Saturday, October 31, 2009

Gender, Androgyny, and the Mystery Novel

Steven Rigolosi (Guest Blogger)

As society gets more complicated and technology opens up new frontiers, nothing can be taken for granted any longer. Truths seen as self-evident by previous generations come under fire, new knowledge is created, and definitions are expanded. Among the concepts being expanded are constructs like gender and sexuality. (For the record, The Penguin Dictionary of Sociology clarifies the difference between gender and sex: “If the sex of a person is biologically determined, the gender of a person is culturally and socially constructed.”) We now have terms we didn’t have before; “transgendered” is relatively new, and “intersex” is even newer.

Old-time TV series may have followed the “rules” prescribed for men and women (think Donna Reed and Hazel), but it seems to me that the mystery novel has always been ahead of the curve in terms of exploring “male” and “female” roles and behavior. In some ways, Miss Marple was a product of her time, living in a quiet village and drinking her tea—but she took on the decidedly “male” role of investigating and solving crimes. Women soon became professional P.I.s (Cordelia Gray was in the vanguard), and Sara Paretsky took the courageous step of having V.I. Warshawski get the crap beaten out of her, which is of course an occupational hazard for all P.I.s. When the clueless Stephanie Plum decided to become a bounty hunter in One for the Money, we all thought how ridiculous it was—but here she is, still going strong fifteen books later. But for the woman who does the best job of pushing gender roles to their limit, I nominate Liza Cody’s Eva Wylie (Bucket Nut), an antisocial female wrestler who’ll take on any man in the room (and win).

What we haven’t seen much of, however, is male detectives taking on traditionally “female” roles. Sure, Adam Dalgliesh is sensitive and writes poetry; and Luis Mendoza is a loving father, but I can’t think of too many mainstream mysteries featuring, say, house husbands or male nurses. We do have Sarah Caudwell’s Hilary Tamar, but s/he is in that most gender-neutral of professions—law professor—and of course we never do find out if Hilary is a he or a she.

I think there are as many goals in mystery writing as there are writers—some write to create a cozy world, some to explore character deeply, some to create an intricate puzzle. For my latest novel, Androgynous Murder House Party, I wanted to pull the rug out from underneath the reader’s most basic expectations, which is the knowledge of each main character’s gender. I wanted readers to figure out not only “whodunit” (as there are two murders, whose perpetrator(s) must be found), but also to develop a sense of whether each character was male or female, straight or gay, without giving that knowledge to them directly. The narrator, Robin Anders, notes early in the book that of the cast, three are male, three are female, three are straight, and three are gay. None of this matters a whit to Robin, who is much too self-centered to think about anyone else for more than a second or two at a time.

And this is where the idea of “gender” plays so much into the book. Because gender is a social construct, the reader is challenged to figure out who is male and who is female based on personal habits, type of self-expression, hobbies, profession, and the like. And of course their names—Robin, Lee, Alex, Chris, J, and Law—are no help in deciphering the mystery. The great irony of the title Androgynous Murder House Party is that the characters themselves do not consider themselves androgynous in the least. Each clearly identifies as male or female; but readers will find no pronouns in the book to help them decide which is which.

I hope that Androgynous Murder House Party can be read at two levels. On one level, it really is a traditional murder mystery, with clues, and red herrings, and an amateur sleuth whose level of self-involvement is epic. At another level, though, I hope it can be seen as a rumination on the continuum of gender, gender roles, and gender expectations, as well as a satire on the snobbishness that exists at a certain level of New York City “society.” We think we need to know a character’s sex in order to “know” him or her—but is this knowledge truly necessary? How do we mystery writers keep our readers coming back for more—is it by giving them information, or by withholding it? Can an undefined gender be as much a cliffhanger as a superb plot twist?

Great Moments in Androgyny: A Photo Gallery

Julia Sweeney as Pat on Saturday Night Live

The infamous androgynous woman from the classic Dali/Bunuel film, Un Chien Andalou

From M*A*S*H: Jamie Farr as Klinger in the most unsuccessful attempt at cross-dressing in history

Robin Anders, narrator of Androgynous Murder House Party, contemplating a self-portrait

Steven Rigolosi is the author of the Tales from the Back Page series of mystery/suspense novels, including Who Gets the Apartment? and Circle of Assassins. The most recent is Androgynous Murder House Party, featuring genderless narrator Robin Anders. Steve can be reached at

Friday, October 30, 2009

Halloween . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

Halloween has always been one of my favorite holidays. Is it because Halloween is a week after my birthday? Because I often got a cake shaped like a pumpkin when I was a little girl? Maybe. But the candy counts for a lot too, with me. And by the way, have you tried mixing salted peanuts with Candy Corn to treat yourself??? YUMMMMMM! Um, where was I?

Oh, yeah, Halloween. I love the decorations, I love the trick-or-treaters, I love the pumpkins, all shapes and sizes, I love watching the old scary movies like Dracula with Bella Lugosi, I love the fall smells, but most of all I love it because it IS fall and the trees are soooo beautiful. This year we got more rain than usual and the colors are fantastic. Such beauty before the browns and blacks of winter arrive (unless we get snow, of course.)

One of my favorite Halloween memories is catching our dog, Old Jimbo, sticking his head into one of our boy's trick-or-treat bags, searching for his favorite treat. I got him out of the bag before he ate something that would make him sick. Yup, Halloween is special.

This year I'm reading Halloween mysteries and Agatha Christie's Hallowe'en Party is my favorite. Halloween is a perfect time for murder, isn't it? Well, fictionally speaking, of course.

What's your favorite part of Halloween.? Would you like to share your favorite Halloween memory? Thanks for stopping by.

Now, pass me a treat or I'll have to trick you. Really.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Love is NOT never having to say you’re sorry

Elizabeth Zelvin

“Love is never having to say you’re sorry.” The line from Love Story, Erich Segal’s 1970 movie, has passed into the collective unconscious. In our culture, it’s taken for granted that this statement is true, along with the six degrees of separation and anything you read in a fortune cookie. Wrong!

In the opening scene of my new mystery, Death Will Help You Leave Him, my protagonist Bruce Kohler finds himself driving uptown to East Harlem in the middle of a rainy night with his sidekicks Barbara and Jimmy. A friend’s abusive boyfriend has been found dead in her apartment, and Barbara, world-class codependent that she is, gallops to the rescue, dragging Bruce and Jimmy along with her. Here’s a somewhat abridged version.

“Tell me again,” I said. “Whose apartment is it? And who’s the corpse?”
“Her pigeon’s boyfriend.” Jimmy swiveled to look at me. Bad idea. The car skidded on the slick wet surface of Third Avenue.
“Pigeons have boyfriends?”
“My Al-Anon sponsee,” she elaborated. “Luz. Her apartment, and don’t say ‘corpse.’ She found her boyfriend dead on the floor when she came home. She was hysterical when she called me, and the cops are there.”
“So when do Al-Anons call their sponsors?” I asked. “Short of sudden death.”
“When somebody else’s life starts flashing before their eyes,” Jimmy said.
Barbara swatted his upper arm, not hard enough to endanger us.
“Cut it out, that’s not fair.”
“When they can’t stop saying, ‘I’m sorry,’” he said. “You know it’s true, petunia.”
“Cops. Do they think it’s murder? If so, ‘I’m sorry’ wouldn’t be the smartest thing to say.”

So saying “I’m sorry” all the time is codependency. It’s taking responsibility for everybody’s behavior, not just your own. It’s not your fault when the 800-pound gorilla steps on your foot. So don’t apologize.

But does that mean never saying you’re sorry is love? I don’t think so. It’s not even so much that not apologizing means you never admit you’re wrong. It’s more about the myth that if you really love someone, you can read each other’s minds. “You know I’d never want to hurt you,” this mythical unapologetic lover might say. “You know without my telling you that if I do, I’m sorry.” No communication needed. No acknowledgment of a mistake. No renewal of the connection. No proof of self-awareness. Would that really feel like love?

Let’s try an analogy. What if we said, “Love is never having to say ‘I love you’”? You know I love you. We can read each other’s minds, right? So why do we ever have to say it?

I’m reminded of a clever and delightful song by country artist Pam Tillis:

I knew he didn't have any money
Yeah that's why he couldn't buy me a ring
Oh and just because he bought himself a brand new pickup truck
Really didn't prove anything
And he never had to say he loved me
I could see it every time he smiled
Just call me Cleopatra everybody, 'cause I'm the Queen of Denial.

It’s important to be honest about your own behavior. If you’re wrong and you regret it, speak up. If you love your partner, spit it out. Frequently. If people don’t talk to each other about what’s going on and how they affect each other, how is the love between them ever going to grow into a durable intimacy? Erich Segal solved the problem by cheating: his heroine gets a terminal illness and dies at the age of 25. According to Wikipedia, the story is considered one of the most romantic of all times. I can’t help imagining countless promising relationships foundering on the rock of unrealistic expectations as young lovers get pissed off and break up, either because their partners don’t say, “I’m sorry,” or because they do, thus “proving” that it isn’t really love.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Stumbling Toward Windows 7

Sandra Parshall

Why does every new version of Windows feel like a major life change? How did a piece of computer software acquire the power to thoroughly disrupt my existence?

In the past I’ve “upgraded” (ha!) Windows only when forced to, and the purchase of a new computer with Windows already installed was always involved. I became acquainted with Microsoft’s product back in the 1980s when my first PC, an IBM that ran on DOS and didn’t even have a hard drive, began to feel hopelessly inadequate. The first version of Windows I owned ran on an 80 MB hard drive and left plenty of room for other things. How quaint that seems now.

One by one, my subsequent computers failed as computers inevitably do, and I had to adapt to a new version of Windows with each purchase of a new system. My Windows 98 computer lasted longer than most, and I expected to stay with it until it died. Then we gave up our DSL phone line in favor of FIOS (a waste of money, in my opinion, but that’s another story). My husband’s computer was newer and had XP on it, and it could handle FIOS internet service. My computer couldn’t even connect to the in-house network. I bought a new one, and I liked Windows XP from the start.

When Vista arrived, I heard and read all the complaints about the behemoth that ate disk space and files indiscriminately, and I was happy to stay with XP. Then my motherboard died. Replacing it on an “old” computer didn’t seem worthwhile, so I gave in and bought a new machine with Vista on it. Oy. What a mess. What a headache. Inexplicable system crashes. Inexplicable program crashes. Software incompatibility (even between new and earlier versions of Microsoft programs). Lost files. Lost patience. Lost temper.

I couldn’t go backward, though, without wiping my hard disk and starting from scratch with a new install of XP and everything else, and the very thought gave me a headache. I waited for The Next Big Thing from Microsoft. Beta testers didn’t like what they were seeing and predicted that Win7 would be another disaster, but I figured nothing could be as bad as Vista.

Friends keep asking me why I don’t buy a Mac. It’s mainly because I don’t want to give up software programs I love that will only run under Windows and I don’t want the chore of converting a lot of files. My word processor, Lotus Word Pro for Windows, is dear to my heart. It has features I haven’t seen elsewhere, and whenever I’m forced to use Word or Word Perfect, I’m reminded again how much easier Word Pro is. I’ll put up with Windows to keep Word Pro.

As last week's Windows 7 release date approached, the opinions of the testers shifted. Windows 7 was suddenly something that everyone MUST have.

I wish I could have bought it, installed it, and moved on. Unfortunately, my hard drive has been making odd clicking sounds off and on. I don’t know what the source of the noise is, but I know it’s bad news. I decided to change hard disks, then install Windows 7.

I’d once had CompUSA copy the entire contents of an old hard drive onto a new, bigger, faster one, but CompUSA is gone now and I thought I’d handle the transfer myself this time. I read articles about cloning, printed out instructions from the internet, downloaded cloning software. With a trip to Bouchercon coming up, though, I changed my mind. I would have the Staples tech service do all the tedious work while I was away. I talked to a guy at Staples who said yeah, they could do that. Well, they couldn’t. Or wouldn’t. Once they had my computer in their possession, they said that cloning a hard disk was illegal, a violation of copyright, and couldn’t be done. Never mind that Vista itself includes a utility, however cumbersome, for just this purpose.

I was back where I started. I could hire a rent-a-geek, but to heck with techies. I would do it myself. I re-read all the articles and instructions, giving myself pep talks.

I can do this.

Yes, I can.

I haven’t even started yet, and I’m a nervous wreck.

I’m not having major surgery or moving to another state. Those events would be relaxing by comparison. I’m doing something much more nerve-wracking: installing a new version of Windows, entrusting all the precious data on my computer to software I’ve never used before. If I suddenly drop off the edge of the online world, you’ll know it didn’t go well. Please send your teenage kid to rescue me and my computer!

How do you handle upgrades? Are you a Windows sufferer or a Mac snob? How many computers have you owned, and do you remember your first one?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Fimbulwinter and other seasons of the mind

Sharon Wildwind

Julia, lovely photos yesterday of autumn in your part of the world. Looking at those photographs, I realized how much my internal calendar has come to be based on things my friends have shared with me, societal norms, and how much I feel connected to the old Celtic calendar.

My introduction to the idea that a calendar can become a very personal thing started in my childhood. Back when women routinely wore such things, the absolute rules were no navy or black hats/purses/heels/gloves after Memorial Day and no white hats/purses/heels/gloves after Labor Day. I still feel a degree of sartorial distress when I violate one of those rules.

Over time, I have come to celebrate New Years four times each year.

My spiritual new year is Rosh Hashanah in October. I’m not Jewish, but I had a close friend who was and Rosh Hashanah was very important to him. He was a great believer in teshuvah. October seems as good a time as any to examine my life, make amends, and plan for improving during the coming year.

All Hallows Eve (AKA Halloween) is the temporal beginning of a new year for me. Something feels right to me, as it did for the Celts about marking the turning of the year at this point. Maybe it has something to do with the amount and quality of light at that time of the year.

New Years is my left-brain marker. It’s when I buy new day timers, plug my work schedule for the next twelve months into my computer calendar, close out my business files and tracking programs, and open new ones for the next business year.

Chinese or Vietnamese New Year is my celebratory one. It’s a hold-over from being in Viet Nam. Ask anyone who served there about the relief of surviving Tet (the first morning of the first day of the new year). I always get this tremendous sense of having made it through another year.

Moving from the American south—which has two seasons: hot and muggy or cold and muggy— to Canada created a serious seasonal crisis. I’ve lived in three places in Canada, each at a different latitude and had to adjust my seasonal attitude three times. Here’s where I am now.

Spring begins when the tree outside my bedroom window has mature green leaves on it. This is usually about May 15th. Summer begins on Victoria Day—the third Monday in May—so in Calgary, my spring is about 1 week long. Anyone who hopes to garden successfully in Calgary knows not to plant a garden before Victoria Day. Here’s a photo of my balcony one year on the day before Victoria Day. By the next day, all the snow had melted and I planted my bedding plants.

Summer ends on Labor Day, but the season that follows it is not autumn. It’s a nebulous time known as, “It’s coming, so better get those snow tires on!” It being the first hard frost, the first slush, the first “Oh, bother, it snowed” morning when you open the bedroom blinds to discover 4-6” of the white stuff outside. Then comes a warming period known as, “Isn’t it lovely weather, considering the frost/slush/snow we had only a few days ago?"

2009 October 24: the day the slush arrived. I loved the pattern in this photo.

For me, real autumn officially begins on Canadian Thanksgiving (second Monday in October) and ends on Halloween. So fall is about two weeks, twice as long as spring. Winter is divided into winter—hard winter one—absolute winter (AKA Fimbulwinter)—hard winter two—and “Do you smell barbecue?”

Halloween is my official beginning of winter, just as it was for the Celts. Hard winter is when the thermometer drops to -20 Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit) and stays there for a while. Absolute winter is the day or days when the thermometer crashes to the lowest temperature of the year. The record is -56 Celsius (-68.8 Fahrenheit). This is when I can so relate to the Norse Fimbulvetr (or fimbulwinter), which will immediately precedes Ragnarök (the end of the cosmos). Minus fifty-six may not be the end of the world, but as I bounce on a frozen seat, trying to start my car which has four frozen tires, I think I can see it from where I am.

After absolute winter comes another period of hard winter, when everyone breaths a sigh of relief and says inane things like, “Minus eighteen isn’t so bad, compared to what we had a few weeks ago.” The first harbinger of spring is not the first robin, but the first scent of barbecue on the air. This is likely to happen, irrespective of the calendar, on the first day that the temperature reaches -10 Celsius (14 Fahrenheit).

If you’re adding to your lists of what you know about your characters, I recommend including their special holidays, the ones they have declared for themselves, the ones that harken back to people they have known or places they have been, the ones where they are a little out of step with the rest of the world. It’s a great way to hit upon a personal celebration with which to juice up your plot or raise the stakes.


Something I know now that I didn’t know before the Poisoned Pen Press WebCon:

The publisher owns a percentage of the format of a finished, published book. What many readers don’t understand is that an author can’t take the electronic final galley and post it to an e-reader site. The author must go back to their final submission manuscript and make all the corrections by hand.

~Dana Stabenow, writer

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Last, Loveliest Smile

by Julia Buckley
I had feared that this would be a mostly green autumn because of our cool summer (I'm not sure what led me to believe that). But the autumn is beautiful and colorful this year, and I took a little neighborhood tour with my camera to capture proof of that assertion. Enjoy my visuals with some famous words about autumn.
"There is no season when such pleasant and sunny spots may be lighted on, and produce so pleasant an effect on the feelings, as now in October."
- Nathaniel Hawthorne
"The leaves fall patiently
Nothing remembers or grieves
The river takes to the sea
The yellow drift of leaves."
- Sara Teasdale

"Even if something is left undone, everyone must take time to sit still and watch the leaves turn."
- Elizabeth Lawrence

“But I remember more dearly autumn afternoons in bottoms that lay intensely silent under old great trees.”
- C. S. Lewis
"Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns."
- George Eliot

"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness! Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun; Conspiring with him how to load and bless With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run; To bend with apples the moss'd cottage trees, And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core."
--John Keats

"Autumn, the year's last, loveliest smile."
--William Cullen Bryant

Saturday, October 24, 2009

My Trip to Fantasyland

By Kris Neri (guest blogger)

Since I’ve always believed that we writers are products of the paths we’ve followed, in art and in life, it’s not a surprise that I write madcap mysteries like my Tracy Eaton mysteries — the Agatha, Anthony, Macavity Award-nominated Revenge of the Gypsy Queen, Dem Bones’ Revenge and the forthcoming Revenge for Old Times’ Sake (Spring ’10; Cherokee McGhee Mystery).

The mystery part is easy to understand. I’ve loved mysteries since Nancy Drew first led me into this life of crime. So much so that, in adulthood, I once bought a Triumph Spitfire convertible because it approximated her roadster. Worst car I ever had — so unlikely to start that I needed to keep a tow truck on retainer. Maybe you can take fandom too far. But that was neither Nancy’s fault nor the mystery genre’s.

I’ve also always loved screwball stories. As a kid I would rush home from school in the hopes of catching an old madcap movie on TV. So, it was probably inevitable that I would come to write a series that bestselling author Jan Burke described as, “I Love Lucy meets Murder, She Wrote.”

But imagine my astonishment when a character started speaking to me in unexpected terms. Sure, she seemed to be a character in a mystery, judging by the mere fragment of the scenario she provided, and given her reality-challenged demeanor, I knew it would be a zany mystery. But this character, Samantha Brennan, who told me she was a fake psychic and scam ancient deity, added another element — the supernatural.

Whoa! Where did that come from? Even though I live in Sedona, Arizona, the Vatican City of the New Age, I knew zip about psychics and ancient deities, either real or fake. When I refused to write her, Samantha fed me her own quirky description: “What a sight I was! Long blonde hair curling wildly in every direction, crowned with a wreath of battered silk flowers held together with Christmas tree garland. Makeup by Crayola. And that dress I wore — half Renaissance ball gown in bright blue satin and lace, half soothsayer garb with its filmy organdy layers, half jester suit. Too many halves, I know, but it was quite a dress.”

To further lure me in, Samantha gave herself a partner-in-crime, Annabelle Haggerty — a genuine Celtic goddess, hidden beneath the steely exterior of an FBI Special Agent. She also dreamed up a steamy romance for herself with Angus, Annabelle’s ancestor, the hunky ancient Celtic god of youth and love and laughter, and she roped in banshees, brownies and flower fairies, not to mention shape-shifters and leprechauns to add to the fun.

But where did all this come from? Not my past. Still, I agreed to write one short story, “Showtime on the Winter Solstice” (The Rose in the Snow), and then another, “Hocus Pocus on Friday the 13th” (Medium of Murder). By that point, these creatures and their paranormal fun had me so hooked, I couldn’t help but give them a full novel, High Crimes on the Magical Plane (Red Coyote Press), which just debuted. NYT bestselling fantasy author, Diana Gabaldon, has described as “…delicious; a funny, pell-mell romp of an adventure rife with psychics, FBI agents and clowns."

Samantha and Annabelle have taught me so much about writing supernatural mysteries, such as the fact that magic doesn’t make mysteries easier, it complicates them, and that when they rely on it, there have to be consequences. High Crimes on the Magical Plane literally opened new worlds for me, and I’m thrilled that bestselling author Charlaine Harris has said of it, “You’ll enjoy the unlikely twists and turns in this novel, and both characters are delightful.”

But where did all this come from? Were these characters just a gift from the universe? Is that too woo-woo? What does it do to my theory that every writer uses material gathered from her life?

It occurred to me then that as a kid, I always hated the first day of school. It wasn’t school itself I objected to, although the formal educational system and I do have different takes on the need for regimentation and stifling boredom. It was only the first day that I dreaded because, year after year, teachers made us write essays on what we did on our summer vacations.

What summer vacation? Sure, I was off from school like everyone else. But my family never traveled anywhere.

Rather than admit to my embarrassingly boring family, I made up grand adventures. I shared how I scaled Mt. Everest or camped out at the bottom of the ocean in a submarine or took a trip to the rings of Saturn.

Kindly teachers, who must have understood why a kid would avoid the standard approach on a routine assignment, never objected — until the Saturn essay. That year we had a bench in the hall outside of our classroom. My irate teacher flung her arm out, sending me to sit on the bench, where I was supposed to think about my unforgivable transgression.

Out in the hall, I admitted to myself that while I wished I actually had gone to Disneyland or the beach or somewhere normal like everyone else, I felt good about being someone who could make up a trip to Saturn. I was already a writer, I just didn’t know it yet.

With High Crimes on the Magical Plane, I’ve not only continued on my madcap mystery path, I’ve reconnected to the outrageous imagination of the little girl who would make up a vacation spent on another planet. Samantha and Annabelle and the High Crimes gang are a product of my life paths, after all, even if it took a while to see that.

I’m still sitting out there on that bench. Only now, I’m really loving it.

Writers, are your paths reflected in your work?

Friday, October 23, 2009

Am I gonna have to go back to college in order to be able to drive this vehicle???

By Lonnie Cruse

Hubby and I recently bought a new-to-us car. It's a 2006 KIA LX van and I love it. Or I will love it, once I learn how to operate it. And I'm not talking about driving it. That's a breeze. I mean operating some of the gizmos and gadgets that came with it.

Right now I own the cleanest car windshield in all of Massac County, and I kid you not. That's because every time I start the car and try to put it into gear, the windshield wipers go off. And that's because I keep forgetting that the actual gear shift is now located down below the heater/air conditioner, at the bottom of the . . . um, what is that thingy called? Oh, yeah, the dash board. Don't get me wrong, I like it there, at least I like it there when I remember it's there.

Speaking of the windshield wipers, it took me two whole days to learn how to turn them off after I accidentally turned them on, and another whole day to learn how to make them go the speed I want. Hubby spent one entire trip over to Paducah learning how to turn off the wiper on the rear window. And NO, we don't have an owner's manual for the car . . . yet. The dealer had to order one for us. Meanwhile, we struggle to find out how things work, or how to turn them off, once we've turned them on, accidentally or on purpose. How hard can this be, you ask? Have you ever driven anything that was made in this decade?

Recently I drove the van into town for the very first time without hubby or anyone else along. Within a few blocks I noticed that the "passenger airbag is NOT operational" light was on. And it wouldn't go off. I'd not seen that light on before, and believe me, I looked that baby over carefully when we test-drove it. Instant panic. I mean, one of the things on my "must have" list when buying this vehicle was a passenger air bag. We didn't have one in the last two cars, and I was having one in the next one, or else.

Okay, calm self down, maybe I could fix it? Hubby's truck has a place where you can turn the passenger air bag on and off, in case he is transporting someone under the age or weight who could tolerate an airbag opening on them. Maybe this van had the same choice? When I returned home from my errands, I looked the car over from stem to stern. No switch or key hole for turning on the air bag. Now what?

I insisted hubby call the Kia dealer immediately if not sooner and schedule a time for the necessary repair to be made, because according to the warning message pasted inside the glove box, if the airbag light stays on and/or blinks continually, the owner has a problem. We were scheduled to be there the next afternoon at two P. M. central standard time.

Thankfully, hubby drove the van that same night to pick up a friend and noticed that the light was on while the passenger seat was empty but went off as soon as our friend occupied that seat. The airbag turns off automatically when the seat is empty! Who knew? Okay, those of you who drive cars that are newer/younger than your children can stop laughing now. I'm just praying that we don't have to take the van back into the service shop until the mechanics stop laughing.

One of the main reasons we requested an owner's manual is because we didn't have one with the last vehicle. And we never did completely figure out how to operate the radio and the clock built into it. Twice a year, when daylight savings began and ended, the problem of the clock became nightmarish. Trying to figure how to reset the clock so it wouldn't be an hour off. Don't even get me started on trying to tune in our favorite radio stations.

Because this van is a slightly cheaper version, we didn't get all the bells and whistles that some vehicles have. No DVD player, but hey, our grandsons each have their very own, courtesy of Grandma and Christmas. And no GPS system came with it, but I got one of my very own one Christmas. What WOULD we do without Christmas gifts?

We did, however, get a van that gives me the ability to completely turn OFF the air conditioner on my side. The vents on the last car wouldn't shut all the way, and hubby and I had many *discussions* about the temperature in the car. And he can turn the heat off on his side, if need be. Aaaahhhhhh. Less arguments. Better marriage. Who knew they made stuff like that in newer cars? Okay, everyone but me.

This van also has eight or ten cup holders. Now cup holders may not be an urgent need of yours, but they certainly are for me. I broke the only two we had in the car before the last, and Hubby broke the only two in the last car. They flipped out of the arm rest and if you leaned on them at all . . . well, you get the picture.

AND I now have a place to put my purse (on the floor, between driver and passenger) without having to balance it on the ashtray because Hubby insisted the arm rest be down at all times, even when I was driving. Urrrr. A gal needs her purse to be handy. That's a given. And I have some elbow room with out whacking elbows with Hubby. And we don't ride like sardines when friends join us and I wind up in the back seat.

All in all, I love driving a car that was made in this decade. I just hope the local college will give me a break on tuition when I sign up for classes. They do have a class on how to operate windshield wipers, don't they?

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Make Up or Break Up: The Secret of Relationship Repair

Elizabeth Zelvin

Bad relationships are a major theme of my new mystery, Death Will Help You Leave Him. My protagonist, recovering alcoholic Bruce Kohler, has a lot to overcome in that area: an alcoholic dad, an emotionally constricted mom (whom readers will meet briefly in this book), a dysfunctional marriage that’s far from over in spite of the divorce (lots about the crazy ex-wife in the book), and many years of heavy drinking during which he was a menace to himself and anyone who cared about him, including his friends and sidekicks, Jimmy and Barbara.

As a therapist, I’ve seen more than my share of couples with as many counts against them as Bruce. If you come from an alcoholic family, if you experienced childhood physical or sexual abuse, if you’ve never had a partner who was supportive and emotionally available, if you’ve never tried to love someone without being blitzed, you may need all the help you can get to sustain a healthy relationship. But even if you come from a loving family and had good role models to learn from, you may have trouble resolving conflict with your partner.

One of my favorite concepts for relationship success comes from psychologist John Gottman, the author of The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, intended not for people in recovery or even therapy, but for basically stable couples. And let’s not hear any put-downs of “pop psychology”: folks like Gottman become best sellers because they have a gift for putting sound principles into very accessible language. Anyhow, Gottman says that the ability to allow what he calls “repair attempts” to succeed is one of the best predictors of whether a couple will stay together. In other words, if you can’t make up, you’re going to break up.

Here are a couple of true stories:

Jack and Jill get into an argument as they walk down the street. They are both very angry. Jill stalks away. Jack stomps past her. Jill pretends to be looking in a shop window. Jack storms on. Stopping in front of another shop, he ignores Jill as she continues down the street and pretends to look in another window. They leapfrog down the street until they simultaneously realize how absurd they’re being. They both burst out laughing. Fight over. Laughter is a good tool for ending a quarrel.

Romeo and Juliet are arguing in a New York City subway station. Juliet says something cutting. Romeo stalks away from her—and gets stuck in the subway turnstile. Juliet bursts out laughing. Romeo gets even more furious. Does the marriage last? Nope, it ends in divorce.

So what do you really need to be good at making up? One, the partners have to trust each other. If every time you say, “I’m sorry, I was wrong,” your partner says, “Right, it’s all your fault,” instead of “I’m sorry too,” you may be afraid to risk it. Two, you need to be able to laugh at yourself. Both of you. At yourself, not your partner. And three, you have to understand that no matter how hard it is to believe, you are not a hundred percent right all the time. You may have to agree to differ, not only about what’s true, but about what happened. Once you’ve calmed down, you don’t need to negotiate about who started it or who was right—in fact, trying to do so can destroy the repair attempt and escalate the conflict all over again. All you have to do is let it go—laugh, hug, whatever works for you and your partner—and move on.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Blunt Talk about Women at Bouchercon

Sandra Parshall

Sara Paretsky’s big black hat, red feather boa, and interesting footwear caused a lot of comment at Bouchercon last Friday, but as always, her words had the power to make you forget the visuals. Along with moderator Barbara Fister and writers Mary Saums, Kate Flora, and Liza Cody, Paretsky turned a panel with the deceptively dull title “Telling Women’s Stories” into a riveting dissection of women’s roles in fiction and real life.

Paretsky, who joined with other female mystery writers to
found Sisters in Crime 24 years ago in response to “being slighted at conferences” and overlooked by reviewers, sounded as if she’s given up on feminism. She said she believes SinC has brought a lot of women readers to mystery by making them aware of books that will appeal to them, but she questions ”whether feminism has made much of an impact” on society. Joking that she was “raised in the woods by wolves” and has “never felt at home in civilized society,” Paretsky spoke in the past tense of being a feminist who was “angry all the time” about the unequal treatment of women. Now she’s more focused on general issues of power and justice – and her protagonist, V.I. Warshawski, has changed along with her.

Other women on the panel agreed that inequality remains rampant in society at large, in the publishing world, and on the pages of novels. Mary Saums said she’s weary of witnessing “everyday abuses of women’s rights.” For the first 45 years of her life, Saums said, she was a “nice” woman, but she finally reached a point when she’d had enough of conforming to expectations. “Women have a right to be who they are,” she declared to applause from the audience.

All of the panelists deplored the prevalence of women characters as victims of brutal crimes in fiction, but none seemed to find it surprising. Paretsky pointed out that “the notion of a woman taking up space in the world still offends some men at such a visceral level” that they want to strike out, “slash and destroy.” Both men and women, Liza Cody said, “are quite comfortable with the idea of women as victims,” but men don’t want to read about male victims.

Kate Flora said she finds it “deeply troubling” that female authors are “increasingly writing about women as victims” of graphic violence. In her own Thea Kozak series, Flora is “exploring what it means to be a modern woman.” In a new series, her male detective owes his sensibilities to his mother, who “taught him to see” the reality of men’s and women’s roles in society.

Mary Saums perceives “a new wave of anti-female feeling in the book business” and some of it is coming from women. Popular female thriller writers are treated as the equals of their male counterparts, but some of those women, according to Saums, are openly critical of Sisters in Crime and “talk down to us.”

In society, Liza Cody fears, too many young women are moving backward. Rather than claiming the right to be unique individuals, they’re “trying to compete with porn stars” in a bid for male attention. (I couldn’t help thinking of the young female cops on TV shows who teeter around crime scenes on five-inch heels and lean menacingly over interrogation room tables with their cleavage fully exposed, inches from the suspects’ faces. The porn star effect is everywhere these days.)

Paretsky observed that both male and female writers all seem to want their women characters to be “five-six and 118 pounds.” She believes publishers are “not thoughtful” about what they publish, but simply put out more of what’s already selling until it stops selling. If books in which women are savaged happen to be selling, publishers will put out more of them. Publishers follow trends instead of taking the lead and breaking new ground.

The mostly female audience responded to the panel with frequent applause, and when the floor was opened to questions, a couple of the women present seized the chance to make speeches of their own.

All this was in marked contrast to an earlier panel called “The Dark Side of the Fair Sex” that featured Megan Abbott as moderator with panelists Chelsea Cain, Sophie Littlefield, and the lone man, Derek Nikitas. Cain, who writes about a gorgeous female serial killer named Gretchen Lowell and the mentally unbalanced male cop who both desires Gretchen and wants to lock her up, seemed amused by readers’ reactions to her characters. (She reported that her grandmother’s comment after reading the first book was that “it’s nicely bound.”) All of the panelists write dark, gritty stories about women who don’t meet society’s expectations, but I didn’t sense the struggle and frustration that was palpable when Paretsky, Saums, Flora, and Cody spoke. Why the difference? That’s food for thought in itself.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Quiet Week in My Living Room

Sharon Wildwind

To paraphrase Garrison Keillor, “It’s been a quiet week in my living room.” Saturday I sorted my buttons by size and color.

No, really. A tool shop near us lost their lease, and at their closing sale I found some great multi-drawer storage holders, with handles, for a ridiculously low price. I bought three, not because I needed three of them, but because of the ridiculously low price.

It turned out I did need three of them: one for my sewing thread, one for my embroidery thread, and one for my buttons. Strangely enough, I’m suddenly using more embroidery thread and buttons because I can find what I’m looking for.

Yesterday I defrosted the freezer and counted packages of meat and vegetables. Then I made two huge pots of gumbo, had a wonderful lunch, and froze the rest. Cooking them down was the only way I was going to get 8 packages of okra and 3 packages of shrimp back in the freezer.

I cut out pants for my husband. I decorated a pencil tin to send to Great Manhattan Mystery Conclave as a door prize. (Note the use of thread and a button.) I played around with building a shrine from scraps left over from other projects. I read a book on folding origami greeting cards.

I read a heart-breaking book by a woman who had been one of the original nine Afro-American teenagers to integrate Little Rock Central High in 1957. She was fourteen at the time. As an anodyne, I read four mysteries in a row, staying up past midnight each night, dulling my senses (and some of my memories) to avoid thinking about desegregation and hatred. You know it’s a bad week when characters being murdered cheers you up.

My husband and I watched an episode of Dr. Who, with Tom Baker as The Doctor. It was the first time either of us had watched an entire episode straight through. Then we watched Ghostbusters I and II. Then we looked at each other and said, “Okay, that’s done. We don’t have to do it again.”

Last night, we settled down to watch and dissect an episode of Inspector Morse. We’ve been borrowing the entire series, in order, from the library for over a year; sadly we are almost at the end. I don’t know who or what we’ll miss most: Morse, Sergeant Lewis, or Oxford.

What I’ve really been doing this week is avoiding Chapter 25. There is a chapter in every book where I become convinced that my writing career ends here. I’ve battled Chapter 25 since May of this year. I even went back and rewrote a whole draft up to that chapter. Sort of the idea of if I could get a running start at it, the momentum would carry me into the chapter and beyond. It didn’t work. I sailed through the other twenty-four chapters, then boom, the brick wall was still there. Remember last week when I wrote about all of those tips for getting unstuck when a chapter wasn’t working? That wasn’t idle speculation. I’d tried every single one of those tips without success this time.

Today the block broke. Twelve pages, a little over 3,000 words and I’m happily sailing into Chapter 26. I can see the end of the book from here. So maybe sorting buttons, defrosting freezers and Dr. Who have some benefit after all.


Quote for the week:

Athletes recognize that two of the most difficult places/times in a process are beginning and 2/3 the way through. No matter what distance, about two-thirds the way through, the whiny inner voice will start complaining … or suggest that it really isn’t necessary to finish, or say that there is something else that really must be done NOW.

~Carolyn Kortge, The Spirited Walker

Monday, October 19, 2009

Banned Books: Which is Your Favorite?

I was looking at a list of banned books, and found myself amazed anew at the idea that anyone would feel so powerful and so right that they would take it upon themselves to attempt to control the flow of information into another person's life, another person's mind.

And yet books are banned every year--books many of us consider great, important, wonderful works of literature. Consider the list below, which is only a smattering of banned books, past or present:

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885) by Mark Twain
American Heritage Dictionary (1969)
As I Lay Dying (1932) by William Faulkner
Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
The Catcher in the Rye (1955) by J.D. Salinger
The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty
Beauty's Punishment
Beauty's Release
all three by Anne Rice (under the pseudonym A.N. Roquelaure, written in the early 1980s)
Dictionary of American Slang by T.Y. Crowell, publisher
The Grapes of Wrath (1939) by John Steinbeck
The Joy of Sex (1972), More Joy of Sex (1975) by Alex Comfort
Lolita (1955)by Vladimir Nabokov
Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Lysistrata by Aristophanes
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig
Women on Top by Nancy Friday

Want to know who banned these books and why? Look at the link I provided. For some of them you can probably guess.

Here's another list, provided by the ubiquitous Wikipedia:

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Burger's Daughter by Nadine Gordimer
The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown
The Diary of Anne Frank
The Lottery by Shirley Jackson (short story)
Not Without My Daughter by Betty Mahmoody
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Zhuan Falun by Li Hongzhi

Interestingly enough, almost all of the books that I teach at the high school level were banned at one point or another. And of course the things I read on my own have often been banned, as well--the Harry Potter saga springs to mind.

Would you ever support the banning of a book?

Do you have a favorite banned book?

(Photo link here).

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Canadians go south: blog in progress

This weekend Bouchercon, the biggest convention of the year is happening in Indianapolis, Indiana. Several people who are attending have promised to send blog updates throughout the weekend. As their messages arrive, I'll post them here. So come back often during Saturday and Sunday for our electronic postcards from the edge.

Saturday afternoon
Which best selling crime writer wore a black, wide-brimmed bolero hat and a plunging neck line? Sara Paretsky striding purposefully to the panel on Telling Women's Stories. Clearly she wanted to set the tone for the panel, which included Kate Flora, Liza Cody and Mary Saums, with Barbara Fister as moderator.

I heard tell that Michael Connelly spent an hour and a half yesterday signing books after his fascinating interview by fellow crime writer Michael Koryta. Wow his hand must've been sore afterwards. I'm afraid the line-up was too long for me, but I did treat myself to one of his books.

This morning while waiting in line for my omelet I met the crime writer that had probably travelled the furthest, Stanley Trollip from South Africa. He writes a series based in Botswana under the pseudonym of Michael Stanley. And Deborah Atkinson from Hawaii also spent a fair bit of time on a plane getting here.

While it was great fun to see Michael Connelly, Sue Grafton, Peter Lovesey, John Lutz and Sara Paretsky minus her hat and plunging neckline on the same panel this morning, I'm afraid it was a tad boring. Rather than listening to them expound on Edgar Allan Poe, I would've much preferred to hear them talk of their own experiences as best selling authors. Needless to say the signing line afterwards snaked along the mezzanine leading into the signing room.

Tony Bidulka treated Vicki Delany, Barbara Fradkin and myself to a stretched limo ride complete with pulsating threads of coloured lights and bubbling champagne. We were on our way to one of Indianapolis's top restaurants, the Meridian and had a fabulous meal. Somewhere there is a photo immortalizing this ride. I'll send it in once it is found.

Shortly the Anthony awards will be announced. I am keeping my fingers crossed that Canada's Louise Penny's book The Cruelest Month will win the award for Best Novel.

Saturday morning
Barbara Fradkin
Things started off with a bang on Tuesday with an eighteen-hour road trip from Ottawa to Indianapolis. Imagine four ladies of a certain age (along with two dogs for part of the journey) packed into a red Jeep that was stuffed with luggage before it even arrived at the third passenger's house. A hat box, moose antlers, and a hockey stick were piled high above the suitcases, laptops and garment bags in the luggage area.

We were guided on this trip by two GPS's - Vicki Delany's ever-patient Jill and by Mary Jane Maffini's considerably less patient Jeeves. Neither "J" liked the route we had chosen and kept having to recalculate after failling to divert us on their chosen path. Those GPS's can be noisy when they get fired up!

After the requisite breaks for coffee and other necessities of middle age, Jill finally led us safely into Indianapolis. Despite circling the block about a hundred and fifty times, we managed to get everyone safely delivered to their hotels.

Thursday morning was a blur. The conference hotel was abuzz with autors, readers and other attendees, all whizzing up and down the escalators from the dealer's room on the third floor to the panel rooms and registration desk on the second, and to the Starbucks on the first. I spotted old friends like Doris Ann and Sally Fellows, authors like Donna Andrews and Rick Mofina, met the effervescent Kaye Boone, and generally raced around getting ready for both the Auction basket and our panel. And what a panel it proved to be."

R.J. Harlick (Cross-posted with R.J.’s permission)
Well, Barbara, Mary Jane, Vicki and I made it to Indianapolis intact and still speaking to each other, even laughing together. Although I wasn’t sure if Jill, Vicki’s GPS, and I were still on speaking terms, since on several occasions I refused to follow her insistent instructions. When we didn’t take the highway to Detroit, whose multi-lane highways I definitely wanted to avoid, she kept insisting we turn back. Finally we had to turn her volume down, until she agreed that the route we were following along almost empty and much less nerve wracking roads would do just as well. But I will say that Jill came through in Indianapolis, when I accidentally took the express lane of the downtown highway and found ourselves sailing past our turn-off. Jill managed to get us on the right road and to our hotels. So Jill, you done good.

As you can see from the photo we had a great time with our O Canada panel yesterday, with Tony Bidulka in his Saskatchewan cowboy togs as the added attraction. I thought Vicki with her moose antlers was rather fetching myself and of course, Mary Jane set a new standard in Mountie attire with her frilly red blouse. And I bet you didn’t know Barbara was a closet seamstress. She made that excellent rendition of a Grenadier Guard’s hat. The less said about my hockey helmet, the better. I decided I would never make it in the NHL. I couldn’t wait to take off that tight, hot, barely-could-talk-in helmet.

From Elizabeth Zelvin
I'll jump in, since I'm at Bouchercon myself and catching up on the week's blogs before I get my war paint on and plunge into the day's activities. I think this year's convention will be remembered as one of the best Bouchercons. The Hyatt Regency Indianapolis is a winner, with its huge atrium and glass-walled elevators, which not only provide an airy setting but allow attendees to spot their friends from 15 stories up and participate in the general conviviality from the moment they step out of their rooms. Among my personal highlights so far have been my panel on Murder, Therapy, and Social Work with Roberta Isleib, Margaret Fenton, Lois Greiman and a lively audience of 75 or 80; my half hour signing slot with a couple of thrilling firsts: a LINE waiting to get my autograph (not the length of Lee Child's or Charlaine Harris's, but you've gotta start somewhere) and a reader with my TWO books in hand (
Death Will Help You Leave Him hit the shelves on Tuesday); and the author talent show on Thursday night, in which I shared the stage with a stellar lineup including MC Don Bruns, Peter Lovesey, Parnell Hall, LJ Sellers and other remarkably talented and funny performers. I'll be singing and playing my Martin backpacker guitar again as one of Three Deadly Dames celebrating our new releases with "conversation and more" and a cash bar outside the book room at 2 pm; the others are Louise Penny and Jeri Westerson. Oh, and I must mention the Guppies lunch--more than two dozen members of Sisters in Crime's online chapter for what was originally "the Great UnPublished," now 400 strong; now published authors around the table included our own Sandy Parshall (and me), Hank Philippi Ryan, Lisa Bork, Sheila Connolly (Sarah Atwell), soon-to-be-published Daryl Wood Gerber (Avery Aames), and others I apologize for forgetting. As you can tell, I'm into the schmoozing aspect of the convention, but there were many wonderful panels. The most exciting for me was Telling Women's Stories, with Barbara Fister moderating a no-holds-barred discussion with Sara Paretsky, Liza Cody, Kate Flora, and Mary Saums.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Libraries in crisis . . .

By Lonnie Cruse

An Illinois librarian contacted me yesterday (and I presume a zillion other people) and asked me to contact our Illinois lawmakers about the proposed cut to library funding. I was more than happy to participate. This library has invited me to speak to their patrons and they shelve copies of my books. Beyond that, ALL libraries need our support right about now.

In this tough economy readers who have less money to spend buying books are using local libraries more than ever, to keep them stocked up on reading materials. Library computers with Internet access are in high demand. Parents are taking kids to the library for programs and books rather than participating in more expensive activities. Audio books can be downloaded from some libraries and listened to for free! Libraries are necessary! And they are in danger of losing their funding! Because lawmakers have to cut costs somewhere.

Those readers who are falling in love with and buying the new e-readers are looking to libraries for e-books to download. I'm rather hoping to find some for myself. As of now, most e-books from libraries can not be downloaded to a Kindle, but there are other e-reader options.

I know money is tight for most everyone, and there are things that come before books. Some people consider food and shelter to be more important than books. I'm not one of them. And cutting library funding? Eventually that could lead to closing our libraries, and that's simply not acceptable. We NEED our libraries for the information and services they provide.

So, do you live in the great state of Illinois? If so, and if you agree with me that we don't want our library funding cut, contact your lawmakers and let them know. Click on this link:

And if you live in another of the other forty-nine great states, you may want to contact your local librarian and ask what the status of the library is. Do they need help in keeping funding? Anything else you can do for them?

Those of us with library cards get a lot out of them. Isn't it time we give something back? Just my $.02.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Alcoholism and Recovery

Elizabeth Zelvin

On September 12, the news media carried a story about a 61-year-old bank vice president who hit a blind pedestrian while driving drunk, breaking the man’s pelvis and both his legs. That’s alcoholism. He lost his job after the hit-and-run accident, which was seen by multiple witnesses. That’s alcoholism too. Then he went to rehab. He’s probably going to AA too, though Associated Press observed the 12-step traditions by not saying so. Anyhow, he pleaded guilty, saying, “It was all my fault,” in court, reconciled with his victim, and accepted a 22-month jail sentence without protest as well as a commitment to speak in public about the consequences of drunk driving when he gets out. That’s recovery.

Will it offend anyone if I refer to what’s common knowledge about the late great senator who once left the scene of a fatal accident caused by drunk driving? That’s alcoholism. The senator continued to drink, minimizing the direct correlation between his drinking and its glaringly adverse consequences. That’s alcoholism, “the disease that tells you you don’t have a disease,” and its hallmark symptom, denial. Might he have been even greater if he’d stopped drinking after the tragedy and stayed sober for the last forty years of his life? We’ll never know.

Alcoholism is about denial in the face of signs—giant, neon-lit signs, sometimes—that it’s causing problems. It’s about minimizing or rationalizing the drinking, the consequences, and the connection between the two. “I drink, I get drunk, I fall down—no problem.” You’ve probably seen the T-shirt. “I can stop any time I want to.” You may not know that attempts to cut down or quit are 25% of the score on the CAGE assessment test for alcoholism.

"I can drink anybody under the table and still behave like a gentleman.” Increased tolerance for alcohol—needing more and more to get drunk—is another hallmark symptom of alcoholism. The drunk driver who hit the blind man had a blood alcohol level of 0.30. As I learned in my training as an alcoholism treatment professional, that amount of booze in the blood would have put a non-habituated drinker in a coma.

The remarkable thing about recovery from alcoholism is that it goes so far beyond “going on the wagon.” AA calls alcoholism a physical, mental, and spiritual disease. By spiritual, they mean that among the symptoms are negativity, hopelessness, and despair. By mental, they mean denial, grandiosity, and narcissism, or “self-will run riot,” as they call it in AA. Recovering alcoholics don’t just knock off the sauce, they turn all that stuff around with amazing rigor and honesty.

This guy who’s going to jail is not the first to make amends for a hit-and-run and take responsibility for the consequences. There was another in the news a year or two ago, and in fact, it’s simply par for the course in the process of working the Twelve Steps. In Step Ten, recovering people look at their behavior on a daily basis and “when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.” That requires an awe-inspiring degree of emotional maturity. I don’t know too many people outside the twelve-step programs who ever admit they’re wrong, no less consistently admit when they’re wrong as a matter of principle. If you don’t believe me, try it. Try it when you cut someone off in traffic. As AA says about recovery, it’s simple, but it’s not easy.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Museum of Crime and Punishment

Sandra Parshall

I fired my Glock the instant I saw the guy's gun. When the smoke cleared, he lay dead with a red stain over his heart.

The encounter was a simulation at the National Museu
m of Crime and Punishment in Washington, DC, and lacked the urgency of life and death, but I was pleased that my reflexes haven't totally deserted me as I've aged. I have no doubt that if I found myself in a similar situation in real life I would defend myself just as quickly. In a second simulation, three bad guys were involved, I was distracted by their movements, and the one partially hidden from my view turned out to be the man with the weapon. He fired before I did. That scenario made me realize just how sharply focused and observant police officers must be if they want to come out of such situations alive.

The shooting simulation is one of numerous interactive exhibits in a museum crammed with more displays than anyone could absorb in less than a full day. I was surprised by the number of "originals" the museum has accumulated, beginning with this beautiful car that was driven by John Dillinger in 1934. It's the first thing you see when you enter the lobby.

Inside, the museum has an extensive exhibit, ranging from mug shots and booking sheets to Dillinger's death mask (below), covering the bank robberies and murders committed during the Dillinger gang's Depression-era crimespree.

The displays take a while to get around to the 20th century, though. Visitors first step into medieval Europe, when punishment for any sort of crime usually involved torture. While a woman with a sharp tongue might end up wearing the Mask of Shame for a while--

--more serious offenses would result in the use of inventive devices whose sole purpose was to cause extreme pain.

Moving ahead, the Puritanism of Colonial America seems quaint and innocent by comparison.

I have no idea who this gentleman is, but he was a good sport about being photographed in a Colonial stock.

Among the many original exhibits in the museum is the car Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow were killed in.

Friends and family insisted that the petite Bonnie, who was under five feet and less than 100 pounds, couldn't have wielded one of the heavy guns used in the Barrow gang's robberies, but Bonnie and Clyde's personal photo collection seems to contradict those claims.

You can make up your own mind about the merits of various execution methods used in modern human history. This Tennessee electric chair was dubbed "Old Smokey" because it tended to fry the condemned person thoroughly in the process of killing him.

This chair of death was more efficient and produced a less horrific show for witnesses.

The French perferred chopping off heads well into the modern era.

Hanging was a favored execution method in many states before lethal injection came into widespread use.

Among the extensive exhibits devoted to the rise of organized crime in the U.S. (and the creation of the FBI to combat it) is this recreation of Al Capone's comfy prison cell.

Today's standard prison cell looks like this. How would like to spend 20 or 30 years living here?

My husband, Jerry, tried out an early Harley Davidson motorcycle used by highway patrol officers.

To me, the most frightening thing in the entire museum is this photo of Ted Bundy's eyes, staring from the wall in the serial killers exhibit.

And the saddest exhibit consists of beautiful artwork produced by prisoners, some of them serving life sentences for brutal murders.

This charming owl was carved from Ivory soap.

The autopsy table is real, the victim isn't.

A series of exhibits show the materials and documents the police and crime scene investigators use on the job.

This is a mold of a shoe print, which can be compared with prints in a national database.

This is a crime scene kit.

Here's the studio, in the museum's basement, where John Walsh produces the TV show America's Most Wanted.

This is the reason John Walsh has dedicated his life to catching criminals, especially those who prey on children.

The museum presents the entire history of humanity's attempts to restrain and punish those who stray from accepted norms of behavior. Its many galleries, organized by eras and by types of crime, house a stunning collection of photos, physical evidence, documents, scientific equipment, and guns -- lots and lots of guns. If you're visiting Washington, don't miss it, but be sure to set aside a big chunk of time to take all of it in.