Musings of a Murderous Mind

Some of the Secret Places in Maggie and McCabe’s Hometown.

 

The city of Portland is filled with a treasure trove of historic and hidden places, some located far from the tourist haunts of the Old Port.

 

Last weekend Jeanne and I and a couple of friends decided to get a sense of what the city might be hiding from casual observers and signed up for the Maine Historical Society’s “Magical Mystery Tour”…an annual self-guided tour of some of some of the places tourists and residents alike rarely get to see.  We picked up our tickets at the Historical Society office located next door to Longfellow House, where Maine’s best-known poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was born and grew up.

 

Our first stop, which I’d driven by a thousand times and never knew existed, was the beautiful St Joseph’s Convent, the Sisters of Mercy Mother House on Stevens Avenue.  Built in 1909 the Convent is topped with an elegant gold cupola and inside boasts a stunning hundred-year old chapel with marble columns, a beautiful painted ceiling, stained glass windows and doors depicting biblical scenes. Walking down the exceptionally wide center aisle one can imagine processions of novitiates prostrating themselves before the altar. Upstairs the corridors are lined with narrow doors opening onto tiny individual cells where as many as 250 nuns lived. Each has a now empty brass holder for the Sister’s name. But sadly, all the nuns are gone.

 

Today, this historic building is currently under reconstruction to make way for a mix of senior, affordable and market rate housing. New and partly finished one bedroom and studio apartments were open to be seen and even the smallest studios are about 10 times the size of the nun’s cells.

 

In the side chapel short pews are still lined up in rows. The organ is on an upper balcony with Byzantine style arches carved wood detail. One hopes the developers will at least keep remnants of the chapel for communal use by the new residents. I can imagine circles of people coming together for meetings or performances, or tea and coffee and gossip. Eighty apartments are planned.

 

We next stopped briefly at “Alumni Hall” on the

University of New England Campus, a few hundred yards down Stevens Avenue from St. Joseph’s. An elegant white building, with many Federal style details, Alumni Hall was built to house the Westbrook Seminary in 1834. The bell tower was originally part of Portland’s nineteenth century Market Hall-which was located downtown in what is now Monument Square. When Market Hall was remodeled in 1832, the bell and its tower were moved to the campus.

 

For a totally different flavor we drove to the end of Commercial Street to check out the old Boston and Maine Railroad tunnel. Built in the 1870’s the line carried shipments of grain, ice, lumber, meat and produce and line terminated at the foot of York Street under what is now the Casco Bay Bridge. Impressive granite stones form massive retaining walls to support the infrastructure of rail and road. Sadly, all that’s left of the tunnel is a fenced-in remnant which today houses occasional homeless people on the ledges around and above the tunnel. As I looked at this dark and gloomy place I could well imagine one of McCabe and Maggie’s murderers dumping a body or two at the far end.

 

After leaving the tunnel, we decided to make a quick stop to tour the 87foot Coast Guard Cutter Amberjack which was open for the tour. The Coasties use the Amberjack for their essential work of protecting marine resources, preventing drug smuggling and for search and rescue missions.

 

The young and gung-ho crew were thrilled to show us around. The engine room was small and frankly a little claustrophobic for me. In the pilot-house, the Captain showed us the most current technology and navigation computers, while charts and compasses and dividers were also laid out. All hands must still know how to navigate by the sun and stars.

 

Finally, we toured the galley which was about 12 feet long. Still, when the cook ran through his menus, they sounded a hell of a lot better than what I remember being fed in the army many years ago. Steak and lobster? No way back then. But that’s what they serve today.

 

After a quick lunch we moved on to the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church to check out the clock and bell tower. First Parish, as it is called, was built in 1825 as a place of worship for a congregation that was first established in 1674. It’s the oldest church building in the city, and one of its finest examples of Federal period architecture.

 

Construction of the current granite building was completed 1826 and the 1802 Simon Willard clock tower and the internal gallery clock were transferred to the building along with 1810 steeple bell. The Simon Willard clock is the last remaining and functioning tower clock in existence. Climbing endless flights of stairs to see the clock turned out to be worth it. We were all fascinated by the simple beauty of the oiled cogs and wheels, and gears of the mechanics of the 116-year-old clock. After a further climb up steep timbered steps, with no handrail we got to the bell tower. Unfortunately, shutters obstruct what must be a terrific view and also shield witnesses from what might be another terrific place to dump a body.

 

The Maine Historical Society will run a similar tour of unseen and unknown places in May of next year so if you’re planning a trip to Portland, keep it in mind. And if you have time stop in at police headquarters at 109 Middle Street and say hi to Maggie and McCabe.

 

And please don’t forget to look for my latest McCabe/Savage thriller, A Fatal Obsession, coming out on August 21st and available for preorder now!

 

Follow me on Twitter or Facebook for more details! 

 

How I Became Don Draper Before There Was a Don Draper.

 

At the tender age of twenty-two, after graduating with a degree in History from Brown University, I began considering what options I might have for the future.  I considered and quickly rejected the various paths my college friends were taking. Since I hadn’t been a particularly good student and studying bored me, a career in academia was of little interest. My mother had always wanted me to become a doctor but the path through medical school and a lengthy residency seemed too long and arduous to be a realistic possibility.  I considered law school.  The exploits of Perry Mason and Ben Matlock getting the best of the bad guys on the witness stand in one exciting murder case or another seemed like it might be fun example to follow. But a lengthy conversation with my much older brother (who’d graduated from Yale Law School and was working on Wall Street) made me realize that fourteen-hour days spent parsing, for example, the arcane verbiage of contracts as an associate in a large law firm would probably lead me to an early leap from the George Washington Bridge. And speaking of Wall Street, the idea of spending my days toiling in the bowels of a big bank or investment banking house as a number of my classmates were doing seemed to me to be the stuff of nightmares even though I knew that such a path might someday make me rich.

I considered other possibilities and even arranged a few interviews.  None panned out.  Neither IBM nor Exxon wanted me which was fine with me because I didn’t think I wanted them either.

So what did I want?

Well, the first thing I wanted more than anything else was to move out of my parents’ suburban New Jersey home, move into my own apartment in New York, hopefully on the upper East Side of Manhattan, date beautiful women and hang out at the best bars.  In short I wanted to start living the life I’d always dreamed about in the big city.

Sadly, to do that I needed to start making some money which meant finding a job.  I was cool with that so long as I could to find a job that A: I’d be good at, B: would genuinely enjoy and C: paid me an adequate salary to live the way I wanted, if not immediately at least eventually.  The only thing I could think of that made any sense was writing.  It was one of the few things I was genuinely good at.  Making up stories and giving them life by putting one word after another was something that I both enjoyed and that always came naturally to me.  All through school, even when I got a lousy grade on a paper, the teacher would almost always compliment the writing.  The papers I submitted were often returned with comments like  “Very well written. But sadly reveals little knowledge of the subject matter. C-”.

Okay so I wanted to be a writer. Who in the world, I asked myself, would pay me at least enough to live on to do what I was good at.  I started looking around. My first thought was magazines and newspapers.  I dutifully sent in resumes and set up interviews with the likes of Time Life, The Daily News, and the Associated Press among others.  None offered me a job. Several suggested I go to journalism school and when I finished my studies come back and apply again. Not a bad Idea except that my parents had been stretched thin putting four kids through college.  I was the fourth of four and simply didn’t want to take any more money from them.

So who else, I asked myself would pay me to write? I was pondering this question when one afternoon I found myself standing outside 666 Fifth Avenue (in those days the landmark building was not owned by Jared Kushner).  I was wearing in my grey flannel interview suit and carrying a number of resumes in my borrowed briefcase. Suddenly the skies opened and it began pouring.  I retreated into the lobby.  Since the rain didn’t look like it would be stopping anytime soon, I checked out the building directory to see if there were any companies housed there that might be worth talking to.  There were three that I’d heard of.  Two advertising agencies…Ted Bates and Benton & Bowles…and Revlon, the big cosmetics company.  I figured any or all of them might be a possibility.  Somebody had to write all those magazine ads and TV commercials.  Bates was on a higher floor than the other two and I figured I might as well start at the top and work my way down.  I went there first and managed to get myself an interview with gruff looking, gray-haired man who I figured was about my father’s age. He was in charge of training programs in what was then called the personnel department (nobody had yet dreamed up the euphemism Human Resources.)  He looked me up and down seemed to approve of the way I was dressed.  He looked at my resume and expressed approval at the fact that I had graduated from an Ivy League university.  He asked me what I wanted to do. I told him my dream job was to write TV commercials for such Bates as Mobil Oil and Anacin headache pills. He emitted a non-committal but gruff sounding bark.

 “I don’t hire people for the Creative Department,” he told me. “But I do have a spot in the Account Executive Training Program you look like you might be a good fit for the agency’s account executive training program.”

I wasn’t sure what made me look like a good fit but supposed it was the fact that I’d bought my suit, tie, shirt and shoes at Brooks Brothers which I later discovered was kind of the Company Store for ad execs.  I told him I didn’t want to be an account executive, and repeated that I wanted to be a copywriter.  He said he couldn’t help me with that. That to get a job in the creative department not only would I have to have talent (which I was pretty sure I did) but that I’d have to be able to show one of the Creative Directors a portfolio of ads and TV commercials. I’d never written an ad in my life but offered to show whatever Creative Director he could hook me up with some of the papers I’d written in college. He said that wouldn’t do. I sighed deeply and prepared to leave.  “Wait,” he said. “I need someone for the training program and think you might like it.”  He went on to tell me what being an account executive would entail and encouraging me to think about it.  As he was talking, I had an “Aha!” moment.  If I accepted a spot in the account executive training program, I’d be on the inside. And being on the inside meant I’d almost certainly get to meet most if not all of the Creative Directors.  And maybe I’d be able to convince one or another of them to give me a shot.

And that’s exactly what happened. The personnel guy made an offer. I accepted and within a couple of months had met all the senior creative directors and mentioned to each of them that I really wanted to become a copywriter. Most shrugged and said “that’s nice.”

But I finally ran into one who needed help desperately enough to give me a shot.   ”Okay,” he said. “I have a client meeting tomorrow. I need to show them a new sixty-second TV spot for my Viceroy Cigarette campaign. I don’t like anything I’ve seen so far from the team.  Here are some storyboards of what’s already on air. You’ve got one hour.  Go write me something new that fits the campaign show me what you come up with. I’ll be here late.”

I went back to my cubbyhole and looked at the storyboards for the commercials that were already on air.  They all followed a given format. Written in rhymed doggerel each showed somebody successfully handling a stressful situation and being rewarded by being Viceroy cigarette.

I dreamed up one or two situations that fit the format but that I didn’t like. Then I wrote one that worked.  The that showed a small plane landing on a runway while the voiceover, accompanied by appropriate music, said (and yes, forty plus years later I still remember all the words: “My first solo flight and here comes the ground/A little bit bumpy but home safe and sound/My instructor said, ”Man, you handled her fine/then pulled out a cigarette and said have one of mine. /Some filters taste too strong, he said, and some too light. But Viceroy’s got the taste that’s right. That’s right. That’s right. Viceroy’s got the taste that’s right.”

I went back upstairs to the creative director’s office. He ignored me for about five minutes while he worked on something he was writing. Then he said, “Okay. Show me what you’ve got. I started to hand him the script.

He said, ”No, no. Tell me what I’m seeing and then read me the words. Sell me on it.”

I did as he asked.

“Interesting,” he said, “Read it again.”

After I finished the second reading, he took the script and went over it a few times.  “Not bad,” he said. “Not bad at all.  I’ll have one of the art directors draw up a board and we’ll show it to the client tomorrow.”  I managed to avoid jumping up and down in elation, at least until I got back to my own cubby.

Naturally I wasn’t invited to the meeting but out of the three or four spots presented mine was the one the client liked best. Two weeks later, My First Solo Flight, the first commercial I’d ever written, was in production in Los Angeles. Naturally I wasn’t allowed to go to the shoot either, but while it was going on I was transferred from the Training Program to a slot as a junior copywriter on Viceroy, Mobil Oil and a couple of other accounts. I was at last writing for a living. The rest, as they say, is history.

 

 

What is an Alaska Wilderness Mystery Author?

In my last blog post I wrote about the importance of setting to the success of any mystery series. And I discussed the many reason Portland, Maine was the perfect urban setting for my McCabe/Savage thrillers. After posting that blog I came across a novel by another thriller writer, Robin Barefield, who uses a very different kind of setting to tell a terrific tale of murder.  After reading Robin’s “Murder Over Kodiak”  I asked her if she’d be willing to write a guest blog about how and why the wilderness of Kodiak Island, Alaska offers exactly the right setting for her novels.  Here’s her response.

—— ” ——

 

 

Can you smell the salty ocean, the fruity tundra, or the steamy bear droppings on the trail in front of you? I want you to see and smell all those things and more in my novels. I want to open your senses to Alaska because my mystery novels take place in wilderness Alaska; not in an urban setting.

As Mr. Hayman discussed in his last post, the setting of a mystery novel is as important as the characters or the plot of a story. A novel set in the boardrooms of New York has a different feel from one set in Savannah or Aspen. Mr. Hayman’s novels take place in or near Portland Maine, his hometown, and an area he knows well. His familiarity with the setting brings authenticity to his books.

I reside in the wilderness on Kodiak Island, Alaska, so my characters live, play, and murder here. I have lived in the middle of the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge for more than thirty years. My husband and I own a small lodge, and in the summer, we guide guests on wildlife viewing and fishing trips. We hike up small streams, sit on the bank and watch Kodiak bears chase and eat salmon. I know the wilderness well, and I respect it. Kodiak Island is beautiful and wild, but it can also be deadly.

As an author, I enjoy throwing my character into this dangerous, inhospitable environment. This wilderness setting often offers me ideas to move the plot forward or to provide background and depth for my characters.

 

Floatplanes figure prominently in my novels because there are no roads on the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge which covers two-thirds of the island. Travel over much of the island is either by plane or boat. I have had several frightening small plane trips in bad weather, so it is easy for me to write scenes of terror in the air.

In my first novel, Big Game, my protagonist, Jane, struggles with the pilot over a gun, and when she accidentally shoots and kills the pilot, she must figure out how to keep from crashing into the mountain in front of her.

In my second novel, Murder Over Kodiak, a floatplane explodes mid-air over Kodiak Island on a beautiful, calm day. The act is unthinkable to the residents of Kodiak. There are many reasons small planes crash in Alaska, but a bomb is not one of them.

I enjoy creating characters who are unusual and choose, for a variety of reasons, to live in wild, remote locations. These are people who understand the wilderness and use it to survive or to murder.

Over the past two years, I’ve written a monthly newsletter about true murder and mystery in Alaska, and many of these true tales have provided me ideas for my fiction. In Karluk Bones, the novel I am writing now, I weave together pieces of four true stories.

 

One of my characters in Karluk Bones is a trapper who believes he owns the area around Karluk Lake on Kodiak Island. He considers anyone who camps or hikes near the lake a trespasser and threatens these imagined interlopers. This trapper is known to be violent. He once killed a man in a bar fight and has returned twice from trapping trips, claiming his trapping partner for the winter deserted him halfway through the season. No trace of either partner was ever found. This character is based on an actual person who lived on the Alaska Peninsula. Law-enforcement officers found evidence suggesting he’d killed and eaten his trapping partners, but the trapper disappeared before he could be brought in for questioning. My character based on this real-life trapper is not someone you will find in a novel set in a city.

In my recently-released novel, The Fisherman’s Daughter, authorities fear a serial killer is stalking women on Kodiak Island. Most of the action in this novel takes place near and in the close-knit community of the town of Kodiak, where readers can enjoy meeting some of the unique residents of this quaint fishing village.

Kodiak Island is famous for its huge brown bears. Thirty-five-hundred bears live on the Kodiak Archipelago, so no fictional hike through the woods would be complete without at least seeing a bear. I’ve spent a great deal of time watching bears, and while I’m not terrified of them, I respect their strength, power, and intelligence. I strive in my novels to portray bears and other wildlife as accurately as possible.

I invite you to read one of my novels, take a trip to Kodiak, and get a feel for this wild, mysterious island.

 

 


Robin Barefield is the author of three Alaska wilderness mystery novels, Big Game, Murder Over Kodiak, and The Fisherman’s Daughter. To download a free copy of one of her novels, watch her webinar about how she became an author and why she writes Alaska wilderness mysteries. Sign up on her website to subscribe to her free, monthly newsletter on true murder and mystery in Alaska.

Portland: A Great Town for Murder!

Portland City Hall

Portland: A great town for murder! Not exactly the kind of line the Portland Visitors Bureau would want to use for their latest ad campaign but, for a thriller writer like me, it sums up a lot of what I love about this town.  At least, when I’m writing one of my McCabe/Savage crime novels.

Any writer will tell you that the right setting, along with the right characters and plot, are the three key elements of any successful thriller series. And trust me when I say setting is every bit as important as the other two.  I mean can you imagine what Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories would be like without the winding foggy streets of Victorian London or the empty moors.  Among contemporary writers Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series simply wouldn’t work without the quaint Quebec village of Three Pines.  Nor would James Lee Burke’s Robicheaux books work as well anywhere else but the steamy bayous of Louisiana.

For me Portland proved to be the perfect setting for my stories right from the moment I typed the first sentence of the first chapter of the first book in the series:  “Fog can be a sudden thing on the Maine coast.”

Along with extreme and often unpredictable weather Portland gives a writer like me a lot of bang for the buck.

Here are just a few examples of places in Portland where I’ve set some of my scenes of murder and mayhem.

The Old Port with its winding cobblestone streets, lined with great bars, restaurants and small boutiques help give the town the urban feel that helps New Yorkers like me and McCabe feel at home. McCabe was eating in one of the newest restaurants when he was called away by the discovery of the body of sixteen year old Katie DuBois.

The working waterfront, home to the Portland Fish Pier, where the body of the beautiful attorney Lainie Goff was found frozen solid inside the trunk of her brand new BMW.

The waves crashing against the rocks out on Peaks Island which is part of the city and where I lived for my first twelve years in Maine.  It was here that the schizophrenic Abby Quinn, witnessed a brutal murder and was pursued by the killer.

The elegant nineteenth century mansions that line the streets of the city’s West End and culminate on the Western Prom where poor Lucinda Cassidy was kidnapped in that early morning fog.

I’ve also used the equally elegant Victorian mansions along the Eastern Prom where residents enjoy spectacular views of Casco Bay and the islands beyond.  Luckily McCabe, who lives there, bought his condo there ten years ago.  There’s no way in hell would he be able to afford one on a cop’s salary today.

The old three deckers on Munjoy Hill which was once a neighborhood for working class families but which, over the last ten years, has been gentrified to the point of becoming the city’s most expensive neighborhood.

There’s a busy and active art scene with lots of studios and galleries like the one where McCabe’s artist girlfriend Kyra showed her work. Portland also boasts a great small museum.  And on the first Friday of every month crowds of art lovers jam Congress Street enjoying street performers and looking for art to buy.

Then there are the landmarks.  The 86 foot tall Portland Observatory, built in 1807, is America’s last standing maritime signal tower with spectacular views of the harbor. I haven’t killed anyone there yet but I’m thinking about it.  The US Custom House is another classic old building . And Portland’s beautiful City Hall, pictured here, which burned down in 1908 and was rebuilt and reopened in 1912.  City Hall’s front steps are where McCabe’s boss, Portland police chief and publicity hound Tom Shockley likes to hold big press conferences announcing yet another murder that needs to be solved.

James Hayman: Sexual Assault on Campus

Publisher William Morrow will be is bringing out my fifth McCabe/Savage thriller The Girl on the Bridge on May 9th. The back jacket copy briefly describes the story:

On a freezing December night, Hannah Reindel leaps to her death from an old railway bridge into the rushing waters of the river below. Yet the real cause of death was trauma suffered twelve years earlier when Hannah was plucked from a crowd of freshman girls at a college fraternity party, drugged, and then viciously assaulted by six members of the college football team.

Those responsible have never faced or feared justice. Until now. A month after Hannah’s death, Joshua Thorne—former Holden College quarterback and now a Wall Street millionaire—is found murdered, his body bound to a bed and brutally mutilated.

When a second attacker dies in mysterious circumstances, detectives Mike McCabe and Maggie Savage know they must find the killer before more of Hannah’s attackers are executed. But they soon realize, these murders may not be simple acts of revenge, but something far more sinister.

One question I’m frequently asked about this book is why did I want to write a story about something as brutal and ugly as sexual assault on campus.

 

The simple answer is because it happens. More often than most people imagine. Certainly more often than parents who proudly send their children off to college could possibly imagine.

 

One frequently quoted statistic says that roughly 23% of college students, male as well as female, suffer sexual assault at some point during their years on campus. This figure is misleading. Partly because sexual assault in studies of the issue is usually very loosely defined, ranging from unwanted touching to all out gang rape. But it’s also misleading because a large percentage of rapes on campus go unreported. By one estimate only 39% of rapes and sexual assaults are ever reported either to campus authorities or to the police. And even when they are reported, accusations of rape by victims are often brushed under the rug by both police and college administrators.

 

I started thinking about writing a crime novel based on campus rape after reading Jon Krakauer’s Missoula an excellent book which examines rampant sexual abuse that took place on the campus of the University of Montana, much of it committed by members of the football team.

After finishing Missoula, I started reading more broadly about the subject of rape on campus and the often lifelong psychic damage it inflicts on victims. Symptoms of PTSD suffered by rape victims are similar to those suffered by combat veterans. Depression, vivid flashbacks and suicides even years after the event, like the suicide described in The Girl on the Bridge, are tragically common. Suicide.Org a non profit dedicated to suicide prevention estimates that roughly one third of rape victims have suicidal thoughts and that eventually about one in seven will attempt suicide. Sadly, all too many succeed.

To try to better understand the psychological effect on victims of rape I began reading a number of memoirs written by rape survivors. Two books in particular convinced me to move ahead with The Girl on the Bridge.

The first, Crash Into Me: A Survivors Search for Justice, was written by a woman named Liz Seccuro who was the victim of gang rape at a fraternity party at the University of Virginia. None of the accused rapists was punished at the time. However twenty years later Seccuro was thrown back into the panic and trauma of the event when she received a letter from one of her rapists. Her attacker said he was writing because he wanted to meet with her and apologize for what he had done so many years before. Since there is no statute of limitations on rape in Virginia, Seccuro was finally able to charge one of her rapists and see him serve prison time for what he had done.

The second book that provided me with even deeper insights into the debilitating long-term traumatic effects of rape is titled After Silence: Rape and my Journey Back by Nancy Venable Raine.

Much of what happens to Hannah Reindel in the first two chapters of The Girl on the Bridge reflects what I learned from reading Ms. Raine’s book. By Chapter 3 my own tale veers off into unexpected and murderous twists and turns.

Murder We Wrote

James Hayman:  When asked what she did for a living, another crime writer, I believe Chelsea Cain, responded “I kill people for money.” Well, so do I.  And so does everyone else who writes mysteries and thrillers for a living.  The vast majority of our books almost by definition involve one or more villains offing one or more victims.

In real life murder tends to be a fairly prosaic if unpleasant affair.  Husbands killing wives. Gangbangers killing rivals. Or, saddest of all, gun nuts walking into movie theatres or elementary schools and blasting away at strangers. Most of it horrifying. None of it particularly entertaining.

It is our peculiar and often challenging task as writers to make murder interesting, involving, entertaining and yes, sometimes, horrifying, but in a way that involves the readers’ imaginations far more than the bloody chaos that goes on in the homes and streets of America.

There are many ways we go about this.

The writer can go for the cringe-worthy approach.  Hannibal the Cannibal eating his victims’ faces being a prime example

But there are other ways of making murder engaging.  One is the use of strange weapons.  A fellow writer and friend of mine named Joe Brady once considered committing murder in one of his books by having the victim be bitten by the poisonous pufferfish. The pufferfish, one of the few fish that can be considered cute to look at, emits a poison for which there is no antidote that kills by paralyzing the diaphragm, causing nearly instant suffocation.

The pufferfish not withstanding, I think my all-time favorite in the weird weapon category can be found in Roald Dahl’s classic short story Lamb to the Slaughter.  The heroine (villain?) of the piece is dear, sweet Mary Maloney who, when told by her policeman husband that he is planning to divorce her, becomes so upset that she whacks him over the head with the frozen leg of lamb she was planning to cook for dinner. When she realizes that her husband is indeed dead Mary, in a moment of inspiration, puts the murder weapon in the oven and roasts it.  Since the dead husband was a veteran cop, Mary knows all the detectives who come to the house to investigate the killing.  After these worthy fellows spend a fair amount of time searching the house for the likely murder weapon (could it be a sledgehammer?  A spanner? A heavy vase?), Mary convinces them to stay for dinner. Naturally, the main course is roast leg of lamb.

An interesting variation on Dahl’s technique of having the cops eat the murder weapon is Fannie Flagg’s idea of having them eat the victim.  This seemingly ghoulish denouement occurs in Ms. Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café where the heroine (the owner of the café, which is well known for its delicious barbecue) offs a bad guy by hitting him over the head, not with a leg of lamb, but with a frying pan. She then tosses the body into the café’s barbecue oven.  When the bad guy is thoroughly smoked, sauced and cooked, she cuts him into little pieces and offers some to the local sheriff who eagerly gobbles the delicious goodies down. I’m told barbecued human tastes remarkably like barbecued pork but I have no intention of testing the proposition.

For someone like me, who suffers from claustrophobia, one of the scariest way of dying has to be being buried alive.  This frightening fate is beautifully presented in Michael Kimball’s novel Undone.  The story centers around an unscrupulous wife who somehow convinces her husband to agree to climb into a coffin and be buried as part of an insurance scam.  Of course, she promises to dig him up later and share the proceeds.  Of course, she doesn’t.  In the meantime, readers get to spend agonizing hours inside the coffin under six feet of soil suffering along with the poor schmuck of a husband. If you’re wondering why he ever agreed to such a thing, I won’t offer spoilers. You’ll just have to read the book.

The plot of my own first McCabe/Savage thriller, The Cutting, also centers around a particularly unpleasant way to die. The Cutting features a villain who runs a lucrative business selling illegal heart transplants to billionaire octogenarians suffering from advanced coronary disease. These are folks who can’t qualify for legitimate transplant programs because of their age but who do have the funds to seek alternate solutions.  Our bad guy charges each of the billionaires a flat fee of five million dollars for a healthy young heart. But where, you might ask, do the hearts come from?   In keeping with the spirit of the times, all are locally sourced, being cut from the bodies of attractive young women who are first kidnapped and then held captive until their hearts are needed.  When the time is right our villain wields his scalpel and…well you can imagine the rest.

What makes the murder compelling in my latest McCabe/Savage thriller, The Girl in the Glass, is neither the choice of weapon nor the brutality of the crime.  Rather it is the fact that the two young women who are killed are physically identical members of the same family who are murdered in precisely the same way one hundred and eight years apart.  The puzzle for my two detectives, Maggie Savage and Michael McCabe, is why the killer went to such lengths to carry out a near perfect imitation of a murder that happened more than a century earlier. And, of course, to figure out who the hell is he.

From Ox to Smack

James Hayman:  Anyone who’s read my third McCabe/Savage thriller, Darkness First, knows the story opens with a bad guy named Conor Riordan smuggling 40,000 80mg oxycontin tablets stolen from a Canadian pharmaceutical distribution center in Saint John, New Brunswick back into Eastport, Maine.  In the book, these tablets have a street value in Maine of nearly five million dollars.  They also are ultimately responsible for the murders of nine mostly not so innocent people.

The idea for Darkness First was initially triggered by a newspaper article I  read about prescription drug abuse in Maine and most particularly in poor rural areas like Washington County.

To research the book, I spent a day talking with Sheriff Donnie Smith of Washington County. In our discussion Sheriff Smith estimated that, at that time, nearly half the teenagers and young adults in Washington County were addicted to “ox.”  I was stunned by the number and asked where all these pills came from. He told me most were bought and sold in small quantities, some initially stolen from pharmacies,  others sold by people who had legitimate prescriptions they hadn’t finished, still others purchased by “doctor shopping”, which means getting multiple prescriptions for pain relief needs from a number of different doctors.

When I pressed for more information,  Smith referred me to his liaison with the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. In discussions with this agent, I learned that the usable supply of “Ox” in Maine was dwindling and that, as a result, prices were going up.  The tightening of supply was due, in part, to more energetic enforcement policies and stricter limits on the number of tablets doctors were allowed to prescribe.  

It was also due to changes in the manufacturing process. To fight abuse of its product, Purdue Pharma, the number one American manufacturer, had developed a harder time-release coating that made it much more difficult, if not impossible, for addicts to crush and snort the tabs for an instant high.  Melting for use in hypodermics was also more difficult.  Due to the more limited supply, street price (at the time I talked to him) had risen to $120 for an 80 mg tablet.  Far more than most addicts could afford.

I asked if such high prices might not tempt professional drug dealers to import tablets from somewhere else.  He agreed that this was indeed possible.  He suggested one likely source might be Canada since Canadian manufacturers had yet to adopt Purdue’s new process. In his mind, a worst-case scenario was the one I used in the book, the large-scale theft and smuggling of Canadian 80’s by boat into Eastport.

Unfortunately, the real worst-case scenario turned out to be heroin.  Confronted with stricter enforcement policies and sky-high street prices, oxycontin addicts in Maine and elsewhere in New England simply turned to a cheaper and more plentiful alternative.

Over the last three years the supply and use of heroin in Maine and other Northern New England states has skyrocketed. Dr. Mark Publicker, an addiction specialist in Portland, was quoted in a Bangor Daily News article as saying  “We had a bad epidemic (before), and now we have a worse epidemic.  I’m treating 21-, 22-year-old pregnant women with intravenous heroin addiction. It’s easier to get heroin in some of these places (in Maine) than it is to get a UPS delivery.”

Most of the heroin used in Maine is grown and processed in Colombia and then crosses the border through Mexico. From there substantial quantities flow up through New York to Lowell or Lawrence, Massachusetts and from there on into Maine.  Instead of $120 for a single oxycontin tablet, a gram of heroin might cost $45 in Lowell or Lawrence and a single dose $5. An addict can cover his own heroin needs and make a profit selling to others by making the drive. Small time dealers from Maine can find even cheaper prices in Boston and New York.

According to an article by Katharine Q. Seelye in the New York Times, “a $6 bag of heroin in New York City fetches $10 in southern New England but up to $30 or $40 in northern New England. The dealer gets a tremendous profit margin, while the addict pays half of what he might have to shell out for (oxycontin)…”

Today, heroin is not only cheaper and more readily available than oxycontin, the high is stronger.  And smack, as its called, is also more addictive. New users who start by injecting small amounts find they quickly need larger and larger doses to get the same high and satisfy the craving. 

All too often the results of heroin addiction can be tragic. Heroin killed 21 people in Maine last year, three times as many as in 2011. Sadly, those numbers are likely to rise further.

Katharine Seelye’s piece in the Times describes one case. She writes: “Theresa Dumond, 23, who lives on the streets of Portland, said she sells her body three times a day to support her heroin habit. She lost custody of her two young children about a year ago (“I can’t keep track”), and their father died.

“I’ve lost everything,” she said as she and a companion, Jason Lemay, 26, walked to an abandoned train tunnel, littered with old needles and trash, to shoot up. “The heroin numbs the pain and makes you not care about life,” she said.

Her only concern now is scoring more heroin. She pays no attention to food and sleeps where she is or in a shelter.”

Can a Writer Retire?

Philip Roth, long one of my favorite writers, recently announced his retirement. In his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side there’s reportedly a post-it note stuck on his computer screen that says, “The struggle with writing is over.”

But how does a writer retire?  Particularly one as single-mindedly devoted to his craft as Roth.

Philip RothFor more than fifty years Roth wrote constantly, turning out book after book from the novella Goodbye Columbus in his early twenties in 1959 to his last, Nemesis published in 2010.  More than thirty books, some better than others, but all with legitimate literary merit.

According to a piece by David Remnick in the New Yorker, “Roth’s writing days were spent in long silence-no distractions, no invitations entertained, no calls, no e-mails. After I wrote a Profile of Roth, around the time of the publication of “The Human Stain,” we would meet every so often, and he told me the story of how a friend had asked him to take care of his kitten. “For a day or two, I played with the cat, but, in the end, it demanded too much attention,” he said. “It consumed me, you see. So I had to ask my friend to take it back.” Four years ago, he told me that he was interested in trying to break the “fanatical habit” of writing, if only as an experiment in alternative living. “So I went to the Met and saw a big show they had. It was wonderful. Astonishing paintings. I went back the next day. I saw it again. Great. But what was I supposed to do next, go a third time? So I started writing again.”

My question is what will he do this time?  Go back to the Met over and over and over? 

Nevertheless Roth claims he has already said what he had to say.   In Remnick’s piece, Roth quotes the boxer Joe Louis  “‘I did the best I could with what I had.’ It’s exactly what I would say of my work: I did the best I could with what I had… I don’t think a new book will change what I’ve already done, and if I write a new book it will probably be a failure. Who needs to read one more mediocre book?”

I repeat my question, what will he do this time.  Keep returning to the Met?  He’s not young.  He turns eighty this year. But his mind is still sharp. His skills have barely diminished, if at all.  And writing a book is not an effort that demands physical strength like mining for coal or loading heavy furniture onto a moving van to help a still-active crime writer move from his island home to Portland.  Most writers, with some obvious exceptions, are not people who worked simply to make money, to amass a fortune and, having amassed it, now want to spend the rest of their days doing something more fun like chasing potential trophy wives. Or doing something more noble like helping hungry children in Africa or starting a foundation.

Philip Roth is and I believe always will be a writer. Being a writer requires a certain turn of mind. To sit (or in Roth’s case stand) at a desk and dream what it is like to live someone else’s life.  Whether you’re Roth who, no doubt, will be long remembered for his best works or James Hayman who almost certainly won’t, a writer writes. And both Roth and I are writers.

Somebody once asked Mel Brooks who is 87, when, if ever, he planned to retire.  He reportedly responded “Retire? Retire from what? I sit in a chair with a pencil and pad and when I think of something that makes me laugh, I write it down.”

I’m considerably younger than either Roth or Brooks. I’ve still got most of my hair, though now it’s mostly silver instead of its original black. And I’m certainly not as obsessive or disciplined about my writing as Roth.  I do go to parties. I do go to movies and museums. I do have lunch with friends. But at the end of the day, or more accurately, at the beginning of the next day, I go back to my writing.  I feel pretty much the way Brooks does. There’s never any reason to retire from a writing career other than Alzheimers , the horrible disease that felled British writer Iris Murdoch.

Harper Lee wrote one book. She published To Kill a Mockingbird in 1961. And, as far as anyone knows, has written little, if anything since.  Like Mel Brooks she’s now 87.  I don’t know how she did it or how she spends her days. But I think she’s an anomaly.

 Some retirees play golf.  Others do good works. Or take care of their grandchildren. Or travel. I’m not a golfer and at this point have no grandchildren. I have enough money not to be forced to put on a blue jacket and welcome people to Walmart. While I’ve served on a few boards, I’m not very good at it.  I’d like to be able to travel but nobody ever said you can’t travel and still write. In fact, writers have the unique luxury of legitimately being able to deduct the cost of travel from their taxes as research or reading tours. Even Amtrak is reportedly offering writers free train rides as “fellowships,” to write and I for one love writing on trains.

Having recently completed and survived a move from our island home to a house in Portland, I’ve started, after an enforced hiatus, to get back to writing my fourth McCabe/Savage thriller.  I’m 17,000 words in and I like what I’ve got so far and, more importantly, I’m enjoying the days I get to spend inside my characters’ heads.  It’s where I want to be.

 I hope, like Elmore Leonard or Mel Brooks, I’ll still be at it when (and if) I hit 87. I just hope that if I am, someone will want to read about the people I bring to life inside my head and on my computer.

 

The Problem With “Nice”

At the risk of appearing Scrooge-like in this season of Merry, Happy and Ho-Ho-Ho, I’d like to add my two cents to a kerfuffle over book reviews that’s been brewing both in the print media and on the Internet for the past month or so.

If you haven’t been following it, the brouhaha started when a popular website called BuzzFeed hired Issac Fitzgerald who used to work as the Publicity Director for Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s Publishing Company, to serve as the editor for its Books Section. Fitzgerald accepted the job because, as he says, “I was missing what I do best, which is talk about books online.”

However, Fitzgerald apparently only likes to talk about books positively, following what he calls The Bambi Rule:  “If you can’t say something nice then don’t say nothing (sic) at all.”  (Fitzgerald acknowledges that the line originally came from Thumper). While the Bambi Rule, whether mouthed first by a rabbit or a fawn, may a good one to follow when one is generating publicity for a book as Fitzgerald used to do but it’s not one legitimate critics or reviewers should be encouraged to follow.

The problem with “nice” is that few, if any, works of fiction are perfect and it is the job of competent reviewers to point what doesn’t work in a book as well as to lavish praise on what does. Reviews should do more than just try to convince people to read the books Fitzgerald or his reviewers fall in love with.

Whether we’re talking about crime fiction, literary fiction or non-fiction, legitimate reviewers should give us a sense of what the author intended and how well they achieved their goals. It should discuss in what ways the book didn’t work as well as the ways in which it did.  Reviews should also provide insights into both the style and quality of the writing.

If the reviewer does their job well, he or she can help people intelligently decide what they want to buy and read.  Just offering an unending stream of nice, as Fitzgerald suggests, isn’t criticism or analysis. At its best, it’s marketing and should be identified as such.  Most of the reader reviews on Amazon and B&N generally fall into this category.  At its worst it’s meaningless pap.

Predictably reaction in both online and traditional media was vociferous.   Both Maureen Dowd and Bob Garfield wrote stinging op-eds on Fitzgerald’s Bambi Rule in the New York Times. Garfield sarcastically ended his piece by noting:

BuzzFeed’s heroic initiative will succeed even if it merely eradicates the depressing negativity that has for so long kept literary criticism from becoming a full-fledged economic sector, like agriculture, transport and erectile dysfunction.

It also brings us one step closer to my two lifelong dreams: first, a newspaper that delivers only good news; and second, diet bacon.”

While I agree with Dowd, Garfield and others who think Fitzgerald is doing readers a disservice, I have to say I also agree that some book reviews and reviewers are unnecessarily––if amusingly––nasty.  I’ve always loved Dorothy Parker’s oft-quoted line,“This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.”

On a decidedly nastier note, Garfield’s column points out that  “The Hatchet Job of the Year Award” went to a reviewer named Camilla Long of the London Times who described a writer named Rachel Cusk’s  memoir of her marital breakup as “a needy, neurotic mandolin solo” written by “a brittle little dominatrix and peerless narcissist.”

That kind of barbed and personal mud-slinging is both nasty and unnecessary. Legitimate constructive  criticism shouldn’t be.  Like any writer, I love getting good reviews and hate getting bad ones.  While I’ve never been the target of anything remotely as ugly as Ms. Long’s poison pen, I would still prefer getting a thoughtful negative review that points out legitimate flaws in my work to one that mindlessly praises it.  Constructive criticism can help me improve my writing and my books.  Empty praise serves no purpose other than to puff up my ego (which admittedly makes me feel good) and to flim-flam potential readers which doesn’t.

A good friend of mine, now in his eighties and a compulsive reader, once asked me how many years I thought I had left in my life.  I offered an optimistic number.  He then asked me to multiply that number by the number of books I usually read in a year.

Even if I made it to the ripe old age I predicted, I was shocked by how few books I’d have time to read before they carried me out.  Given the small number, I’ll continue to depend on good reviewers and thoughtful criticism to help me decide which ones to choose.

I suppose the ultimate problem with “nice” is that it smacks of the philosophy that impels adults to give every kid who participates in a race, even the one who finishes last, equal praise and maybe even a trophy. In literary criticism that simply won’t cut it.

Firing Blind in Iowa

James Hayman:  Imagine a blind cop or maybe a private eye whose sense of hearing or maybe smell is so acute he/she can use it to ferret it out a bad guy and make the arrest. It makes an appealing premise for the hero of a crime series.  And its actually been tried a few times in the past, mostly on TV.

Actor James Franciscus starred as blind insurance investigator Mike Longstreet (who I don’t think carried a gun) in a TV series way back in the 70’s that ran for a couple of seasons.  Six or seven years ago, Steven Bocheo, whose other credits included major hits like Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue, tried it again with a short lived show called Blind Justice.  And more recently the PBS series Mystery ran a show called Second Sight about a British police detective named Ross Tanner who manages to hide his gradual loss of sight over the course of two seasons and copes by developing his other senses.

In detective novels, the uncanny enhancement of untapped senses by blind detectives has also been a running theme. Way back in 1914 a writer named Ernest Smith wrote a successful series featuring a sightless sleuth named Max Carrados, who sharpens his hearing skills till he’s able to perceive sounds normally inaudible to humans. He also gathers evidence through his bloodhound-like sense of smell.  And a 1941 mystery titled The Odor of Violets featured a blind detective who also solved crimes by development of his other senses.

However crime writers on TV and in fiction, even those with blind heroes,  have generally shied away from having them pack heat or blast away at a bunch of bad guys with Glock 17’s.  And for good reason. A, It sounds imbecilic. B, it is imbecilic. And C, having a blind cop blasting away at a bunch of innocent bystanders because he thinks they smell like the bad guys would tend to make him unpopular with readers..

Today, however, reality has once again trumped fiction. The Iowa state legislature recently passed a law that, according to ABC News, “allows the legally or completely blind to acquire permits to carry guns in public.”

Applicants for gun permits in Iowa are now only required to take a firearm safety course to obtain a permit.  But the course can be taken online and does not include a vision test or vision requirement. Which means that in Iowa, blind people now have the same right to carry guns as sighted persons and the same right to use them in circumstances of “self-defense.”  Apparently, it didn’t much matter to the legislators who passed the bill that blind people can’t see who they’re shooting at. It would be sublime justice, if the first victim turned out to be a legislator.

Nonetheless, some people in Iowa think the new law is just swell. Several advocates for the blind say the law squares nicely with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and that the same restrictions that apply to sighted people should also apply to the blind when it comes to guns.

While personally, I’m all for giving equal opportunity to people with disabilities,  the idea of giving the blind equal access to guns scares the hell out of me. I think the idea’s ridiculous. And more than a little frightening.   Using Iowa’s logic, shouldn’t the state  start granting drivers licenses to the blind because they should have equal access to transportation. Or perhaps commercial pilots licenses to give the blind  equal access to relatively high-paid jobs in commercial aviation.

I can see it now. There you are, settling uncomfortably into your cramped window seat and buckling your seatbelt.  Suddenly a confident and manly voice comes over the intercom.  “Welcome aboard Iowa Airlines Flight 232 from Des Moines to Cedar Rapids. I’m  your pilot Captain Dick Daring and I should mention that I’ve been totally blind all my life. But don’t worry about a thing folks. I’ve got a fabulous sense of smell and I’ve been sniffing my way to Cedar Rapids airport for years now.”

The ABC News report quotes Cedar County (Iowa) Sheriff Warren Wethington: “There is no reason why someone who is blind, if properly trained, can’t operate or use a handgun or any weapon just as safely as any person who isn’t visually impaired. I have a permit to carry. It doesn’t restrict me in times of low vision. My permit is still good in heavy fog, it’s good in low light, it’s good anytime that my vision is obstructed.   If I’m in a room that is low light or total darkness, my permit is still valid, even if I can’t see better than a totally blind person.”

Wethington doesn’t address the question of whether he or any other sighted person ought to be using his or her gun either in “total darkness” or in “heavy fog.” But then he’s the Sheriff.

There is some opposition to this local version of “Blind Justice,” but it’s not very vociferous.  “I have some reservations about full access for people who are blind,” said Patrick Clancy, superintendent of the Iowa Braille and Sight Saving School in Vinton, Iowa. “That’s just because shooting requires a lot of vision to be accurate outside of controlled settings with safety courses.”  No kidding, Patrick.