Sunday, August 31, 2014

An Urban Experience

In the late 1980s I lived in a efficiency apartment in Center City Philadelphia and was mere blocks away from the beautiful Academy of Music which was then the home of The Philadelphia Orchestra and The Opera Company of Philadelphia. I came home from work one evening feeling especially festive because I had managed to get a ticket to a production of Tosca starring Eva Marton and Sherill Milnes.

I entered the elevator. WHAM! In a heartbeat I found myself on the floor. I had slipped on some oily substance. The left side of my face was stinging and the left earpiece from my glasses had broken off.

I picked myself up and went to have a quiet word with the apartment manager.

“What the hell is on the elevator floor?” I shouted.

Carla, the young receptionist, wasn’t really looking at me.

“One of our tenants works in a big office building on Walnut Street. He said he found this great treatment for wood.”

“Did you tell him that the walls of the elevator are genuine faux wood and would not absorb whatever precious oils he rubbed on them?”

Carla looked up and gasped.

“Gosh, what are you going to do? The side of your face is swollen.” She looked closer. “Your glasses are broken. You can’t go out looking like that.”

“Just watch me.”

I put ice on my face for a while and, stuffing and two aspirin into my mouth, left for The Academy.

If the woman at the ticket office or the usher who showed me to my seat noticed anything, they didn’t mention it. I squeezed into my amphitheater seat. The gentleman next to me did a double take.

“You’re missing your left earpiece on your glasses.”

I just looked at him.

“I guess you know that. And your left cheek is bruised.”

“Yes, I fell.” I told him the story.

“These aren’t good seats,” he said. “I got them at the last minute because my wife took forever deciding she didn’t want to come.”

He got up from his seat and looked over the railing.

“You know the plot of Tosca?”


“That’s good because you’re not going to see much tonight.”

That was a bit of an exaggeration. I didn’t see Scarpia breathe his last, but I didn’t miss much else. Clearly many people had come to see Sherill Milnes because once Scarpia died, they headed for the exits. I said goodbye to my neighbor.

After Tosca threw herself from the parapet (though from where I was sitting it looked like she hopped over a fence), I left and walked out onto Broad Street.

A man fell into step with me. When you walk as slowly as I do, you have to decide whether to talk to strangers or ignore them. I was happy the guy wa walking to my right. I didn’t want to answer questions about my face or my glasses.

The man himself was a sight. He resembled an Elvis impersonator. He had elaborately coiffed black hair and wore a black jumpsuit that featured a sequined dragon coiled around his leg. I decided I would talk if he did, but not much.

“You limp,” he said.


“I had a girlfriend who limped like you.”


“Yeah.” He waited a beat or two. “She’s dead.”

I decided not to ask for details.

“Am I making you nervous?”

“No,” I lied.

“Oh, you live here.”

We had turned onto Spruce Street, the gay corridor of Philadelphia. There were always people out. The folks on the street made for an entertaining and very effective Neighborhood Watch.

“Well,” he said. “I gotta go.”

Relieved of my burden of vigilance, I asked a question.

“Were you at the opera?”

“Yeah,” he said. “Milnes sucked. Give me Gobbi any day.”

I was wrong about Elvis. He was not Las Vegas; he was La Scala.

Stephanie Patterson

Thursday, August 28, 2014


All computer systems totally FUBAR. Macbook dead, desktop PC hijacked. Will explain further a week from Friday, if I can.

Kate Gallison

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.