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Friday, December 31, 2021

Death by Explosion

     If you [a scientist conducting experiments regarding the effects of explosions] want to stay up late worrying about lawsuits and bad publicity, explode a bomb near the body of someone who has willed his remains to science. This is perhaps the most firmly entrenched taboo of the cadaveric research world. Indeed, live, anesthetized animals have generally been considered preferable, as targets of explosions, to dead human beings. In a 1968 Defense Atomic Support Agency paper entitled "Estimates: Man's Tolerance to the Direct Effects of Air Blasts," i.e., from bombs--researchers discussed the effects of experimental explosions upon mice, hamsters, guinea pigs, rabbits, cats, dogs, goats, sheep, steers, pigs, burros, and stump-tailed macaques, but not upon the actual subject of inquiry. No one had ever used a cadaver…to see what might happen…

     Aris Makris, who works for a company in Canada…which engineers protective gear for people who clear land mines…says dead people aren't aways the best models for gauging living people's tolerance to explosive blasts because their lungs, which are deflated and not doing the things that lungs normally do. The shock wave from a bomb wreaks the most havoc on the body's most easily compressed tissue, and that is found in the lungs: specifically, the tiny, delicate air sacs where the blood picks up oxygen and drops off carbon dioxide. An explosion shock wave compresses and ruptures these sacs. Blood then seeps into the lungs and drowns their owner, sometimes quickly, in ten or twenty minutes, sometimes over a span of hours.

Mary Roach, Stiff, 2003

The Quote Editor

One time a newspaper sent us to a morgue to get a story on a woman whose body was being held for identification. A man believed to be her husband was brought in. Somebody pulled the sheet back; the man took one agonizing look, and cried, "My God, it's her!" When we reported this grim incident, the editor diligently changed it to "My God, it's she!"

E. B. White, The Second Tree From the Corner, 1954 

Barry Hannah On Booze

It's unfortunate that I learned something through booze. Everybody does, but ultimately on the level I was using, it was sickness. Jail, hospitals, DUIs. Briefly it worked, to be frank, but that was on three beers. If I were to appear on television today as a spokesperson for anti-alcohol, I'd say: Listen, if you need more than three beers, worry.

Barry Hannah, Paris Review, Winter 2004 

The Writer's Arrogance

The most helpful quality a writer can cultivate is self-confidence--arrogance, if you can manage it. You write to impose yourself on the world, and you have to believe in your own ability when the world shows no sign of agreeing with you.

Hilary Mantel, prize-winning English novelist and short story writer, 2002

Thursday, December 30, 2021

Keith Richards' Problem

I've never had a problem with drugs. I did have a problem with cops.

Keith Richards, 2000

Journalistic Interviewing

The secret to the art of journalistic interviewing--and it is an art--is to let the other person think he's interviewing you. You tell him about yourself, and slowly you spin your web so that he tells you everything.

Truman Capote in Conversations With Capote, edited by Lawrence Grobel, 1985

Dr. Watson

Dr. Watson in the Sherlock Holmes stories is the inviting voice of the entire series. He is intelligent, observant and faithful, the way we want doctors to be. He is also guileless and naive, where Holmes is neither, and that is the ultimate limitation in each mystery. But his lack of cunning is why we trust him--and why Holmes does, too.

Atul Gawande, The New York Times Book Review, October 26, 2014 

Writing For Children

Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time. You have to write up, not down.

E. B. White (1899-1985) American writer who was a longtime contributor to The New Yorker, wrote children's books, and with William Strunk Jr., the classic, The Elements of Style (1959) that is still in print.

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

The Compulsion to Confess

     Daniel Webster once observed that "the guilty soul cannot keep its own secret." Confession is the voice of conscience, and, as any police officer will tell you, men and women generally have a natural compulsion to confess: to tell their misdeeds, to take their punishment, and to move on, even though they may realize it is not in their interest to do so. Dr. Theodor Reik, in a series of lectures given to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Association first published in 1925 and fittingly called The Compulsion to Confess, discusses this special dilemma: "There is the endeavor to deflect any suspicion from himself, to efface all traces of the crime, and an impulse growing more and more intense suddenly to cry out his secret in the street before all people, or in milder cases, to confide it at least to one person, to free himself from the terrible burden."

     Of course, there are exceptions to this inner urge. There are persons without consciences to whom an armed robbery is no more significant than a sneeze or a cough. Hardened criminals and those schooled in the ways of the criminal justice system will usually successfully resist the temptation to bare all to the police although they often relieve their urge to confess by confiding in friends, casual acquaintances they meet in taverns, and cellmates. Indeed, law enforcement investigators are frequently able to solve crimes because they learn of these informal confessions.

Ralph Adam Fine, "The Urge to Confess," in Criminal Justice?, Robert James Bidinotto, ed, 1994 

Truman Capote's Friends

Truman Capote famously said, "Most people who become suddenly famous overnight will find that they lose practically eighty percent of their friends. Your old friends just can't stand it for some reason." It's funny that Mr. Capote thought he had friends.

Narrative History

Historians have always crafted narratives. War. Peace. Political battles. Feuds in the hollers. Floods on the Mississippi. Hurricanes. Strikes. Assassinations. Voyages to known and unknown places. Trials of the century. Personal quests. Leaders with uncommon touches and tragic flaws. This is the stuff of great narrative and the stuff of narrative history, stories about the past told with verve and drama but also with strong arguments and thick footnotes.

Lee Gutkind, Keep it Real, 2009 

Writing About Yourself

Some writers never write about themselves because they are private, or because they do not believe it is possible for one to say anything objectively truthful or valid about oneself.

Deena Metzger, Writing For Your Life, 1992 

Tuesday, December 28, 2021

Journalism and Dangerous Truth

Amity Schlaes, an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal, wrote an article in The Spectator in January 1994, describing the white middle class' fear of blacks after Colin Ferguson murdered six whites on a Long Island commuter train, and after a jury in Brooklyn acquitted a young black despite powerful evidence that he had murdered a white. She wrote that whites were frightened because Ferguson's "manic hostility to whites is shared by many of the city's non madmen." When copies of the article were circulated among Schlaes' colleagues at the Journal, she became an outcast. A number of her co-workers would get out of the elevator when she got on. People who had eaten with her in the staff cafeteria refused to sit at the same table. A delegation went to the office of the chairman of the company that owns the Journal. It did not matter that Schlaes had pointed out that minorities were the greatest victims of minority crimes, or that nobody could show that a single element of her article was untrue or inaccurate. "Her crime," wrote the then editor of The Spectator, Dominic Lawson, "was greater than being merely wrong. She had written the truth, regardless of the offense it might cause. And in modern America, or at least in the mainstream media, that is simply not done."

Robert H. Bork, Slouching Towards Gomorrah, 1996

The Spy Novel

     At their core, spy novels are about secrets. Secrets create power. Power determines how we live. That's a formula for fiction that matters--matters to us in this world where making sense of what's really going on turns out to be a lifelong endeavor, one that fiction lets us do from the safety of own sheltered lives.

     Spy novels remind us of our past and reflect our future. Alan Furst's WW II era novels bring to life heroic struggles of the "greatest generation," while novels written long before 9/11 by Tom Harris and Tom Clancy foreshadowed dramatic hijacked aircraft terrorist attacks targeting American civilians.

     In spy novels we are guaranteed a fictional journey in which something happens. A secret will be stolen or protected, a spy will be caught or escape, the conspiracy will triumph or be crushed. A spy novel can be set anywhere with as much action as you want--sabers in the courtyard or switchblades in the alley, snipers, runaway carriages, strangers on a train, parachuting commandos, car chases, kung fu, high-tech weaponry and low-minded thugs.

     Right versus wrong, good versus evil, the essential nature of power and politics, all that and more unfold is a safe, fictional package for us to enjoy.

James Grady, Parade, March 1, 2015 

Tolkien's Fantasy World

So many writers think fantasy is easy. All you have to do is rip off some elves, goblins, and a few other things from Tolkien and spend about 10 minutes making up imaginary words and another 10 minutes working up a rough idea of the country and a little local history and bingo, you're in business. You're a fantasist. It's not like that. What made Tolkien unique is that he spent 50 years building his world, and he built it from the inside out.

Peter S. Beagle in The Writer's Handbook, edited by Alfrieda Abbe, 2004 

Monday, December 27, 2021

Crime and Punishment

If he who breaks the law is not punished, he who obeys it is cheated. This, and this alone, is why lawbreakers ought to be punished: to authenticate as good, and to encourage as useful, law-abiding behavior. The aim of criminal law cannot be correction or deterrence; it can only be the maintenance of legal order.

Thomas Szasz (1920-2012) Hungarian-American academic, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst. 

The Reality of Fiction and Nonfiction

     I have long been intrigued by how often readers of fiction want to know which parts really happened to the author, whereas readers of nonfiction want to know which parts are made up. In both cases there is a vague implication that the authors are cheating.

     These seemingly paradoxical obsessions, I think, reflect a universal human desire to distinguish what's real, in order to make sense of potentially overwhelming sensory experience. The ultimate reality is that we can't truly distinguish what's "real" in our perceptions, any more than nonfiction authors can avoid shaping "reality" by the way they recount events or fiction writers can avoid drawing on personal experience when ostensibly making up stories.

Deborah Tannen, Professor of Linguistics at Georgetown University, 2013 

Beginning a Novel

     What follows is the process I use when I'm writing a novel. These are the essential steps that I've developed for myself over the creation of twelve books.

     I don't begin until I have an idea. But this idea is more than just a glimmer, more than a potentially evanescent wisp of inspiration. For me, what the idea is is a complete thought that contains one of three elements: the primary event that will get the ball rolling in the novel, the arc of the story containing the beginning, the middle, and the ending or an intriguing situation that immediately suggests a cast of characters in conflict. If I have one of those three elements, I have enough to begin.

Elizabeth George, Write Away, 2004 

Avoiding Writer's Block

I think writer's block is overrated. It is not about the work, but one's own attitude toward it. William Stafford, when asked what his advice was to someone who was blocked, said, "Lower your standards and keep on going." That's the single wisest thing ever said about this subject. And, again, it's why I advise students to learn to think only in terms of this day's work. Every good book, every bad book, and all the great books, too, were all written a little at a time. A day's work, over and over, for a period of months or years. If you concentrate on one day's work, putting in the time, there is no such thing as writer's block.

Richard Bausch in Novel Ideas, Barbara Shoup, editor, 2001 

Sunday, December 26, 2021

Courtroom Pseudoscience

The legal establishment has adjusted rules of evidence so that almost any self-styled scientist, no matter how strange or iconoclastic his views, will be welcome to testify in court. Junk science is impelled through the "let-it-all-in" legal theory. The incentive is money: the prospect that the Midas-like touch of a credulous jury will now and again transform scientific dust into gold. Ironically, the law's tolerance for pseudoscientific speculation has been rationalized in the name of science itself. The open-minded tradition of science demands that every claim be taken seriously, or at least that's what many judges have reasoned. Experienced lawyers now recognize that anything is possible in this kind of system.

Peter H. Huber, Galileo's Revenge: Junk Science in the Courtroom, 1991

Magical Thinking and the American Detective

     Successful criminal investigators are intelligent, analytical people who like to solve problems and get to the bottom of mysteries. They are also curious, competitive, and well-organized in their work habits. They are unafraid of complexity, pay attention to detail, are articulate, and can express themselves well on paper. Dedicated crime investigators are lifelong students of their craft, people who embrace new challenges and tough assignments. They are not only intelligent, they train themselves to think clearly, draw relevant conclusions, and keep personal bias out of their calculations. They are people of integrity and intellectual courage.

     The history of American criminal investigation shows that men and women who possess these qualities are few and far between, even in our top investigative agencies. And, unfortunately, there is no indication that this will change any time soon. In fact, criminal investigation, performed at the highest levels, may soon be a lost art, a dead profession. We are now living in a time when what is true and not true, what is fact and not fact, is irrelevant. Moreover, it's not what we know that counts, it's what we believe. America has become a land of magical thinkers, and magical thinking does not solve crimes.

The Fantasy Milieu

At the heart of most traditional fantasy milieu is a culture derived from that of the European Middle Ages, in large part the medieval societies of what are now Great Britain, France and Germany. The culture is a synthesis of both the Roman culture that dominated western Europe for some five centuries and of the Germanic culture that eventually overran and absorbed it. Three major institutions formed the basis of medieval society and dictated how most people lived. These were feudalism, manorialism and Christianity.

Michael J. Varbola in The Writer's Complete Fantasy Reference, edited by the editors of Writer's Digest Books, 1998 

The Invisible Hand

The heroic, rational, problem-solving engineer is a near-religious icon in the tech industry. But...the engineering mind-set led Facebook to develop a powerful surveillance system that tracks users to target them with ads, nudge them to stay online longer, prompt them to share more personal details and prod them to keep compulsively coming back...Evildoers--the dictators, the genocidal generals, the traffickers of political propaganda, the purveyors of false news--did not hijack Facebook. They simply used the platform as it was designed: to try to influence user behavior.

Natasha Singer, The New York Times Book Review, March 15, 2020

Friday, December 24, 2021

Using The Courtroom As a Forum

The courtroom is an ideal forum in which to radicalize people, to expose the government and so on. It's a battlefield. And it's a good battlefield. And it's one in which we have a forum. My people can't get on the floor of Congress. They can't get on the Supreme Court. They can't get in the oval office. But, by God, they have a spokesperson in that courtroom.

William M. Kunstler (1919-1995). A self-described "radical lawyer." 

Victim Studies

The study of the victim is called victimology because everything sounds better with an ology tacked on the end.

Ben Aaronovitch, 2011

First Drafts: The Ugly Truth

     First drafts, even pretty good ones, can be excruciatingly hard for anyone but their authors to read. What is going on? Is John talking to Mary, or is he talking to Bill? Are we in Iowa or Guatemala? Nothing is so infuriating as not being understood, but if a reader of good basic intelligence does not know what you are talking about, you have a problem. Don't rationalize it by blaming the messenger for the message. Your reader is not stupid. You are not being understood, and it is your problem.

     Sadly, your first readers may be reluctant to tell you the truth about your lack of clarity. It is a fact that many readers (especially in a school) will go to great lengths to conceal their bafflement over a piece of prose they don't understand. Rather than run the risk of being thought dense or uncomprehending or philistine, all too many readers, including many who should know better--editors, teachers, workshop members--would rather skip over an obscurity than admit they just don't get it.

Stephen Koch, Writer's Workshop, 2003

A Novelist's "Desk Job"

I try to work every day. I start around ten in the morning and write until dinnertime, most days. Sometimes it's not productive, and there's a lot of downtime. Sometimes I fall asleep in my chair, but I feel that if I'm in the room all day, something's going to get done. I treat it like a desk job.

Jeffrey Eugenides, Paris Review, Winter 2011 

Thursday, December 23, 2021

Misunderstanding Schizophrenia

The medical community's long misunderstanding of schizophrenia is largely a story of relentless failure, every theory proving more misguided than the last. Some experts championed shock therapy, others called for institutionalization; some psychotherapists saw madness as a metaphor and some doctors prescribed catatonia by tranquilizers. Perhaps most troubling of all, a generation of psychotherapists blamed the mother for causing the disease by either over-parenting or under-parenting.

Sam Dolnick, The New York Times Book Review, April 5, 2020

To Serve and Protect

Americans are accustomed to big government. They have accepted doing business with agencies many times the size of the typical police department. Yet, when it comes to the police, no citizen can accept an impersonal bureaucracy. Whether the officer dispatched on a frantic 911 call is a rural sheriff or a big-city policeman, the citizen in trouble expects effective, courageous, and, above all, human aid. In this, police departments are unique among government agencies. They may be the size of a small army, organized to fulfill many requirements and perform many functions, yet they must consistently present to the public a human face and an individual presence.

Alex Axelrod and Guy Antinozzi, The complete Idiot's Guide to Criminal Investigation, 2003

Fiction Is Art And Craft

There is a strange fallacy among laymen, as well as among writers who have yet not become commercially successful, to the effect that creative writing is an art, pure and simple, that it is in no way dependent upon or subservient to mechanics. By mechanics I mean specific procedures, methods, and acquired skills. Nothing could be further from the truth. Worthwhile writing is produced by an almost equal blend of mechanics and art.

Elwood Maren, Characters Make Your Story, 1942

Short Book, Long Title

Published in 2005, a 208-page collection of short stories edited by Eli Horowitz is entitled, Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs, And Some Other Things That Aren't As Scary, Maybe, Depending On How You Feel About Lost Lands, Stray Cellphones, Creatures From the Sky, Parents Who Disappear in Peru, A Man Named Lars Earf, And One Other Story We Couldn't Quite Finish, So Maybe You Could Help Us Out.

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Troy James Knapp: Utah's "Mountain Man Burglar"

     In 1986, when he was 28, Troy James Knapp went to prison in Kalamazoo, Michigan for burglary and related offenses. Knapp pleaded guilty to destroying property in 1994 while living in Salt Lake City. Two years later, police in Seattle arrested him on the charge of stalking and harassment. In 2002, after serving two years in a California prison for burglary, Knapp left the state in violation of his parole.

     In 2007, the wilderness survivalist (he survived on other people's stuff) lived in the mountains of southern Utah. In the summers he stole food and gear from cabins in Iron, Kane, and Garfield Counties, and moved from one campsite to the next. During the winter months Knapp lived in the cabins he burglarized in the summer. The owners would return to their seasonal dwellings to find bullet holes in the walls and doors. Knapp also left notes with messages like: "Pack up and leave. Get off my mountain." (If everyone had packed up and left, Knapp would have starved.)

     Between 2007 and 2013, prosecutors in Iron, Kane, and Garfield Counties charged Knapp with 13 felony burglary crimes and 5 misdemeanor offenses. Because of the remoteness of Knapp's break-ins and the fact he kept on the move, he had eluded capture for more than five years.

     In late February 2013, a man hunting with his son in Sanpete County crossed paths with Knapp about 125 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. Aware they had conversed with the mountain man burglar, the father notified the authorities.

     A few days after speaking with the hunters 9,000 feet up on a mountain near Ferron Reservoir in the central part of the state, forty police officers and a law enforcement helicopter closed in on the fugitive as he trudged through three feet of snow. After firing fifteen rifle shots at the helicopter, Knapp surrendered to the small army of approaching lawmen.

     When taken into custody, Knapp possessed an assault rifle and a handgun. He was booked into the Sanpete County Jail without bond. An Assistant United States Attorney in Utah charged Knapp with several federal firearms offenses.

     In April 2014, pursuant to an arranged plea bargain, Knapp pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court to the use of a firearm during a crime of violence. At his sentence hearing on June 9, 2014, federal court judge Ted Stewart handed down the mandatory minimum sentence of ten years in federal prison.

     Knapp's attorney, in addressing the court, said, "There's an admiration for somebody who chooses to live off the land, because he does it while the rest of us wouldn't. Even if he needs a little help from some cabin owners."

     Sanpete County prosecutor Brody Keisel had a different take on the case. He told reporters after the federal sentencing that Knapp was nothing more than a "common crook." 


     Burglars are the cowards of the underworld. They sneak around hotels, apartment houses and homes in the suburbs like cockroaches in the night, nibbling quietly at private wealth, and scattering into the dark at the slightest disturbance. They are the bugs of the underworld, ever fearful of being snuffed out by the police officer's service pistol or the homeowner's unregistered shotgun.

     But this cowardice pays off. It puts the criminal on the very cautious side of the crime business and reduces the possibility of eyewitnesses to the crime. The one drawback is that the burglar must later deal with a fence, since most burglaries yield merchandise rather than currency. But it is a price that burglars are prepared to pay in return for the practice of what they regard as a trade considerably less risky than armed robbery, where the yield is usually cash. Most burglars do not carry a dangerous weapon.

Thomas Plate, Crime Pays, 1975

No Light at the End of the Tunnel

That's the thing about depression: a human being can survive almost anything, as long as she sees the end in sight. But depression is so insidious, and it compounds daily, that it's impossible to even see the end.

Elizabeth Wurtzel (1968-2020), Prozac Nation, 1994. 

Stephen King Doesn't Plot

     In my view, stories and novels consist of three parts: narration, which moves the story from point A to point B and finally to point Z; description, which creates a sensory reality for the reader; and dialogue, which brings characters to life through their speech.

     You may wonder where plot is in all of this. The answer--my answer, anyway--is nowhere. I won't try to convince you that I've never plotted any more than I'd try to convince you that I've never told a lie, but I do both as infrequently as possible. I distrust plot for two reasons: first, because our lives are largely plotless, even when you add in all our reasonable precautions and careful planning; and second, because I believe plotting and the spontaneity of real creation aren't compatible. It's best that I be as clear about this as I can--I want you to understand that my basic belief about the making of stories is that they pretty much make themselves.

Stephen King, On Writing, 2000

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Pornography at Pasadena City College

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

     In 2005, the Internet professor review site Rate My Professor named Dr. Schwyzer one of the nation's top 50 "hottest professors." 

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

     New York Magazine, in 2009, published an article about Professor Schwyzer's decision in 2005, when he was 37, to undergo circumcision. 

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

     In Schwyzer's Pasadena apartment, he and the woman took drugs and had "desperately hot, desperately heartbreaking sex." Following the desperate, heartbreaking sex, the professor described what took place when the drunk and drug addled woman passed out: "I looked at her emaciated, broken body that I loved so much. I looked at my own, studying some of my more recent scars. (I'd had a binge of self-mutilation earlier in the week, and had cigarette burns on both arms and my torso.) " 

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

     According to Schwyzer's story, he turned on the gas in his oven, aimed the toxic flow at his unconscious ex-girlfriend, drank more alcohol, swallowed more pills, then stretched out next to her body expecting to accompany the poor woman into eternity. Because the gas fumes failed to do the job, the ex-girlfriend survived the attempted mercy killing. 

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

     Another Dr. Schwyzer Rate My Professor reviewer wrote: "....the stories he tells is like incredibly fascinating...."

     Under the auspices of his spring 2013 class, Navigating Pornography, Dr. Schwyzer invited the "award-winning" porn actor, James Deen to speak to PCC students and members of the general public. Deen, a PCC alumnus had 1,300 porn flick performances under his belt including hits like "Atomic Vixens," and "Batman XXX." Deen's February 26, 2013 appearance at the college would, according to the actor, educate students about human sexuality and portray porn acting as a legitimate profession. 

     James Deen hoped that his presentation would empower students to make their own decisions. "This is an opportunity for people who want to ask questions and talk openly about sexuality." 

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

     In responding to his diminished role as a classroom lecturer, James Deen told reporters that "sex is not a dirty, disgusting thing. I feel a little persecuted and singled out." 

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

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

     In October 2018, Dr. Schwyzer was working at a Trader Joe's grocery store in southern California.

The History Of Private Security

Although America inherited the historic English tradition of citizens individually and collectively protecting self and neighborhood, this concept slowly moved to the background in the nineteenth century with the formation of public police departments. But when crime rates were rising in America during the late 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, citizens and commerce tried once again to develop their own ways to feel safer and protect their assets. Institutions created internal security measures or hired outside personnel and consultants. Individuals, organizations, and business proprietors spent money on a wide variety of security products and services. 

Henry Ruth and Kevin R. Reitz, The Challenge of Crime, 2003

"To Kill a Mockingbird"

The story of an innocent black man bravely defended by a white lawyer in the 1930's fascinated millions of readers, despite its uncomfortable exploration of false accusations of rape involving a white woman. Harper Lee's endearing characters, Atticus Finch and his precocious daughter, Scout, captivated readers while confronting them with some of the realities of race and justice in the south. A generation of future lawyers grew up hoping to become the courageous Atticus, who at one point arms himself to protect the defenseless black suspect from an angry mob of white men looking to lynch him.

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

Horror Fiction Transcending Genre

It seems to me that horror, as I'm trying to write it, actually encompasses everything I want to write. But on the other hand, if a theme comes along and takes the book in a different direction that turns out not to be horror, then that's fine. Horror fiction, particularly supernatural horror fiction, came out of the mainstream. There's hardly a major writer of short fiction who hasn't written a ghost story at some stage, and often that may be what they are mostly remembered for…What has happened is that books have been packaged by publishers into genres and it is this which has caused the split between mainstream and horror fiction. Obviously there is some fiction which is pure horror, and there's nothing wrong with a story that sets out to do nothing but frighten the reader any more than there's nothing wrong with a comedy which sets out to be nothing but funny or a romance that sets out to do nothing but make you take out your box of tissue. At the same time, I think that horror fiction is often much more than that, and that's certainly the kind I've always tried to write.

Ramsey Campbell in How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction, edited by J. N. Williamson, 1991 

Monday, December 20, 2021

Serial Killer And Rapist Joseph Naso

     On April 11, 2011, police officers in Reno, Nevada arrested 77-year-old Joseph Naso on four first-degree murder charges filed against him in Marin County California. The former commercial photographer stood accused of raping and murdering four Bay Area prostitutes between 1977 and 1994. The victims, Roxene Roggasch, Carmen Colen, Pamela Parsons, and Tracy Tafoya ranged in age from 18 to 38, and each had first and last names that began with the same letter.

     Forensic scientists had connected Naso to two of the victims through DNA. A search of his house produced several nude photographs of women who appeared unconscious or dead. Police officers also found a so-called "rape diary" containing narrative accounts of women and girls who had been picked up and raped. The murder suspect's house was also littered with female mannequin parts and women's lingerie. In Naso's safety deposit box, searchers found a passport bearing the name Sara Dylan. (A skull, found years earlier in Nevada, matched Dylan's mother's DNA.) Naso's safety deposit box also contained $152,400 in cash.

     The Joseph Naso serial murder trial got underway in San Rafael California in June 2013. The prosecutor, in her opening statement to the jury, said the state would prove that Naso had drugged, raped, and photographed the four victims. He strangled them to death, then dumped their nude bodies in remote areas in northern California.

     Naso, who represented himself at the trial, told the jury that he was not the monster the prosecution was trying to make him out to be. The defendant said the nude women he had photographed had been willing models. "I don't kill people, and there's no evidence of that in my writings and photography."

     Following two months of evidence that featured the defendant's rape diary, the nude photographs, and the DNA evidence linking Naso to two of the murder victims, the case went to the jury. During the trial, Naso, as his own attorney, made a courtroom fool of himself and tried the patience of the judge. On August 19, 2013, after deliberating seven hours over a period of two days, the jury found the defendant guilty of the four counts of first-degree murder. The verdict also included a finding of special circumstances that made Naso eligible for the death penalty.

     While the jury recommended the death penalty in the Naso case, there was no chance the state would put him to death. In 2006 a federal judge had put California's executions on hold until the state modified its execution protocols. That has not been done. Naso would join 725 inmates on California's death row. While some politicians and judges threw roadblocks in the path of the state's death penalty procedure, juries in California continue to imposed the death sentence.

     Homicide investigators believed that Naso had raped and murdered three 11-year-old girls between 1971 and 1973 in Rochester, New York. Naso had been living in the city when these murders occurred. These victims also had first and last names that began with the same letter. One of the girls, Carmen Colon, had the same name of one of the women Naso killed in California. Detectives also believed that Joseph Naso had murdered at least ten other women. Naso, following the verdict, insisted that he had not raped or killed anyone.

Mass Murderers

     There are two kinds of mass murderers. There are the kind who go to a public or semipublic place (like a business or a school) and open fire, for example. These types are making a statement, a statement that is so important to them, has taken on such significance in their lives to get the point across...

     If the crime is committed in private, or away from witnesses, on the other hand, there is more chance the killer is thinking about getting away...

John Douglas and Mark Olshaker, The Anatomy of Motive, 1999

Throwing In The Towel

Nothing more horrible, no failure of nerve more acute, than to be a novelist and not write, to never write, perhaps to stop, to decide to stop, not to hope for writing or want it, to let go of writing, to swear it off like drugs or sex with the wrong person, or some other terrible compulsion that will finally tear one apart. The writer not writing is a wholly guilty party, like someone who through anger or neglect has killed off his own life's mate, counterpart, reason to live.

Jayne Anne Phillips in Eleventh Draft, edited by Frank Conroy, 1999

Creating Characters Through Dialogue

We introduce our characters to our readers through dialogue. Dialogue combined with facial expression and body language indicates to readers who our characters are. In real life, this is how we get to know one another. We start interacting. Sometimes this goes well, sometimes it doesn't. Through dialogue, we decide if we like someone or not. This is also how our readers decide if they like our characters. As they listen to them and watch them interact with each other, they decide if these are good guys or bad guys or a combination. It's in our power to evoke positive or negative feelings in our readers for our characters through the dialogue we create for them.

Gloria Kempton, Dialogue, 2004 

True Crime Writing

True crime stories must be post-trial, with the perpetrators convicted and sentenced at the conclusion…Use active writing, avoid passive constructions. Remember that detectives probe, dig up, determine, deduce, seek out, ascertain, discover, hunt, root out, delve, uncover, track, trace, and inspect. They also canvass, inquire, question, and quiz.

Jim Thompson in Savage Art by Robert Polito, 1995

Sunday, December 19, 2021

A Senseless Murder And Double Suicide

     Nickie Ann Circelli and her husband Sal were divorced in 2010. Due to years of drug abuse, the 36-year-old lifelong resident of Suffern, New York, lost custody of her four children. That year, police in the town of 12,000 in the foothills of Ramapo Mountains, arrested Nickie and a man named Michael Chase in connection with the theft of $4,800 worth of power tools from trucks in a Home Depot parking lot. She pleaded guilty and spent a few months in jail.

     Nickie Circelli moved in with her mother when released from jail.  But when her mother died in 2013, Nickie took up residence with her 70-year-old uncle, William Valenti. Mr. Valenti owned a house in Suffern.

     Another local drug addict, 40-year-old Gary Crockett, had also moved into "Uncle Bill's" house. For 19 years, Gary had worked at the Mahwah Warehouse and Delivery Company in Mahwah, New Jersey. But a year earlier he quit his job after having an argument with the co-owner. Crockett didn't like being criticized for "moving too slowly." At the time, Crockett was living in an apartment above the Suffern Furniture Gallery.

     Circelli and Crockett, while residing under Mr. Valenti's roof, had been passing forged checks to withdraw small sums of money from his bank account. Mr. Valenti gave the couple a deadline to pay back the $1,500 they had stolen. If they didn't return his money, he threatened to report them to the police.

     On Monday morning, April 28, 2014, during an argument over the stolen money, Gary Crockett murdered William Valenti. The Rockland County Medical Examiner determined that the victim had died of suffocation. His body was discovered in his bed.

     Following the murder, the couple took the dead man's Chevrolet Malibu and drove it to the Bronx, New York. They parked the vehicle and walked to the George Washington Bridge. Just before noon, about half way across the span, Nickie Circelli and Gary Crockett jumped to their deaths.

     At the Suffern murder scene, investigators found two suicide notes signed by Circelli under her maiden name, Hunt. In the note addressed to her family, Circelli wrote: "To the four most amazing kids who the world has ever seen and ever will. I beg you to remember the Nickie that I used to be, before I was introduced to heroin."

     The second suicide note read: "I know that I'm taking the cowardly way out. I just don't want to hurt people anymore. Anything that goes into the paper, please make sure my last name is Hunt; I don't want to hurt my kids anymore than I already have." 

The Mind of a Serial Killer

After speaking at length to more than eighty [serial killers], I have found that serial murderers do not relate to others on any level that you would expect one person to relate to another. They can play roles beautifully, create complex, earnest, performances to which no Hollywood Oscar winner could hold a candle. They can mimic anything. They can appear to be complete and whole human beings, and in some cases are seen to be pillars of society. But they're missing a very essential core of human relatedness. For them, killing is nothing, nothing at all. Serial murderers have no emotional connection to their victims. That's probably the most chilling part of it. Not only do they not care, but they also have no ability to care.

Dr. Helen Morrison, My Life Among the Serial Killers, 2004


The minute you read something you can't understand, you can almost be sure it was drawn up by a lawyer.

Will Rogers in The Law is An Ass, Ronald Irving, editor, 2011

Writing Styles

     When I speak of good, clean prose, of grammatically correct phrasing, I'm talking about writing that has no redundancies and no awkward, self-conscious parts. You're carried forward by the lilt of the writer's style where words and phrases have purpose, and where the music of words will create a harmony of word sounds. In simple writer-editor language, writing such as this "works."

     But remember, it's style you're really considering, and you don't want to get bogged down in a maze of rules and procedures. Your individuality makes itself known through your style, and sometimes the techniques that don't work for one writer might work for another.

William Noble, Noble's Book of Writing Blunders, 2006

Humorous Dialogue

Wordplay itself is not usually funny, only clever, unless it is attached to some other psychological force in the narrative…Most of the humor I'm interested in has to do with awkwardness: the makeshift theater that springs up between people at really awkward times…Bad jokes may be an expression of that awkwardness, without being inherently funny themselves. Of course, in including humor in a narrative a writer isn't doing anything especially artificial. Humor is just part of the texture of human conversation and life. In real life people are always funny. [Example: In an episode of the British TV crime series "DCI Banks" a male detective is surprised to find one of his female colleagues smoking outside the police station. "You're smoking," he says. " You're not so bad yourself," she replies.]

Lorrie Moore, The Paris Review, Spring/Summer 2001 

The Stupid Protagonist

To be real, your romance novel characters have to be imperfect. They must have problems or no one will be interested in reading about them. But while heroes and heroines have almost certainly created some of their own problems, they can't have done so out of stupidity or shortsightedness, or readers will have trouble empathizing. There is usually a good motive--sometimes a noble one--for the actions that lead them into trouble. If for example, the heroine's credit cards are maxed, it's probably not because she has a closet full of clothes and shoes. She might, on the other hand, have been buying clothes and shoes for the occupants of a homeless shelter. If the hero's about to declare bankruptcy, it's not because he's been buying yachts and diamonds--but he might have been pouring money into a faltering business so his employees could continue to draw a paycheck. [Becoming poor to help the poor is stupid. Going broke and sticking creditors to keep people employed is not only stupid, it's unethical. In this example I don't like the hero or the heroine.]

Leigh Michaels, On Writing Romance, 2007 

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Disarming Citizens

After a shooting spree, they always want to take the guns away from the people who didn't do it. I sure as hell wouldn't want to live in a society where the only people allowed to have guns are the police and the military.

William S. Burroughs (1914-1997) Beat Generation poet 

Gore Vidal's Dystopian Prediction

In essence, President Bill Clinton's Anti-Terrorism Act would set up a national police force, over the long-dead bodies of the founders. [Mr. Gore may have been right.]

Gore Vidal (1925-2012) novelist, screenwriter, journalist

No Exclamation Points!!

Cut out all these exclamation points. An explanation point is like laughing at your own joke.

F. Scott Fitzgerald (1896-1940) novelist, short story writer

Pompous, Self-Important Writing

     Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon...

     The secret of good writing is to strip every sentence to its cleanest components. Every word that serves no function, every long word that could be a short word, every adverb that carries the same meaning that's already in the verb, every passive construction that leaves the reader unsure of who is doing what--these are the thousand and one adulterants that weaken the strength of a sentence. And they usually occur in proportion to education and rank. [In other words, college professors are the worst.]

William Zinsser, On Writing Well, originally published in 1975

Fiction and Creative Nonfiction

Nonfiction has many of the same requirements as fiction: opening hooks baited to entice readers; personalities and settings developed appropriately; background material presented without dumping; and consistent internal logic. In fact, nonfiction's familiar traits--who, what, where, when, why, and how--translate easily into character, setting, motivation, and problem-solving action.

Carol Ottolenghi-Barga, sfwa.org, 2001 

Friday, December 17, 2021

Online Detectives

Since the era of Sherlock Holmes, private detectives had long been able to influence cases on their own. But online detectives, who had no sort of professional training or even long practice, is a purely modern phenomenon. The Internet changed everything by letting anyone become a self-appointed "expert" on a case.

Michelle Dean, Canadian journalist. 2004

"Junk Fiction"

The garden-variety novel is quite easy to create, and that, of course, is the reason so many people can write them, especially formula fiction such as murder mysteries, second-rate horror and science fiction, and romance novels. I once had a student who made a decent living writing romance novels, and she explained the very strict rules of plotting and characterization required by her publisher; readers of those kinds of novels, she informed me, whip through three a day (one after breakfast, another in the afternoon, and a third before going to bed) since the boilerplate for the stories varies little from book to book. John Gardner [The Art of Fiction] once wrote that in order to write good junk fiction, one has to have a good junk mind. My friend the writer Fred Pfeil (author of Goodman 2020) once referred to novels of this kind as "industrial fiction." As I've noted before, this kind of writing pays a publisher's electric bills and helps writers put their kids through school, so it does have some value.

Charles Johnson, The Way of the Writer: Reflections on the Art and Craft of Storytelling, 2016

Living to Write

If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster.

Issac Asimov (1920-1992) writer of science fiction and popular science books

The Historian as Detective

In history, one gathers clues like a detective, tries to present an honest account of what most likely happened, and writes a narrative according to what we know and, where we aren't absolutely sure, what might be the most likely to have happened, within the generally accepted rules of evidence and sources.

Victor David Hanson, military historian, author, Hoover Institute Fellow, 2000

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Pedophile Priest William Cloutier

     After a 13-year-old boy reported in 1979 that a priest raped and threatened him at gunpoint to keep quiet, the Archdiocese of Chicago assured the boy's parents that, although the cleric avoided prosecution, he would receive treatment and have no further contact with minors.

     But the Reverend William Cloutier, who already had been accused of molesting other children, was returned to the ministry a year later and went on to abuse again before he resigned in 1993, two years after the boy's parents filed a lawsuit. Officials took no action against Cloutier over his earlier transgressions because he "sounded repentant," according to internal archdiocese documents released January 21, 2014 that showed how the archdiocese tried to contain a mounting scandal over child sexual abuse.

     For decades, those at the highest levels of the nation's third largest archdiocese moved accused priests from parish to parish while hiding the clerics' histories from the public.

The Associated Press, January 21, 2014 

Life in the Morgue

At the morgue, people were so desensitized that they would eat lunch in the glass walled room adjacent to the autopsy room. A viewing room. Because it had the best air-conditioning in the building. So they would eat in there and maybe somebody would come in who had been found after being dead for three days and they would say: that is the exact purple I want for those drapes in the study. They didn't miss a beat. They could eat through anything.

David Sedaris, journalist, 2010

On Being a Forensic Pathologist

Mine is a gruesome job, but for a scientist with a love for the mechanics of the human body, a great one.

Judy Melinek, Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner, 2014

The Unafraid Writer

What's satisfying about being a writer is being able to say the thing that a lot of people are thinking but are afraid to say, or can't articulate.

Meghan Daum, author of The Problem of Everything: My Journey Through the New Cultural Wars, 2019

University Produced Writers

Everywhere I go, I am asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that it doesn't stifle enough of them.

Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964) novelist, short story writer, essayist

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

Living On The Street

One-fifth of America's 1.7 homeless population suffer from untreated schizophrenia or manic depressive disorder. That amounts to 385,000 people. There are more seriously mentally ill individuals living on the street than the 90,000 receiving care in psychiatric facilities. 

Silence is Golden

They say a lot of people have a great fear of public speaking. Yet everywhere you look someone is giving a speech, and a lot of these speakers are boring as hell and don't know what they're talking about. In academia, speeches are often referred to as "talks" or "presentations." If you think that attending an academic presentation is bad, try listening to some political hack reveal how he or she will save the world. And perhaps even worse is sitting in a bookstore listening to an author read passages from his newest novel. What idiot came up with the idea of the public book reading. In a perfect world, everyone would suffer from a debilitating fear of public speaking. The silence would be golden.

Write, Don't Whine

Writing is work. It's also gambling. You don't get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but essentially you're on your own. Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don't whine.

Margaret Atwood, Canadian novelist, short story writer, poet, 2000

Good Fiction is Drama

Many students in fiction workshops have trouble understanding how important it is to dramatize as much of their material as possible; they'd much rather tell the reader about what happened than show it. I've never understood why this is so; perhaps it's only that they resist the notion of "being dramatic" and therefore corny.

Martin Russ, Showdown Semester, 1980 

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

The Abduction Hoax

     At eleven-thirty on Monday night, December 16, 2019, 16-year-old Karol Sanchez and her 32-year-old mother, Carmen Sanchez, were walking on Eagle Avenue near East 156th Street in the Bronx, New York. Mother and daughter, from upstate New York, were in the Bronx visiting relatives. As they walked along the street, a beige colored sedan pulled up beside them, two men jumped out, pushed Carmen Sanchez to the sidewalk, and drove off with her daughter. "Oh my God!" Carmen Sanchez screamed, "my daughter, my daughter!"

     The terrified mother ran into a nearby deli for help. "Oh my God!" she screamed, "Help! Help! They took her!"

     Someone in the deli called 911. After reviewing a surveillance camera video of the abduction, the police issued a statewide Amber Alert for the 16-year-old girl. The two men who grabbed Karol Sanchez were black men in their early twenties. Two men remained in the vehicle. The distraught mother told detectives that she planned to move back to Honduras with her daughter. Her daughter, however, did not want to move because she didn't want to leave her boyfriend.

     The following morning, New York City police officers posted photographs of the missing girl around the city. That Tuesday afternoon, Carmen Sanchez received a mysterious call from a man who said, "We got the wrong girl."

     Shortly after that phone call, Karol Sanchez, not far from where she had been taken from her mother, walked up to a pair of New York City police officers sitting in a squad car. The officers recognized her from her missing persons photograph. The girl was trembling and looked frightened.

     At the 40th Precinct station house, Karol Sanchez informed detectives that the abduction was a hoax, one that she had helped orchestrate in order to see her boyfriend, a Crips gangbanger who had once been arrested for murder.

     According to reports, the authorities had no plans to charge Karol Sanchez with a crime. 

The Power of Juries

If the jury feels the law is unjust, we recognize the undisputed power of the jury to acquit, even if its verdict is contrary to the law as given by a judge, and contrary to the evidence. If the jury feels that the law under which the defendant is accused is unjust, or that exigent circumstances justified the actions of the accused, or for any reason which appeals to their logic or passion, the jury has the power to acquit, and the courts must abide by that decision.

United States v. Moylan, 1969 (4th Circuit Court of Appeals)

Clear and Simple Writing

I have deliberately cultivated a simple and even colloquial style...In the past, virtually all writing was ornate. Read a Victorian novel, for instance. Read even Dickens, the best of all the Victorians. It is only comparatively recently that writing has, in the hands of some writers, become simple and clear...But how does one go about writing clearly? I don't know. I presume you have to start with an orderly mind and a knack for marshaling thoughts so that you know exactly what you want to say. Beyond that, I am helpless.

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992), I. Asimov: A Memoir, 1994    

The Novel as an Invention

Writing nonfiction is like carving a rock. It sits there. It's hard. It's big. And you whittle away at something concrete. Writing fiction is like pulling things out of the air. Nothing is there but invention. It's disconcerting, thrilling.

Marie Arana in Off the Page, Carole Burns, editor, 2008 

George Orwell

When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, "I am going to produce a work of art." I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing.

George Orwell (1903-1950) English novelist and essayist (real name Eric Blair) whose 1949 classic 1984 predicted a dystopian surveillance state where everyone is watched by "Big Brother". Many believe his prediction is coming true.

Monday, December 13, 2021

The Anti-Cop Hoax

     On Saturday, December 28, 2019, a police officer with the Herington, Kansas Police Department ordered a cup of coffee from the drive-through at a McDonald's in nearby Junction City. As the officer drove off with his coffee, he noticed that a McDonald's employee had written "f--ing pig" on the cup. The officer reported the incident to Chief of Police Brian Hornaday who posted the story, along with a photograph of the cup, on FaceBook. In a matter of hours the posting went viral and became a national story.

     Chief Hornaday, on Monday, December 30, 2019, held a press conference to announce that the officer had fabricated the McDonald's coffee cup story as a joke. The chief called the hoax a "black eye on the law enforcement community," and announced that the officer was no longer employed with the police department.

Citizens Have Lost Control of Criminal Justice

Under three percent of federal crime convictions and resulting sentences are the product of jury trials. That means that 97 percent of criminal sentences have been pleaded down to lesser offenses and shorter sentences. In the state courts, even fewer convictions involve juries. Our founding fathers created the jury system to involve citizens in the criminal justice process. Now the system is almost entirely controlled by prosecutors who have taken juries and judges out of the trial and sentencing process. 

The Self-Absorbed Writer

     Not everything that happens to you can or needs to be fictionalized. It's unhealthy and a little creepy for one to think of everything that happens as possible fodder for one's fiction. That kind of attitude can lead to some pretty serious self-absorption. Unfortunately, we've met writers or artists who seem to view themselves as little gods who breathe more rarefied air than the rest of us mortals. After a traumatic event, the last thing one should be thinking about is one's fiction.

     Some people think of writing as therapeutic. Maybe on some level it is, but if you need therapy, see a therapist. Writing, if anything, will make you more neurotic. [One author, when her publisher announced that the release of her book would be delayed a few days asked her social media followers to pray for her. It doesn't get more self-absorbed than than that.]

Robin Hemley, Turning Life into Fiction, 1994 

The Horse Nearing the Barn Syndrome

One of the main pitfalls to avoid when writing your novel's ending is what I call The Horse Nearing the Barn Syndrome. Writing fiction is satisfying but hard work, and the tendency is to hurry things along when you know you're approaching the end. You want that feeling of accomplishment, and the sooner you type "The End" the sooner you will experience it. But you haven't done your job if the reader senses this impatience in the work. The story's pacing should remain firmly under your control, so that the ending seems a natural outcome of what went before. No inconsistency should jar the reader from your fictional world, or put him or her outside the story looking in, rather than experiencing on a vicarious level what your characters are experiencing. It's comforting to know the reader's cooperating with you in achieving this mesmerizing effect. Even rooting for you. Nobody begins reading a novel wanting to be disappointed.

John Lutz in Writing Mysteries, Sue Grafton, editor, 2001 

Here's to the Literary Neurotic

The good writing of any age has always been the product of someone's neurosis, and we would have mighty dull literature if all the writers that came along were a bunch of happy chuckleheads.

William Styron (1925-2006) novelist who suffered from depression

Sunday, December 12, 2021

The Effect of DNA Technology on Forensic Science

Forensic science was facing a sudden reckoning. The advent of DNA analysis in the late 1980s had not only transformed the future of criminal investigation; it also illuminated the past, holding old convictions, and the forensic work that helped win them, up to scrutiny. Rather than affirming the soundness of forensic science, DNA testing exposed its weaknesses. Of the 250 DNA exonerations that occurred by 2010 throughout the United States, shoddy forensic work--which ranged from making basic crime lab errors to advancing claims unsupported by science--had contributed to half of them, according to a review by the Innocence Project. The sheer number of people who were imprisoned using faulty science called into the question the premise of forensics itself.

Pamela Colloff, Blood Will Tell, 2018

The Words of Serial Killer Carl Panzram

I have no desire whatsoever to reform myself. My only desire is to reform people who try to reform me, and I believe the only way to reform people is to kill them. My motto is: Rob 'em all, rape 'em all, and kill 'em all.

Carl Panzram The serial killer was hanged in 1930 for raping and killing 22 boys and men.

The Novel That Inspired The Murder Of John Lennon

At his 1981 sentencing hearing, after being convicted of murdering John Lennon, Mark David Chapman read aloud from J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye: "I'm standing at the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over...I'm just the catcher in the rye and all."  Chapman had been reading the novel just before he shot Lennon to death in front of the musician's apartment building in Manhattan. The insane killer believed this passage from the novel justified the cold-blooded murder. This wasn't the first, nor the last work of fiction to inspire a real life killing. 

Hard Science Fiction

Arthur C. Clarke was a scientist, and his work sits squarely in the tradition of "hard SF"--a largely detestable term, but we're stuck with it--which is to say, science fiction with one eye on strict scientific plausibility. Much hard science fiction is stylistically dry, with little concern for character or what one might consider the finer literary virtues. There was rather more to Clarke than mere nuts and bolts descriptions, though. On a good day, he could rise to the genuinely poetic.

Alstair Reynolds, "The City and the Stars by Arthur C. Clarke," theguardian.com, May 14, 2011 

The Bad Novel

A good novel novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.

G. K. Chesterson (1874-1936) English mystery writer and literary critic

Saturday, December 11, 2021

Weapons Of Personal Destruction

Two-thirds of criminal homicides in the United States involve handguns. Knives come in second as the weapon of choice, accounting for about 14 percent of all homicidal deaths. Blunt objects such as hammers, clubs, tire irons, candle holders, rocks, and baseball bats come in third at about five percent. That leaves hands, feet, rifles, shotguns, stairways, cliffs, ropes, belts, ice picks, pillows, poisons, water, vehicles, and matches. Modes of murder far outnumber its motives.

The Pedophile's Insatiable Appetite For Victims

In all the interviews I have done, I cannot remember one [pedophile] who did not admit privately to more victims than those for whom he had been caught. On the contrary, most pedophiles had been charged with and/or convicted of from one to three victims. In the interviews I have done, they have admitted to roughly 10 to 1,250 victims. What was truly frightening was that all of the offenders had been reported by children, and the reports had been ignored.

Anna Salter, Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, and Other Sex Offenders, 2004

The Stupid Protagonist

The protagonist, who is home alone with a bad cold, hears a rustling sound from the lower floor and, instead of calling 911 or acting logically to the danger, sets off to investigate the darkened basement with a butcher knife. At this point, your reader starts groaning out loud. Don't send your character into danger without a thought to the consequences; instead, make certain that she takes appropriate action. Perhaps she attempts to dial for help, but discovers that the criminal has cut the phone wires. Or, she can attempt to escape, but then suddenly he's looming at the door, blocking her way. The lesson here is that when the going gets tough, a protagonist fights back to the best of her ability.

Jessica Page Morrell, Between the Lines, 2006 

Thinking About Killing People

There are two kinds of people who sit around all day thinking about killing people--mystery writers and serial killers. I'm the kind that pays better.

Richard Castle, mystery writer, 2003

The Writer in Russia

To put it in plain language, Russia is that country where the name of a writer appears not on the cover of his book, but the door of his prison cell.

Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996) Russian-American poet, essayist

Friday, December 10, 2021

Encouraging Crime

Putting criminals first is fashionable these days, and the notion of community safety, or even adherence to the law, is secondary. Judges should give the community's safety equal weight with that of a defendant's desire to avoid a stint in jail while awaiting trial.

Boston Herald editorial staff, December 7, 2019

Evil Knievel On Bad People

Prison was tough on me. I saw people in prison that made me ashamed I was a human being. Some made Qaddafi and Idi Amin look like Sunday school teachers.

Evel Knievel (1938-2007) professional daredevil

Good Advice

My most important piece of advice to all young would-be writers: When you write, try to leave out all the parts readers skip.

Elmore Leonard, "Elmore Leonard's 10 Rules of Writing," The New York Times, 2013

Victims of True Crime TV

True crime media has a disproportionate influence over public opinion. Investigative documentaries, especially those that heavily imply a person's guilt or innocence, can easily convince viewers of their conclusions. This inadequately informed consensus can have disastrous consequences, such as waves of hate mail directed at unfortunate individuals linked to a crime investigation.

Rachel Chestnut, The New York Times, June 1, 2018

Readers Expect a Good Ending

People don't read books to get to the middle. They read to get to the end.

Mickey Spillane (1918-2006) hardboiled detective novelist 

Thursday, December 9, 2021

The Fotis Dulos Murder Case

     In 1989, Fotis Dulos graduated from Brown University with an applied mathematics-economics degree. He earned a MBA from Columbia Business School. By 2004, Dulos owned Fore Group, Inc., a construction company that built luxury homes in the affluent Farmington Valley and Fairfield County region of Connecticut. That year he married Jennifer Dulos whom he had met when they were students at Brown.

     In June 2017, Jennifer filed for divorce. She and Fotis were living in Farmington, Connecticut with their five children, ages 8 to 13. After she filed for divorce, Jennifer moved out of the house and took up residence with her children on Welles Lane in New Canaan, Connecticut.

     Jennifer Dulos, in her petition for full custody of the children, accused her estranged husband of having "revenge fantasies" and exhibiting "irrational, bullying, threatening and controlling behavior." The 48-year-old also claimed he had recently purchased a handgun.

     In a November 2017 court filing, Jennifer Dulos alleged that while Fotis was frequently flying to Europe with his 42-year-old girlfriend, Michelle Troconis, the family health insurance policy lapsed due to non-payment. When she complained to him that she couldn't take the children to the doctor, he told her to pay for health insurance out of her own pocket.

     In July 2018, in another divorce related court filing, Jennifer Dulos claimed that Fotis was telling people that because his construction company was losing money, he couldn't afford child support or medical insurance. At the time, he was taking long vacations with Michelle Troconis in Greece and Spain.

     On Friday, May 24, 2019, Jennifer Dulos drove her five children to school in her 2017 Chevrolet Suburban. She was recorded on a surveillance camera driving home from the school at 8:05 AM. After that, she dropped out of sight.

     At six o'clock that Friday evening, Jennifer's longtime nanny, Lauren Almeida, and Dulos' close friend Laurel Watts, had their text messages to her go immediately to her voicemail. When Almeida and Watts learned that Jennifer had missed a morning doctor's appointment in New York City, they reported her missing to the New Canaan Police Department.

     Lauren Almeida, two hours before reporting her employer missing, took the five Dulos children to their maternal grandmother's apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York.  When the nanny spoke to detectives with the New Canaan Police Department, she said that when her text message to Jennifer went directly to voicemail, and Jennifer missed the doctor's appointment, "My first thought was Fotis did something."

     The Dulos nanny told investigators that on the day Jennifer went missing, she arrived at the New Canaan house at 11:30 in the morning. It was then she found her employer's purse lying on the floor between the mudroom and the kitchen. A mug of tea and an unopened granola bar were on the kitchen counter.

     Police officers, a few hours after Jennifer Dulos' missing person report, found her Chevrolet Suburban abandoned in Waveny Park in New Canaan.

     On May 30, 2019, six days after Jennifer Dulos was last seen driving home after dropping her children off at school, crime scene technicians determined that someone had tried to clean blood off the floor of the missing woman's garage. Officers left the garage that day in possession of an ax.

     In Hartford, Connecticut, several surveillance cameras recorded images of a man meeting Fotis Dulos' description depositing trash bags from a truck into several dumpsters. Police officers recovered these trash bags and discovered they contained bloodstained household goods and clothing that belonged to Jennifer Dulos. At this point in the investigation, detectives were thinking that Jennifer Dulos had been murdered, and that her husband had something to do with it.

     On June 1, 2019, two members of the exclusive Windsor Rod and Gun Club in East Granby, Connecticut, contacted the police with intriguing information, a story they connected to the Jennifer Dulos missing persons case. Jay Lawlor and Lee McKay, while hunting on club grounds on May 18, 2019, six days before Jennifer Dulos went missing, came across a hole dug in the ground the shape and depth of a human grave. The hole was covered with barbecue grill gates and contained a blue tarp and two bags of lime.

     Four days after they discovered what they considered a grave waiting for a body, one of the club members returned to the site. The bags of lime were gone, and the hole was half-filled with rain water. Just before reporting the find, one of the men went back to the site again. This time the possible grave was filled in and covered with leaves and sticks in an effort to conceal it.

     The club members connected what they had found to the missing persons case through a local attorney and close Fotis Dulos friend, Kent Mahwhinney. Mr. Mahwhinney, years ago, had founded the Windsor Rod and Gun Club.

     On June 1, 2019, a forensic examination of the rod and gun club gravesite revealed that no one was buried there or had been buried there.

    Fotis Dulos' friend, Kent Mahwhinney, had recently been through a highly contentious divorce himself, and in that context, had been accused of abusive behavior. Investigators determined that on the day Jennifer Dulos went missing, Fotis had called his lawyer friend. When asked about this, Mahwhinney denied speaking to Dulos on May 24, 2019. The attorney claimed that on the day Jennifer Dulos disappeared, he had fallen and sustained a concussion. His cellphone couldn't be checked because it had broken in the fall and had been replaced.

     Detectives, on June 1, 2019, questioned the girlfriend, Michelle Troconis. She denied any knowledge of Jennifer Dulos' disappearance. She did say that on the day Jennifer went missing, Kent Mahwhinney was in Fotis Dulos's Farmington office-home.

     Fotis Dulos, the prime suspect in his wife's disappearance, told interrogators that he had no knowledge of how or why his wife dropped out of sight without notice. He said he had no idea where she had gone. The estranged husband also denied ever having bullied or threatened her.

     As the Jennifer Dulos investigation progressed, circumstantial evidence of foul play against her husband continued to build. A few days before she disappeared, Fotis had borrowed a truck from one of his employees. According to Michelle Troconis, now his ex-girlfriend, after Jennifer went missing Fotis had the truck cleaned "because the body of Jennifer was at some point in there."

     According to the employee who had lent Dulos the truck, when Fotis returned it, he asked him to replace the seats because he had spilled some coffee. Fotis also mentioned that because his wife had been in the truck, and they had hugged, traces of her hair might be on the seats. The owner of the truck installed new seats, but saved the old ones.

     Crime scene investigators, in the truck Fotis Dulos had borrowed from his employee, found traces of Jennifer Dulos' blood.

     In September 2019, a Fairfield County prosecutor charged Fotis Dulos and Michelle Troconis with tampering with or fabricating physical evidence, and hindering prosecution in relation to the Jennifer Dulos missing person case. They both pleaded not guilty, posted their bail, and were released from custody.

     The criminal investigation continued, and on Tuesday, January 7, 2020, the Fairfield County prosecutor, even though he didn't have a body, charged Fotis Dulos with capital murder, felony murder, and kidnapping. The magistrate set the suspect's bail at $6 million.

     The murder suspect's ex-girlfriend, Michelle Troconis, was charged with conspiracy to commit murder. Her bail was set at $1.5 million. The prosecutor also charged Dulos' friend, Kent Mahwhinney, with conspiracy to commit murder. His bail: $2 million.

     On January 9, 2020, Fotis Dulos posted his bail, was released to house arrest, and fitted with a GPS monitoring device. Michelle Troconis posted her bail pursuant to the same conditions. The judge also issued a protective order prohibiting Fotis Dulos from contacting his children or members of Jennifer Dulos' family. Since her disappearance, the children had been living with her mother in New York City.

     Following their client's release from custody, his attorneys floated the idea that Jennifer Dulos may have run off to punish her estranged husband like in the novel and film, "Gone Girl." Prosecutors and detectives were quite certain, however, based on the circumstantial evidence, that Jennifer Dulos had been murdered.

     On January 28, 2020, Fotis Dulos tried to kill himself by inhaling vehicle fumes. Two days later, he was taken off life support and died of carbon monoxide poisoning. 
     As of December 2021, Troconis and Mahwhinney have not been tried. Jennifer Dulos' body has not been recovered. 

The Insanity Plea

The insanity defense is used in less than 1 percent of a criminal trials, and has a success rate of 26 percent. Of the successful insanity defense cases, 40 percent of the defendants had been previously diagnosed with a serious mental illness.

A Strange Aesthetic

It wasn't until I had performed my first autopsy that I realized that even the drabbest human exteriors could contain the most beautiful viscera. After that, I would console myself for the plainness of my fellow bus riders by dissecting them in my imagination.

John B. S. Haldane (1892-1964) British-Indian scientist

H. L. Mencken's Contempt

I am never much interested in the effects of what I write. I seldom read with any attention the reviews of my books. Two times out of three I know something about the reviewer, and in very few cases have I any respect for his judgments. Thus his praise, if he praises me, leaves me unmoved. I can't recall any review that has even influenced me in the slightest. I live in sort of a vacuum, and I suspect that most other writers do, too. It is hard to imagine one of the great ones paying any serious attention to contemporary opinion.

H. L. Mencken in Diary of H. L. Mencken, edited by Charles A. Fecher, 1989 

A Profession For Introverts

Writing is something you do alone. It's a profession for introverts who want to tell you a story but don't want to make eye contact while doing it.

John Green, novelist, 2001

Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Crime Solution (Clearance) Rates

In 2018, murder and manslaughter crimes had the highest clearance rate at 62%. (A crime is "cleared" when an arrest is made.) Clearance rates for other offenses: aggravated assault 52%; rape 33%; robbery 30%; arson 22%; burglary 14% and motor vehicle theft 13%. In fiction, criminals usually get caught and are brought to justice. Not so in real life.

The Life of a Corpse

     Climate and terrain have a great impact on the speed with which a body decomposes. If a body is deposited in a wooded area in upstate New York in the dead of winter, it's going to decompose much more slowly than one dumped in Florida woods in the summer. One reason is that flies and bacteria, the two main factors in turning a corpse into a skeleton, aren't active outdoors in cold weather. Research shows that bodies placed outside in the winter don't bloat as much as those in the summer, and many of them turn what we refer to as "Halloween colors"--orange and black.

     Although not every case holds true, bodies usually go through several predictable stages: fresh, bloated, and dry. At this last stage, the decomposition process has ceased, maggots have finished feeding, and, unless rodents and larger carnivores eat it, the corpse will change very little even over a period of years. If there is any flesh left covering the skeleton, it will harden so that it will someday resemble leather or parchment paper.

     During the early stages of decomposition, internal gases bloat the abdomen, the skin stretches like plastic wrap, and the veins fill with bacteria, turning them green and black so they look like thin highways or the graining on marble--hence the term "marbling."

     Sometimes, in as little time as two weeks, the face, chin, throat, groin, and abdomen become the first areas to skeletonize. The less meaty and, to maggots, less desirable areas, such as the arms and legs, often decompose last. When you lift a body to look under it, those areas of the body in contact with the ground often resemble Swiss cheese or wormwood; this is where maggots have left the body and burrowed into the ground. Contrary to common belief, hair and nails don't keep growing after death; it's the shrinkage of the tissue that gives this illusion. Skin and hair are dead cells; they were dead before the individual died.

Rober Mann, Ph.D. and Miryam Ehrlich Williamson, Forensic Detective, 2006 

The Classic English Detective Story

     I never read romantic novels, ever; I didn't enjoy them. And as I never liked fantasy and I never liked science fiction. I suppose that leaves for one's comfort reading the detective story. The form is often quite nostalgic; if you're reading some of the earlier ones it's a different world, it's a more ordered world, it's a safer world--despite the fact they're dealing with murder.

     You're back in this English village with the well-known characters; there's a sense of nostalgia and security about them and in the end a terrible crime is solved and peace and order is restored. And in real life it isn't, and in modern detective stories, especially mine, it isn't restored, but in most classical English detective stories it is.

     You know it's going to turn out right, that virtue is going to be rewarded and evil is going to be punished. So these detective stories do have that ability to provide for the reader some kind of solace. I don't think we choose our genre, I think that a genre chooses us.

P. D. James, "On Writing: Authors Reveal the Secrets of Their Craft," theguardian.com, March 25, 2011

The Work Habits Of a Hack Novelist

Before the days of word processing, how did authors keep track of their various drafts and revisions? Purple prose writer Jacqueline Susann [Valley of the Dolls, 1966; The Love Machine, 1969; and Once Is Not Enough, 1973] typed each draft on different colors of paper: yellow for the first draft, then blue, pink, and finally white. [It's hard to believe it took four drafts to write such dreadful novels.]

Erin Barrett and Jack Mingo, It Takes a Certain Type To Be A Writer, 2003

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

The Dark Side of Facebook

[According to Mark Zuckerberg], "When billions of people use a service to connect, some of them are going to misuse it for truly terrible things like child exploitation, terrorism and extortion."

Natasha Singer, The New York Times Book Review, March 15, 2020

"Feminist" Lawyer Gloria Alred

And then there was Gloria Alred, the crusading feminist lawyer whose law firm, in 2004, negotiated a nondisclosure agreement for one of Harvey Weinstein's victims. [According to Jodi Kantor and Megan Towohey in their book Breaking the Sexual Harassment Story that Helped Ignite a Movement] the firm pocketed 40 percent of the settlement. "While the attorney cultivated a reputation for giving female victims a voice, some of her work and revenue was in negotiating secret settlements that silenced them and buried allegations of sexual harassment and assault."] Alred went on to do the same with women who had been abused by Fox News host Bill O'Reilly and the Olympics gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. In 2017, after a group of lawyers in California persuaded a state legislator to consider a bill that would ban confidentiality clauses muzzling sexual harassment victims, Alred denounced the move and threatened to go on the attack. The legislator, Connie Leyva, quickly shelved the idea. (A year later, Leyva introduced such a bill and it was signed into law.)

Susan Falludi, The New York Times Book Review, September 27, 2019

The Tell-All Novel

Many people have written thinly veiled tell-all books disguised as fiction. They're called romans a`clef. In the late 1970s, Truman Capote was working on one about Hollywood called Answered Prayers, and an excerpt was published in Esquire. Half of his friends disowned him because he'd told a lot of secrets about their lives. He uncovered a lot of dirt. His defense was pretty valid: His former friends told him these stories freely at parties, in the presence of others, knowing all along he was a writer. "What did they think I was?" he asked with a mixture of hurt and acidity, "the court jester?"

Robin Hemley, Turning Life Into Fiction, 2006 

The Fantasy Genre

What does fantasy ask of us? It asks us to pay something extra. It compels us to an adjustment that is different to an adjustment required by a work of art...The other novelists say "Here is something that might occur in our lives," the fantasist says "Here's something that could not occur. I must ask you to first accept my book as a whole, and secondly to accept certain things in my book." Many readers can grant the first request, but refuse the second. "One knows a book isn't real," they say, "still one does expect it to be natural."

E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel, 1927

Monday, December 6, 2021

Psychopharmacology And the Mystery of Mental Illness

Over the last thirty years, [psychiatrists] have constructed a reliable system for diagnosing mental disorders, and we have created medications that work well to treat a range of psychological symptoms. But these very successes have had unpredictable consequences. As psychiatrists have become enthralled with diagnosis and medication, we have given up the essence of our profession--understanding the mind. We have become obsessed with psychopharmacology and its endless process of tinkering with medications, adjusting dosages, and piling on more medications to treat the side effects of the drugs we started with. We have convinced ourselves that we have developed cures for mental illness...when in fact we know so little about the underlying neurobiology of their causes that our treatments are often a series of trials and errors.

Dr. David J. Carlat, Unhinged: The Trouble With Psychiatry, 2010

The Regency Period Romance Heroine

A Regency period (1811-1820 England) heroine may find herself in dire straits and approach crisis in many ways, but never at the expense of dignity and self-respect. Otherwise, she becomes too tawdry to qualify as a heroine for the romance genre.

Alice Orr, No More Rejections, 2004

Writing Well is an Acquired Craft

     For some reason everyone thinks, "I should know how to write." No one thinks, "I should know how to play the piano." But when it comes to writing, "I should know how to do it."
     What if I told you a story about a man who buys a piano, sits down to play for the very first time and is shocked when he doesn't sound like Arthur Rubinstein?
     "I don't understand," he complains. "I've listened to lots of music, I should know how to play the piano."
     Ridiculous, you say? Yet there you are. You're mortified when your work isn't as good as Ernest Hemingway's.
Joel Saltzman, If You Can Talk, You Can Write, 1993 

The Romantic Plot in Women's Memoirs

All of us live with a life history in our mind, and very few of us subject it to critical analysis. But we are storytelling creatures. So it's very important to examine your own story and make sure that the plot is one you really want. When I give talks as a historian about the dominance of the romantic plot in women's telling of their life histories, I'm amused to see women investment bankers and corporate lawyers giving a wry smile, as if to say, "It's true--that's how I do see my life." As a young person it's important to scrutinize the plot you've internalized and find out whether it accurately represents what you want to be, because we tend to act out those life plots unless we think about them. I'm impatient with the postmodern effort to obfuscate the validity of narrative. We are time-bound creatures. We experience life along a time continuum; things happen sequentially in our lives, and we need to understand the causation. But we never really do understand it until we sit down and try to tell the story.

Jill Ker Conway in Inventing the Truth, edited by William Zinsser, 1998 

Sunday, December 5, 2021

The Execution Of Walter Storey

     Missouri carried out its first execution of 2015. The state executed 47-year-old Walter Storey who was sentenced to death for the murder of 36-year-old Jill Frey, a neighbor. Storey murdered the victim with a knife on February 2, 1990. He received a lethal dose of pentobarbital just after midnight on February 11, 2015 in the execution chamber of the Eastern Reception Diagnostic and Correctional Center in Bonne Terre.

     As the lethal injection took place, Storey turned his head toward family members and began to sing or chant until his breathing stopped.

     Storey, on February 2, 1990 had received a divorce petition from his estranged wife. At the time he was living with his mother in a St. Charles, Missouri apartment complex. After a heavy night of drinking, Storey ran out of alcohol and decided to rob his across-the-hall neighbor, Jill Frey, a special education teacher.

     Storey grabbed a knife from his kitchen and climbed up to Frey's balcony and entered her apartment through an unlocked sliding glass door. He brutally beat Frey to death, inflicting no fewer than twenty blunt force blows. He broke the victim's ribs, stabbed her in the abdomen, and slashed her neck. After the murder, he stole the victim's purse and car.

     The next day, Storey returned to Frey's apartment and attempted to wipe down the scene to cover up evidence. He cleaned under the victim's fingernails using her own toothbrush. Storey tossed physical evidence of the murder in a dumpster and threw Frey's car keys in the lake behind the complex.

     The day after the crime scene clean-up, co-workers discovered Frey's body after she failed to show up for work…

"Missouri Carries Out Execution of Walter Storey," missourinet.com, February 11, 2015

Setting the Mood

     The beginning mood in a piece of writing could be compared with the background music you hear at the start of a movie. That music--whether ominous, offbeat, or cheerful--gives you a pretty accurate idea of what kind of movie you'll be watching.

     Many books begin with a description of a place that sets the mood for what is to follow. A lead like this can be a sly way of introducing one of the themes in a book. [Truman Capote, for example, sets the mood In Cold Blood by describing rural Kansas, the site of the 1959 Clutter family murders.]

Ralph Fletcher, Live Writing, 1999