Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Kenya 2014: The Drive of a Lifetime

On Day Four of the Old Africa Magazine tour of the World War I Battlefields of Kenya, we went in  search of a church an a house that figured in the life an amazing and scary character named Vladimir Verbi, who plays a colorful part in the war between British East Africa and German East Africa.  I will tell more about him soon.  In the meanwhile, here is a glance at the incredible scenery of the peaceful Bura Valley where Africans farm terraces and live surrounded by splendid vistas. 

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Annamaria Alfieri

Monday, August 25, 2014

P.I. Philip Marlowe, My Hero, in THE LONG GOODBYE

Mike Welch continues his ruminations on Raymond Chandler’s Immortal Private-Eye.

My cousin Jamie has a complicated attitude about God: “I don’t know if he exists,” he says, “but if he does, he’s got some explaining to do.”

I think Philip Marlowe has a similar attitude. He finds himself wanting to hold on to something of real value in a universe where everything is worthless. He is at once an existentialist who would, like Ahab, strike through the mask, and a romantic who would bring back chivalry. In fact, that gesture, that thrust through that mask, is at once a kind of defiance—a cry in the wilderness against a creator who makes chivalry impossible—then a chivalric gesture. I think Marlowe would like to imagine there is some kind of malevolent, or at least indifferent creator hiding behind that mask, and that, with a bit of luck, he might poke him or her in the eye.

Marlowe is a hero, or at least an anti-hero, and as such he defends the values of community, is a bulwark against the raging chaos lying in wait outside the city walls; or in his case, within the city limits of a malignant L.A., a tropical paradise where the golden fruit on the trees is poisoned. He is to be admired.

But can you both admire, and have sympathy for a hero? Can you feel his loneliness, his isolation, at the same time you marvel at his ability to risk everything for values you only pay lip service to? Why not? Most heroes I can think of are lonely. Even if they have a chance at Love and Friendship, it is ultimately thwarted: King Arthur betrayed by Lancelot and Guinevere, Jesus by Judas and Peter, Aeneas by the Roman destiny that awaits him as he sails away from Carthage, even as Dido’s funeral pyre illuminates the wine dark sea.

Great heroes are lonely figures. If they bring civilization to us, if they bring law and order, peace and prosperity, they suffer for it. And part of that suffering is their solitude. Of course, the trio above got something for their efforts: Arthur brings civilization to the savage Britons, Aeneas turns Troy’s tragedy into Rome’s triumph, and Jesus, well, all he does is save mankind from eternal damnation.

In Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye, Marlowe gets nothing. He invests something in his friend Terry Lennox, or at least he invests in the idea of friendship, only to be disappointed. And he finds deceit and murder underneath the glamorous surface of the Wades, a couple he befriends in spite of himself. And finally, a beautiful and rich woman, Linda Lorring, the sister of Sylvia Lennox, the one whose murder kicks off this carnival ride of homicide and deceit (not necessarily in that order), offers herself to him, offers him a way out of the solitary drunken asceticism (if there be such a thing) he has held to since The Big Sleep—holds to still at age 42—as he turns her down.

Is there some kind of personality flaw in Marlowe? Can’t he be a hero and a happy family man, or at least the kind of guy who will have more than a gravedigger witness his burial? Or maybe only someone like Marlowe himself would turn up at that graveside, someone who didn’t really know how to be a friend, but wanted to make a friendly gesture, to affirm the idea of friendship, to say in some symbolic way that someone like Marlowe, someone who stood for something, should be acknowledged.

Chandler lets us know precious little about Marlowe. We know he once played football, he knows fighters and fighting, he plays solitary games of chess against the great masters. He is cultured, but not in a hurry to let everyone know it—in The Long Goodbye, he mentions Kafka and Dante, Toscanini and Hindemith, but only in asides to the reader, or in response to people who would try to get an intellectual leg up on him.

Solitary drinker, chess player, thinker, mensch. And yet, he calls himself a native son, both parents dead, recipient of an high school football injury. Just a regular guy, but you wonder what turned him sour and angry. What great ache or rage drives him?

Lost love? The loss of his parents? Was he a veteran like Terry Lennox, carrying psychological wounds that will never heal? At one point, Marlowe does say, when referring to the corrupted and corruptible world he finds himself in: “We have that kind of world. Two wars gave it to us, and we are going to keep it.” But it’s better that Chandler not make the hurt explicit, so we can project our own great hurts onto Marlowe. And maybe it isn’t something specific anyway, but just that Marlowe sees this ugly world too clearly.

It’s not the plot of The Long Goodbye I find most compelling. You know all along that pretty surfaces will be penetrated only to find ugly depths, and they are. Everyone ends up somehow culpable, except perhaps the writer Wade, who is duped into thinking he may have killed Lennox’s wife, Sylvia. Of Wade, Marlowe says to his wife Eileen, “Your husband is a guy who can take a good hard look at himself and see what is there. It’s not a very common gift.” Perhaps a kindred spirit, this Wade, and so he comes a cropper.

And Terry Lennox, whom Marlowe helps to escape to Mexico, whom Marlowe later thinks is dead and may have been framed for the murder of Lennox, shows up at the end of the novel, having not been killed or committed suicide, instead having escaped into a new life, selfishly. Lennox could have helped bring the real killer to justice, but did nothing. Marlowe says to him: “You had standards and you lived up to them, but they were personal. They had no relation to any kind of scruples or ethics. You’re a moral defeatist. I think maybe the War did it and then again maybe you were born that way.” And so, Lennox has not lived up to Marlowe’s standards, does not have a Code to live by, in spite of the absurdity of having a code in an absurd universe.

Perhaps the closest thing Marlowe has to a friend is Bernie Ohls, the cop who is always threatening to throw him in jail for good, “… a tough hard cop with a grim outlook, but a very decent guy underneath.” Maybe he is the guy who will show at the graveside, which even Marlowe knows will be sparsely attended: “I’m a guy, who if he gets knocked off in an alley somewhere, nobody will feel the bottom has dropped out of his or her life.” In spite of his anger at Marlowe for taking the law into his own hands, Ohls saves Marlowe from being killed (in both The Big Sleep and The long Goodbye. As people on both sides of the law seek to take Marlowe down, Ohls respects his nemesis-gumshoe for living by his Code, consequences be damned.

At novel’s end, Linda Lorring, sister to the murdered Sylvia, has an assignation with Marlowe. Of course, there is a lot of yakking about what they are doing there, and what they want, and Marlowe has to get her good and pissed off before he beds her—this is the Marlowe M.O. with his women—but the bottom line is he respects her. Maybe she is one rich broad who is not all shiny on the surface and all tarnish underneath. He says: “You’re spoiled a little—not too much—by money.” It’s about the nicest thing Marlowe ever says to a woman, but he goes on about his independence, about the illusion of love, and finally, “I pulled her close and she cried against my shoulder. She wasn’t in love with me and we both knew it. She wasn’t crying over me. It was just time for her to shed a few tears.” And so Marlowe turns down her millions and keeps his integrity, and stays alone at an age on the precipice of permanent bachelorhood.

Some critics see misogyny in Marlowe’s (and perhaps Chandler, if there is no ironic distance between author and narrator) treatment of women, and perhaps they are right. More to the point, however, it is sound authorial plotting and believable characterization. Marlowe’s mistrust of women allows Chandler to keep his hero solitary. Heroes have to be single-minded and separate from the community they protect, never to completely belong. As Marlowe says when he contemplates living the quiet suburban family life: “You take it friend, I’ll take the sordid, crooked city.” And I’m glad he does.

Mike Welch

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Murder at the Crime Writing Awards

Mistress of Comedy Hails from Oakville, Ontario

When I first read Melodie Campbell's humor I laughed so loud the Mayor of New York yelled over from the Mansion on Gracie Square to pipe down! I love people who can write " Funny." They rank a seat on Mt. Olympus! I can't write "Funny" too good, so I really bow to this gift!

The top Exec Director of Crime Writers of Canada and winner of the 2014 Derringer for Best Crime Novella, she has been called "The Queen of Comedy" by the Toronto Sun.

Her 7th novel,
The Artful Goddaughter, comes out this fall.

 Her words poke you in the jaw: Here are a few samples:

"Comedy is not languorous. It does not usually come from elegiac sentences and glistening prose… it hits and jabs and takes you by surprise."

"The purpose of crime fiction should be to Entertain, and nothing should come before that… Put me in the mind of a serial killer for a few hours. Let me know what it feels like to experience the overwhelming greed of a con artist. Dress me up as a torch singer, with a black heart and a gun in her stocking."

"Let me discover something about how other people think, if only for a little while. But above all else, entertain me."

"Just tell me a damn good story, thank you. Take me out of the real world for a few hours."

"An early mentor, a guy, once called me a Literary Slut, when referring to my tendency to write in several genres—and sometimes several genres at once!"

"It could be that men and women read the same novels for different things. Or maybe… we just all need escape… Reality TV doesn't do it for many of us. Who the heck needs more reality?"

"Bring on the fantasy, I say! Make my suspense sizzle!"

Please welcome Melodie Campbell!

Thelma Jacqueline Straw (who would love to write like Melodie when she grows up!)

Murder at the Crime Writing Awards. Okay, I haven’t done it yet. But I may soon.

I’m the Executive Director of a well-known crime writing association. This means I am also responsible for the Arthur Ellis Awards, Canada’s annual crime writing awards night, and the resulting banquet.

I’ve planned hundreds of special events in my career as a marketing professional. I’ve managed conferences with 1000 people attending, scarfing down three meals a day. Usually, we offer a few choices, and people choose what they want. They’re pretty good about that. People sit where they want. Simple.

Granted, most of my events have been with lab techs, doctors, nurses, and other health care professionals.

It is not the same with authors. Nothing is simple with authors.


A can’t sit with B, because A is in competition with B for Best Novel. C can’t sit with D because C is currently outselling D. E can’t sit with F because they had an affair (which nobody knows about. Except they do. At least, the seven people who contacted me to warn me about this knew.) G can’t sit with H because G’s former agent is at that table and they might kill each other. And everyone wants to sit with J.


The damned meal is chicken. This is because we are allowed two choices and we have to provide for the vegetarians. We can’t have the specialty of the house, lamb, because not everyone eats lamb. We can’t have salmon as the vegetarian choice, because some vegetarians won’t eat fish.

So we’re stuck with bloody chicken again.

P writes that her daughter is lactose intolerant. Can she have a different dessert?

K writes that she is vegetarian, but can’t eat peppers. Every damned vegetarian choice has green or red pepper in it.

L writes that she wants the chicken, but is allergic to onion and garlic. Can we make hers without?

M writes that her daughter is a vegan, so no egg or cheese, thanks. Not a single vegetarian choice comes that way.

I am quickly moving to the “you’re getting chicken if I have to shove it down your freaking throat” phase.

Chef is currently threatening the catering manager with a butcher’s knife. I am already slugging back the cooking wine. And by the time people get here, this may be a Murder Mystery dinner.


Nobody got murdered, but a few got hammered.

Melodie Campbell

Billed as Canada’s “Queen of Comedy" by the Toronto Sun (Jan. 5, 2014,) some folks would say Melodie has had a decidedly checkered past. Don’t dig too deep. You might find cement shoes.

Her crime series,
The Goddaughter, is about a wacky mob family in Hamilton aka The Hammer. This has no resemblance whatsoever to the wacky Sicilian family she grew up in. Okay, that’s a lie. She had to wait for certain members of the family to die before writing The Goddaughter.

Her other series is racy rollicking time travel, totally scandalous, hardly mentionable in mixed company. But we'll mention it anyway.
Rowena Through the Wall. Hold on to your knickers. Or don’t, and have more fun.

The Goddaughter’s Revenge won the 2014 Derringer (US) and the 2014 Arthur Ellis Award (Canada) for Best Crime Novella. Melodie got her start writing comedy and seems to be firmly glued there, after 200 publications. But others know her as the Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Last week I went to Salem, Finally

My mother told me many years ago that I ought to visit Salem, home of my 6-X great grandmother, Rebecca Nurse, and sign my name in the book. Not the devil's book, I hasten to add, but the book of great-granny Nurse's descendants, who are as numerous as the sands of the sea. Harold and I finally had a chance to go there last week on our way home from Maine. It was… interesting.

The seaport town of Salem is something of a zoo nowadays. We encountered a wild-eyed, hairy docent leading a troop of quivering tourists from attraction to attraction, while he amazed them with a Pagan spiel.  At one point he chased us out of the garden of one of the old houses, the Witch House, I think it was called. It was a lovely old garden with a pear tree laden with fruit. I don't know what his problem was, or even whether he was authorized to chase us. Surely the pagans aren't in charge of Salem now. Or maybe they are.

For myself, I'm a Christian, as was Rebecca Nurse. I shudder to think what she would make of all the witch kitsch in Salem. But I have no business professing to be shocked by all that, since I knew what to expect beforehand.

I did not realize that Nathaniel Hawthorne's House of Seven Gables was in Salem, right on the harbor. We found a caterer in possession and a wedding going on out behind under a big white tent. Have your wedding at the House of Seven Gables!

We had a delicious dinner at the Captain's Waterfront Grill, looking right out on the dock where the Friendship of Salem was moored. That's the same square-rigged ship depicted on my dinner plates. I was very pleased to see it, a little bit of home.

But all this was hours after we visited the actual home of Rebecca Nurse.

The Nurse homestead is not in Salem itself but in the town of Danvers, called Salem Village in 1692 to distinguish it from Salem Town. It is being maintained as an historic farmstead, an oasis of stillness in the middle of an ordinary suburban town. We went down a dirt driveway and parked in front of the fence, as the sign instructed. Then we walked on to the house. No one was there.

As luck would have it, the Nurse house closed at three every afternoon, and whatever docents we might have encountered had fled away by 3:05. All the same it was nice. Quiet. Dignified. The way I like things. It's not as if I didn't know the story, or needed someone to tell it to me. Here was the rolling, fertile acreage coveted by the evil, posession-shamming Putnam family. There was the upstairs window, the window of the very bedroom where the wicked bailiffs came and dragged that sweet old lady, and she not feeling well, off to the jail for refusing to confess that she was a witch.

We wandered all over, taking pictures. I had an odd feeling. No one knows where Rebecca Nurse's grave might be, for the family cut her down from the gallows and buried her secretly, perhaps somewhere on her own farm. The secret location was not passed down in my mother's family. I might have been walking over her remains. I didn't think to say a prayer for her. Surely she's at rest in the bosom of the Lord.

Since we couldn't get inside, the house being all locked up, I never did find out whether there was actually a book for me to sign.

©  2014 Kate Gallison

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

“An e-book should cost 50 cents,”

Tomorrow I head out for three weeks in Kenya, Tanzania, and London--researching and allowing my soul to grow in Africa and then hawking my latest at the Historical Novel Society conference in London.  To the extent that my internet connections allow, I will apprise you of my progress as I go along.  In the meanwhile, discussions I have had with readers and writers in the last couple of weeks have encouraged me to return to this post from three and half years ago.  As predicted, the situation is worse now than it was then.  The US government has sued publishers, giving even more power to Amazon, and Amazon is "renting" ebooks of current novels free of charge to their "Premier" members.  The members pay Amazon $75 a year for the privilege and, of course, pay Amazon for the Kindle on which they read.  Authors and publisher get zilch.  OY. OY. OY!!!

…the woman at the gym said to me and a couple of others. We had just taken an exercise class together and were chatting as we changed to go out into cold and windy mid-February New York. “I mean,” she went on, “it doesn’t cost anything to produce.” The person who was speaking is a grownup who lives on the Upper Eastside of Manhattan. She reads a lot, so presumably she is capable of more subtle thought than she was displaying at the moment. She had been touting reading on a Kindle to one of our group who was about to head out on a vacation away from the sleet and slush. The main advantage the speaker saw in the electronic book reader was that one can carry so many books so easily. That e-books cost less than print copies made up for the cost of the Kindle, she thought. Then she dropped that bomb about 50 cents being the appropriate price for an e-book.

I spoke up to defend the rights of the writer. I even defended the right of the publisher to make a profit for taking the considerable trouble to publish the book. Once I pointed out that a writer had probably spent two years working on the book and deserved get more recompense than such a price would afford, and that publishers had to maintain offices and pay editors, the 50-cent-lady changed her tune. The discussion then turned to an even more difficult subject. One of the company had heard that only the most successful authors make more than a pittance for their work. Why do they do it, they asked me. By then I had revealed my profession.

Fact is that if authors don’t get a decent cut of the income from the sale of electronic books, our plight is going to get worse and faster than was predicted even just a year ago. A couple of days after that discussion at the gym, I received an email from The Authors Guild outlining the impact of e-book sales on authors’ royalties. The story isn't pretty. Quoted here is what the Guild said:

E-book royalty rates for major trade publishers have coalesced, for the moment, at 25% of the publisher’s receipts. As we’ve pointed out previously, this is contrary to longstanding tradition in trade book publishing, in which authors and publishers effectively split the net proceeds of book sales (that's how the industry arrived at the standard hardcover royalty rate of 15% of list price). Among the ills of this radical pay cut is the distorting effect it has on publishers’ incentives: publishers generally do significantly better on e-book sales than they do on hardcover sales. Authors, on the other hand, always do worse.
How much better for the publisher and how much worse for the author? Here are examples of authors’ royalties compared to publishers’ gross profit (income per copy minus expenses per copy), calculated using industry-standard contract terms:
“The Help,” by Kathryn Stockett
Author’s Standard Royalty: $3.75 hardcover; $2.28 e-book.
Author’s E-Loss = -39%
Publisher’s Margin: $4.75 hardcover; $6.32 e-book.
Publisher’s E-Gain = +33%
“Hell’s Corner,” by David Baldacci
Author's Standard Royalty: $4.20 hardcover; $2.63 e-book.
Author’s E-Loss = -37%
Publisher’s Margin: $5.80 hardcover; $7.37 e-book.
Publisher’s E-Gain = +27%
“Unbroken,” by Laura Hillenbrand
Author’s Standard Royalty: $4.05 hardcover; $3.38 e-book.
Author’s E-Loss = -17%
Publisher’s Margin: $5.45 hardcover; $9.62 e-book.
Publisher’s E-Gain = +77%
So, everything else being equal, publishers will naturally have a strong bias toward e-book sales.

We can suppose that the future will belong more and more to e-book formats. If publishers continue find them so much more profitable than printed books, they will push change even faster.

Much as I love the tactile experience of reading what I still call “a real book,” I have begun to buy e-books too and to read them on an iPad. I like it that the device is backlit, which allows me to read in the dark, since I am often awake in the night and turning on the light would wake my husband. I love it that if I am reading to research a story, I can highlight and write notes on the text quite magically. And I have to say, that I do like the lower price.

But now having seen the Authors Guild’s numbers on the subject, I feel guilty depriving my fellow authors of a fair share of the profits from their work. Predicting how all this will work out is a favorite game in every corner of the publishing industry these days. For my part, I am counting on organizations like the Guild, Mystery Writers of America, and other author advocacy groups to press for authors' rights. In the meanwhile, I am grateful to the Guild for giving me information to set the record straight when the subject comes up, even if it's just in response to uninformed opinions in casual discussions at the gym.

By the way, the following week, one of the other people who overheard our conversation brought in a hardcover copy of one of my books and asked me to autograph it. Now there is something you can't do with an e-book!

Annamaria Alfieri