, the ability to communicate effectively is challenged," he said. "You see it in the business world, whether with existing employees or job candidates looking for work."

     Others say colleges are not doing a good job. In a survey of 318 employers published earlier this year by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and conducted by Hart Research Associates, 80 percent said colleges should focus more on written and oral communication….

Kelley Holland, "Why Johnny Can't Write, and Why Employers are Mad," CNBC, November 11, 2013

Jules Verne, The First Science Fiction Writer

Inspired by Edgar Allan Poe and other contemporary novelists, Jules Verne became the world's first full-time science fiction writer. He wrote nearly a hundred novels, some simply tales of travel and adventure but most based upon scientific speculation. He sent his characters around the world in a submarine in Twenty Leagues Under the Sea 1870 and around the moon in a huge artillery shell in From Earth to the Moon, 1865.

L. Sprague de Camp, L. Sprague de Camp, 1972

Friday, November 19, 2021

Novels That Inspired Real-Life Murders

     At his sentencing hearing in 1981, after he was convicted of John Lennon's murder, Mark David Chapman read aloud from J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye: I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over…I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all."

     The Catcher in the Rye was the book Chapman had been reading at the crime scene when he was arrested. It was the book that held, as he claimed, his message for the world. He was standing at the cliff; he was just doing his work.

     A few years later, the serial killers Leonard Lake and Charles Ng embarked on what they called "Operation Miranda," a violent spree of torture, rape and murder named for the woman abducted by a deranged butterfly collector in John Fowles' novel The Collector, which they cited as their inspiration.

Leslie Jamison, The New York Times Book Review, September 14, 2014 

The Russian Writers

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

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

Novels By Teenagers

I always wanted to be a novelist, from the time that I was a little kid and first learned that such a job existed. I decided to attempt my first novel when I was a teenager, and I thought it was going to be easy--that I'd no doubt be published before I graduated from high school. It obviously didn't work that way. It would be ten years of learning the craft and abandoning novels that weren't working before I had my first novel published. [In recent years a handful of teen written coming-of-age novels have been published.]

Marissa Meyer in Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market, edited by Chuck Sambuchino, 2013 

Thursday, November 18, 2021

"The CSI Effect"

Television shows like CSI, Forensic Files, and The New Detectives created public knowledge and interest in forensic science, and ramped up scientific expectations for those involved in real-life criminal investigation and prosecution. Prosecutors call this "the CSI effect," the expectation among jurors that the prosecution will feature physical evidence and expert witnesses. The CSI effect, according to some, has also caused jurors to expect crime lab results far beyond the capacity of forensic science. In cases where there is no physical evidence, some prosecutors either eliminate potential jurors who are fans of these TV shows or downplay the necessity and importance of physical evidence as a method of proving a defendant's guilt. Some academics, based on studies, deny the existence of the CSI effect. Most prosecutors, however, are certain it exists.

The Writer in Hollywood

They give you a thousand dollars a week [1960s] until that's what you need to live on. And then every day you live after that, you're afraid they'll take it away from you. It's all very scientific. It's based on the psychological fact that a man is a grubbing, hungry little sleaze...In twenty-four hours you can develop a taste for caviar. In forty-eight hours fish eggs are no longer a luxury, they're a necessity.

Character in Rod Serling's play, Velvet Alley

The Conceit Of The Biographer

Biography is a vain and foolhardy undertaking: Its essential conceit, that the unimaginable distance between two human beings can be crossed, is unsupportable; each of us is inherently unknowable. The biographer may be able to locate his subject in place and time--to describe the clothes he wore, the food he ate, the jobs he held, the opinions he expressed--but the subject's inner essence, by its very nature, is forever inaccessible.

Jonathan Yardley, Misfit, 1997 

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Probation Versus Parole

Most people don't understand the difference between probation and parole: The former is authorized by a court--a suspended or completed sentence with supervision as the price for freedom; the latter follows a parole board's grant of early release, again with supervision exchanged for freedom.

Reginald Dwayne Betts, The New York Times Book Review, March 1, 2020

Literary Success Can be Fleeting

The novelist's life is inherently an insecure one. Each project is a new start and may be a failure. The fact that a previous item has been successful is not a guard against failure this time. It's no wonder fiction writers so often turn misanthropic or are driven to drink to dull the agony.

Isaac Asimov, I Asimov, 1995 

New Books by Dead Writers

Unless a book was in the publishing pipeline at the time of the author's death, it should not be published after the writer's passing. Whether or not a book is published should be in the hands of the author and no one else. To prevent unauthorized posthumous publishing, authors should destroy all writing deemed unsuitable for public consumption. This should apply to journals, letters, notes, and other documents pertaining to a writer's work. 

Romance Genre Critics

Most people who hate romance novels will admit--if pressed and if they're honest--they haven't actually read one since the 1970s when the so-called bodice ripper novels represented the genre.

Linda Lael Miller in Novel and Short Story Writer's Market, edited by Anne Bowling and Vanessa Lyman, 2002 

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Suburban Fiction

I like to walk around my Los Angeles neighborhood and wonder what drama lurks behind the pretty facades and lawns, the occasional picket fence. Fiction of the suburbs, like Richard Yates'  Revolutionary Road or Rick Moody's The Ice Storm, has always had a special claim on me. The drinking! The affairs! The dashed dreams!

Tim Arango, The New York Times Book Review, December 8, 2018

The Problem With Sequels

It is very difficult for any sequel to please everyone, the devotees of the original all clamoring for their various fantasies for the central characters. And this challenge is only compounded when that original has been adapted into a hugely successful film, the sort that spawns a flood of think pieces, viral memes and illustrated tributes.

Josh Duboff, The New York Times Book Review, December 15, 2019

Who or Whom?

When do you use who and when do you use whom? The answer is, "Who cares?" Or, if you prefer, "Whom cares?"

Joel Saltzman, If You Can Talk, You Can Write, 1993 

Monday, November 15, 2021

What Happened to Guma Aguiar?

     Guma Aguiar's parents immigrated to the United States from Brazil in 1979 when he was two-years-old. The family, from Rio deJaneiro, settled in Pompano Beach, Florida. After college, Guma, a born-again Christian, moved to Texas where, working with his uncle in the oil and gas business, he made a fortune.

     In 2012, the 35-year-old millionaire was living in Fort Lauderdale with his wife Jamie and their four children. The family resided in a $5 million, six-bedroom mansion located in the exclusive oceanside neighborhood called Rio Vista.

     Aguiar, after converting to Orthodox Judaism, began donating millions of dollars to charitable causes in Jerusalem where he was considered a hero philanthropist. Others considered Aguiar a rich, eccentric man who was losing touch with reality. (Aguiar, according to reports, had spent some time in various mental wards.) His marriage to Jamie, whom he'd met in high school, had become a tumultuous relationship. On one occasion he had sued Jamie for divorce, then later withdrew the petition. In April 2012, Jamie Aguiar's attorney challenged the prenuptial agreement she had signed. The following month, Guma transferred guardianship of his $100 million estate ("in the event of my incapacity") from his wife Jamie to his mother, Ellen Aguiar. This, too, was challenged by Jamie's legal representatives.

     On June 18, 2012, Jamie Aguiar informed Guma that she intended to file for divorce. An hour later, at 8:30 in the evening, Guma was seen driving his twin-engine, fiberglass powerboat "T.T. Zion" through Port Everglades toward the Atlantic Ocean. Just after midnight, employees of a beachfront bar called Elbo Room spotted a boat in rough seas drifting toward the beach. The craft came to rest on shore with its navigation lights still on, the shifter in gear, and the keys in the ignition. Guma Aguiar was not in the boat.

     That morning, while investigators searched Aguiar's boat, the Coast Guard launched a search-and-rescue operation. Inside the abandoned craft, officers recovered the owner's wallet, his iPhone, a black T-shirt, and a pair of flip-flops. According to the boat's GPS system, Aguilar had traveled at high speeds two miles northeast of his house before the craft turned around and started drifting back to the shore. Aguiar had left his wedding ring at home.

     After three days, the Coast Guard called off the search-and-rescue mission. Several weeks after Guma's disappearance, Jamie Aguiar engaged in a battle against her mother-in-law for control of the $100 million estate, fired her missing husband's chief financial officer. At this point in the case, everybody had a lawyer which was costing the family $1 million a month in legal fees. (In big money disputes like this, the lawyers are always the big winners.) The Rio Vista mansion was put on the market along with Aguiar's 75-foot yacht, and his twin-engine powerboat.

     So, what happened to Guma Aguiar? Did he go out for a quick swim and drown? (Did taking an evening swim in the ocean by himself conform to past behavior?) Did mental illness and a hatred for his wife drive Guma to suicide? Assuming he went into the sea, was it unusual that the Coast Guard searchers didn't find his body? Why hadn't his corpse washed up on shore somewhere in this populated area?  Could he be alive?

     Jamie Aguiar's attorney told reporters that he believed that Guma, after faking his own death, fled to the Netherlands where he was hiding out, or living under a false identity. The attorney suspected that Guma was in the Netherlands because a close business associate of his had recently relocated there.

     On December 29, 2015, a judge in Broward County declared Guma Aguiar legally deceased. This paved the way for the settlement of his estate. A court in Israel where Aguiar owned property would decide whether to accept the Florida court ruling.
 
       While possible, it's unlikely that Guma Aguiar faked his own death, then disappeared into thin air. It seems the money trail would eventually lead investigators to him. He probably either drowned accidentally or committed suicide. His history of mental illness pointed to suicide, but statistics suggest a drowning accident. (Eighty percent of all drownings are accidental.) There are those who believe the Florida millionaire was murdered. However, there doesn't seem to be evidence of foul play in this case--blood on the boat and so on-- but anything is possible when a lot of money is involved.
     As of this writing,  Mr. Aguiar's disappearance remains a mystery.

Forensic Entomology

     Not until the 1980s would an American entomologist add the line "Forensic Consultant" to his curriculum vitae. Yet, whenever modern-day forensic entomologists step before an audience--be it a jury, college class, or a room full of homicide detectives--they invariably introduce their science as "ancient," nearly 800 years old. They trace its first known use to a tale of murder by slashing recorded in Sung Tz'u's thirteenth-century Chinese detective manual, Hsi Yuan Chi Lu (The Washing Away of Wrongs).

     On a sweltering afternoon, a group of farmers returning from their fields outside a small Chinese village found the slashed and bloodied body of a neighbor by the roadside. Fearing bandits, they sent for the provincial death investigator, who arrived to convene an official inquest. "Robbers merely want men to die so that they can take their valuables," he informed the gathered crowd. "Now the personal effects are there, while the body bears many wounds. If this is not a case of being killed by a hateful enemy, then what is it?" Nonetheless, questioning the victim's wife revealed no known enemies, at worst some hard feelings with a neighbor to whom her husband owed money. On hearing this, the official ordered everyone in the neighborhood to bring their farm sickles for examination, warning that any hidden sickle would be considered a confession to murder. Within an hour, the detective had seventy to eighty blades laid before him on the town square. "The weather was hot," Sung Tz'u notes. "And the flies flew about and gathered on one sickle," presumably attracted by invisible traces of flesh and blood.

Jessica Snyder Sachs, Corpse: Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death, 2001

The Literature Professor

Being a literature professor and being a writer are not the same thing. The academic community is composed largely of nitwits. If I may generalize. People who don't know much about what really matters very much, who view life through literature rather than the other way around.

Robert B. Parker (1932-2010) crime novelist

The Journalist as Sociopath

A few days spent in someone else's world (however dismal, violent, petty or even boring that world may be) is simply not enough to experience it as real. It is too tightly framed by one's own domestic normality. Wherever you are today, you know that next Monday you will be home, and from the perspective of home today will seem too exaggerated, too highly colored, too remote to take quite seriously. So the writer slips into a style of mechanical facetious irony as he deals with this wrong-end-of-the-telescope view of the world. The perfervid [phony passionate] similes that are the trademark of the hardened magazine writer betray him as he tries to make language itself mask and make up for the fundamental shallowness of his experience with its synthetic energy...Emotional disengagement, self-conscious observation, the capacity to quickly turn a muddle of not very deeply felt sensations into a neat and vivid piece, are part of the necessary equipment of the writer as journalist.

Janathan Raban, For Love & Money, 1988

Don't Encourage Them!

I think aspiring novelists need as much discouragement as we can muster. Nobody should undertake the life of a fiction writer--so monetarily unrewarding, so maddeningly beset by career vagaries--who has any other choice in the matter. Learn a trade! Flannery O'Connor said it best: "People are always asking me if the university stifles writers. I reply that it hasn't stifled enough of them."

Gerald Howard in Advice To Writers, edited by Jon Winokur, 1999

Sunday, November 14, 2021

Stupidity in Lower Education

     A Missouri mother is furious about how she was treated by school administrators and police officers who had her arrested for trespassing because she failed to sign a guestbook when she came to the elementary school to assist her special needs son. The mother, Niakea Williams, received a call from her son's teacher that he was having a medical episode. William's son, Michael, suffers from Asperger's Syndrome.

     Williams rushed over to Walnut Groves Elementary School in St. Louis County, Missouri, to help her son. School officers promptly let her inside…Williams provided assistance to her son, calming him down. Soon after, the principal came to the classroom and informed Williams that she violated school policy by failing to sign the guestbook. Williams replied that she was perfectly willing to sign the book. It was too late, the principal said…

     Police responded to the scene as if there had been a reported unauthorized entry into the school--even though staff had let Williams inside. Officers with the Calverton Park Police Department arrested Williams and took her to the station. The school was on lockdown for 12 minutes, and a letter was sent out to parents explaining what happened…[What happened was this: an idiot has been put in charge of the Walnut Groves Elementary School. Moreover, officers with the local police department were not very bright either.]

Robby Soave, "Parent Comes to School to Help Son, Principal Calls Cops and She's Arrested," The Daily Caller, March 25, 2014

The Writer's Fear of Criticism

     Are writers more concerned with others' opinions of them, more given to depression, and more reluctant to share their work, especially work they consider risky, than other creative types? In my experience, yes, yes, and yes. While the painters and other visual artists I know are surely sensitive people, they also seem enviably oblivious to what others think of their work. Musicians and actors, too, have hefty egos and tend to be more obsessed with what they do than what others think about what they do…Regardless of talent, it's almost impossible to get new writers to stand up and read from their work. [Maybe it's because they think this kind of exercise is self-important and boring to others.]

     Yes, writers' temperaments are unique. I have watched the most talented writers compare themselves to their favorite authors--to dead authors, especially--and grow encyclopedia-sized [writer's] blocks because they believe they'll never be as good. [They are probably right.]

     Talent seems to be inverse to confidence. Some of the most talented writers I know are reluctant to send out their work, so convinced are they that no will ever publish it.

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett, Pen on Fire, 2004 

Russian Literature: Not Everyone's a Fan

The one genre I absolutely cannot stand is Russian literature. You need genealogy charts to just figure out the characters, every novel is a thousand pages and pretty much everyone dies.

Jodi Picoult, The New York Times Book Review, October 12, 2014 

Saturday, November 13, 2021

The Alibi Witness

An alibi witness is a person who takes the stand and testifies that the criminal defendant was not at the crime scene when the offense occurred. The best alibi witness is someone the defendant does not know. The weakest alibi witnesses are friends and relatives of the defendant. The best alibi defenses are based upon documentation and surveillance camera evidence. Even better, being locked up at the time of the crime. 

The Challenge of Print Journalism

     As narrative nonfiction writers we care deeply about sustaining quality journalism in an age that is rather inhospitable to it, for both technological and economic reasons. Television came along in the 1960s and 1970s and replaced print journalism as the quickest, most powerful instrument for the news. On the occasion of cataclysmic events--the crashing of the NASA shuttle, John Kennedy's assassination, the September 11 attacks--people turn to television. It is the prime carrier of news. So we, print journalists, have had to go where television cameras could not. We must answer the questions that the television's images pose. We're lucky: Television news raises more questions than it answers.

     Print journalists have to be better than they used to be. With network television, cable television, the internet, and even video games, it's tougher to compete for people's time. There are more and more sources of information out there, and they demand less and less intellectual energy. People work harder; they have less time. When I started as a journalist, fifty-two years ago, I operated in an age with a single-income middle class. Now it's a two-income middle class. The writer must get better and better, become a better storyteller.

David Halberstam, "The Narrative Idea," in Telling True Stories, Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, Editors, 2007

Isaac Asimov on Writing Science Fiction

I can write nonfiction science without thinking because it requires no thought. I already know it. Science fiction, however, is far more delicate a job and requires the deeper and most prolonged thought.

Isaac Asimov, I Asimov, 1996 

Friday, November 12, 2021

Identifying the "Why" Behind a Pathological Crime

     It's like the old staple of 1930s gangster movies: why does one person become a criminal and the other a priest? Or from my perspective, why does one become a serial killer, another a rapist, another an assassin, another a bomber, another a poisoner, and yet still another a child molester? And within these crime categories, why does each commit his atrocities in the precise way he does? The answer lies in one fundamental question that applies to every one of them:
     Why did he do it?
     The who? follows from there.
     That's the mystery we have to solve.

John Douglas [criminal profiler] and Mark Olshaker, The Anatomy of Motive, 1999

Charles Bukowski on His Critics

I never believed my critics to be anything but assholes. If the world lasts until the next century, I will still be there and the old critics will be dead and forgotten only to be replaced by new critics, new assholes. [Bukowski died in 1994.]

Charles Bukowski, Hollywood, 1969

Romance Novel Love Scenes

Strong, appealing characters, sensuous writing, and an understanding on how to create sexual tension are the key elements of good romance novels. Writing strong love scenes that are neither too sappy nor too graphic is one of the challenges of the genre.

Judith Rosen in The Writer's Handbook, edited by Alfrieda Abbe, 2002 

Humor and Pathos in Nonfiction

Any well-written nonfiction story can and should engage the emotions. In even the most serious of topics, there is usually room for a touch of humor, and the contrast helps heighten the story's impact. Pathos, too, can emerge in the unlikeliest settings, and can be all the more effective for being unexpected. This doesn't mean that material has to be thigh-slapping hilarious, or tear-jerking sorrowful. Most often, humor and pathos are subtle, growing naturally out of the events being described.

James B. Stewart, Follow the Story, 1998 

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Screams From The Grave

     Cemetery workers raced to a newly dug grave after they [supposedly] heard banging and muffled shouting an hour after a 45-year-old woman was buried. As they grabbed tools and anything they could find, they rushed to dig the grave up after the woman woke up to find herself buried alive in a coffin.

     But tragically, the woman died before her would-be rescuers could reach her inside the plot at a cemetery not far from the Greek city of Thesaloniki. Her grieving family had arranged her funeral at the graveyard in Perais, a small town 16 miles south of Thesaloniki, Greece's main city in the north.

     Shortly after the last relatives left the cemetery on Thursday September 25, 2014, residents and a group of children playing outside reportedly heard a female voice shouting for help from inside the grave. [If this were true, the woman was entombed in a shallow grave without having been embalmed.] They called the police and began digging up the grave to save her but she had suffocated inside the coffin… 

     A doctor at the scene examined the woman's body. He said she had been dead for hours. Dr. Chrissi Matsikoudi told a local reporter that, "I just don't believe it. We did several tests including one for heart failure on the body. It would have been impossible for someone in a state of rigor mortis to have been shouting and hitting the coffin like that." [Indeed.]

"Woman Who 'Died' is Heard Screaming From Inside Coffin After Being Buried Alive," Standard Media Company, September 30, 2014  

Jack Kerouac On America

I suddenly began to realize that everybody in America is a natural born thief. [If this is still true, we the people are well represented in Congress.]

Jack Kerouac, On The Road, 1957 

A Bad Year For Literary Fiction

I am a compulsive reader of literary novels--but this has been a terrible year [2019] for fiction that is actually readable, and not experimental. I have been so disappointed when well-known writers come out with books that, to me, were just duds. [Most readers would be hard pressed to find a good year for literary fiction.]

Gina Kolata, July 2019

Starting With Short Stories

Many writers begin their careers with short fiction, gradually working toward novels as their skills increase and they gain confidence in their ability to handle plot and characterization. A novel requires, at the very least, several months to write, and if it is rejected by publishers, the blow to your ego may be severe enough to discourage further effort. A short story can be completed in a single evening (I've written them in an hour), and if the story fails to gain acceptance with an editor, no great emotional harm is done in terms of rejection. You just go ahead and write another.

William E. Nolan, How To Write Horror Fiction, 1990 

Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Forensic Science Practitioners

Practitioners of forensic science fall generally into three groups: police officers who arrive at the scene of a crime and whose job it is to secure the physical evidence; crime scene technicians responsible for finding, photographing, and packaging that physical evidence for crime lab submission; and scientists working in public and private laboratories who analyze the evidence and, if the occasion arises, testify in court as expert witnesses. While uniformed police officers and detectives may be trained in the recognition and handling of physical evidence, they are not scientists and do not work under laboratory conditions. As a result, a lot can--and does--go wrong between the crime scene and the courtroom. 

Publication Letdown

I believed, before I sold my first novel, that the publication would be instantly and automatically gratifying, an affirming and romantic experience, a Hallmark commercial where one runs and leaps in slow motion across a meadow filled with wildflowers into the arms of acclaim and self-esteem. This did not happen for me. As a result, I try to warn writers who hope to get published that publication is not all it is cracked up to be. The act of writing turns out to be its own reward.

Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird, 1995

Writing Clear, Clean Fiction

I have a rather plain and direct prose style. For me the words should be like a pane of glass that you look through, not at. Decorative flourishes are few. I learned that style on newspapers.

Ken Follett, The New York Times, September 4, 2014 

The Vampire In Romance Fiction

There is a place in romance, in my own fantasies, for the laconic cowboy, for the over-civilized power broker, for the gentle prince and the burned-out spy. They all have their appeal, their merits, their stories to tell. But the vampire myth strikes deep in my soul. Deep in my heart I want more than just a man. I want a fallen angel, someone who would rather reign in hell than serve in heaven, a creature of light and darkness, good and evil, love and hate. A creature of life and death. The threat that kind of hero offers is essential to his appeal.

Anne Stuart Krentz in Dangerous Men And Adventurous Women, edited by Jayne Ann Krentz, 1992 

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Serial Killer Hysteria

     Psychiatry is not to blame for the emergence of the late-twentieth-century fictional monster known as the serial killer, but the psychiatric concept of criminal violence as an unconsciously motivated explosion of rage bolsters the credibility of what is in fact a bureaucratic invention...

     Ultra violent criminals sometimes commit a series of murders...Such serial homicides are enacted most commonly by violent drug dealers, professional murderers and armed robbers in the course of doing business...The notion of an irrational, predatory "serial killer" emerged in the early 1980s amid widespread hysteria about dangers to children from pornographers, satanic cults, lethal day-care centers and kidnappers...The 1983 [Senate] hearings on child kidnapping and serial homicide by the Juvenile Justice Subcommittee, chaired by Senator Arlen Spector, [was] the public forum from which emerged the popular notion of a multitude of predatory serial killers scourging the land...

     Specter's subcommittee estimated that there had been as many as 3,600 "random and senseless [serial] murders" in 1981; by the time that number had whispered its way around the circle of public discussion, it was inflated to estimates of 4,000 or 5,000 serial-killer victims per year ( out of about 23,000 total U. S. homicides)...The actual number of [serial killer] victims is closer to two hundred a year. [That may have been true in the 80s and 90s, but the number of yearly victims is now much lower than 200.]

Richard Rhodes, Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist, 1999 

Sports Writers Ring Lardner And Red Smith

Reporters who cover athletes, athletic teams, and sporting events are often referred to as sports writers. Truth is, only a handful of these journalists are good enough to transcend sports reporting into creative writing. Ring Lardner and Red Smith, for example, were sports writers. Most of their colleagues were merely sports reporters, and that's true today.

Believing in the Unreal

We are not geniuses, most of us who write novels, but we are, many of us, people who have chosen to live the surrogate life of the imagination. We have, perhaps, settled for that state which Wallace Stevens speaks of. "The final belief," he said, "is to believe in a fiction which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else."

Brian Moore in The Agony And The Ego, edited by Clare Boylan, 1994 

Monday, November 8, 2021

Hanging Offenses

A hundred and sixty years ago there were 200 offenses for which a man, woman or child [in England] could be hanged. One could be hanged for cutting down a tree or for associating with gypsies: but, very strangely, not for associating with politicians.

Charles Duff, A Handbook on Hanging, a 2001 reprint of the 1961 treatise. 

Ernest Hemingway On Becoming a Writer

It's none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) novelist

Journalism: The Ugly Truth

Intrusiveness is the nature of journalism; it is its sharpest and most necessary instrument and it is also its most agonizing responsibility for journalists who choose to accept any responsibility at all. Intrusiveness is journalism's power and its curse. Only taste and a sincere respect for accuracy can govern the power and remove the curse. Journalism is as complicated and as difficult as that. [Today, journalism is not only intrusive, it's  also vindictive and intentionally false. One could argue that a good many journalists today are pundits posing as journalists. It's no wonder journalists are about as believable and popular as politicians.]

St. Clair McKelway, 2006

Sunday, November 7, 2021

Psychological Profilers: Fact Versus Fiction

     Profiling of serial killers probably doesn't help catch them. Much of this work is based on interviews of serial killers and reviews of their murders to assist in pattern recognition with future cases. The lore includes such observations as the idea that killers return to the scene of the crime, enjoy participating in the investigation, and know or don't know the victims prior to the killing. These data points could conceivably narrow down the suspects in a given situation. The lore also includes many unobservables, such as whether the killer was organized or disorganized, merely angry enough to kill or even angrier, has high or low self-esteem, and took the situation personally or didn't...Any ideas about serial killers that are not observable cannot help the police narrow the suspect field.

     Instead of helping catch serial killers, profilers turn the police's attention to suspects that fit the profile. Fortunately, police typically don't put much stock in profiles, but when they do, their investigations tend to confirm their suspicions [that it doesn't work].

Dr. Michael Karson, "Why Profiling Serial Killers Can't Work: You Can't Find a Needle in a Haystack with a Pitchfork," Psychology Today, November 30, 2017

Ivory Tower Criminologists

The fact is that the social scientists who have done most of the research on violent criminals are academics. There is certainly nothing in the backgrounds of most of them, either prior to or after coming to the university, that prepares them to achieve rapport with violent criminals. On the contrary, most academics find the average violent criminal so alien and repugnant that they do not want to have any face-to-face contact whatsoever, much less to establish rapport with them. Moreover, academics often cast aspersions upon those researchers who can establish rapport with such persons. Although anyone can understand the desire of academics, like other people, not to have close contact with violent criminals, it is not understandable for those who hold themselves out as experts on the problem.

Lonnie H. Athens, The Creation of Dangerous Violent Criminals, 1992 

Teen Horror Fiction

     Horror is an extremely popular genre in teen fiction. It's easy to see why. A good horror story will take a relatively normal individual, Our Hero, and pit him against a malevolent, often mysterious enemy, The Monster. Our Hero must struggle to understand this monster, its strengths and weaknesses. Then he must face it. Often, Our Hero conquers the unknown beast, sometimes not, and until some understanding of The Monster is found, Our Hero, faced with the unknown is often powerless against it. Teens deal with parents, teachers, peers, and a world full of rules they have yet to fully understand.

     Teen fiction, at its best, examines these confusing emotional issues; therefore, the coming-of-age theme is essential. Characters face the unknown and take steps to gain power over it. They are forced to make life-defining decisions by examining who they are and taking actions that set the stage for the adults they will become.

     This is what makes horror so compelling for a teen audience (besides the cool monsters, of course). Horror looks at issues of death, alienation, insecurity, physical changes, loss of faith, and the inherent fear of the unknown. On some level, horror fiction shows teens that even the greatest obstacles can be faced and survived. The most well-known example of this comes from the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in which the idea presented is that high school is, quite literally, hell.

Thomas Pendleton in On Writing Horror, Mort Castle, editor, 2007 

Literary Tastes are Fickle

Readers, faithless creatures that we are, have short memories and an insatiable appetite for the new, the hyped and the freshly reformulated...Talented writers who are no longer in the forefront, even if it is not of their own doing, are like clothes that have long gone out of fashion, invoking faint memories of times gone by.

Daphne Merkin, The New York Times Book Review, March 15, 2020

Saturday, November 6, 2021

The Johnson Family Mortuary: The Funeral Home Horror Show

      On July 15, 2014, James Labenz, the owner of the building in east Fort Worth, Texas that housed the Johnson Family Mortuary, went to the funeral home to evict the tenants. Dondre Johnson, 39, and his 35-year-old wife Rachel Hardy-Johnson, owed the landlord $15,000 in back rent. The place looked vacant so Mr. Labenz entered the building. What he saw and smelled caused him to quickly exit the premises and call 911.

     In his report, the police officer who responded to the 911 call noted that he detected, from the funeral home's parking lot, the odor of decaying flesh. Inside the building, he found the unrefrigerated remains of several corpses in various states of decomposition. The officer called the Tarrant County Medical Examiner's Office.

     Police detectives accompanied by a medical examiner's office crime scene technician encountered a scene right out of a horror movie. But unlike its fictional counterpart, the funeral home tableau featured insects, maggots, leaking body fluids, and the overpowering stench of death.

     That day, the medical examiner's office took possession of the remains of two stillborn children and five adults. The partially mummified corpse of an adult lay in a casket inhabited by swarms of flies and other bugs. In a small container, the crime scene technician discovered a tiny skeleton. The funeral home's flooring was wet with draining bodily fluids.

     A Tarrant County prosecutor charged the mortuary owners with seven counts of abuse of a corpse. If convicted and sentenced on each count, the couple faced up to seven years behind bars. On July 18, 2014, police officers arrested Rachel Hardy-Johnson at the couple's home in Arlington, Texas. The next day, Dondre turned himself in at police headquarters in Fort Worth. After putting up their $10,500 bonds, the suspects were released from custody.

     The day after he walked out of the Tarrant County Jail, Dondre Johnson said this to a reporter: "This is a funeral home, you can expect to find bodies." (True, but one would expect not to find corpses that were decomposing and being consumed by insects.)

     Rachel Hardy-Johnson told reporters that she had been absent from the funeral home due to the birth of her child. Dondre, who wasn't good at keeping up with the paperwork associated with either burying or cremating bodies, had been in charge of that aspect of the business. She said that Dondre was all about the pomp and circumstance and show associated with the funeral service.

     Dondre Johnson's lack of administrative skills cost his landlord $8,000 in cleanup fees. Moreover, the macabre publicity associated with the building had significantly lowered the property's real estate value.

     Following the gruesome discovery of the results of Dondre Johnson's gross mismanagement and callous disregard for the postmortem dignity of the deceased in his care, the Texas Funeral Service Commission revoked the Johnson family funeral license. Angered by the revocation, the couple petitioned the state to have their license returned.

     Dondre and Rachel Hardy-Johnson, already in trouble with the law, were indicted on four counts of fraud by a federal grand jury in September 2014. The couple stood accused of obtaining food stamps, a housing subsidy, federal education funding, and Medicare benefits without revealing their income and other personal assets. The alleged government fraud took place between April 2010 and July 2012. If convicted on each count, the former funeral home owners faced up to 20 years in prison.

     Federal fraud investigators determined that Hardy-Johnson had in 2011 received government benefits while claiming to be an unemployed single mother living alone with her children. During that period she purchased a 2006 Hummer H2 for $26,000 and a 2008 Mercedes-Benz CL S500 for $41,700. The next year, while still representing herself as an unemployed single mother, she bought an expensive Land Rover.

     On January 20, 2015, a Tarrant County grand jury indicted Dondre Johnson and his wife for stealing up to $20,000 from families who had paid for and did not receive funeral services in 2014. If convicted, they faced maximum sentences of 20 years in prison and thousands of dollars in fines.

     Rachel Hardy-Johnson, on January 27, 2015, pleaded guilty in federal court to one count of food stamp benefit fraud involving $6,000 in payments from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Stamp program and its successor, SNAP. She was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

     In February 2015, reporters with the CBS television affiliate in Fort Worth discovered that Dondre Johnson and his twin brother Derrick were conducting funerals in Sherman, Texas. Travis Mitchell, the owner of Serenity Chapel Funeral Services, told the reporters that he handled the business aspects of the operation while Dondre and Derrick performed the funerals.

     On September 24, 2015, a jury in Fort Worth found Dondre Johnson guilty of two counts of felony theft. The judge sentenced Johnson to two years in prison and a $20,000 fine. Johnson still faced possible prosecution on seven misdemeanor counts of abuse of corpse. 
     In September 2018, Dondre Johnson pleaded guilty in a Fort Worth courtroom to nine counts of abuse of corpse. The judge sentenced him to two years in prison.

The Pathology of Bed-Wetting

About five to seven million kids in America wet the bed. Bet-wetting is most common in children in preschool and under the age of seven. Harold Schechter, a prolific author of true crime books and professor of American Literature and Culture at Queens College [NYC], suggested that if this habit persists beyond the age of twelve, it might signify a deeper pathology. The FBI reported that 60 percent of sexually related murderers and serial killers and those who have committed violent crimes have struggled with bed-wetting and many of them are too embarrassed to talk about it, let alone admit to it.

Phil Chalmers, Inside the Mind of a Teen Killer, 2009

Spoken Versus Written Language

People often assume they know how to write because they know how to speak. There are deep and important connections between spoken and written language, but they're not the same thing. If you think they are, tape a conversation and transcribe it verbatim and see how it reads.

Richard Rhodes, How To Write, 1995

Plot Ups and Downs

A plot needs arcs. Arcs are the ups and downs, the changes in direction the story takes as events unfold. The most important thing is to keep the reader engaged in the story and the characters. If things don't change, if unexpected events don't occur, the book becomes boring fast.

Janet Evanovich, How I Write, 2006

Children Like the Sound of Words

Most children enjoy the sound of language for its own sake. They wallow in repetitions and luscious word-sounds and the crunch and slither of onomatopoeia [words that sound like what they mean], they fall in love with impressive words and use them in all the wrong places.

Ursula K. LeGuin, Steering the Craft, 1998 

Friday, November 5, 2021

The Lance T. Mason Murder Case

     In 1985, Lance T. Mason graduated from Shaker Heights High School in upscale suburban Cleveland, Ohio. After earning his B.A. from the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio, Mason received a law degree from the University of Michigan. Not long out of law school, Mason became an assistant prosecuting attorney for Cuyahoga County, Ohio. From 2002 to 2006, he served as an elected representative in the Ohio House of Representatives. 

     Lance Mason, in 2007, advanced his political career by being elected to Ohio's 25th State Senate District. A year later, Ohio governor Ted Strickland appointed him to fill a judicial vacancy on the Cuyahoga County Court of Common Pleas. After seven years on the bench, the arc of Judge Mason's career in law took a sudden downward turn.

     On August 2, 2014, police officers took the judge into custody after he punched his wife Aisha Fraser twenty times and bashed her head five times against the dashboard of their vehicle. During the attack, he also bit her and threatened to kill her. The couple's children, four and six, witnessed the prolonged assault.

     Aisha Fraser, a sixth grade teacher in the Shaker Heights School District, was so badly injured she had to undergo reconstructive surgery on her face. Following Judge Mason's arrest, detectives searched his home and found an array of handguns, 2,500 rounds of ammunition, a bulletproof vest, smoke grenades, semi-automatic rifles, and a sword.

     Two days after the assault, Aisha Fraser filed for divorce. (She later sued her ex-husband and won $150,000 in damages.)

     On August 13, 2015, Lance Mason was allowed to plead guilty to attempted felonious assault and domestic violence in return for a sentence of two years. Following his sentencing, Cuyahoga County prosecutor Timothy J. McGinty told reporters that "I am confident he [Mason] will leave prison rehabilitated and will again be an asset to our community." 
     On September 3, 2015, the Ohio Supreme Court suspended Lance Mason from practicing law. The convicted felon, a couple of weeks later, resigned from his seat on the bench.

      While sentenced lightly for two years, the man who severely beat his wife walked out of prison after serving only nine months behind bars. As a condition of his early release, Mason was ordered to write his ex-wife a letter of apology.

     Shortly following the ex-judge's early--most would say premature--release from prison, Cleveland Mayor Frank Johnson hired the convicted wife beater as a minority business development director.

     On Saturday, November 17, 2018, the dispatcher with the Shaker Heights Police Department received a frantic call from Lance Mason's sister who reported that her brother had just stabbed his ex-wife Aisha Fraser to death in his home. The victim had arrived at Mason's house to drop off their children for a visit.

     As police officers rolled up to the murder scene, Mason, in his attempt to avoid custody, stole his ex-wife's car and drove into a police vehicle, seriously injuring the officer. Police arrested Mason after he ran back to his house after crashing into the police car. The injured officer was rushed to the hospital.

     On November 29, 2018, a grand jury sitting in Cleveland indicted Lance Mason on charges of felonious assault, violating a protection order, and grand theft of his 45-year-old ex-wife's car. A week later, the grand jury indicted the 51-year-old former judge on the charge of aggravated murder. At his arraignment hearing, Lance Mason pleaded not guilty to all charges. He was held in the Cuyahoga County Jail on $5 million bond.
     On September 12, 2029, after pleading guilty to the murder of Alisha Fraser, the judge sentenced the 34-year-old defendant to life in prison with the chance of parole in 30 years. Mr. Mason was sentenced to an additional five years for violating probation, assaulting a police officer and stealing his ex-wife's car. 

Why Serial Killers Kill

The notion that male serial killers kill only for sexual purposes and that they kill only strangers is long outdated. Serial killers will also kill for power, profit, belief, and politics and some will kill friends, neighbors, and family members. And female serial killers can kill for the same reasons as males do.

Peter Vronsky, Female Serial Killers, 2007

Sociopaths and Conflict of Interest

It is impossible to explain the concept of conflict of interest to an unethical lawyer, stock broker, or real estate agent. That's because these sociopaths only recognize one interest--their own. So where's the conflict?

Fiction Voice

The thing you are trying to find is the voice. This is the single most important thing in any novel. The voice. How it will sound. Who is telling the story? Why is he telling it? If you're sixty years old and writing in the first person singular about a sixteen-year-old high school student, beware of the voice. It may be your own, and that is wrong.

Evan Hunter in The Writer's Handbook, Sylvia K. Burack, editor, 1986 

Keep Common Experiences Out Of Your Memoir

If you write about your father hitting you on the head, you're up against a lot of competition with people who are writing about exactly the same experience. I used to tell students not to use certain subjects they seemed to gravitate to almost automatically at their age, such as the death of their grandparents--grandparents tend to die when you're in high school or college. I at least want to read about something I don't already know about. [When I was a college professor I noticed that a lot of grandparents died on test dates.]

John Ashbery in Ian Jackman's The Writer's Mentor, 2004

The Horror Story Monster

     In a story or novel, when should your monster be introduced? Should you have him, her, or it attack your  protagonist in the beginning, perhaps on the opening page?

     There is no set rule as to how soon you should bring your monster center-stage front, but in nearly all of the best horror fiction, an aura of menace and potential danger is established right away; the monster is not introduced until much later, allowing you to provide tension and suspense for your readers as they nervously await meeting your menace at full force. The actions of the monster can and should be dramatized early; a murder, or a scene during which the effect of the monster is shown without a full revelation of the creature itself.

William F. Nolan, How to Writ e Horror Fiction, 1990

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Mentally Unfit For The Classroom

     Ashley Barker started teaching first grade at the Laurel Elementary School in central Florida's Polk County in the fall of 2011. In November, just two months into her first year at the school, Barker began asking, through emails to her principal, for days off due to illness. At first Barker reported a problem with kidney stones, then later that month, informed the principal that she was undergoing a medical treatment for a cyst.

     In January 2012, Barker, via email, informed her boss that due to a brain infection, her body was shutting down. After reporting to the school that she was dying, and probably wouldn't make it through the night, Barker made a remarkable recovery.

     The elementary school teacher's next series of emails requesting paid sick leave involved the declining health of her father. According to Barker, her dad suffered from a heart problem that was life threatening. At one point she reported that he didn't have much time to live. By November 2012, Barker had sent 120 illness related emails to the principal who had authorized 35 days of paid sick leave.

     In January 2013, Barker reported to her principal that one of her fellow teachers had threatened to kill her. (The accused teacher strongly denied the charge.) A week after the accusation, Barker claimed that a man wearing a ski mask had threatened her life if she pursued the case against the other teacher. She said the masked man had ambushed her in the school parking lot.

     Detectives with the Polk County Sheriff's Office investigated Barker's accounts of the threat by the teacher and the masked man, and were unable to confirm, through other witnesses and various leads, that the crimes had taken place. In May 2013, when confronted by skeptical detectives, Barker confessed that she had made up the threats against her life. She also admitted that her requests for sick leave had been based on lies. She was never ill, and her father had not been dying of a bad heart. She had made these stories up to get out of work.

     The superintendent of the Polk County School District suspended Ashley Barker without pay. The school administrator also planned to recommend dismissal. Barker acquired an attorney and warned that if they fired her from the Laurel Elementary School, she would fight the dismissal in court.

      Ignoring the suspended teacher's threat to fight a dismissal, the school superintendent fired Ashley Barker.

The Cyntoia Brown Murder Case

     In 2004, in Nashville, Tennessee, 43-year-old pimp Johnny Allen turned a 14-year-old runaway named Cyntoia Brown into one of his working girls. The young prostitute's mother had allegedly consumed alcohol during her pregnancy which resulted in Cyntoia Brown's mental impairment. This made the girl particularly vulnerable to sex trade child abusers like Johnny Allen.

     One nightmare ended for Cyntoia Brown and another began when, in 2004, she killed her pimp by shooting him in the back of the head at close range. She had intended to rob him.

     The authorities, in 2006, tried Cyntoia Brown for first-degree murder as an adult. The jury rejected the defendant's claim of self-defense and found her guilty as charged. The trial judge sentenced the 16-year-old to 51 years to life in prison.

     In 2012, the United States Supreme Court ruled that states could not impose life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder.

     In January 2019, then Governor Bill Haslam granted Cyntoia Brown clemency. The move to commute her sentence was supported by a number of Hollywood celebrities who had taken up her cause.

     Cyntoia Brown, in August 2019, was released from prison after serving 15 years behind bars. As part of her release arrangement, she would be subjected to supervised parole. Given the circumstances of this case, the commutation of Cyntoia Brown did not create public outrage.

Criminal Intent

The acid test of murder is intention and what the law calls mens rea or guilty mind. Guilty intention is described as malice aforethought and it is this which distinguishes it from manslaughter. The classic definition of murder based on malice aforethought goes back to English Common Law and takes account of the age and mental status of the offender. This was set out by Lord Chief Justice Edward Coke (1552-1634) when he referred to "a man of sound memory and at the age of discretion." In practical terms, this meant an individual who was not insane and aged at least ten years.

Robin Odell, The Mammoth Book of Bizarre Crimes, 2010

Serial Killer Henry Lee Moore

Henry Lee Moore, between 1911 and 1912, was a traveling serial killer who murdered more that twenty-three people--entire families. But little is known about him--he is a mere footnote. In September 1911, using an axe, Moore killed six victims in Colorado Springs--a man, two women, and four children. In October [of that year] he killed three people in Monmouth, Illinois, and then slaughtered a family of five in Ellsworth, Kansas, the same month. In June 2012, he killed a couple in Paola, Kansas, and several days later he killed seven people, including four children, in Villisca, Iowa. Moore then returned home to Columbia, Missouri, where he murdered his mother and grandmother. At this point he was arrested and prosecuted in December 1912. [He was later hanged.]

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

Don't Call Me a Sci-Fi Writer

I don't think science fiction is a good name for it, but it's the name that we've got. It is different from other kinds of writing, I suppose, so it deserves a name of its own. But where I get prickly and combative is if I'm just called a sci-fi writer. I'm not. I'm a novelist and poet. Don't shove me into your damn pigeonhole, where I don't fit. My tentacles are coming out of the pigeonhole in all directions.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Paris Review, Fall 2013 

Writer Autobiographies: Fact or Fiction?

More than celebrated figures in other professions, the writers of imaginative literature have proved almost incapable of separating autobiographical fancy from fact. Mark Twain had a genius for embroidering, to say nothing of inventing the events of his life.

Richard D. Aftick, Loves and Letters, 1965 

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Christopher Hitchens On Assigning Culpability

In his brilliant book What is History?, Professor E. H. Carr asked about ultimate causation. Take the case of a man who drinks a bit too much, gets behind the wheel of a car with defective brakes, drives it around a blind corner, and hits another man who is crossing the street to buy cigarettes. Who is the one responsible? The man who had one drink too many, the lax inspector of brakes, the local authorities who didn't straighten out a dangerous bend, or the smoker who chose to dash across the road to satisfy his bad habit?

Christopher Hitchens, Hitch 22: A Memoir, 2010

Rape-Murder Cases

     Although the murder of a rape victim certainly may indicate hostile motivation, at least some such murders may be due to the simple fact that killing the victim greatly increases the rapist's chances of escaping punishment by removing the only witness to the rape. Rape-murders, however, are a very small percentage of all murders.

     Young women, highly overrepresented as rape victims, are also at the greatest risk of being killed by their assailants. Young women appear to resist rape more than females in other age groups. The strong sexual motivation of the rapist to rape a young victim, in combination with her greater resistance, may account for young women's overrepresentation in homicides with sexual assault.

Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer, Rape, 2000

Unreported Crime

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2018, only 43 percent of violent crimes were reported to the police. Only 33 percent of property crimes were reported. When politicians cite crime statistics, based entirely on reported offenses, they never mention this. More recently, the Defund the Police movement has shot the percentage of unreported crimes through the roof. Why report a crime when there's no one to report it to? Police layoffs due to vaccine mandates has exacerbated the problem.

No Taste for Crime Fiction

It is never very sensible to act as an evangelist for the detective story: if someone says, "I've never been able to acquire a taste for crime fiction--who do you recommend I try?" The sensible answer probably is: "Don't bother. If you have tried and you haven't responded, then probably the response isn't in you." It is a pity to have become so sophisticated in one's reading as to have lost the elementary response to fiction as a story.

Robert Barnard, A Talent to Deceive, 1990