Sunday, July 31, 2011

Sure You Don't Mean Dress Code?

By Sue Ann Jaffarian
Moral code? We don’t need no stinkin’ moral code!
Oh, wait.  I think a couple of my leading ladies would disagree with that statement. 
With three different series and three very different protagonists,  I find myself living with three very separate takes on the world and how one should conduct themselves.  All three – Odelia, Emma, and Madison – do believe that justice is the ultimate goal, but the roads they take to get there are as different as their hairstyles.
Odelia Grey of the Odelia Grey mysteries, has to be given an A for effort.  Being raised by emotionally absent parents left her without a solid, ingrained moral compass, but basically she’s a normal person with the usual understanding of right and wrong. She really does try to be honest, but often finds herself lying and putting on a ruse to get to the bottom of what’s bugging her.  The skulduggery does bother her, and even if it reaps results, it nags at her a bit. One of her friends is charismatic Willie Proctor, a white-collar felon on the run. She doesn’t agree with the crime Willie committed, especially since it hurt so many innocent people, but it’s not enough for her to end their friendship or for her not to use his resources in the crime world for her own sleuthing. For Willie, she’s willing to look the other way, but just so far.  Recently, a reader questioned Odelia’s attachment to Willie and said she didn’t like it one bit. On the other hand, Willie is a fan favorite. You can’t deny that readers love their bad boys.

The 2nd Madison Rose Vampire Mystery,
out any day now

Emma Whitecastle of the Ghost of Granny Apples series is the straight arrow in the bunch. She won’t lie, cheat or steal to solve a crime.  Even trespassing makes her break out in a sweat. As one of her friends noted in Ghost in the Polka Dot Bikini: “Oh, please … you won’t even park illegally.” The rigid honesty of Emma could get annoying, but she’s so charming and likable it’s easy to forgive her for being a goody two-shoes.  Her forthright style is also perfect for dealing with ghosts, who may be coy or confused when talking to the living but don’t lie. Still, Emma is not naïve. She understands fully that she’s often dealing with people who might not be as authentic as herself, but she gives folks a chance to walk the upright line.
Madison Rose is the wild card. After growing up in a series of awful foster homes since she was eight, the star of the Madison Rose vampire mysteries has developed her own moral code and sense of survival:  Trust no one and do whatever it takes to save your skin and get the job done, as long as you don’t intentionally hurt people or get caught.  She does her best to live as honestly as possible, but understands a little lock picking and subterfuge can harvest results faster than the direct approach. She’s the perfect companion to a bunch of vampires trying to live under the radar. They demand her complete loyalty and honesty and breaking that can mean death, but they also expect her to weave a web of lies to protect their clandestine way of life. If she has any second thoughts about her actions, they are quickly reasoned away and forgotten.
Everyone has a moral code, even inmates in prison, but what’s right and what’s wrong can have as many nuances as Baskin Robbins has flavors. One of my future projects features a protagonist who is willfully breaking the law every day, and I don’t mean by parking illegally.  I think it will be interesting to see how readers react to her.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Cowboying Up

My crime story graphic novel Cowboys, came out this month. Sharply drawn by a true craftsmen in the comics field, Brian Hurtt, it’s a story about two undercover law enforcement individuals. Deke Kotto is a make-up-the-rules-as-you-go homicide detective and Time Brady, is a buttoned down FBI agent. Each, unknown one to the other, goes submarine from either end of the same case. Events conspire that will drive these two together on a collision course. To pat myself on the back, the graphic novel has gotten a little luv on a couple of review sites on them internets. But Andrew Smith on a site called the Daily Republic had this to say in part,

“Because both cops are wife-cheating, smart-mouthed jerks, all the supporting characters are equally venal and unlikeable, and the criminals are the worst kind of scum, it’s hard to care what happens to any of them.”

I know better than to engage a critical review as I’d only come off as defensive. But I’m making a point by citing his remarks about this question of the moral code of your protagonist…or in this case, protagonists On one hand, it would seem Kotto and Brady, having subsumed themselves in their covers, have lost their way. For Kotto, he cuts his whiskers, dreads and dons glasses to be part of the woodwork in a highrise office of a company that’s a possible front for laundering mob money Brady doesn’t undergo a physical transformation so much as he pretends to be a square accountant-type attracted to the fast life. What I attempted to do was show how both men as they submerge deeper find themselves at a psychological quagmire, and figure just maybe their fake personas might not be a good permanent fit, if only…

To me crime and mystery stories can be about exploring what are the moral limits to a character who seemingly has no limits. A few years ago I had my agent withdraw my novel Bangers, subsequently published by Kensington, from an editor at a known New York house. She adamantly wanted me to redeem at least one of the main characters. It’s a story about a group of to varying degrees bent cops and ambitions politicians. I’m all for redemption. Really. But that wasn’t the story I was trying to tell in that book. It was about what happens when desperate characters are each playing an angle and inevitably these conflicting desires clash – which way do they jump then? Who realizes their folly, reclaim a sense of balance and seek to do the right thing and who is so blind or so greedy or driven they are willing to burn for their misdeeds?

I’ll leave you with this. I recently was asked to do an essay on Hawk, the enigmatic enforcer from the late Robert Parker’s Spenser series. Hawk is the yang to Spenser’s yin. In particular there was one novel, Cold Service, where it begins with Hawk having been ambushed on a body guarding job and laying in a hospital bed. He heals and his buddy Spenser is going to help him deal with the gangsters. Spenser knows that in helping Hawk, he’s going to go against his own code as some cold-blooded deeds will be called for before the matter is done. Yet he can’t turn his back on his friend, his comrade-in-arms.

See, that’s the stuff.

Friday, July 29, 2011

There's a Rule Book for This?

Gabriella Herkert

Catnapped and Doggone

Moral Code. I might have an easier time if I wrote about an amoral code. Both Sara and Russ would and do have a much more clearly defined sense of wrong than right. Connor wouldn’t be able to play along but so far he’s employed a don’t ask and my head won’t explode approach to his wife and her best friend’s rules of engagement. RUT ROH. I do believe I’m more like my protagonist than I’d generally admit. Nevermind. Today is a new day. I doubt most people (real or imaginary) have ever sat down to put their codes of conduct down on a piece paper. We live by them but, unless you’ve read the Jane Austen handbook and are living by the WWJD (“What would Jane do?”) philosophy, you’re probably in the same leaky ethical boat in which we are paddling through life. So let’s start at the beginning.

Morality. Definition. The quality of being in accord with standards of right or good conduct. Okay, that one won’t work. Right or good? Oops. Sara and Russ are going to have some trouble with the non-quantifiable. For example, Sara thinks learning to pick locks is good. After all, you never know when you’re going to want to have a peak inside a place, trying to help someone out, and for whatever reason the owner of said premises is unavailable (okay, unwilling) to share, A little B & E is good there, right? And Russ? He spends his nights advising radio listeners to follow their baser instincts. Good, sure. Sometimes great. But probably not what the Heritage dictionary folks had in mind. Okay, going definitional won’t work unless we’re conceding that our heroine’s moral code can be sort of situational.

Maybe an examination of the moral codes universally incorporated into most of the world’s major religious texts might work. While in today’s world with its reinterpretation of such texts to support personal ideologies, the truth is that most religions preach some version of the golden rule. Personal conduct, the outward manifestation of the moral code, is guided by a do onto others tolerance. Unfortunately for our main players, this one isn’t going to work due to the fine print. Do onto others as you would have them do onto you is great. It works if the “others”are strangers or people you just met with whom you have no history. For Sara do onto other includes doing onto those that done you wrong. It’s not turn the other cheek so much as make sure the next time those cheeks want to sit in the big chair, there’s a tack waiting for them (without fingerprints, natch). Even the far more upright Connor can’t live by this one since duty, including allegiance to superiors (and sometimes politicians) combined with his unique special operations skill set frequently make him the first actor in the play of life. More of a do onto others before they do onto you. Yep, this one won’t work for any of my team.

What about Hammurabi? Unlike most moral guides, he wrote the plan down. All 282 rules of it complete with relative punishments for failure to comply.There’s your bright line. Surely even Sara could figure out her moral responsibilities if there were a laminated wall poster available for reference. Plus, Hammurabi was a big believer in an eye for an eye. His theory was more time sensitive than the Buddhist concept of kharma but there’s a sense of justice to it that appeals to all three of my main characters. And yet...Sara is a big believer in a head for an eye. She has no sense of proportionality. Two-hundred eighty two rules are about two hundred eighty more than Russ can get behind. Commitment issues. And Connor? Well, most of the time he won’t have an opportunity to consult the book before he pretty much has to take care of business.

Hmmm. Having run out of a lot of the biggies, my little gang of three are left with the one word moral code. Do. Don’t wait for someone to fix what’s wrong. Do. Don’t pretend all is well when it’s not. Do. And when things go bad on your watch and someone needs to be accountable. Do. That way, whatever they get wrong in the implementation of their very individual moral codes, they can at least say that they lived by them. That morality wasn’t a distant concept or an interesting discussion at parties. It isn’t even a sporting good tag lines because ‘just’implies that doing once will be enough and ‘it’is ambiguous enough to includs all those things that should never be done regardless of the fame, glory or reward that might come with the successful completion of the mission. Successful isn’t part of their moral codes. Genuine attempt is. Real action is. Do.

What’s your moral code? Can you articulate it or is it just instinct? In writing this, I realized I need to think more about the nuances of my own plan for right and wrong. And I need to think bigger. World changing bigger. I’m feeling more relevant by the second. Thanks for that and for reading.


P.S. The wonderful Seattle Mystery Bookshop team is getting Michael Wiley to inscribe a copy of his new book, A Bad Night's Sleep, for me. Yeah! And if you're near Ball State U this weekend, our own Lois Winston is speaking at the Midwest Writers' Conference.

Hurry up, Mr. Postman

Thursday, July 28, 2011

If You Do and If You Don’t

By Michael

A couple hundred years ago, William Godwin (a crime writer, among other things) posed a hard question: if a fire broke out and you could save only one person – your mother or a human rights advocate – who should you save? He said you should save the human rights advocate, and not only did that choice lead to a lot of public ridicule but on his next birthday when everyone else gave him presents his mother stiffed him.

It was a damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don’t scenario, and if he’d flung his mother over his shoulder and carried her downstairs to fresh air, a bunch of human rightists probably would have met them outside and sent him back into the fire.

I hate this kind of situation, the kind in which, for example, a bad man ties Desmond Tutu to railroad tracks, and a train full of innocent babies is barreling toward him, and you’re the switchman, and what will you do? – throw the switch that sends the train over a cliff or allow the train to cut Desmond in half? Refusing to make a choice isn’t an option. If you walk away from the switch, Desmond also will get it, and when the commission comes looking for someone to blame, they’ll be looking for you.

So, what is a good person (or a bad person) to do in such a situation? What’s the morally right choice?

These situations, although hateful to me, also interest me, and so, when writing, I throw my private detective, Joe Kozmarski, into them as often as possible. My just published mystery, A Bad Night’s Sleep, opens late on a cold night with Joe staking out a housing development where thieves have been stealing construction materials. When the thieves show up, they turn out to be uniformed cops. Then, other cops arrive to arrest them. When the two groups get into a gun fight, Joe watches until one of the uniformed thieves is about to kill one of the arresting cops. Joe can stop the thief only if he shoots him. But shooting him also means killing a cop, even if the cop is a corrupt one. Joe doesn’t want to kill a cop. Joe doesn’t want that cop to kill another cop. What’s he to do? His indecision and then his decision lead to a lot of bad days and nights.

There are some situations for which moral codes are insufficient.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The ends justify the meanness

by Josh

Everyone who runs for public office believes they know what's best for the greater good. This isn't egotism, per se, although it can easily and often develop into full-blown arrogance. Plato wrote about this in The Republic and believed that society should be run by philosopher-kings who employ logic and erudition as the basis for their decisions.

Today's Congress could learn a thing or two from Plato.

As commander-in-chief, Christopher Keneally was faced with difficult decisions on a daily basis. Yes, he had advisers and experts and confidantes aiding him in these decisions, but the ultimate responsibility was his. The consequences of a wrong choice could be catastrophic. Few of us ever have to shoulder a burden like that, and Christopher did so willingly because of his love for public service and because he believed he was qualified, like one of Plato's philosopher-kings, to decide what was best.

For Christopher, his choices were often influenced by his Methodist upbringing; thus, his views on social issues more often than not skewed progressive. But he also brought to the table an unerring pragmatism rooted in the world-view of situational ethics, itself an extension of St. Augustine's theory of just war. Over a millennium after Augustine, Machiavelli provided us with a more familiar variation on these theory: the ends justify the means.

This is not a doctrine for the wallflower. To achieve a lasting peace between Pakistan and India, he committed billions of dollars and tens of thousands of American lives. This was not a popular war, but, in the end, Kashmir was reestablished as a joint-ownership demilitarized zone, and the vast potential of natural resources in the region could finally be tapped under an umbrella of peace. Christopher offered further tax credits to foreign companies wishing to invest in the infrastructure of the United States. In the short term, this cost the country valuable national revenue and lost him votes, but in the long term, this created jobs and bolstered local economies, which in turn eventually lifted the country as a whole.

These were two of his successes, but even these successes were not achieved without what some might consider to be questionable compromises. Troops on the ground were not enough to stanch the territorial and religious conflict in Central Asia, so Christopher signed an executive order authorizing the implementation of information shading; essentially, the computer networks in both Pakistan and India were infiltrated with pro-treaty propaganda, and the populations of these two countries, falling sway, soon rallied in support the peace resolution offered by the United States.

Pragmatic? Yes. But morally sound? Christopher thought so at the time. But shortly after he left office...

Well, sorry. No spoilers. You'll have to read my new novel The President's Defense to get the rest of the story.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Vampire Community Moral Code

What is your protag's moral code?

This week the Criminal minds are discussing the moral codes of our characters. For starters, there are many examples of moral codes throughout the world. Some are simple. Others are more complex. Some are admirable. Others...not so much. Regardless of where they fall, the various moral codes of the human world serve a purpose: to guide the behavior of a majority of decent, law-abiding people.

Notice I said "human world." What if your protagonist isn't and never was human?

Vampires are peculiar creatures. They live and move within a human world. They appear very much like humans and can easily pass for human with a few minor physical alterations -- most notably the filing down and capping of fangs. Contacts can take care of the pesky shifting eye color issue. But when you're physically faster and stronger than your neighbors, not to mention dependant on their blood for your survival, what keeps you from taking over the world?

The answer is a strict moral code. Luckily, most of the vampires Alexandra Sabian encounters adhere to this universal vampire code. There are exceptions. If there weren't her job as an Enforcer would quickly become obsolete.

Because vampires have a strong sense of community among their kind, the unwritten universal code is both simple and far-reaching. Alex, and most of her kin, follow six basic moral laws:

1. Never take by force from one what is freely offered by others. This is the Blood Law. Vampires rely on their human donors for survival. To mistreat one, or to force a human into a donor role, is the greatest offense to the community.

2. Respect is not a privilege. Respect is earned. Show the proper respect to community elders and to your human counterparts.

3. Each vampire is responsible for his or her own actions. Failure to accept that responsibility will not be tolerated within the community. Foolish and risky actions that endanger the greater community will be met with swift and deadly consequences.

4. Exercise control and do not allow the blood-hunger to consume you. Vampires are not monsters incapable of rational thought. Blood is intoxicating but never your need for it to cloud your mind to the point of overindulgence or carelessness.

5. Honor your family.

6. Respect the sanctity of established havens. The haven is our sacred space and the haven master's world is law. Obey these laws.

Simple and yet complex, these laws have governed the behavior of generations of vampires and will continue to guide those to come.

And for those who choose to ignore this code... Well, Alex will be waiting for them.

- Jeannie

Jeannie Holmes is the author of the Alexandra Sabian series and fears spiders, large bodies of water, and bad weather. She moved from the backwoods of southwestern Mississippi to the Alabama Gulf Coast where she now lives with her husband and four neurotic cats.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Machu Picchu Turns 100! (Sort Of)

By Hilary Davidson

Today marks the hundredth anniversary of the modern age's rediscovery of Machu Picchu. What does that have to do with this week's panel question on Criminal Minds? Absolutely nothing, but this has been a particularly sad week in the world. Between the tragic events in Norway and the famine in the Horn of Africa, I don't feel like discussing how hard it would be to kill people. So I'm talking about Machu Picchu instead.

Peru has been on my mind a lot in the past year. It's where my second novel, The Next One to Fall, is set, and Machu Picchu is where that story begins. I visited Peru for three weeks over October and November of 2007, and it remains at the top of my list of favorite places I've had the good luck to visit. Machu Picchu is a major reason why.

I dreamed about visiting the Lost City of the Incas long before I got there. What drew me in were equal parts history, scenery, and mythology. I loved the story of how Yale archaeologist Hiram Bingham was led to the site by a Quechua-speaking farmer on July 24, 1911. (Historians today often avoid calling it the "discovery" of Machu Picchu, given that local farmers were obviously aware, at least to some extent, of the significance of that mountaintop settlement). It makes me think of Bingham as a real-life Indiana Jones, one who couldn't have had a fear of snakes. (Machu Picchu, even today, is teeming with wildlife, including llamas that wander freely around the site, chinchilla cousins called viscachas, birds, and reptiles. A local blessing wishes you the agility of snake.)
Part of the wonder of visiting Machu Picchu is realizing that you're standing right in an earthquake zone, and yet the settlement's perfectly placed walls and pathways have stood rock-steady for 500 years. The view is spectacular in every direction: look down and you'll see the winding Urubamba River. To the side, you see terraces carved into the side of the mountain — allowing the Incas to farm there — and steep staircases. Look up, and you see other Andean mountaintops all around you, most notably the sacred peak of Huayna Picchu (that's the one you see in the famous photos of the site). It's not uncommon for a shroud of mist to cover the mountaintops, giving you the heady sensation of standing in the clouds. When it clears, the incredible setting comes into focus with a speed that rivals the lifting of a magician's cape.
Machu Picchu wasn't the greatest settlement or fortress built by the Incas, not by a long shot. There are dozens of theories about how the site was used and who lived there, with one of the most prevalent being that it was a royal retreat — kind of a summer escape for Emperor Pachacutec (if there could be said to be an Inca equivalent to Alexander the Great, that would be Pachacutec, though he lived a lot longer). As such, it's appropriately grand — and its setting atop an Andean peak guarantees that the view will make you gasp — but the spectacular thing about Machu Picchu is that it was discovered intact. The Spanish conquistadors knew about its existence, and they were even aware that it sat somewhere in an area known as the Sacred Valley, but they never found it. It's a huge blessing because the conquistadors would have ripped it apart, just as they did with the Inca capital of Cusco and countless other settlements. The conquistadors tore down Inca buildings and walls to create their own structures, and they had a firm policy of razing palaces and temples. Some of the Spanish colonial buildings are stunning in their own right, but none of them have fared terribly well in the earthquake zone.

To celebrate Machu Picchu's rediscovery centennial, here are some incredible National Geographic photos of what the site looked like in 1911, and what it looks like today. Its beauty is evident in every one.

* * *

For a fictional take on how hard it can be to kill a person, take a look at my flash-fiction piece "Sorry Bastard," which was published on A Twist of Noir on Friday. That's as close as I'll get to answering this week's question right now!

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Killability Index

Reece Hirsch

I’m going to take a slightly different angle on this week’s question. Rather than discussing the hardest character to kill, I’m going to provide you with a useful tool that will help you determine for yourself just how death-defying your favorite character is. With the help of the Killability Index (trademark pending), you can judge for yourself whether it would be easier to kill Jack Reacher or Dave Robicheaux. How about James Bond or Harry Potter? Batman or Spiderman?

If Reacher were ever to apply for life insurance (which, of course, he would never do), these are the questions that the actuary might ask.


1. Do people firing weapons at you always seem to exhibit extraordinarily poor aim? Give yourself 10 points.

2. Are you able to survive a high-caliber bullet in the chest? 15 points (note: you may be the undead).

3. Do you have Special Ops training? 10 points.

4. Does it require a specialized weapon to kill you (i.e., wooden stake, silver bullet, etc.)? 10 points.

5. Do you wear prescription eyeglasses? Subtract 5 points.

6. Do you have a sidekick with a high Killability quotient (see Joe Pike)? 10 points.

7. Is there someone who considers you their “nemesis” or “arch-enemy”? Is there someone who you consider your “nemesis” or “arch-enemy”? Subtract 20 points.

8. Do you have a habit of sleeping with beautiful women (or men) who are affiliated with your nemesis or arch-enemy? Subtract 10 points.

9. Does your job involve the constant stress of jurisdictional turf wars (i.e., private eye vs. police, police vs. feds)? Subtract 2 points.

10. Do you have a superpower or paranormal ability that would allow for either early detection of, or rapid escape from, danger? 15 points.

11. Do you have any severe allergies or are there substances that have a debilitating effect on you (i.e., holy water, Kryptonite, garlic, crucifix)? Subtract 5 points.

12. Do your enemies have a tendency to “monologue” rather than getting down to the business of killing you? 10 points.

13. Are you the primary character in your book? 20 points.

14. Are you a character that appears in the book solely to convey information about how much danger the protagonist is in? Subtract 40 points.


80 – 100 points: Supreme Badass. However, your high killability number may be due to the fact that you are not, in fact, alive.

60-80 points: Tough Guy. A mere mortal, but not someone to be messed with.

40-60 points: Deer in the Headlights. You may be in over your head as the protagonist of a thriller, but you’re fairly likely to survive a mystery.

20 points or less: Toast. You do have not the makings of a lead character in a series. You are probably not even the protagonist. The only way that you’re going to survive more than one book is if you provide comic relief.

Friday, July 22, 2011

I just kill people on the page -- really

by Meredith Cole

For a mystery writer, I'm pretty squeamish about blood and guts. You'd think I'd have gotten better about it right now. After all, I think about death an awful lot. I think about who should die, how it should be done and who might have had a motive to get it done. This is also known as plotting your next novel.

In my regular life, I'm pretty much a pacifist. I swerve to avoid squirrels. I've shot a gun before (at a driving range on a Sisters in Crime field trip) but have never wanted to own one. I've taken self-defense, but I've luckily never had to use any of my skills. Probably the most aggressive I get during a regular day is doing kick boxing--or passing people in the pool who are going too slow.

So what's the question this week? Who would be a really hard person to kill? I immediately thought of that wonderful old movie THE LADYKILLERS (not the remake with Tom Hanks). Alec Guinness plays the leader of a gang of  robbers who rent a room from a sweet old lady and pretend to be classical musicians. They arrive each day carrying instrument cases, and plot their crimes while a record plays. Peter Sellers plays one of the gang, too. When the lady finally suspects something is up, they decide they have to kill her. They draw straws, but each one who tries is woefully unsuccessful.

So instead of pulling out Jack Reacher or the head of the CIA or someone else that's probably impossible to kill, I'm going to go choose Mrs. Louisa Wilberforce. Her goodness wins out over evil. Unfortunately, it's just a story, like the mystery novels we write, but it's very likely the reason that I'm more inclined to read fiction than the news. It's full of happy endings.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Just Line 'Em Up

Today's question is not one I'm planning to take seriously. It's a dark question and conjures up all sorts of unpleasant scenarios. So ... let's stay on the light side. Let's talk about people (non-heavy-duty criminals) that we'd like to kill--if only momentarily--or at least make go away, like some Twilight Zone episode (except without the twisty ending where we repent our misanthropic desires).

Herewith is a grouchy top ten list of some of the most annoying people in the world ...

10. Automatic Robot Voices Named Cheryl (or something). OK, this isn't a person, and I'm not sure if it could be killed, but I'd like to pull the plug on all those automated voices that make you tap dance through a menu for half an hour before ever, ever reaching a live human being.

9. People who smoke in public places. If I'm at a bus stop, it's because I have to be, not because I'm a public transportation groupie. Breathing second-hand smoke from someone who thinks being outside means he can light up like a chimney makes me crazy. If I want second-hand smoke, I can go back to 1940 and breathe Miranda's, thank you very much.

8. Car stereos that make your internal organs tremble. I think there's an inverse ratio between IQ and bass level in car stereos. Oh, yeah, dude, I'm so impressed.

7. People who say "like" too much. Like, it's like, and he was like ... where was I?

6. People with Bluetooth headsets or earbuds who walk around smiling and talking to themselves. What, they can't hold a damn phone? Or do they just like to think they're Secret Service?

5. Tailgating drivers. DO NOT try to make me move my car any faster, just because you think life is a video game. I only go slower when I'm pissed. And say hello to the nice Highway Patrol officer I'm calling on my cell.

4. Litterers. I think anyone who throws their garbage out a window or on the street for other people to clean up needs to wear one of those little orange jump suits for at least six months while scouring toilets at the local Denny's. While wearing ankle chains.

3. Unhelpful "customer service" agents. We've all met 'em. They make life miserable for us when we need to call ... and make "Cheryl" seem much more palatable.

2. People who text and drive. See #8 about IQ ratio.

1. OK, this one I'm leaving blank for you to fill in. Who's your number one irritation? Who have I left off on the America's Most Unwanted List? Comment already--you'll feel better!

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Killing Is Hard...For Some

By Tracy Kiely

As you know, our topic this week is to reveal who would be the hardest for us to kill.

Um…hello? That’s a no brainer! Harry Potter, of course. I mean, not only is the kid a wizard, but he’s The Boy Who Lived! Throw in that invisibility cloak of his and the Elder Wand, and I ask you – how could a suburban mom of three – a muggle suburban mother of three, no less, kill The Chosen One when Lord Voldermort himself couldn’t?

So. Like I said – no brainer. It’s Harry Potter.

However, now that I’ve sat back in my chair, pleased with my final answer, I’m beginning to think that perhaps that’s not what you meant. Perhaps it was what kind of person is the hardest to kill.

And while I still maintain that a wizard would be extremely tricky to kill, I suppose that I should limit my answer to the muggle world.

However, just like the wizarding world, there is evil and nastiness in our world. Turn on the tv, read the paper, surf the web, and you will find example after example of human intolerance, cruelty, and ignorance. Many times these failings go unpunished. (Casey Anthony, anyone?) But, in the world I’ve created for my protagonist, Elizabeth Parker, I am able to right the wrongs and redress the balance. (I also am able to drive a stick shift, run six miles every morning, and speak fluent French – just some of the fabulous benefits available to you when you create your own world.)

Cozies are one of the purest forms of escapism (well, next to shopping for shoes, of course), and there are certain rules writers of cozies must adhere to. Readers do not want gratuitous violence, torture, or explicit sex. They want to read about (mostly) well-mannered, civilized people (in other words, people like themselves), who are suddenly thrust into a murder investigation that will be solved in a satisfactory manner.

The murder victims in my books are not nice people. They are people who deserve to die. They are people who readers want to see die. They are every skeevy ex-boyfriend, high school bully, or crappy boss you ever had. They do bad things, hurt people, and then are killed. It’s therapeutic, in a way.

And based on the number of potential victims I’ve got floating around in my head, apparently, I still need a lot of therapy.

Monday, July 18, 2011

A fresh face to kill...

Hello, all! Today I've invited a guest author, William Simon. He's a man to watch out for, not least because he is the owner and lead investigator for a licensed firm that specializes in computer forensics and security; his work has brought him into contact with some very interesting people, and their computers.

Clearly, we all want to stay on his cyber good side, so I would not recommend following this week's topic and picking him as "someone to kill." The consequences might make the News of the World scandal look infantile in comparison.

In addition to investigating computers, he's also a writer. His fiction has appeared in the anthology MURDER BY MAGIC, Suspense Magazine, and the forthcoming THRILLER 3 from ITW. His two novels, STREET HEAT and SOMETIMES, THERE REALLY ARE MONSTERS UNDER THE BED are now available for Kindle and Nook under his pseudonym ‘Will Graham’.

I apologize for posting this article without pictures, but my phone is only so talented and I'm still on tour for A GAME OF LIES. I'm en route from San Francisco to Portland, only two flights and already one selection for "special screening" where they put me in what looked like a bomb blast box and swabbed my palms nervously. Not sure what that was for, but nothing exploded and they let me back out again. Took awhile though, so I'm glad that the box had what looked like air holes drilled in the door.

After first changing all my passwords to randomly generated 13 character/number strings, I asked Will our question of the week:

“Of all the people you know, whom would be the hardest to kill?”

Here's his answer:

Thank you for having me here today, Rebecca. That is one hell of a question!

There is a guy I am acquainted with; I cannot say we’re friends in the traditional sense, but our paths have crossed professionally from time to time. He is currently working for the U.S. Government, so I cannot use his real name, but for this blog, let’s call him “Rick.” Like myself, one of his all-time favorite movies is CASABLANCA, so “Rick” is appropriate.

Rick is around 45 years old, and looking at him you’d never guess he’s spent the last 35 years of his life studying the martial arts. A very quiet individual, devoted to his wife and their three daughters, he looks more like an accountant than a Federal Agent.

One time over lunch, we talked about his studies, the years he had spent learning. He actually spent seven years in Japan (before he was married) under the tutelage of one of the most revered Masters in the world.

Over the course of the conversation, which involved a lot of single-entendré puns, I made the comment that, when confronted by any sort of martial arts, my single strongest defense was running. Running like hell.

Rick laughed, and asked why.

Pragmatism, I replied. A man like himself, who has studied formally and disciplined himself for over thirty years, who knows what he doing and how to do it, could take you out without taking off his jacket or mussing his hair. The amateur, the one who has learned from watching Bruce Lee movies for thirty years, well, he’ll kill someone by accident.

Rick thought about that for a moment, then laughed, and solemnly said, “You have learned well, Grasshopper.” My reply was completely unprintable, and we were off on bad jokes again.

Thanks, Will, for joining us, and best of luck with your books!


(Lois Winston is taking a break today and welcoming mystery author Camille Minichino to guest blog in her place.)

In Henry VI, it was the lawyers who got short shrift:

"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."

But in this blog, the lawyers are safe. I'm going after physicists. Chemists and mathematicians, too, it turns out. I never wanted to kill scientists, but it was necessary.

Here's why.

I was surprised when my first book "Nuclear Waste Management Abstracts," didn't hit the bestseller charts. How come no one was turned on by that title? It's out of print and I probably won't be bringing it back soon as an e-book.

In fact, most of the work I did as a physicist, starting in spectroscopy and ending in nuclear power plant safety, was newsworthy to only a small fraction of the reading public. In fact, to only a small fraction of physicists.  

When I retired from physics, I thought I'd try a slightly more popular genre than Nuclear Reactor Literature. I'd write a mystery series, with a physicist sleuth, based on the periodic table. That would give me 109 (at the time) books, far more than that famous 26-book series. Maybe it would sell four times more books.

But the murdering part was harder than I thought it would be. How could I kill a physicist? Or even a chemist? And I couldn't make them killers themselves. Scientists as bad guys? Never.

But if I wrote whodunits and the scientist suspects were never guilty—well, so much for suspense. I imagined readers making up their suspect lists and then crossing out all the scientists, saying, "It's Minichino again. I guess the hairdresser did it."

Finally I realized that what I wanted most, besides telling a good story, was to portray scientists in general and physicists in particular as normal people who behaved like anyone else.

In mystery novels, that behavior would sometimes include murder.

So, I set to work to kill physicists and to frame others for murder.

And what do you know? Suddenly my science creds soared. I was invited to speak at college science departments and even got an interview in the magazine Physics Today, where usually only the "name" physicists get column inches.

By killing a few physicists, I went from a "midlist" scientist to top level.

(Hmmm. I could have skipped right over those 5 years of hard work in graduate school and created my own fictional lab from the beginning!)

Now I'm at again with my new series. Writing as Ada Madison, I serve up a math teacher, Professor Sophie Knowles. I haven't killed a mathematician yet, but I did do away with a campus chemist in the first book, The Square Root of Murder.

Truthfully, the whole math prof series is a direct response to Angelina Jolie.

Remember that great action scene near the start of Salt? Evelyn Salt (Jolie) is on the run from the bad guys. She's crawling along the side of a building, several stories up, managing to keep her foothold on window ledges. (Never mind that her center of mass would keep shifting due to the adorable little dog in her backpack.) She slips, she recovers, and finally enters through a window and crashes into a room where a little girl is doing her homework. She asks the little girl to take care of her dog.

How sweet! The little girl is in awe of both Salt and the dog. Salt has only a few moments to chat since the bad guys are on her tail. The girl tells Salt that she's having trouble with her math homework, then looks at the tall, beautiful action heroine adoringly, waiting for a word. We know the child fan will remember the next words for the rest of her life. What an opportunity for Salt.

So what message will Salt leave with the little girl? I hold my own breath, waiting.

"I hate math," Salt says.

I bang my forehead. How could you, Angelina? You have clout. You can say whatever you want.

After 14 mysteries, scientists and mathematicians are still on my list of Hardest To Kill. Action heroes who blow priceless opportunities to foster science and math literacy top the list of Easiest To Kill.

To show how much fun math can be, I'm offering a math-related prize to a 7 Criminal Minds reader. Make a comment and your name will be entered into the drawing. (Note from Lois: Please include your email in your comment so Camille has a way of getting in touch with you if you’re the winner.)

[If Angelina Jolie finds this blog and comments with an apology and a make-up proposal, she'll be an extra, automatic winner.]

Camille Minichino is the author of three mystery series, beginning with her Periodic Table Mysteries. Her akas are Margaret Grace (The Miniature Mysteries) and Ada Madison (The Professor Sophie Knowles Mysteries). The first chapter of "The Square Root of Murder," (a July 5, 2011 release) is on her website:

Sunday, July 17, 2011

They Have Ways of Making You Talk

by Sue Ann Jaffarian
So today we're talking about how our protagonists get witnesses and/or suspects to spill the beans. With three very different series, I have three very different protagonists utilizing three very different procedures.
Madison Rose of my Madison Rose vampire mysteries is very clever and puts to use survival skills learned growing up in one foster care home after another.  She’ll lie like a rug without a moment’s regret and can even pick locks like a pro to get the information she needs to find the killers, be they mortal or undead.  Publisher’s Weekly recently called her sleuthing abilities in the soon-to-be-released Baited Blood “refreshingly intelligent investigative work.”
The Ghost of Granny Apples lead sleuth, Emma Whitecastle, a straight arrow who doesn’t take to deceit one bit, has a secret weapon:  a ghost who loves to be given undercover assignments. Granny will eavesdrop on the living or corral the dead to help Emma get to the bottom of long-ago murders.
Then there’s Odelia Grey, the middle-aged, plus size, feisty paralegal who’ll do anything that comes to mind in her pursuit of information. In one book, she brought designer coffee and cranberry scones along when meeting a fugitive felon. In another, she pretended to want a boob reduction to get close to a serial killer suspect. Then there was the time she ordered a sexy, made-to-order burlesque costume to pump a seamstress for information.  In the recently released Twice As Dead, Odelia dons a wig and spends an evening at Drag Queen Bingo in her pursuit of the truth.
Odelia is definitely the most colorful of the bunch in her quest for information, but they all get the job done with panache.
Speaking of panache, meet Zelda Bowen, the latest entry in my stable of capable protagonists. Zelda is the middle daughter of the nutty Bowen family, the stars of my new Holidays From Hell short story series for e-readers. While not in the mystery/thriller/paranormal genres, readers can follow the Bowen clan from one dysfunctional holiday to another, with Zelda being the voice-of-reason glue that holds it all together.  Pull My Paw, the second story in this humorous series was just released, following The Rabbit Died.  These stories can be purchased from Amazon for $0.99 each.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Dammit, Jim!

I know I should be all PC and what not and tell you that your protagonist has to be crafty and clever to get some malefactor to talk, to spill the beans. That the days of Mike Hammer busting through a door and slapping a goon silly for info are gone. Okay. I mean, I believe in the Constitution and abhor when the rights of any body is violated with fists. But in the words of Dr. Leonard McCoy of Original Star Trek, the One True Trek I might add, “Dammit, Jim, I’m a doctor, not an astral engineer!” Which is to say I write what I hope are dramatic scenes and thus at times I might have to set aside my ACLUness.

Most graphically, a quick look at the world of super heroes and super spies gives us some hints to loosening the tongue of a recalcitrant witness who more often than not, the set up is they are an underworld type who has certain valuable information.

Batman. Smart. Observant. Trained in the forensic arts. Virtually a modern Sherlock Holmes as he routinely picks up fibers or lose dirt particles from a crime scene and tapping a vast storehouse of knowledge in his protean brain, can identify said item. His arch-enemy (by whose daughter Talia he has a son, a smart ass little twerp who is the new Robin, but I digress) Ra’s al Ghul simply refers to him as “The Detective.” Bats even has a big ol’ fancy computer in the Batcave that analyzes particles or chemical compounds the dastardly Joker is using to cause people to literally die laughing to break down its components and provide a clue to the manufacture of said component. You know what else he has. Big Muscles. He’s trained in various fighting arts and uses a combination of these night in and night out.

However there are times when he asks a ruffian where might he find Two-Face's latest hideout, he might have cracked this chap once or twice in the jaw, loosening a tooth or two. Then he might suspend this vagabond by hanging him upside down from his heels by a thin Bat Wire some 40 stories above the grimy street of Gotham…yelling into this guy’s face his questions.

There’s even a lawyer or two who are super heroes. Matt Murdock is a blind criminal defense attorney by day, and when darkness falls, he’s the grim protector of Hell’s Kitchen, Daredevil. Who with his radiation-produced “radar sense,” can often tell when a witness is lying in court as he can detect their increased heart rate. A living lie detector I tell you. And don’t you know sometimes later that same reluctant witness gets a call from The Devil (blood red costume, horns) as some hoods call him. Again there’s that hanging them from the rooftop thing to help them remember.

Manhunter is a prosecutor, Kate Spencer. Frustrated that the bad guys, often minor super villains, got off becasue of bleeding heart, psalm-singing jurors or those pesky technicalities, she donned her guise as Manhunter and with her electrified staff, beat the holy hell out of those guys. She didn’t just go over their house and do this to them on their front lawn, but did wait for them to commit another crime and be able to catch them in the act – usually robbing a bank or some such activity during the day. Given they’re over-confident having gotten away with it before. So that fortunately there would be corroborating witnesses as being in a mask, let alone she was the prosecutor who couldn’t put them away before, testifying in open court was not an option.

Or what about the famous question that arose during the heyday of Jack Bauer and the TV show 24. Was torture of a suspect ever justified? Certainly Jack freely and frequently beat, shot, tortured, electrocuted, drowned and dragged a suspect to get them to talk. The fate of the United States was at stake.

Well, I’m glad we had this talk. And it didn’t involve neither of us having to scale a building and hang upside down from a stone gargoyle screaming our lungs out.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Talk to Me

Gabriella Herkert

Catnapped and Doggone

How to get a reluctant witness to talk? Are rubber hoses and bright lights out? Actually, since my virulent opposition to all parts of the war powers act that treat the Geneva Convention restrictions on use of physical force in interrogations as "quaint," I'm going to stick with my personal convictions and stick to the intellectual approach. Mom would be proud. She always said 'Violence was the tool of the ignorant. It's used by those people not smart enough to find a better way and I'd better not ever hear you're one of them.

So, as Poirot would say, I need to use the little gray cells to get what I need. There are two things I have to really consider before I have the conversation. What information might the witness have and why won't they talk. to me. Now, I have to be careful I don't fall into the trap of thinking I know what they have to say before they say it because frankly, people will surprise you. I might think my witness saw my murderer but maybe she heard someone hire the actual shooter. Or her information might be tangential -- she saw a fight earlier in the day, she knows my victim ruined my suspect's new shoes or her hatchet is mysteriously missing from her handbag. Not knowing exactly what my witness might have to say can be turned to my advantage. I need to start getting her talking about anything. In another interviewer this would be called building rapport. In my case, let's just say I've got to pretend I've got people skills.

If I'm going to ask questions, I'll start with easy, no reason not to answer open-ended questions about the witness. Most people love to talk about themselves and any reluctance can give way to a natural desire to be the center of attention especially if none of the conversation is directly about whatever she might know or why she doesn't want to talk about it? The conversation might go something like this:

Me: Wow, that was pretty scary. My heart's still racing. What about you? Are you okay?

Witness: Fine.

Me: Want me to walk you over to the ambulance? You're a little pale. Are you sure you're okay? (A touch on the arm might work here. I don't know why but gentle, casual physical contact frequently makes people think you care about them. Of course, if she flinches away, you might have a clue as to her reluctance to talk. Either way, you've learned something valuable).

Witness: No, really, I'm okay. (From one word to four. Progress).

Me: I'm so glad I was around the corner when it happened. Oh, gosh, I'm sorry. You were right here, weren't you? I'm sorry you had to see that. It must have been horrible. (I've built in an assumption about her location and possible witness value without making it a question. Whatever she says, whether she denies it or just lets it go, I've learned something. I've also stuck with conversation over interrogation. And a conversation where my witness is the star player).

Witness: I seen worse.

(So I've confirmed she is a witness but she doesn't seem like a suspect so I can continue to "chat" with her without identifying myself if I am in an official capacity. I never have to identify myself if I'm private. I let her make an assumption about me (I was nearby) and she didn't question it. This is handy).

Me: You're kidding. This is as close as I want to be to something like this. You're so calm. I'd be totally freaked out if, well, anything like this happened right in front of me like that. (Giving my witness a chance to be superior to me). How are you doing it?

Witness: It's just another dead banger.

Me: (She knows the identity of the victim. And she appears to be a witness to the actual killing.)

Witness: In this neighborhood, you 'bout get one every day. Only time the police come is to pick up the bodies.

Me: I just moved here from Iowa. (Another little white one with Iowa being the center of I don't know anything about the big city). The lady I'm renting from told me this was a safe neighborhood.

Witness: Raised eyebrows, hands on hips, elevator eye roll.

Me: I've never actually met her. I rented online. (Dumb as a post and just the sort of person a street hardened woman might want to give a clue.)

Witness: Well, let me me tell you, this block belongs to them. They want you dead. You're dead. You see somebody's making his bones with a sprayer, you get the hell down.

Me: (Translation: the witness saw who fired the shots, knows him or at least what gang he is affiliated with, he's knew to the gang making him likely younger and her probably fear is for talking in a gang neighborhood. This makes her a useful witness who might not want to testify for fear of reprisal).

Witness: You ask a lot of questions.

Me: (Uh oh. Her radar just went off. I need to preserve the relationship for later and since I've got some facts to work from and her resistence, if I'm right about the no snitchng thing is probably my biggest obstacle, I'm going to back off). Nothing like this ever happens in Iowa.

Witness: (Turns away). Uh huh.

An interrogation yielding useful information from a reluctant witness and all that was required was me playing was me playing blonde. I don't know why the Gitmo guys haven't figured this out.

Thanks for reading.


Thursday, July 14, 2011

Let's Hear It for the Bad Guy

Today, we’re fortunate to have, as guest blogger, Thomas Kaufman. Tom, whose first mystery, Drink the Tea, won the Private Eye Writers of America and St. Martin’s Press prize for Best First Private Eye Novel, is back with the newly released Steal the Show. Don’t steal this book, but pick up a copy soon.

Hi, everyone, and thanks to Criminal Minds for letting me in the door. I'm Thomas Kaufman, and my new book STEAL THE SHOW has a variety of villains who chase private eye Willis Gidney up a tree and then throw rocks at him. About those rock-throwers – when we write about villains, we can distinguish ourselves by making at least one of the villains as complex as the hero. Now, a complicated villain is not easy to write about, so I thank William Shakespeare for creating great villains like Iago, Richard III, and Macbeth.

Macbeth: Hold your tongue, wastrel.

TK: And since I have Macbeth with me today, I'd thought I'd ask him a few questions. To begin, how do you feel about the way Shakespeare depicted you?

M: What do you mean?

TK: Well, the real, historical Macbeth did kill King Duncan, but they were both young men, in their early thirties, and it was death through combat. Also, the real Macbeth went on to rule Scotland for about 25 years, and is considered one of the best kings Scotland ever had. You, on the other hand, well, Shakespeare has you, the fictional Macbeth, slay an old king Duncan in his sleep.

M: Well, yes, I did do that, didn't I? But it had been foretold by the weird sisters, hadn't it?

TK: True, but you murdered the king so you could be king in his place. Doesn't that make you the villain of the play?

M: Me? The villain? I'm the hero of the play, you idiot. I only kill because I have to, in order to fulfill my destiny.

TK: As described by the witches.

M: The weird sisters, yes. They were right in their other predictions, weren't they? So I thought they must be right in this one as well.

TK: So you don't see yourself as a bad guy?"

M: Does anyone? Aren't we all the heroes of our own lives? Let's say, just hypothetically, that I was the villain. I wouldn't have seen myself that way. I'd have seen myself as a person who was trying, under tremendous pressure, to do what he felt was right. Once the weird sisters told me I was destined to be king, they placed a fearsome weight upon me. I had to do what I did, because it was pre-ordained.

TK: You had no choice in the matter?

M: A good question. I think that, at any time, I could've dropped my sword. Now, looking back these four hundred years, I suppose some people might have thought I was a tad, oh, I don't know…

TK: Ambitious?

M: Well, perhaps just a bit. But until I met the sisters, I had no notion of killing Duncan. In fact, I was his bravest, most capable fighter. That's why he made me Thane of Cawdor. But that wasn't enough.

TK: According to…?

M: My wife, Lady M. It was her idea to slay the king in his sleep. She said fate had delivered Duncan to our doorstep. And so I saw the logic of what she was proposing.

TK: Even though Duncan's murder drove you mad.

M: Well, every silver lining has a dark cloud in front of it, don't you think?

TK: Let's get back to the whole good guy/bad guy thing. You're saying that, while you killed an old man in his sleep, not to mention your best friend and the wife and children of your political foes, you were the hero?

M: Absolutely. I remember clearly, that, while I did these things, I felt I was restoring some kind of balance to the universe. I was making the prophesy come true. Plus, my wife I and had lost our one child. So the only way that a Macbeth could ever sit on the throne was through the path I had taken.

TK: And your wife went mad as well.

M: Well, that's why it’s a tragedy, isn't it? But as to being a villain, no, I never saw myself that way. Do you know of an excellent film actor, Lee Marvin? Do you know of him?

TK: Sure, he was great.

M: Near the end of his life, someone asked him if it had been difficult for him, playing bad guys in all those movies. And he said no, he'd never played the bad guy. He just played ordinary guys who did what they had to, in order to make it through to the end of their day.

TK: So even though you fight the forces of truth and justice in your play…

M: In my play, in MACBETH, the forces of truth and justice are the forces of antagonism, because I am the protagonist. Shakespeare is a great writer because he shows the audience the path to understanding the lead characters. As long as the writer takes pains to make the audience understand the tortuous path I take, then the audience can identify with me. They may not have the stuff within them to kill, but they can understand why I acted as I did. And you must admit, Shakespeare wrote some great parts.

TK: Any that you didn't like?

M: Hamlet. The kid was such a wimp.

Thomas Kaufman is an Emmy-winning director/cameraman who also writes mysteries. His first book, DRINK THE TEA, won the PWA/St Martin's Press Competition for Best First Novel. His second book, STEAL THE SHOW, comes out this July. His blog tour
continues at The Page 69 Test, Jen's Book Thoughts, and The Rap Sheet.