Sep 292014

Jeff Cohen

For those of you who've been asking, yes, Question of Missing HeadTHE QUESTION OF THE MISSING HEAD is indeed going to be available as an ebook for virtually any reader you own. The big e-book sites should now have it listed. Sorry for the delay.

Also: The MISSING HEAD CHALLENGE is growing! Take a picture of yourself with your copy (or the title page on your e-reader) and post it on Twitter or Facebook. For the first 100 people who do so on publication day October 8, I'll donate $3--to be matched by Josh's HSG Agency--to the Autism SPectrum Education Network (ASPEN). A little over a week to go!

And I'm told that our very own Terri's Midnight Ink, which is publishing THE QUESTION OF THE MISSING HEAD will also match the donation, so make sure you get a book on October 8 and post that picture--you'll be donating $9 to ASPEN without spending an extra dime!

An Author's Journey

  1. Trying to get an idea: Why didn't I get a REGULAR job?
  2. Not trying to get an idea--the idea comes! I LOVE this! I have to write it immediately!
  3. Sitting down to write: Um... I know where I want to go... how do I START?
  4. Starting: I'll fix this later.
  5. Procrastinate.
  6. Naming characters: Where are phone books when you need them?
  7. Plot begins: Okay, this time be careful about the timeline.
  8. First third: This is all exposition! I can't write!
  9. Procrastinate.
  10. Middle: I'm adding plot twists just to get to the end of a chapter. I can't write!
  11. Exact midpoint in word count: You mean this thing isn't over yet?
  12. Beginning second half: There is no way this is going to stretch over 80,000 words.
  13. Wake up at 3 a.m.: Now I know who the murderer is! Go back to sleep, honey.
  14. Plod through to 2/3rds point: Do I remember everything about my story?
  15. Forget a story point from p. 23 and have to fix it: I can't write!
  16. Notice you're on p. 186 and one of your characters hasn't been seen since p. 17: Cut or rewrite? CUT!
  17. Having cut, you are now 1000 words lower than yesterday: I could double up today or...
  18. Procrastinate.
  19. Kick into gear to drive toward an ending: Wait! Now the day I'm writing has to be 75 hours long!
  20. Visualize the ending: I'm going to sleep for a week.
  21. Write the climactic scene: I was trying to AVOID the killer explaining it all! Oh, well...
  22. Write the aftermath: Favorite part. Get the Haagen Dazs softened.
  23. Type in THE END: I am a genius author! Except for all those rough parts.
  24. Do a "quick" read-through before submission. This will take a week! How could I write THAT?
  25. Submit manuscript to author. Now I really WILL sleep for a week.
  26. Wake up at 3 a.m.: Wait! This one plot point negates the whole story!
  27. Contact editor with instructions not to read previously submitted manuscript. I'm an idiot.
  28. Read through book AGAIN, fixing problems. If I have to look at p. 1 again, I'm going to throw up.
  29. Wait months. I have forgotten how to write.
  30. Get editorial letter. The whole thing is a disaster! I have to rewrite from p. 1!
  31. Re-read editorial letter the next day: Actually, this shouldn't be too bad.
  32. Procrastinate.
  33. Do all rewrites in two days: I'm a fireman, putting out fires...
  34. Receive questions for editor: Timeline problems??? Can't someone else solve this? 
  35. Get approved for publication: Finally done with this one!
  36. Get first-pass pages: This thing again? Wasn't this published two years ago?
  37. Return first pass pages: I am king of the world! This book is finally done!
  38. Get questions from production editor: I HATE THIS BOOK!
  39. Publication day: This is the best thing I've ever done.
Sep 292014

Who shot solicitor Sampson Warrenby? The man certainly had more than his share of enemies in the English town of Thornden - richly deserved them too, as far as anyone could tell. Chief Inspector Hemingway of Scotland Yard, who was sent down to investigate the murder, anticipated a difficult case. But he really didn't expect that just about everyone in town would be eager to offer possible solutions - and an assortment of possible villains - to the police. As one resident observed to the chief inspector, “Between you and me and the gate-post, there’s a bit too much amateur detection going on in Thornden!”

Is it a mystery? Or a sophisticated comedy of manners? Actually, it's a little of both. It's Georgette Heyer's last mystery, Detection Unlimited, first published in 1953, and it's the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast. You can listen to the entire review by clicking here.

 I suspect that Georgette Heyer's Regency romance novels have a wider readership than do her mysteries. That's a shame; her plots were usually quite clever and her writing full of a dry humor. She knew the standard ingredients readers expected to find in small-English-village murder mysteries, and she could undermine them very nicely indeed. 

In Detection Unlimited, when the unpopular and unsympathetic Sampson Warrenby is murdered, the local chief constable decides that too many of the potential suspects are his friends, so he calls in Scotland Yard. Enter Chief Inspector Hemingway and his assistant, Inspector Harbottle. They find far too many unanswered questions – and far too many suspects, none of whom seems to have any sort of alibi for the time the murder must have been committed. For that matter, there was no shortage of possible motives. What they also found was a town full of people who treated the murder almost as a new form of entertainment. After all, as one older female resident of Thornden put it, "although it was disagreeable to persons of their generation to have a murder committed in their midst, it was very nice for the children to have something to occupy them, Thornden being such a quiet place, with really nothing to do in it at this season except to play tennis."

So will Chief Inspector Hemingway and Inspector Harbottle be able to cut through all these helpful suggestions and figure out what really happened – who wanted Sampson Warrenby dead and why? Read Detection Unlimited and find out. It's available both in print and in electronic versions.

The Challenge

As it happens, I don't own this particular Heyer book, but my town's library had it in stock and on the shelf - and so I borrowed it. And part of my continuing commitment to the Vintage Mystery Bingo Reading Challenge under way at the My Reader's Block blog, I am submitting this to cover the Bingo square calling for "one book that you have to borrow (you do not own)." For details about the challenge, and what I'm doing for it, please click here.

That Which Does Not Kill…

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Sep 282014

It’s no surprise to my blog followers that a little weather disturbance threw me for a loop on Sept. 15th.

Specifically, the largest hurricane on record to make landfall in Baja. California, scored a direct hit where I live.

For those that wonder what being in a category 3 or 4 hurricane is like, consider a jet on takeoff in the rain. If you’ve ever flown in a storm, you know how the water appears to be moving sideways at such speed it could strip paint.

That’s what it’s like. Only worse. Because it keeps going for hour after relentless hour.

The real irony is that when the eye of the storm hovers overhead, and you’ve just spent three or four hours of damage control on all the east-facing doors and windows, and for a half hour of exhausted relief you think you’ve made it…then everything reverses, and the winds hit from the opposite direction, adding insult to injury for another three or so hours and bringing the hurt from the opposite side, so all your damage control does nothing and you have to start all over again.

The main storm really started to batter at eight pm. Power went out at eight-twenty. Fortunately I’d prepared, and had flashlights, batteries, candles, etc. ready. I also had hurricane protection across my large glass areas. Canned food. Tons of bottled water. Tequila. Dog food.

When you live in a home that’s built out of steel and concrete, not much should worry you. Not fire – concrete doesn’t burn. Not rain – it’s not like it melts. Not wind – doesn’t blow away.

That’s how I was thinking. By around ten o’clock, as water poured beneath my front door (and through it, where the wood joints connect) and the windows were flexing in their aluminum frames, I revised my opinion. By eleven, as my hands cramped from wringing towels into a bucket to dump down the shower drain, I revised my thinking again. Even with hurricane protection in place, every window became a river – there’s no way to 100% seal a window under 130-140 mph pressure. I discovered that rolling up garbage bags and stuffing them into the tracks slowed the flow by maybe 50%, so rushing rivers become more manageable streams. But we’re talking every room quickly becoming a lake, no matter what you do.

By the time the storm had blown past, around four a.m., I was beat, and beaten.

The next day was a landscape straight out of hell.

My house experienced some damage – roof tiles that blew off with such force they took chunks of the cement slab beneath with them, exterior wrought iron lamps that blew away, an iron door that tore off its hinges and flew who knows where, uprooted palms, debris everywhere. But as I walked the alien landscape that was my neighborhood, I realized I’d been extremely fortunate. My next door neighbor’s front doors had blown in, his windows had broken, a tree had torn part of his roof off, and the storm had basically roared through his home for six hours. No need to belabor the effects of high-pressure water on plaster, paint, carpentry, or furniture. Suffice it to say it’s not pretty. Another house up the street was missing all its windows. Its garage door was crumpled in the middle of the street about fifty yards away like discarded tissue. The place on the other side of me had steel storm shutters across most of its windows – a great idea. The problem is the several that didn’t (because they were considered structurally sound enough to withstand 150 mph winds) blew out, as did the double front doors, exposing the new home to the full wrath of the storm. As I walked past it, I noted that the garage door had also blown in,  probably from the pressure change when the windows went, the resulting debris totaling the two cars inside.

All of these places are built out of cinderblock and rebar. Otherwise there would be nothing left. I got to the security area near the entrance, where an administration trailer had been – a big one, maybe forty feet – and it was gone. There were a few desks scattered around the area, but no trailer. Trees had blown down, and through doors and windows, and the entire entrance was clogged with debris and broken glass and bits of peoples’ homes. Of thirty houses I looked at, half were devastated. As in, wrath of god, biblical end times, devastated. Most residents had left before the storm hit, or use their homes as winter homes and so weren’t there. So thankfully there weren’t too many people around to be injured in my subdivision.

An exception was my neighbor, who suffered deep lacerations from broken glass that claimed most of his hand. The doctor was apologetic about lacking any morphine or local anesthetic while she dug shards out before stitching the gashes up – everything had been destroyed by the storm, the hospital flooded, the windows broken, supplies blown to the far horizon. Another victim was brought in by a weeping woman as we left – a pane of glass had sliced his entire left side, from his ribcage, all the way down his back, wide open. He didn’t look like he was going to make it. The doctors were doing what they could for him when we pulled away. There were more cars limping toward the hospital, through two feet of water, the effects of broken glass and flying debris lethal.

Anyone who wants a feel for what the aftermath was like should google Hurricane Odile, Cabo, and look at the pictures. I can assure you they are the tame version.

The looters appeared the night after the storm. I won’t belabor this, but let me say, on the record, that the looting destroyed almost as much of the area as the hurricane. My heart was heavy as I watched the poor, those from the barrios who had just lost their homes, looting every retail store they could get to. Desperation does strange things. 95% of the population behaved honorably. The 5% that didn’t were those in true need…and those who viewed it as a chance to prey on others without consequences.

It took the Mexican government almost six days to get sufficient troops in to stop the looting. I stayed for five of those days, doing what I could to help my neighbors, absent power, water, food, gasoline. I decided to pull out when the flashlights of looters swarmed over the community one over from mine, like glowbugs after dark, the only sound that of glass shattering as they broke into homes. When my maintenance guy appeared the next day to check in with me, he advised against being on the road. There were rumors of truckloads of armed thugs going neighborhood to neighborhood, robbing and shooting anyone who resisted. Apparently a lack of accountability emboldens the criminally inclined, and after five days, there was nothing that was off limits to them.

When I left, I followed a police truck out of town. My last recollection is of driving past two men who were in the process of robbing a small, family-owned tire store located on the far edge of town, stuffing the bed of their late-model Dodge truck full with free tires. This for me typified what had gone on – those preying on their neighbors because they could, rather than out of desperation or necessity. It was a tiny minority, but numbered in the thousands – when I drove by the looting of Costco on night number two or three, there were hundreds of vehicles there. Would that this was mass hysteria over getting sufficient food to feed the baby. Maybe some of it was, but mostly it was guys loading refrigerators and big screen TVs into SUVs.

To put it into perspective, Wal Mart, Sams Club, City Club, Costco…none were damaged by the storm. They made it through fine. As I drove by them, all were gutted and looked like battles had been fought around them.

I will return as soon as there’s dependable power and food. Right now that looks like a week away. Hopefully. There’s some power to some areas, and then it goes off as the 110 transformers that were initially shipped in error instead of the 220s that should have been, blow up, adding weeks to the mess.

I’m fine. I got off light. My bruises, scrapes, etc. are healing or healed. I’m on mainland, the dogs are safe, all is well.

But on the list of things I never want to do again, this is one of them. Been there, done that, got the shirt.

I have sketchy internet where I am, so won’t be online a lot. Sorry about that. Moving around with a couple of big dogs is challenging. The sparrow is doing well – my maintenance guy’s cousin is at my house, daily, doing essential repairs, feeding and watering her.

Hopefully things will get back to normal soon. But it will be a long time until I can drive by Wal Mart and not see it by bonfire as looters run amok, frenzied grins at getting something for nothing on their faces, or see Vinoteca (a large specialty wine store) being looted by guys in Mercedes SUVs, breaking the glass of the rare cognac section with a fire extinguisher so they can get to the really good stuff. Because, hey, someone’s going to get it if they don’t, and right now it’s free, right?

The problem being, of course, that there’s always a price. Nothing’s ever free. For the Los Cabos area, I fear that the price will be paid for years to come. Paradise lost for a TV or a washing machine or a fridge.

To say I’m saddened by my fellow man is a serious understatement. But I’m not surprised. If anything, I’m surprised not by the number of predatory and opportunistic, but by the number of honorable, good people who did the right thing and didn’t join in. Alas, it doesn’t take many of the bad, who dress and behave like the good until a disaster hits, to ruin it for everyone.

Human nature. You see it in all disaster areas. New Orleans. The Ukraine. The Middle East. The list is endless.

I suppose to hope that we as a species are better than we actually are is foolish. We are, at our core, our own worst enemies.

The government is being commended for its rapid action. For five days after the disaster, it did nothing and allowed criminals to run amok. The media spin is BS. It took six days for them to stop looting and impose a curfew, and the road to La Paz down which the trucks rolled had been open the entire time. They could have been here within 12 hours. Instead it took almost a week.

I hear everything’s now back to normal, being cleaned up, rebuilt as well as is possible to do without dependable power. I’ll be heading back once I hear from my neighbor that the electricity’s been on for more than a few hours, and there’s food in the stores. Until then, I’ll continue my refugee existence – hopefully not for too much longer.

Oh, and before I forget, if you want to do something worthwhile, want to help, go to the website for the Los Cabos Humane Society and donate. The animals got the worst of it. If misery has a face, it’s an animal after a hurricane. They’ll need all the help they can get. I plan to donate time and money upon my return. If you feel stirred to do so yourself, there’s no better cause.

That’s the update. Now go buy my crap – someone’s got to replace the lost tequila, and it ain’t buying itself.


Sep 282014

Critically celebrated novelist Scott Spencer—writing as Chase Novak—delivers a Rosemary’s Baby-like novel of gothic horror, set against the backdrop of modern-day Upper East Side Manhattan. You can download the eBook for $2.99 from now until October 6th. Gorge yourself on this chilling tale, and get ready for the sequel, Brood, which lands in bookstores on October 7th.

Google Play | iBooks | Nook | Kobo

Sep 282014

Jessy Randall

Did you know that the author of the first detective novel was a woman, Anna Katharine Green?

No, I'm not saying the first woman author of a detective novel was Anna Katharine Green. I'm saying that the first author of a detective novel was Anna Katharine Green, a woman.


Shouldn't we have heard of her before? Why haven't we heard of her?! Is it because of the patriarchy? Is it because her books aren't widely read any more? Bit of both, I'm guessing, but let's look into it.

She was born in 1846 and published The Leavenworth Case, the first detective novel EVER by ANYONE, in 1878. You can download the full text of the novel from the Gutenberg Project for free.

More next week.


Sep 282014
I don't believe I've ever read anything by Kenneth Gilbert, but I love the title of his yarn in this issue of ACTION STORIES: "The Menace of Mastodon Valley". I'd read that right now if I had a copy. The only other authors in this issue I'm familiar with are Victor Rousseau and Frank Richardson Pierce, both consistently entertaining pulpsters. I'll bet all the stories are pretty good, though.
Sep 282014


Marilyn Thiele

I try to stay away from all those quizzes on Facebook. I don’t really need to know which fantasy character I am or what my career should be (I think it’s a little late for another change at this point). But I can’t resist the ones that give me a chance to show how smart I am. Of course, I’m selective. After all, I want to reinforce my self-image (matching authors to titles, vocabulary), not be reminded of what I don’t know (music, art, film). Recently a lot of Geography quizzes have come across my news feed, shared by high school friends, who also are happily reassured that our faculties are not failing yet. We had to study Geography as a separate class for an entire year (7th grade), and although a lot has changed since then, the states and capitals are still the same, as are the locations of continents. We also were taught to read newspapers and magazines for information and to place on a mental map the area under discussion. Thus, I believe our training has allowed us to keep up with the moving boundaries and changing names, despite the media’s efforts to eliminate such extraneous information in favor of celebrity updates.

I plan at some future date to rant about examples of why it is no longer a rational idea to tell young readers to peruse news, printed or on-line, in order to improve vocabulary and grammar. For now, my thoughts are back in those golden years of primary and secondary education. Remember that separate class in “Civics”? We learned how the government works. Of course, now that we are older we know how it REALLY works, but at least we understand the ideal. When asked the three branches of government, my classmates and I are not likely to respond, “Police Department, Fire Department, and Post Office,” one current student’s answer.  

Geography, Civics, History: all now combined into “Social Studies,” and all given short shrift. At least the vestiges remain. The subject that is on the brink of extinction is Handwriting. No more circling with the clutched pencil, no more letters with fancy loops tacked above the blackboard, no more lined paper to show where the tops (and bottoms) of the letters should go. The handwritten report has yielded to the keyboard. The tortured hours spent obeying those lines, remembering where the loops went, correctly connecting the letters (I still can’t deal with “j” and “q”) did not create a society with lovely, legible penmanship. Everyone developed their own style, from flowing to chicken scratching. Or is it our own style? I have observed that my handwriting is amazingly like my father’s. My son’s is an almost an exact match for his father, who died before he was born. My husband tells me that his writing resembles that of one of his aunts’. Whether our penmanship is genetic or acquired, all those circles and worksheets had little impact on what our cursive writing looks like now.

Still, we learned cursive writing. Handwritten notes in class and handwritten reports were the norm, because there was no alternative. I remember getting extra credit for typewritten reports in high school, having been fortunate enough to be able to take a touch-typing class and to have been given a typewriter as a gift from my godfather. (One aside from this early feminist: The best piece of advice I was given upon graduation from college was never to admit that I could type. I would wind up with a typist’s job no matter what I was really hired to do. I kept my secret, but saw what happened to those who didn’t.)

Now “keyboarding” is a required subject, and students take notes on little tablets (but not with chalk!). The report is spell-checked, there are no “white-outs," and the printed form is required. The advantages are obvious: neater work, teachers who can focus on the content of the submission rather than trying to decipher it, students who can easily edit without rewriting pages and pages. However, the advantages of using the keyboard rather than the pen to take notes seem to be coming into question.

I have always enjoyed the physical act of writing and find myself at times copying quotations I want to remember in longhand rather than cutting and pasting or typing. The words seem to find a place in my brain when laboriously copied. I am an inveterate note taker and list maker. Once I have written something with pen and paper, it stays with me whether or not I ever look at the paper again. When notes or lists or dates are entered on the phone, it’s as if I never saw them. And I don’t have the discipline to rigorously check my little machine. I assumed that this was one of the many quirks of this odd, out-of-touch relic of a former time. Some recent research indicates that my “quirk” is the way the human mind works, and that the substitution of keyboards for pens in note-taking may not be one of the improvements technology has brought us.

An article in The Washington Post last April entitled “Why students using laptops learn less in class even when they really are taking notes” described studies showing that students typing notes were inclined to write verbatim what they heard, with the brain as a pass-through device between ear and hand. Those who took notes the slower, old-fashioned way, had to synthesize and summarize the information, picking up on key words and ideas, thus engaging parts of the brain beyond those needed for the mechanics of typing. In addition, those students frequently “recopied” their notes as a form of study, filling in what they were unable to get on paper the first time, thus reinforcing the information.

It would seem then that those who use electronic devices should slow down and use their brains in the same way as those writing in longhand. Easier said than done. Research subjects found it difficult if not impossible to stop typing verbatim notes, and other research has shown that the hand has a “unique relationship with the brain when it comes to composing thoughts and ideas.”  So my use of handwritten notes to implant information in my brain is not a quirk, but the way the human body is wired.

New technologies lead to the temptation to throw away the older methods which appear to be of no further use. Physical books seem (to some) no longer necessary. (You knew I’d get to that, didn’t you?) Teaching cursive writing has been belittled as a waste of time. It would be better to use the old and the new, each for the tasks to which they are best suited. Use the laptop for creating legible, well-edited papers and reports; but teach the young to write by hand so that they can use the full capacity of the brain. And maybe a little Geography and Civics wouldn’t hurt.

Sep 272014

HORROR ISLAND. Universal Pictures, 1941. Dick Foran, Leo Carrillo, Peggy Moran, Fuzzy Knight, John Eldredge, Lewis Howard, Hobart Cavanaugh, Walter Catlett, Ralf Harolde, Iris Adrian. Director: George Waggner.

   Sometimes you’re expecting one thing and you get something else. Not all the time, not most of the time. It’s actually rather seldom, and sometimes it doesn’t turn out well at all. But when it does — and I imagine you’ve guessed by now that this is one of those times — it’s makes you feel great just to be able to stand up and tell other people about it.

   Or maybe just a little foolish.

   Horror Island may not be to all tastes. You have to be fond of creaky but often still entertaining tales of old dark houses or mansions, isolated for one reason or another from the rest of the world — snowbound, stormbound (lots of thunder and lightning), or the like — filled with strangers, mostly, with some kind of evil or sinister presence among them, or controlling them in weird or evil ways for some nefarious purpose unknown.

   And — of course! — lots of hidden panels and secret passageways, suits of armor perhaps with eyes peering out from within, painting with peepholes and in active use. You know what I mean. It’s all kind of silly and fun, except when the dead bodies start to pile up, at which point your sense of make believe has to kick in. The actors are not taking this all very seriously, so why should you?

   What makes Horror Island a little different is that it takes place on (guess what) an island, where two enterprising entrepreneurs (Dick Foran and Fuzzy Knight) have created a tourist trap mystery-adventure cruise, complete with a castle-like mansion and all the trimmings (see above). And naturally a treasure map that helps attract a small boatful of various individuals of both genders and with all kinds of motives (not all of them good).

   Even though this came in a boxset of DVDs entitled Universal Horror: Classic Movie Archive (along with such non-ringers as The Black Cat, Man Made Monster, Night Monster and Captive Wild Woman), you will noticed that I have classified this as a comedy as well as a mystery. And so it is, and if you’re in the same mindset as I am, it’s a gem.

 Posted by at 8:01 pm