The Law Shall Have Its Course

            Boston in March of 1770 was a tense city. Regiments of British troops quartered there acted as the Crown’s police. They also, according to reports, behaved as bullies and in the soldiers’ off-hours took part-time jobs at lower wages than might be paid to locals.

            Boston citizens for their part helped heighten the tension. They baited the uniformed soldiers, calling them Lobsterbacks. The Sons of Liberty, a clandestine group of militants, campaigned for the troops’ removal from Boston. Led by John Hancock, Samuel Adams and Paul Revere, the Sons of Liberty encouraged civil disobedience to the heavy-handed British control of Boston.

            On the night of March 5th, 1770, Hugh White, a lone sentry standing guard outside the Customs House on King Street engaged in an argument with Edward Garrick, a wigmaker’s apprentice. The argument grew heated, and a crowd of citizens arrived. Someone pulled the firebell rope at the meetinghouse. People hurried into the street to form a fire brigade. Finding no blaze, many joined the confrontation.

            White called for reinforcements. Captain Thomas Preston marched seven soldiers to the Customs House. By law, the troops could not fire on civilians without the direct order of a magistrate. They pushed through the crowd and rescued White. The expanding crowd, however, blocked their retreat. The troops formed a defensive semi-circle. The crowd pummeled them with snowballs, sticks and oyster shells. Preston ordered the crowd to disperse. He was ignored. Crispus Attucks, a Bostonian, grabbed the rifle of one soldier, Montgomery, and knocked him to the ground. Montgomery arose, allegedly shouting, “Damn you, fire,” and discharged his musket. Other shots rang out from the British troops. Five civilians lay dead in the snowy street.

            As the British troops reloaded, Captain Preston, according to his statement, ordered “Stop firing.”

            The acting governor, Thomas Hutchison, appealed for calm. Speaking from a balcony above the bloody snow of the crime scene, he asked the crowd to “Let the law have its course.”

            Captain Preston and the eight soldiers were charged. Conviction would likely mean the death penalty. To defend them, a loyalist merchant asked John Adams to take the case. Adams, later the second president of the United States, was a prominent Boston attorney. He knew that accepting representation might damage his business and endanger his family. But he also knew that he had evidence to present and believed that the cause of liberty would be harmed if the colonies were perceived to be using the courts for vigilante justice.

            Rex v. Preston, the trial of Captain Preston began in October 1770 in the new courthouse on Queens Street, not far from the site of the killings. The governor and others delayed the start of the trial hoping to allow local passions to cool. The Sons of Liberty, however, never allowed that to happen. Samuel Adams published his pamphlet, “A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston.” Paul Revere, the silversmith, printed an engraving showing the organized British soldiers firing en masse into the unarmed crowd.

            Over the soldiers’ objections, Captain Preston’s trial was separated from the soldiers. His case began on October 24th. The prosecution was conducted by Samuel Quincy and Robert Paine. Josiah Quincy assisted John Adams in the defense. Josiah was Samuel Quincy’s younger brother. The trial of the Boston Massacre was among the first trials in Massachusetts to last more than one day. Conflicting accounts about whether Captain Preston did or did not give an order to fire were presented. No one disputed that he did not actually fire a shot, so the command to fire was critical to the government’s theory of the case. Prosecution witnesses maintained that he did, while defense witnesses held that he did not.

            After several hours of deliberations, the jury acquitted the defendant. In the subsequent trial of the soldiers, the jury acquitted six of the soldiers and returned manslaughter convictions on the only two shown conclusively to have fired shots. They were branded on their thumbs.

            The case is historically important in the birth of the United States. Although the branding punishment and the redcoats makes the case feel like part of our antiquated past, several facets of the case remain relevant.

            The Fog of Events: Adams’ defense strategy worked because confusion often surrounds mob action. Further complicating matters, the Boston Massacre occurred on a snowy night. As my fellow MurderBook officers can attest, taking a dynamic event charged with emotion and reducing it to a linear portrayal is difficult. Prosecutors ask, “then what happened?” A whirlwind does not lend itself to such questions. Different people bring different perspectives. The Preston defense did not make clear what happened on the night of March 5th, but rather sowed factual ambiguity and evidentiary dispute.

            Spin:  In the weeks following the shooting, the Sons of Liberty launched a propaganda war to control the message and began to shape citizens’ minds about what took place. Adams and Quincy succeeded, in part, because they localized the events. They focused on the actions of the crowd outside the Customs House and did not make the trial a referendum on whether Boston or the Massachusetts Colony hated the British soldiers.

            Jury Selection:  The case illustrates the importance of jury selection for both sides. The jury was composed almost exclusively of citizens from outside Boston. (Some sources say no Boston residents were seated; others say two of the twelve.) This limited the impact of the spin.

            Sequestration: The jury was separated from their families and outside influences during the trial. This rarely happened in colonial trials. During the trial, the jury lived on a diet of “biscett and cheese and syder” along with “sperites licker.”

            Evidence:  Among the most interesting pieces of the defense case in the soldiers’ trial was the testimony of Patrick Carr’s surgeon. Patrick Carr, an Irish leatherworker, was one of those civilians to die in the March 5th conflict. His physician testified that in his final hours, Patrick Carr forgave the man who shot him as the soldiers had been mightily provoked. Carr was satisfied that the man had no malice but fired to defend himself.

            Ordinarily an out-of-court statement would not be admissible as hearsay. An exception to the evidentiary hearsay rules is the dying declaration. This is believed to be the first known use of the dying declaration in American jurisprudence. The rules of evidence still permit the admission of a dying declaration.

            Burden of Proof:   The judge instructed the jury, “if upon the whole, ye are in any reasonable doubt of their guilt, ye must then, agreeable to the rule of law, declare them innocent.” The trials following the Boston Massacre represented the first time the phrase “reasonable doubt” was used to describe the standard for a conviction.

            John Adams alone deserves a blog for his actions and their continued relevance. That will have to be another day. Rex v. Preston concluded October 30th, 1770. For its historical significance and its modern relevance, it is the October Trial of the Month.

Mark Thielman

Eye of the Storm

-Ben Keller

As I write this, I’m sitting at my desk in south Louisiana, smack in the middle of the Gulf Coast, and I’m no stranger to hurricanes.  The date is October 4, so technically we have almost two months of hurricane season left.  But (knock on wood) my personal experience and conventional wisdom suggests that really dangerous storms this late in the season are rare.

Yes, I’ve got hurricanes on the brain today, in both my day job and in the context of this blog for the mystery/thriller community.  In my day job, I advise multinational corporations on issues of international security, safety, and risk.  It’s hard to imagine a more clear and present risk to life and property than a miles-wide tempest of swirling natural fury.  Beyond shocking events like Katrina or Superstorm Sandy, lesser-known storms can wreak localized havoc without getting the same press.  Even now, on my threat dashboard, I’m tracking two storms near North America.  Hurricane Sam is at it’s peak, trudging benignly — for now — off the eastern shore of Newfoundland.  Tropical Depression Victor is earlier in the life cycle.  He’s still safely out in the Pacific, over 2,000 miles due east of the Florida/Georgia line.  But still worth watching…

From the mystery/thriller side, one of the well-established ways of ratcheting up the tension is the addition of a “ticking clock,” some countdown to impending doom that sends your protagonists on a desperate race against time.  Plenty of great stories in both print and film have used hurricanes or others storms to great effect including Shutter Island, The Perfect Storm, The Wizard of Oz and, of course, Sharknado.  There’s a sense of foreboding, implacable danger, and helplessness that comes in being of the path of a massive storm that’s hard to beat.  So in the true spirit of the Murder-Books.com motto “crime fiction from those who know,” I thought I would use my experience to offer you a sense of authenticity.  Born and raised in the Bayou State, I’ve lived through dozens of hurricanes of varying size and impact.  I offer below a timeline of what it’s like to live through a hurricane.

One Week Before Landfall

Slowly, imperceptibly, you become aware of the storm developing, probably in the distant Pacific.  You see more coverage in the news.  Friends begin mentioning it in casual conversation.  Some old-school broadcasters might still give out the latitude/longitude coordinates to plot in your hurricane tracker booklet given away by local grocery stores or electric co-ops.  There’s a collective watch party:  where will this thing head?  Computer “spaghetti” models show it could go to any of a dozen places.  The cone of uncertainty covers pretty much the whole darn Gulf.  You’re watchful, but it’s too soon to worry yet.  This could as easily be a problem for Texas or Florida, not here.

Three Days Before Landfall

Well, the models are starting to agree with each other, and the cone of uncertainty has narrowed.  The storm is going to hit close to home.  Now is decision time:  do you stay or do you go?  The government has started issuing mandatory evacuation orders for barrier islands, low-lying coastal areas, and other known risky spots.  But you don’t live there, you live miles from the coast.  There’s not typically flooding in your area.  Chances are, you’re probably safe from actual storm damage.  But there are intangibles to consider.  If you have trees near your house, there’s always the distinct possibility storm-force winds will send one crashing onto your roof.  You may lose electricity for days.  Weeks.  More?  Do you have young children or older family members who can’t weather (pun NOT intended, I swear) the unpleasantness. 

But if you evacuate, where do you go?  You can’t go east or west, because agreement among predictive models aside, the storm could still change course, and you could be heading right into greater danger.  So north it is — like everyone else.  Good luck finding an available hotel room.  In addition to all the other evacuees, electricity and other utilities companies have standing agreements with similar companies from nearby states.  They are activating their emergency plans, which includes bringing in extra workers from those other companies.  Those workers have to stay somewhere, and they’re all booking the same hotels you’re looking for.  Plus, you want to bring your pets, and not every hotel is pet friendly.  That’s it – you’ve decided to stay and ride it out.

Two Days Before Landfall

This is prep day.  The stores are all madhouses.  The shelves are bare as there is a run on every conceivably useful supply.  Canned foods, batteries, bottled water, and of course, booze.  The hardware stores are picked clean as well.  Plywood, tie-down straps, generators, chainsaws, and more are being snatched up.  There are lines at gas stations as people fill up not only their cars, but spare cans to fuel the generators they just bought. 

You go through your checklist.  You’ve stocked up on your prescription meds.  You have enough bottled water and canned food to last a while.  You might not eat like a gourmet, but you won’t starve.  You’ve filled Ziploc bags of water and placed them in your freezer.  This serves a dual purpose of helping to keep your frozen food cold if the power goes out, and as another source of drinking water if utilities go down for a long time.

Now to check your home.  You’ve picked up any electronics or sensitive documents from the floor in case there is flooding.  You’ve removed trash cans and outdoor furniture, anything that can become a deadly missile if 100 mph winds come blowing through.  If you were lucky enough to get some of the plywood before the hardware store sold out (or if you were smart enough to save the ones you got last storm), you might be drilling screws through the plywood over your windows, a protection from flying debris.   You’ve reminded yourself on how to shut off your breaker box.  If power flickers on and off, that could destroy your air conditioning unit, refrigerator, or other major appliances.  Better to shut it off completely until it’s consistent again. 

You’re done.  You’re as prepared as you can be.  You go out onto your front porch and you hear the sounds of drills, hammering and other prep start to subside.  There’s a nervous energy among your neighbors, an almost giddy excitement.  There’s no imminent danger for another 24 hours or so, but there’s nothing else to do.  You can’t go out, all the restaurants and bars are closed to do their own storm prep.  So, a block party breaks out.  Everyone has stocked up on booze, so why not share?  One neighbor is trying to clean out his freezer to minimize losses if power goes down, so he’s grilling steaks for everyone.  The neighbor in charge of the music thinks she’s being clever by making a hurricane playlist.  “Here I am… rock you like a hurricane!”  The Scorpions.  Bob Dylan.  All the favorites.  You enjoy yourself (probably the last time for a while) well into the evening, but the muted TV has had The Weather Channel on the whole time.

One Day Before Landfall

That giddiness from yesterday has melted away, leaving only full-blown anxiety in its place.  There’s no doubt whatsoever in the models today, the storm is heading right toward you.  The coastal area miles to the south will get the worst of the storm, which will begin to weaken as soon as it hits land.  But your area will still see sustained winds of more than 75 mph, with gusts of over 100!  You know building code requires that your home was supposed to be built to withstand it, but you never know.  Even without structural failure, you could lose enough shingles that would require a whole new roof.  If some neighbor didn’t properly stow that heavy rocking chair, you could have a shattered window.  You find yourself checking the tracking map on your phone constantly, looking for any update.  But you’re only doing it with the phone plugged in:  keeping your phone charged is a high priority now.

You’ve been calling friends, and they’ve been calling you.  You’re especially worried by your friends that live on the coast.  The elected to defy the evacuation orders and are riding out the storm at home.  Maybe not the choice you would have made, but it’s a complicated situation, and you assume they had their reasons.  You see the chilling but understandable announcement from their town:  emergency responders are being suspended until the storm passes.  No ambulance, no fire fighters, no police.  If you chose to stay, you’re on your own. 

The convivial feeling has gone, but the sense of community still exists around your neighborhood.  As you make yet another walk around your house, neighbors are offering last minute assistance to each other.  The older widow down the street doesn’t have anyone to help prep her home, so everyone is pitching in. 

The weather is strange.  No rain or high winds yet, but the barometric pressure has dropped, creating the proverbial eerie “calm before the storm.”  Your pets can sense it, and they begin acting strange.  The sky takes on an almost greenish color, and you are scanning the skies to the south looking for the first dark clouds.

As the sun sets, you settle in.  The storm is not predicted to make landfall until around 2:00 a.m., but you doubt you’ll be getting much sleep tonight.  The outer bands of the storm have started to arrive.  Rain is getting increasingly heavy.  The wind is blowing harder, shaking the trees more than you’ve seen in a while.  The television is locked onto the weather, and you’re getting updates and texting information with friends simultaneously with your phone.  You have candles ready on the kitchen counter, and you have flashlights staged strategically by your bed, and the bathroom, just in case.  You have your waterproof boots and poncho by the door in case you need to run out quickly.  After going through your mental checklist for the hundredth time, you finally accept there’s nothing else to be done.  You did it up last night, but not tonight:  you want your wits about you in case this storm hits worse than most.  You trade cocktails for coffee and wait.

Landfall

It’s late, you’ve been up for hours.  It’s 2:45 a.m., and the news is bad.  Two things happened that will greatly impact how the storm behaves.  First, the last stretch of Gulf water the storm passed was unusually warm, allowing the storm to intensify to a Category 4.  This is a dangerous storm.  Secondly, it cut to the west of the predicted path.  One might think that was good news, since the main body of the storm won’t be passing directly over your area now.  But you know better.  This development means that the northeast corner, the most wicked and violent part of the storm, is what you’ll be getting now.  The likelihood of wind-damage, and of tornadoes spinning off, has just increased for you.    As closely as you’ve been tracking already, you’re even more glued to the TV now.

Except you can’t.  There goes the power.  You’re in the dark now, and the banshee wail of the storm-force winds outside your door seems even louder in the sudden silence.  You could keep tracking on your phone, but now you need to preserve your phone’s battery as much as you can… you don’t know how long you’ll be without electricity.  You shut off your home’s breaker switch, and finish your last cup of coffee while staring out at the violent dance of the trees beyond your window.  Then, you go to bed in a futile pursuit of sleep.

A few hours later, you awaken to a weak sunrise.  You risk some precious battery power for an update, and you see the storm is almost on top of you.  You recognize your neighborhood on the map, surrounded by the dark-red radar image indicating the strongest winds.  But you didn’t really need that, because the view from the windows you didn’t cover with plywood tells you the same story.  You read of the grim news that the storm has taken its first fatality:  a fallen tree killed one homeowner not twenty miles from where you are.

Outside your window, one young tree in a neighbor’s yard is simply gone, a giant divot in the earth where the roots used to be.  Trees are bending in the wind almost parallel to the ground.  And yep, there goes someone’s trampoline.  The wind lifted it over their six-foot privacy fence, and it’s cartwheeling down the street.  Hopefully, it lands in the nearby bayou without causing any more damage.  You try a quick call to a friend, but cell towers are down too.  There’s still sporadic coverage, but to get an open signal for a full call is met with heavy competition for bandwidth.  A short burst of a text message is more likely to get through.

It’s been a long night, and you need more caffeine.  Your fancy coffeemaker is useless without electricity, but your gas cooktop still works.  You bring water to a boil, grateful you looked up how to make “cowboy coffee” a couple of days ago.  You make a mental note to order a pour-over carafe to avoid this in the inevitable next storm.  You think of the creamer in the refrigerator.  You’re tempted, but each time you open the fridge, you’re making more likely you’ll have to toss out everything in there.  You decide to drink your coffee black, and give you refrigerated groceries a fighting chance.

You gaze out your window some more as you sip your coffee, but there’s really not much more to see or do.  You’re very curious about what damage to your home is waiting to be found, but you don’t think an exploratory walk is a good idea yet.  You wouldn’t want to be hit by another errant trampoline.  So, a perfect opportunity for low-tech diversion:  you read a book.  (Might I suggest one of the fine authors at Murder-Books.com?)

A couple of hours later, you risk more precious battery life on your phone.  You see the worst of the storm has passed your immediate area.  You glance outside:  the wind is still wild, but not as dramatic as before.  The rain has subsided.  You put on your boots and poncho and risk an exploratory walk. 

As soon as you open the door, you realize you have underestimated the wind.  The storm has been downgraded from a hurricane, but 55 mph winds still rip the door from your hand and slams it into the inner wall of your home.  With great effort, you reach in and pull the door closed behind you.  You keep your head turned low, holding the hood over your eyes, squinting against the wind and needle-sharp bullets of rain.  You complete a full circuit around your house, but don’t see any obvious signs of damage.  But there’s still hours to go.

Finally, the wind abates, and the rain softens.  You join other sheepish neighbors venturing out to inspect the damage.  There’s broken window here, more damaged trees there, but it looks like your neighborhood has escaped significant damage.  One neighbor has a fancy drone, and he’s offering to fly over each house, scanning for missing shingles or other roof damage.  You chitchat with other neighbors, join in some group projects for minor repairs, and begin to undo the plywood and other storm prep you’d done before the storm.

It’s hot.  Muggy.  The dampness in the air becomes indistinguishable from the sweat running down your body as your clothes stick to you under the vinyl poncho you still have to wear because of the light rain.  Going inside your home offers little relief.  No air conditioning, no ceiling fan.  You risk a furtive opening of the refrigerator for a well-earned beer, and you liberate some frozen vegetables from the freezer.  With the still-functioning gas cooktop, a little stir-fry is on the menu for the night.  After dinner, you try for some fitful sleep in your too-warm house.  The drone of generators from your more prepared neighbors makes you rethink your decision to not buy one.  They are loud, they break down.  They can only power so many appliances, and if you calculate wrong, you risk damaging your appliances or even shock or fire.  The gas has to be refueled and the oil has to be changed every so often.  It has always seemed more trouble than its worth.  But as you sweat beneath your light sheet in the still, tepid air, you begin to reconsider…

One Day After Landfall

You’re awoken abruptly by a loud, piercing sound.  But you’re not angry, it’s a beautiful sound!  It’s your alarm panel alerting you that power has been restored to your home.  You get up in the pre-dawn darkness, silently grateful for those visiting utility workers.  They’ve been working all night to restore power.  They couldn’t even start until the wind subsided below hurricane levels.  But now that the storm has passed here, they will be working nearly around the clock for weeks.

You are relatively fortunate to live in a newer neighborhood.  Your trees aren’t as new, so no tall branches to fall and knock over powerlines.  In fact, because it’s all newer construction around here, your utility lines are underground, less vulnerable to interruption.  The repair crews will have to prioritize their efforts.  It takes the same amount of time to repair a fallen line wherever it is.  One circuit repair may bring back 500 homes, another may only restore power to 7 homes at the end of a line.  They are going to focus on the larger numbers.  Your friends who live at the end of a rural cul-de-sac may be without power for weeks.

You turn your house’s power back on, and bask in the divine marvel of conditioned air once again.  You turn on your fancy coffeemaker, but part of you kind of misses the rustic adventure of coffee from an open fire.  Well, an open burner, at least.

As the day wears on, you’re feeling stir crazy.  You’ve been inside your home almost completely for days now.  Plus, you’re worried about some friends that the still unreliable cell networks have kept you from contacting.  You decide to take a drive to survey damage and check on your friends. 

You don’t get too far.  As you get into the older part of the city, massive live oaks have been toppled, blocking entire streets, preventing residents from getting out and repair crews from coming in.  A familiar chorus of chainsaws fills the air as volunteers are trying to cut the giant gnarled branches down to size and make the roads passable.  A few of the houses you can see already have the bright blue tarp on their roof, a first aid approach to roof damage, stopping any leaking until more permanent repairs can be made.  You see a fallen power line on the side of the road, sparks arcing from in menacingly, and you give it wide berth.  You give up, and head back home, passing lines already forming at the few gas stations still open.  Some people didn’t fill up their tank before the storm hit, and still others must feed their ever-thirsty generators. 

Back home, you’ve finally made contact with those friends you’ve been worried about.  They don’t have power, and the overworked employees at the electricity company can’t offer any estimate as to when they will be restored.  Following the informal rules of hurricane society, of course you offer them your spare room.  They decline to move in completely, people want to stay at their home to monitor for ongoing damage, and looting and other crimes of opportunity are more likely to befall an unattended house.  But they will come by later to put some items in your freezer, and to cool off and recharge their phones.

You were one of the lucky ones, this time at least.  This state of affairs may last for days, weeks, or even longer depending on the magnitude of the storm.  Supply chain disruptions will linger, and it’s possible you may lose power again as the utility companies juggle the unusual load from sub-station to sub-station.  Gas may be harder to get, and your community may see a spike in crime as hot, angry people compete for limited resources.

Some reading this account may wonder why anyone would choose to live in a place where such storms are common.  I can understand that, but I would point out that one could ask the same questions about blizzards in the northeast, earthquakes in California, wildfires in Colorado, tornadoes in Oklahoma, etc.  I think there are plusses and minuses to every place.  I would also point out some other aspects to the experience I tried to convey above.  From the clean-out-the-freezer parties to the community response to the storm itself, it’s the people here that make Louisiana so special to me.  Perhaps the culture of community was shaped in part by having to endure such storms together, which means that in some way, those storms might actually be part of the reason I love this place.

Okay, that’s too deep for me in the morning.  I’m going to make some cowboy coffee…

Murder Books Interviews Tim Cotton

Please join me in welcoming bestselling author Tim Cotton to the blog. Tim, a soon-to-be-retiring lieutenant with the Bangor, Maine police department, is an accomplished author and blogger who specializes in humor and satire. He is the author of Detective in the Dooryard: Reflections of a Maine Cop. And coming October 1st from Down East Books, Got Warrants?: Dispatches from the Dooryard, a collection praised by New York Times bestselling author Joseph Wambaugh.

Tim has been a police officer for more than three decades. The writer in him has always been drawn to the stories of people he has met along the way. Dealing with the standard issue ne’er-do-wells as a patrol officer, homicide detective, polygraph examiner, and later as the lieutenant in charge of the criminal investigation division certainly provides an interesting backdrop—but more often he writes about the regular folks he encounters, people who need his help, or those who just want to share a joke or even a sad story.

Got Warrants?: Dispatches from the Dooryard

For the hundreds of thousands of followers of the Bangor, Maine, Police Department on social media, the “Got Warrants?” feature brings a regular dose of levity. Pulled straight from daily reports, these short interludes provide a welcome spin on the standard police log. Collected here is a fresh batch of all-true police-related hijinks.

Poking fun at human nature and turning ne’er-do-wells into sages of silliness, Got Warrants? reminds us all to step back, take a deep breath, and try not to take things so seriously.

MB First off, congratulations on the release of your second book!Most cops spend their careers writing reports, literally buried in paperwork. What made you decide to write for fun about the people you meet?

TC It all came about by mistake, really. When I was promoted to Sergeant—after twelve-years as a detective— there were two jobs open. One was heading to midnights in the patrol division, the other was to take over the public information officer position. I chose the PIO slot. I had worked all the midnights I cared to work in the first twenty-six years on the job. With that position came the chore of updating the Facebook page of the police department. Several humorous features developed, including the “Got Warrants?” series. Trying to keep the page filled with interesting stories was the precursor to writing the books.

MB Have you always wanted to be a writer?

TC I suppose deep down I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t know how to make that desire into a reality. One of the things that overwhelms you—initially—is the fear of failure. Maybe folks don’t want to read what I write. Sending off my written words to someone else was not something that I wanted to deal with. As time passed, and the page grew by leaps and bounds, it became clear that the long-form writing on social media was somehow accepted by a lot of people. Sure, there were detractors, that’s to be expected. I became more confident when I was asked to be a contributor to some very cool websites. Publishers reached out, and while I didn’t feel ready to put out a book, it gave me the boost I needed to just keep on. I turned down a couple, still feeling that my style might only be meant for social. The biggest step was finding an editor who would accept my rough style for what it was. That is, conversational and imperfect, stream of consciousness “stuff.” I acquired an agent for a very short time. He was a fantastic and knowledgeable person in the book world. His take on my writing was that a book of essays was not something that would sell. I sat on that for a while and I let it slow me down. I questioned why someone would take me on in the first place if what I currently wrote was not going to be something that would sell. We parted ways amicably. I felt better going it alone, even if I was not successful. He certainly would have been a wonderful resource and could have opened other doors, but I felt better inside doing it alone and didn’t really expect overwhelming success. I am a pragmatic realist with some leanings toward pessimism. In a strange turn of events, Michael Steere from Down East Books came and met me for a coffee. We hit it off, he understood my style and didn’t try to over edit my stuff. He felt we could sell a book of essays, or at least have some decent success. It worked out. I trust him, and he trusts my instincts. I just needed to find the right person who could see past my rough edges. Trust me, grammarians are not fans of my stuff. I’m okay with that. I see stories, and I relay that in my own way. I’m far more interested in getting a point across conversationally. I write in the same manner that I speak. That’s not for everyone; I’m not for everyone.

MB Your blog has garnered followers from around the world and provided the Bangor police department a huge following. Did you ever imagine it would become this popular?

TC Not at all. Again, I knew nothing of social media. Maybe it was better that I did things that no one was trying. I never had a fear of failing on social because it didn’t really matter to me. When the page took off, everyone was surprised. I just ran with it. It’s bright, positive, and fun. Sometimes it’s funny. I don’t overthink it. It’s worked for us. I will not miss it when the time comes to give it up. It can be tiring tying to put a fresh face on a profession that has been so badly bruised over the last few years. While I know what kind of cop I have always been, I find it hard to accept the ridicule that rains down on good cops based on what some other police officers have done. You cannot fight through that with only good feelings and good humor. We have some bad officers in our ranks, they need to be removed. No one believes that more than good cops. I hope to be remembered as one of the good cops.

MB You have a keen eye for finding humor, even in the unlikeliest of places. Have you always had this gift, or have your years on the job enabled you to discover mirth among the mayhem?

TC I like that, “Mirth among the mayhem.” Listen, you were on the job for a long time. We both worked crimes against persons, homicides, sexual assaults, and a myriad of other horrific crimes. We both supervised detectives later in our careers. Neither one of us would have made it this far without finding humor in everyday sadness. It’s our nature. It keeps us sane. Outsiders to the profession would walk away from some of our daily coffee conversations, wouldn’t they? I’ve laughed my way through life. Maybe it covers up other emotions, but it’s a go-to, because laughing makes us feel better. I’ve laughed while almost crying, and I don’t care what anyone thinks about it. I don’t make excuses for finding humor in almost everything. The important thing is to keep yourself healthy enough to do the job that needs to be done. I’ve been blessed to be partnered with a guy who had a healthy sense of humor not unlike mine. Together, we successfully investigated 18 homicides with convictions on 17. The one who was not convicted was rightfully cleared. I’m proud of that investigation too. The courts did what they were supposed to do. We laughed the entire twelve years together. We were better for it. It didn’t make us any less serious about the job we needed to do. I try to relay that through my writing. I hope I’ve been successful.

MB Do you have a writing schedule, or do you write whenever the urge strikes?

TC I write at about four in the morning for an hour. Whether it be for my own writing page, my Facebook page, or the BPD page. I write at night for an hour or two, usually for my blogposts, or to add to the file for the next book. I would say I put in at least three hours a day. I still work the job, so it cuts into the writing. I don’t schedule, I just try to pick up the computer when I am sitting around. I also write—in my head—driving between camp and home. It’s a two hour drive. I listen to a lot of music, and you can find that intertwined in my writing. I think the best stories come on the long drives. I try to capture those thoughts when I arrive at either location. But many stories are lost for a time. I always hope they come back around and visit. I wish I could have written down every thought, but it’s just not possible.

MB Favorite books? Favorite authors?

TC Ahh, that’s tough. I love history. Stephen Ambrose books like “Undaunted Courage” and “Nothing Like it in the World” are two of my favorites. E.B. White is probably the writer that makes me feel most comfortable when I read his stuff. “One Man’s Meat” is my favorite. His more famous works for children are high on my list. I just finished Stephen King’s “Elevation” and found it to be a great read. John Gould (Maine humorist) is just fantastic. I like Dave Barry, PJ O’Rourke, Art Buchwald, Patrick McManus. Erma Bombeck is just terrific for great observational humor. I don’t read a lot of cop stuff for many reasons, but obviously, we have a mutual hero in Joseph Wambaugh. His type of gritty true to life stuff was mesmerizing for me early on.

MB Can you give us examples of authors who have influenced your writing? How so?

TC I’m going to have to humbly employ E.B. White as a huge influence. We write about similar things, but with a much different view. He was a grammatical genius, and I am a moron. But his observations are powerful and have forced me to be a better observer. It sounds so simple, to observe, but it’s not. There are so many things vying for our attention. I look for very small stories, and then I expand on them. I look for common people doing simple tasks with purpose and vigor. He inspired me to do that. The power of his observational skills can be no better experienced than in “Charlotte’s Web.” It was clear he was seeing this story with his own eyes. I envy his ability to make a pig so lovable, and a spider so warm and friendly. That, my friend, is great writing.

MB Your blog has generated a lot of positive buzz for the Bangor police department and the State of Maine. Were there any pitfalls along the way? Is there anything you did early on that, given your later experience, you would have done differently?

TC The detractors to my writing were found in every comment string. Lots of Too Long; Didn’t Reads cause me to question what I was doing. However, the instant feedback, even critical, has made me a better writer. Having hundreds of librarians and English teachers and professors reading your stuff has a way of making you better. I came to writing a different way, and it worked for me. Most writers want to produce the great American novel, but I wrote something every single day that was read by thousands and thousands of people. You get a lot of feedback. It forced me to work harder every day to keep them happy. Certainly, they were NOT always happy. I have met so many wonderful people. It opened many doors. I did stop using photos of suspects on Facebook very early as I saw it as something that brought nothing to the table. I am proud to have made Police social media better. I’ve taught a lot of social media types a few lessons in how to engage properly on social. I’ve also remained true to myself, no matter what was said in the comments and in messages. It’s been fun, but it makes you tired. I moved most of my long form writing to my own blog and Facebook over the last couple of years. I’ve had a good run on the BPD page, but it’ll be time—soon—for someone else to take care of it.

MB You appear to have mastered the art of blogging and short storytelling. Might there be a novel in the making?

TC Yes, there is. It’s just a bit slow going for me. I’ve not mastered—as you have—the art of dialogue between characters. There is a novel coming, but I’ll stay true to my style and avoid trying to become a great mystery writer. I am just a storyteller. My main character is a disgruntled and kind retired cop who wants nothing to do with people. Based in Washington County, I think I can bring some of the characters that I personally know— and love— to life I am pleased with what I have so far, but it’s not good enough for public consumption by a long shot. I hope it’s infused with just the right amount of dark humor. Not a stretch for me, but a bit different than what folks have come to expect. Hopefully, next year we can get it to the publisher. I’ll be calling you for advice. It’s good to know successful writers in the business.

MB Worst writing advice you ever received? Best?

TC The worst advice always comes from people who don’t read OR write. Initially, if someone told me that I’ve written something that is too long, it hurt me a bit. No one but a writer knows how much work it takes to produce any written essay or story. I have always been of the mindset that longer is better, IF it’s good. If it’s bad, just tell me that. I can take it. Advising me that a piece is “just too long” only confirms that you are not a reader, so your opinion can be taken with a grain of salt. The best advice is that I should always write for myself first. I have had no trouble doing that. I enjoy going back in my files to find older things I’ve written in order to see the changes that I have made in my style and content. I still like to read the bad stuff, because it makes me want to be better. Nothing you’ve put your heart into is a bad piece of writing. Making it better is one of the greatest pleasures in this game. When you finally finish, and someone begins to laugh, or cry, while reading it in front of you, there’s a lot of satisfaction in being able to bring out that kind of emotion.

MB You can have a drink with any writer (living or dead) who would you choose? Worry not. If you choose a dead one, we’ll reanimate them for you.

TC E.B. White, without question. Steinbeck? Definitely.

MB Retirement is looming. Will you turn to writing full time?

TC Yes. That is the plan. After the upcoming release of “Got Warrants?” I have two more books to complete to fulfill my contract. They might determine that is all they want, or the readers might decide for all of us. I’ll always write, regardless. It’s what we do.

Tim, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule, and for sharing your thoughts with our readers. Best of luck with your new book,Got Warrants?: Dispatches from the Dooryard.

You can find Tim’s daily writings on Facebook @TimCottonWrites

Timothy A. Cotton was interviewed for Murder Books by Bruce Robert Coffin.

When a Picture’s Worth a Thousand Words…

by Steven C. Harms

Let’s start with a logical statement: We are visual beings.

Our world, and how we process it, is influenced mostly through our visual consumption. Certainly, the other senses play a role, but overall, it’s what we see that propels our lives. Every image initiates an array of proactiveness or reactiveness (overtly or subconsciously), which can be as simple as opting for what color socks you choose to wear on any given day.

Which brings me to the written word. As an author, I relish the challenge of piecing together a continuous arrangement of words, using only twenty-six letters, into a story so compelling that my readers are completely transported to each chapter they read. And that’s accomplished through a reader’s visual immersion, and not just through scene descriptions (special call-out to J.R.R. Tolkien on that one), but character emotions, language, sounds, smells, and others that all evoke pictures in the reader’s mind’s eye.

Maximum immersion is the goal and since we’re all wired to process visually, in real time or in our own mind, it’s my job to ‘show’ a reader the story through sensory details and actions. The very word “show” implies visual consumption. When a reader is ‘told,’ by its nature that’s an audio consumptive exercise, lessening the quality and often resulting in a poorly written sentence.

The old saying that “A picture is worth a thousand words,” is sort of the mantra I’m talking about here, only reverse engineered. Since authors write and don’t snap photos, the saying changes to “A thousand words is worth a picture.” That’s the core of the author-reader dynamic.

As I was writing this blog, the idea that static images can inspire tremendous creativity for amazing story plots in crime genres sort of took root. So, I scrolled my stored digital photos and found a few of note…

This is an image screaming for an opening or closing chapter. The multitude of sensory details in this simple photograph of this person sitting on that bench are rich. Is she mourning? She’s alone in a serene setting enjoying the moment, then…fill in the blank. Is she the murderer or the victim?

Another one that evokes immediate imagery for story lines:

The interesting thing about seeing “things,” is that some of those immediately invoke images in our own minds because they are ubiquitous symbols, positive or negative. This one has a cross in a memorial setting, a plaque stating, ‘NICKEL IN THE GRASS,’ and a ton of the coins scattered on the ground. It’s from a golf course called American Dunes in Michigan, a course built by Jack Nicklaus to honor our fallen military heroes and their legacies by donating all course proceeds to support their families. It’s where Folds of Honor was founded. I had the privilege of golfing there a few weeks ago and this image was taken on the eighteenth tee box where golfers can place a “nickel in the grass,” a tradition that fighter pilots do as a final salute to a fallen aviator. However, if you don’t know that image or the reason for its tradition, it probably conjures other story lines and/or remembrances from your family’s past. These are seeds for what could become a great novel, all inspired by a visual image.

So, take a scroll through your digital photos catalogue. I’m guessing there’s more than a few images that, looked at through the lens of novel-writing, could inspire that next book.

I guess it’d be correct in saying that “A picture’s worth between 65,000-100,00 words.”

Steven C. Harms

http://stevencharms.com/

Author of the Roger Viceroy series. (Click the cover image for details).

Book 1 – Give Place to Wrath

Book 2 – The Counsel of the Cunning (November 9, 2021)

SHALL WE GATHER AT THE CONFERENCE? by Roger Johns

I don’t want to jinx anything by calling too much attention to it, but it seems the live-and-in-person mystery/thriller conference scene is slowly, haltingly getting back on its feet. The preparation for some of these conferences is a multi-year process, so I begin by expressing an enormous amount of respect and gratitude to all the conference organizers who have put in so much effort to make their events happen, and I confess that I am heartbroken when conferences have to be cancelled, after so much of the hard work has been done. In a number of cases, conferences have taken the digital route, presumably, hopefully, as a stepping stone to holding live events in the future. High attendance at some of these digital events shows that while the pandemic may have impeded our ability to gather, it has not dampened our desire to gather. Many of us successfully work from home, so why not conference from home? Even though the experience is not the same as it is for in-person events, the popularity of the digital format tells me the crime fiction community is a devoted one—a community in which connectivity is important, and that we’ll take it in whatever form we can get it. As in-person conferences come back, I’m looking forward to those aspects of connectivity that are unique to in-person events, those discoveries that happen only when we gather in person because of the possibility of interacting between planned events: The random encounter at one of the breakfasts, the unanticipated chance to chat on the sidelines after a panel, the spontaneous and sometimes joyfully chaotic give-and-take between participants at a panel. Things that cannot take place in the digital environment, where all events are planned, and interaction is largely on a turn-wise basis. In the digital realm, there is, unfortunately, no viable in-between place and time where people can randomly mix and discover what they didn’t know they were looking for. Judging by the recent turnout at the 2021 edition of Killer Nashville—the first in-person conference I’ve been to since the onset of the pandemic—the lure of spending quality time with other readers, writers, and purveyors of crime fiction is strong indeed. So, I am hopeful that this is a harbinger—that considerations of health and safety will soon be such that this most rewarding aspect of the crime fiction community is, once again, commonplace. And I’ll look forward to seeing you there.

ROGER JOHNS is the author of the Wallace Hartman Mysteries, Dark River Rising and River of Secrets, from St. Martin’s Press. He is the 2018 Georgia Author of the Year (Detective·Mystery Category), a two-time Finalist for Killer Nashville’s Silver Falchion Award, and runner-up for the 2019 Frank Yerby Fiction Award.  His short fiction appears (or is forthcoming) in the Saturday Evening Post New Fiction Friday, the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, the Mystery Weekly Magazine, Dark City Crime & Mystery Magazine, Yellow Mama, and Viral Literature: Alone Together in Georgia.  Roger’s articles and interviews about writing and career management appear in Southern Literary Review, Writer Unboxed, and Southern Writers Magazine. Website: http://www.rogerjohnsbooks.com.

Coffee and Cops: Another Perspective

By Micki Browning (Tea Aficionado and Reluctant Coffee Consumption Pseudo-Expert)

Last week, Brian Thiem, my esteemed colleague and brother-in-arms, suffered a coffee crisis that resulted in his post on the importance of coffee in his life. I read the post with great interest while I was sipping my morning mug of caffeine. It came as no surprise that he began consuming coffee in earnest while serving in the army and that it was a habit he continued as a police officer. So far so good. I hung onto his words as he outlined how he brewed his favorite cup, appreciating the care and precision of his steps and equipment, knowing that I too, had such a morning ritual. Alas, we parted ideological ways when he opined, “As my fellow crime fiction writers know, cops drink coffee, and seldom do they write a scene where detectives are interviewing a suspect when cups of coffee are not included.”

And while the word I uttered in response was not my finest, I pressed on. A couple of paragraphs of roasted bean rubbish later, the ideological chasm deepened. “I once got to a scene in a novel where a homicide detective was drinking a cup of tea. Blasphemy! I couldn’t continue reading.”

My first inclination was to say “Nu’uh.” An argument sadly lacking in persuasiveness, and honestly, I have bigger and better words at my disposal (although as astute readers may recall, not all are for polite company). And to be fair. Cops do drink coffee. But, and here I must pause to savor the moment before stating the obvious; they also drink tea. 

So let me offer some evidence. Patrol officers use their cars as their offices and they have a war bag that carries all the gear they routinely need during their shift. My kit included a nondescript thermos. Full of tea. Throughout a career that spanned twenty-two years, two agencies, a couple of promotions, and more tea than I can quantify (some of which was pitched through the window when a hot call came in), my faithful thermos traveled with me. It’s got as many nicks and war wounds as I do — fortunately none of which were career-ending. 

I’ll be the first to admit, tea conjures images of cozy mysteries and English countrysides rather than hard-boiled procedurals, but if you’ve ever had a convenience-store coffee at 0230 hours, you know hard-boiled has more than one meaning. And for those New England friends who think Dunkin Donuts makes the best coffee? Here I must back Brian’s conclusion that while it’s not worthy of de-friending anyone, it is reason to feel deeply sorry for them, bless their hearts. (Sorry Bruce.)

I don’t believe anyone starts out as a coffee or tea snob. I grew up in a home that ran on Lipton — both hot and iced. My roots reach into the south, and in the summertime I drank tea that was served iced, sweetened with sugar, and tempered with lemon. That was a hard habit to break, but cops are nothing if not tough, and after I took the oath of office, I took my tea straight, thank you very much.

That said, as a cop, I was an unabashed tea snob. If I went to the trouble of making tea and taking it with me, it was going to be the good stuff. After all, if I’d wanted any old swill, I’d have grabbed a cup of coffee that had been sitting in a carafe on a busted burner for hours. Fortunately, early in my career, I discovered Mariage Frères, a French tea company that has been blending teas since 1854. My favorites remain Vanille des Îles and Esprit de Noël. But it’s easier to find quality tea closer to home and now my go to purveyor is Harney and Sons. 

And tea has several things going for it that coffee can’t match. First off, tea works hot or cold. I don’t care how much ice you add to coffee, the final effect is just wrong. Secondly, tea doesn’t give you coffee breath or the feeling that you need to shave your tongue. Plus, tea has more health benefits than coffee. Oh, and it tastes better — despite what Ted Lasso thinks.

In my haste to defend tea, I may not have made it clear that I also drink coffee. There are few things that are more satisfying than a cup of good coffee and a donut cranberry muffin. Occasionally, I even partook of that particular elixir on duty. My protagonist, Detective Jo Wyatt has also sipped both tea and coffee. So why the rebuttal? It’s simple really. As much as cops like coffee (or tea), they like busting each other’s chops more. Sure, it’ll cost me the next time Brian and I end up at the same writers conference, but I’ll gladly buy the first brew … of his choice.

Cheers!

Micki

Coffee and Cops

by BRIAN THIEM (Qualified Coffee and Coffee Consumption Expert): Last week there was a crisis in the Thiem house. Well, not a complete crisis, but it was close. I got up at 6:15 as normal, brushed my teeth, pulled on my shorts and tee shirt, and headed to the kitchen.

I dumped a cup of kibble into Annie’s bowl, and while she was eating (it takes about a minute for her to inhale her breakfast), made coffee. I hit the start button on the coffee bean grinder, put the carafe under the water dispenser (filtered water only for coffee), and put a new filter in the coffee maker. By this time, the carafe was full, so I poured it into the reservoir, dumped the freshly ground coffee into the filter, and flipped the start switch.

Annie and I went out in the back yard so she could sniff around and do her business. Normally by the time she’s done, my coffee is ready, but when we came back in, no coffee was brewing. The light on the coffee maker was off. I figured I didn’t start it—I’ve been known to make mistakes before I’ve had my coffee. I turned it on again. It gurgled for a minute then stopped. I had to hold the toggle switch for the eight minutes necessary to brew the pot.

The immediate disaster was averted, but this wouldn’t be workable tomorrow. The coffee maker was probably ten years old, so I figured it was time for a new one anyway. I did my research, learned a particular Cuisinart model was great, found one at Bed, Bath, and Beyond, and asked my loving wife to pick it up.

Now, I can hear some of my readers (mostly fellow writers and cops) thinking I’m coffee obsessed and wondering why I think I’m such a know-it-all on the subject. In our judicial system, there’s a rule of evidence that defines an Expert Witness. Courts generally prohibit witnesses from testifying based on their opinion, but allow an exception for expert witnesses. I had been certified as an expert witness on various subject matters in state and federal court during my years as a cop.

The first time was when I worked Vice Narcotics and qualified as an expert in narcotics sales and possession for sales. The prosecutor questioned me about my training and experience in this area, and the judge then determined I was qualified to render my expert opinion. The first case dealt with an arrest made by patrol officers of a man who had fifteen bindles of heroin in his possession, a pocket full of $10 bills, and was standing on a street corner where officers had made dozens of drug arrests. The defense tried to claim the heroin was for personal use, which was a lesser crime, but I rendered my expert opinion that he possessed it for sales, and the jury agreed.

I tell you this, because I’m quite certain that I am more than qualified to render an expert opinion on coffee brewing and consumption, and if a court of law ever needed an expert witness on the subject, I would be a shoo-in.

You see, I began serious coffee drinking in the Army. Soldiers have been known for coffee drinking for generations. I continued my experience as a coffee drinker when I joined the police department. As my fellow crime fiction writers know, cops drink coffee, and seldom do they write a scene where detectives are interviewing a suspect when cups of coffee are not included.

Coffee is the lifeblood of soldiers and cops. Yes—coffee. I once got to a scene in a novel where a homicide detective was drinking a cup of tea. Blasphemy! I couldn’t continue reading.

I admit I wasn’t always a coffee snob. For many years, I drank whatever coffee was available. I drank it for the caffeine, and it didn’t matter how bitter, weak, or gritty it was. When you’re awaken at 2:00 a.m. because someone was murdered in your city and you’ve only had three hours of sleep in the last two days because others were murdered, it doesn’t matter what the coffee tastes like.

But today, I am more particular, and I’m going to share my expertise with you. Don’t fight it—I’ve already qualified as an expert in this area.

I confess that there was a day when I bought coffee in a can. Heck, I even drank instant coffee at times. But today, I buy whole beans and grind them fresh just before brewing. All of us coffee snobs—I mean connoisseurs—do this. Fresh coffee is one of the keys to a great cup.

But not just any beans. I know some of you stop at your local Starbucks for your morning coffee. Starbucks isn’t bad, but we coffee snobs who love a great French roast, call their French roast, star-burnt. I drink Peet’s coffee, primarily their French roast and Major Dickenson’s blend. Some of my New England friends think Dunkin Donuts makes the best coffee. I haven’t de-friended them because of this, but I feel deeply sorry for them.

There are many different brewing methods, and most are a compromise between cost, taste, and convenience. The pods (Keurig was the original) are convenient, but the taste is subpar, and the cost is much more than brewing your own. Although I like the French press method, I find it too messy and time consuming. However, when traveling, I often pack my own coffee and a little French press to avoid drinking the swill present in many hotel rooms.

If you require at least two decent cups of coffee in the morning, a good electric drip coffeemaker is your best bet. I make four mugs of coffee every morning—two for me and two for my wife—and it takes all of a minute to get the coffee set up and less than ten for it to brew. That’s less time than it takes most people to get a cup of coffee from their local coffeeshop, and some fellow coffee snobs even set up their coffeemakers the night before to start just before they get up.

Coffeemakers have two different filter styles. The basket-type filter is most common and began with the original Mr. Coffee automatic drip coffeemaker back in the 1970s. They’re okay and make better coffee than pods or the archaic coffee percolators, but the best drip coffeemakers use cone filters, since they yield the most flavorful and most fully extracted coffee.

I already mentioned the other key to great coffee—filtered water. If you use tap water full of chlorine and other impurities, your coffee will suffer.

There you have it—how to make great coffee from a certified coffee expert/snob. I’m willing to listen to your comments and opinions on coffee, and even if you want to opine that Starbucks is better than Peet’s, I’ll still respect you in the morning—that is, if I’ve already had a cup of coffee.

Back in the Saddle

Bruce Robert Coffin here, once again manning the helm of Murder Books.

Last weekend I attended Killer Nashville, a fun writers conference with something for fans and writers alike. The conference isn’t actually held in Nashville but rather in nearby Franklin, Tennessee. While this was only my second KN, it has quickly become one of my favorite conferences. There are panels on the craft of writing, marketing, autopsies, book-signings, a murder to solve, and killer guests of honor, like Lisa Black, J.T. Ellison, and Walter Mosley. And if that’s not enough, there’s also an amazing awards dinner with a four piece band! Trust me, there is nothing cooler than having the band play the Pink Panther theme as you saunter up to the podium to accept the Silver Falchion for Best Investigator.

J.T. Ellison striking just the right chord.

I have enjoyed both of the KN conferences I’ve attended, but I think this year’s conference was even more special. It was my first in person conference since March, 12, 2020 when I found myself in San Diego at my very first Left Coast Crime. LCC lasted approximately one day before it was shut down due to ongoing COVID concerns. The following morning I headed straight to the airport for my return flight to the east coast and the start of an eighteen month lockdown.

Pre-dinner with Mike Faricy and Carmen Amato.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it should have reinforced the lesson that no writer is an island. While we may each write in solitude, being in the presence of likeminded wordsmiths feeds our souls. I don’t know about you, but I have found the past year and a half extremely taxing on my creativity. KN gifted me with the opportunity to spend four days reuniting with my scribe tribe, and to refill my writerly well.

Dressed to kill.

There was an usual vibe among those attending this year’s KN. A cocktail of two parts appreciation and one part shared struggles. Even the guests of honor openly shared their own career tribulations. It was an important reminder that although we may be at different places in our writing careers, we are all on the same road. Whether chatting with brand new authors or those well-established, I always enjoy the opportunity for the give and take of shared experience and the sound advice that conferences provide.

At a book signing with Linda Sands.

I’ve learned that good writing springs forth from overcoming adversity. Taking that with which we all struggle and using it as the building block for honest literature. None of us knows what the future holds, but let’s hope it’s more in person writer conferences and less virtual living.

The Killer Nashville welcome wagon.

I hope to see you in Nashville next year. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to pack for next month’s Creatures, Crime, and Creativity. Write on!

Byron does it again.

Back in Black

The players comprising the 1919 Chicago White Sox formed, arguably, one of the best baseball teams of all time. They had elite pitching, hitting, and defense. It seemed a foregone conclusion that they would win the 1919 World Series. Yet they lost the series to the Cincinnati Reds. A core group of players undeniably took money from gamblers. The ensuing controversy stained baseball. Questions about the scandal continue to this day. The details of the case are complicated and versions conflict. The White Sox conspiracy has been dubbed the Black Sox scandal in baseball lore. Ultimately, the case went to trial, a trial that concluded in August 1921. The Black Sox trial is my Trial of the Month.

       The culture of baseball in 1919 was different from today’s game. Players could not change teams without their current team’s permission. The lack of bargaining power kept salaries low. (White Sox stars Buck Weaver and “Shoeless” Joe Jackson earned $6,000 a year.) Gamblers could readily find players willing to cheat for extra cash. Allegations of thrown major and minor league baseball games pre-date the 1919 World Series.

Chicago Tribune, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

       An admitted ringleader of the fix was Sox’s first baseman, Chick Gandill. About three weeks before the end of the regular season, he met with a professional gambler, “Sport” Sullivan. The talk quickly turned to throwing the Series for $10,000 per conspirator. Additional players were recruited, allegedly including outfielder, “Happy” Felsch, third baseman, Buck Weaver, star pitcher, Eddie Cicotte, shortstop, “Swede” Risberg, infielder, Fred McMullin, pitcher, “Lefty” Williams, and the team’s best hitter Joe Jackson.  

       Although Sullivan began the negotiations with the players, rumors spread through the gambling world. “Sleepy” Burns, another gambler offered to top Sullivan’s offer to fix the games. Multiple gambling syndicates have been linked to the fix. Gambling odds against the underdog Reds fell sharply.

       The 1919 World Series was a best of nine series. The Sox lost the first two games. The money to the players, however, was apparently slow to come. The teams split the next two games. The White Sox won games six and seven.  The Sox might recover and win the series. In game eight, however, “Lefty” Williams, an elite pitcher, threw only 15 pitches. He gave up four hits and three runs before being taken out of the game with only one out. He recorded his third loss of the Series as the Reds won the game and the 1919 World Series.  

       Rumors of the fix persisted into the 1920 season. Pressure to do something mounted. Cook County (Chicago) empaneled a grand jury to investigate. Eddie Cicotte, the game one pitcher, confessed to participation in the fix. Joe Jackson appeared before the grand jury and confessed to being involved. More players followed, admitting their participation. For arranging the cheat, most received $5,000. (Roughly equivalent to the winner’s share of the World Series money.)

       The gamblers, meanwhile, scattered, fleeing from Chicago to Mexico or Canada to be out of reach of Cook County subpoenas.

       On October 22nd, 1920, the grand jury indicted eight Chicago White Sox players and five gamblers. The prominent gamblers, as mentioned earlier, remained absent—on vacation.

       Some of Chicago’s most prominent defense attorneys represented the players. While major league baseball pushed the prosecution to clean up the sport, the Chicago White Sox organization provided little assistance.

       The case of The State of Illinois vs Eddie Cicotte et al began in Chicago on June 27, 1921. After jury selection and pretrial hearings, the government made its opening statement on July 18th. The attorney described the confused nature of the relationship between players and gamblers. [They] “started double-crossing one another until neither side knew what the other intended to do.” The defense waived opening statement.

       The prosecution began its case by calling Charles Comiskey, White Sox president. He testified to facts about the 1919 World Series, laying the groundwork for subsequent witnesses. A career baseball man, Comiskey was elderly and ailing in 1921. Aggressive cross-examination of a physically vulnerable witness can backfire against the attacking party. The defense, nonetheless, portrayed him as a tight-fisted, money-grubber. Comiskey became so angry at a defense lawyer’s questions, that he erupted, rising from his chair, he shook his fist at defense counsel.   

Public Domain

       Having established the preliminaries, the government called their star witness, “Sleepy” Burns. He had been located “fishing” in Del Rio, Texas, and given immunity from prosecution to testify against the conspiracy. He described the agreement and told the jury that $100,000 was available to throw the World Series. The games would be lost in any order the gamblers wanted. For three days Burns testified and, although his nickname may have been Sleepy, he proved resilient and unflappable on cross-examination. The press corps covering the case wrote that his performance had been superb.

       The prosecution introduced the confessions of the players who testified before the grand jury. The judge, however, ordered that references to non-confessing defendants be stricken. In place of those names, “Mr. Blank” was substituted. This made parts of the confessions incomprehensible to the jury hearing the evidence.

       To regain momentum, the prosecution next called another gambler, Billy Maharg. Like Sleepy Burns, he confirmed the details of the fix. Also like Burns, Maharg did not wilt under cross-examination.

       The prosecution made a tactical decision to rest its case at this point. They had provided an effective witness and jettisoned additional witnesses to finish strong. The remaining witnesses they did not call would have bolstered their claims against some of the minor players in the case. Trials are often about choices. Just as the fix itself involved a chess game between gamblers and players, the trial displayed the tactical moves of both sides.

       Considering the evidence, the judge dismissed the charges against two of the gamblers. The defense presented character evidence for the gamblers. Everyone in the courtroom anticipated the testimony of the players. The defense, however, rested without calling any of them to testify.

       Given the limited testimony the defense put forward, the judge barred much of the government’s rebuttal evidence. The evidence did not reply to the defense evidence. In the chess game, the government had made the decision not to use the testimony in its case, and now the prosecutors paid the price.

       In summation, the prosecutors focused on the marquee players, arguing that they had turned the national game into a con game. The defense argued that although there may have been an agreement to take the gambler’s money, there was no evidence to defraud the public. The defense also swung viciously at individuals—the American League president and other gamblers—as the people who should truly be on trial.

       On August 2nd, 1921, less than 3 hours after beginning their deliberations, the jury returned with its verdict acquitting all the defendants. Celebration exploded in the courtroom. Jurors paraded Shoeless Joe Jackson and other players around the courtroom on their shoulders.  Players and jurors posed on the courthouse steps for pictures.

       The celebration for the players was short-lived. To curtail cheating, baseball had installed a commissioner to oversee the game. Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a former federal judge, permanently banned the acquitted players from organized baseball.

       One hundred years ago this month, the Black Sox trial concluded. Although the case presents a unique set of facts, the trial highlights issues prosecutors and defense attorneys face in many cases. In any multi-defendant case, the proof is stronger against some defendants than against others. How to charge and who to include are continuing issues for the government. What witnesses to use and when to use them, the chess game of trial persists. The stars of the Black Sox prosecution were immunized gamblers. Jurors are suspicious of “snitches”, yet they are a necessary tool for prosecution. Jury nullification also seems to be on display. Jurors may form an attachment to a defendant (or a revulsion for a victim) and tilt the scales to achieve the desired end. Although the biggest stars of baseball confessed to a conspiracy, they were acquitted. The jury may well have come to like the dashing, working-class defendants struggling to better their situation, especially when compared to the crotchety Charles Comiskey, and did not want to do them harm. Although the circumstances are unique, the choices the lawyers faced persist to the present.

       On the centennial of the verdict, the Black Sox trial is my August Trial of the Month.

Mark Thielman

SHORT PEOPLE: AND HOW AND WHY (LATE IN LIFE) I CAME TO BE ONE, AND YOU CAN TOO!

by Roger Johns

If the title of this blog post has got you thinking about that long-ago Randy Newman song, then your thoughts are headed in the wrong direction. It refers to word-count, not inch-count. In the writing community, especially, it seems, in the crime fiction part of the writing community, there’s something of a verbal divide between the practitioners. Some are primarily (even, exclusively) novel writers (we’ll call these folks ‘long people’) and some are primarily (even, exclusively) short story writers (we’ll call these folks ‘short people’). Interestingly, most of the members of this blog have a foot firmly in each camp. I don’t have a name for that (neither ‘medium people’ nor ‘intermediate people’ really capture my imagination). But, I’m a bit late to the game, in this regard. For years, after I set out on my writing journey, I focused exclusively on long form fiction—mostly out of fear. Some really wise and well-known person (whose name I forget) allegedly once confessed to a correspondent that he was sorry for writing such a long letter, but he hadn’t had the time to write a shorter one. And, therein, lay the source of my fear. Getting the point across in fewer words, it turns out, is much more difficult than indulging the luxury of a lot of words, and I was afraid of failure—that I would fail to produce anything that could get published, or that I’d somehow get something published, but readers would snicker. Well, somewhere along the line, my thinking changed. Ideas I had for book-length fiction turned out to be unequal to the task of sustaining a long narrative, so I tried to work them out in shorter form. I also noticed (with some encouragement from those who were reading my long stuff) that maybe there were elements of my story-telling and prose styling that needed some work. That got me to thinking that if I could somehow learn to work in the shorter medium, I’d be able to use some of those short-running ideas and deal with the shortcomings in my writing, at the same time. So, doing what most aspirants to any endeavor do, I found someone who was doing what I wanted to be able to do and studied their technique. And there are plenty of incredibly talented short story writers out there—so good, it’ll make you weep with envy (at least, that’s why I was weeping). It’s been an interesting road to go down, and over the last two years, I’ve managed to get a few shorts published. Whether I’ve successfully ironed out the wrinkles in my other writing, I’ll leave to others to decide. But, it’s been an illuminating experience, and I feel as if I’ve learned a lot about how to say what I want to in a more economical way. And while, on some days, I wish I had begun my writing career by trying my hand a writing short stories, rather than novels, I’m grateful I finally found my way into the population of short people. I still find going short a daunting experience, but it’s also exhilarating, and I fully recommend it as a way build enthusiasm for the craft. In fact, I’m now an evangelizing convert for the form, both as a reader and a writer, and I wish everyone great success and huge fun if you decide to become a short person.

ROGER JOHNS is the author of the Wallace Hartman Mysteries, Dark River Rising and River of Secrets, from St. Martin’s Press. He is a 2018 Georgia Author of the Year, a two-time Finalist for Killer Nashville’s Silver Falchion Award, and runner-up for the 2019 Frank Yerby Award. His short fiction appears (or is forthcoming) in Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine,  Mystery Weekly Magazine, Dark City Crime & Mystery Magazine, and Yellow Mama. Roger’s articles and interviews about writing and career management appear in Southern Literary Review, Writer Unboxed, and Southern Writers Magazine. Website: http://www.rogerjohnsbooks.com.