A Sockdologizing National Trap

The world on April 15th, 1865 could hardly have looked rosier for Abraham Lincoln. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had surrendered at Appomattox Courthouse five days earlier. The president, who for months had looked worn and tired, told his cabinet on that day how wonderful he felt. To celebrate the end of the war, he and Mary Todd Lincoln attended the comedy, My American Cousin at Ford’s Theater.

Reportedly, he was laughing at the line, “you sockdologizing old man-trap!” whenLincoln shot John Wilkes Booth shot him. What followed was the largest manhunt in United States history, personally directed by Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. Soldiers located Booth in a barn in rural Virginia. He was shot and killed during the attempt to arrest him. Scores of others tangentially related to Booth were also arrested. The list of in-custody conspirators was eventually whittled down to eight people: Samuel Arnold, George Atzerodt, David Herold, Samuel Mudd, Michael O’Laughlen, Lewis Powell, Edmund Spangler, and Mary Surratt. Their trial before a military tribunal began in May 1865.

Secretary of War Stanton pushed to use a military tribunal as the court for the conspirators. In the opinion of Gideon Wells, the Secretary of the Navy, Stanton was determined to see the conspirators tried and executed before Lincoln’s burial. (He didn’t make his deadline. Lincoln was buried May 4th before the trial began).

lincoln-conspiracy-wanted-posterMany inside and outside of the government thought the conspirators should be tried in a civilian court. The Attorney General ultimately determined, however, that a tribunal was appropriate. The military’s commander in chief had been murdered within a jurisdiction governed by martial law prior to the cessation of hostilities. The War Department, he reasoned, represented the appropriate agency for the proceedings.

The odds were stacked against the conspirators. The nine-member military commission judging the case consisted of Union officers. A simple majority was required for a conviction (a two-thirds majority was required for a death sentence). The only appeal was to President Andrew Johnson, himself a target of the conspiracy. The defendants only received legal counsel three days prior to the start of the proceedings. Throughout the run up to the trial, most of the defendants were jailed aboard ship, shackled and required to wear canvas hoods which covered their heads and faces. The Commission forbade the defendants from testifying in their own behalf.

Confederate terrorism in the latter stages of the war, as well as the particular defendants, became the focus of the trial. Through 366 witnesses spread over seven weeks, the testimony detailed desperate Confederate plots to disrupt life in the North, including polluting the water supplies of cities and infecting clothing with yellow fever. The specific evidence against the defendants lay along a continuum, Powell, Herold and Atzerodt seemed clearly guilty. O’Laughlin participated in a plot to kidnap Lincoln, a plan which was never enacted. The case against Dr. Samuel Mudd, Mary Surratt and Edmund Spangler seems less clear. Spangler held the reins of Booth’s horse while one of America’s most famous actors entered Ford’s theater to shoot the president. The conspirators met in Surratt’s boarding house and Dr. Mudd set the leg of an injured patient, the escaping John Wilkes Booth. The criminal intent of all three has been debated in the ensuing years.

The evidence and summations concluded during the last week of June. On thelincoln-conspiracy-3 29th, the Commission met to review the evidence. On the 30th, they returned their verdicts. All the conspirators were convicted. Four (Powell, Herold, Atzerodt and Surratt) were sentenced to hang by the neck until dead. Three (Arnold, Mudd and O’Laughlin) were sentenced to hard labor for life. Spangler received a six-year sentence. (John Surratt, Mary’s son, fled the United States. Upon his capture, John was tried in a civilian court. His case ended in a hung jury.)

Mary Surratt’s lawyer obtained an emergency writ of habeas corpus to forestall the execution. President Johnson, however, suspended the right to habeas corpus in “cases such as this.” Johnson reportedly viewed Surratt’s house as “the nest which hatched the egg.”

All four were hanged together on July 7th, 1865. Mary Surratt became the first woman to be executed by the United States government.

In the last decades, America has again experienced the tension between expedient justice in times of national crises and constitutional safeguards. The modern debate is not that different from that faced by Stanton and Wells. Can the deliberative processes of our Constitutional framework respond to terrorism and foreign threats? Some argue that the United States might be a better place if we could merely sweep away a few of the legal barriers to action and make our national government more facile? But if they were removed, then as Robert Bolt posed in A Man For All Seasons, where do we hide when the Devil turns on us?  The trial of the Lincoln conspirators raised many of the same questions citizens and lawmakers still grapple with today.

The Lincoln Conspirators trial concluded during the final week of June 1865. For the questions it raised both then and now, I’ve made it the Trial of the Month.

Mark Thielman

“Enough” Security?

too-much-security

-Ben Keller

How much Security is Enough?

As frequent readers of our blog know, I travel.  A lot.  At least once a week, usually more, I’m heading somewhere on a plane.  A lot of it is back and forth between New Orleans and New York, but I’m also traveling to other locations around the world.  One of the unique perks of this much time in airports is the people watching opportunities it affords.  And with New York being the capital of the world (opinions vary), it’s not uncommon to see an odd celebrity here and there.  Just in the past few months or so, I’ve interacted with the following people:  Joe Biden, John Goodman, John Schneider, Ben McKenzie, Morena Baccarin, Chris Pratt, Keri Russell, the real “Chucky,” and Annette Benning.  That’s right, from Deadpool’s girlfriend to Bo Duke, it’s been a pretty surreal few months.

One of the occupational hazards in my line of work is noticing the security protocols, or lack thereof, at every facility I visit and every person I observe.  Celebrities and other dignitaries of renown have unique security challenges before them, and they can have wildly different opinions as to what type of personal security they should have.  I won’t comment here about what I observed from those celebrities’ security protocols, except to say they ran the gamut.  The smartest of them understand that at its core, any security measure you employ is essentially a barrier between you and the rest of the world.  When your livelihood relies upon the rest of the world admiring you, you want to be very careful about putting barriers between you and your fanbase

We can see this principle playing out in our daily lives.  Consider your last visit to different types of retail environments.  If you went to, say, an Apple store, you saw bright, inviting spaces with plenty of light.  You were probably greeted promptly and welcomed to the store.  Compare that to perhaps a check cashing store, or a 7-11 in a rough part of town.  You see the TV with your image on the ceiling.  Maybe you had to be buzzed in.  Maybe the clerk was separated from the customers by a barrier of bullet resistant glass.  Two very different experiences.  Which is the “right” approach?

Obviously, there is no one “right” answer.  The appropriate level of security is dependent upon a myriad of factors including location, objective, foreseeable risks, and personal preference.  When I’m designing a security plan for a person, facility, or event, there are certain things I consider, and I would encourage you to consider them as well.

LOCATION

What kind of home do you live in?   Is it an upper floor apartment in a doorman building?  Great, your risk of break-ins is greatly reduced.  But guess what:  if you’re past the seventh floor, the fire department’s ladders might not be able to reach you.  Maybe you’re in a farmhouse in a rural area.  Congratulations, you’re far removed from the urban centers and therefore the vast majority of criminal activity.  But uh oh, if something does happen, the police response time is probably uncomfortably slow.

My point is that we should take an objective look at the place we’re trying to secure.  We should understand the inherent advantages and drawbacks.  We should understand the risks common to this area.  What natural disasters occur here?  What has been the criminal activity, and has it been trending up or down?  What business or entities are nearby that may invite protests or other disruptions?  An embassy or consulate for a controversial nation?  An abortion clinic?  A Federal courthouse?  A quick Google search, or even just looking around, can help understand our location better.

OBJECTIVE

What is my mission here?  Let’s say I was asked to give travel security advice to two different groups traveling to New York City for the first time.  The first is a tour group that wants to see the major tourist attractions.  They’ll be going to well-monitored and highly trafficked areas that cater to tourists.  These locations are always have plenty of light, visibility, and police patrols.  My advice to them would be minimal, they are not likely to encounter any significant risk.

But let’s say the next group is a religious organization who plans to visit homeless encampments and needle exchanges throughout the city to bring clothing and hot meals to those in need.  I can’t tell them to avoid rough areas – that is contrary to their mission.  To them, my advice would be much more involved.  The level and application of security measures must enable the mission, not obstruct it.

FORESEEABLE RISKS

Of course it’s impossible to predict the future.  But we can put some thought into determining the most likely risks that might befall us.  Sure, it’s possible that I might be in a hot-air balloon crash, but a car crash is much more likely.  Conceivably, a tiger could escape from the zoo and break into my garage, but I’m more likely to get bitten by my neighbor’s dog.  Let’s say I read an article in the paper that there have been a rash of muggings in a certain part of town.  I realize that I walk through that part of town on my daily commute.  That just became a foreseeable risk for me.  Drowning might also be a risk, but I’m not going to wear water wings to work.  But I might stop listening to music as I walk so I can stay more aware of my surroundings.  I might start carrying a “dummy” wallet with me to placate a potential mugger.  I should focus my efforts on the likeliest, foreseeable risks specific to my environment.

PERSONAL PREFERENCE

Ultimately, it’s up to you to determine your own level of risk tolerance.  As a security professional, I want people to have an accurate and thorough understanding of the risks they face and to take reasonable steps to mitigate those risks.  But I DON’T want them living in a constant state of fear.  Finding what is “enough” security can vary wildly from person to person.  I’ve had CEOs I’ve consulted with that had very few credible risks before them, but they wanted a full complement of security personnel around them.  I believe this was more as a status symbol than true security mitigation.  On the other hand, I’ve consulted with others who had significant and credible threats against them identified that declined any additional coverage.  It’s a personal choice.

So what is “enough” security for you?  Only you can know, but I’ll offer a couple of links that may help in your self evaluation.  Good luck, and stay safe!

Planning for major events and natural disasters:

www.ready.gov

 

Home Security

www.safehome.org

 

International Travel Security

https://travel.state.gov/content/dam/NEWTravelAssets/pdfs/FBI%20business-travel-brochure%20(2).pdf

 

 

 

 

 

Genealogy and law enforcement, the DNA controversy

There is nothing more personal, more intimate, than your DNA. The very essence of your being, your genetic makeup influences—but does not necessarily determine—many things about who you are. Science that used to be confined to laboratories has been made available to consumers. More and more, people are submitting their DNA to private companies who create a genetic profile for them. Growing databases allow an individual to learn about their ancestry, inherited tendencies, or potential health concerns. It’s fascinating. It’s enlightening. It’s fun.

Before retirement, my last position was Commander of Special Investigations and Forensics. That was a few years ago, and times have changed. The pace of advancement in the field of investigative forensic analysis is mind-boggling, and the courts cannot keep up with scientific innovation. For that reason, the recent controversy involving DNA analysis—specifically familial matches from corporate databases—used to identify suspects in criminal cases, is of particular interest to me.

When law enforcement began accessing genetic databases established by private companies, I was both excited and concerned. From the perspective of someone familiar with the frustration of trying to catch a dangerous criminal while following the rule of law, any new tool is welcome. On the other hand, people who submit genetic material to a commercial company may not want a government organization accessing that information. Not even to solve a crime.

The situation made national headlines in the Golden State Killer case. Police had been frustrated for decades by an unsub they had linked to more than 50 rapes and 12 murders. With no viable leads in sight, an enterprising police detective submitted DNA obtained from several of the crime scenes to a genetics company using a fake profile and without divulging the circumstances. The private company, following their own procedure, duly processed the sample and produced a report identifying several distant family matches in its database.

Acting on this information, police contacted the relatives to pursue the fresh lead. Through standard investigative techniques involving extensive interviews, establishing timelines, eliminating potential suspects, and other meticulous research, detectives narrowed their search down to one man. A subsequent court ordered warrant for his DNA was a positive match for the serial killer.

DNA sample

There was no doubt that the police had found their man, but a nationwide debate ensued about their methods. Detectives put the case together using standard procedures once the suspect’s family was identified, but HOW the family came to law enforcement attention caused concern for some.

In Direct-to-consumer genetic testing, the samples are provided voluntarily. In fact, consumers pay for the service and sign agreements allowing the company in question to use their DNA. Those agreements, however, were not co-signed by everyone in their entire family tree, thus the privacy debate.

Some states have enacted laws requiring the companies to disclose whether they share a client’s genetic profile with third parties and allowing them to opt out of that process. The companies are responding by developing more policies about sharing as well. Recently, a new cottage industry has sprung up offering to help consumers delete their DNA profiles from privately-maintained databases.

But what about catching criminals? What about stopping predators before they find new victims? If your loved one were murdered by a serial killer, would you protest police use of private genetic databases to identify a suspect? Would you be angry if the killer struck again while the killer’s DNA profile remained confined to the National DNA Index System (a law enforcement-managed criminal database run by the FBI) with no matches found?

The issue is that NDIS, like IAFIS (the FBI-maintained fingerprint database) may not have a match on file when police submit the data. In the past, that meant playing a waiting game, hoping the suspect would eventually get caught for something else and have their profile entered to get a hit. If the suspect was careful—or just lucky—that process could take years, or never happen at all. It is likely this frustration was what prompted the detective in the Golden State Killer case to come up with a creative way to garner a new lead…and eventually, to crack the case.

Public debate rages on, but personally, I’m in favor of using any technique that brings the correct person to justice for their crimes while following the law. Since the law isn’t fully settled yet, I’ll be watching closely as these cases play out through the court system.

In the meantime, if you were one of the detectives on the Golden State Killer case, what would you do?

(post by Isabella Maldonado)

Novelist and short story writer Ed Aymar, give us the inside story about his new book: The Unrepentant

Please join me in welcoming Ed Aymar to the blog, today. Ed is a talented crime fiction author, and one heck of a nice guy with a deep commitment to serving to the writing community. He pens the monthly Decisions and Revisions column in the Washington Independent Review of Books, he is the managing editor of the The Thrill Begins––the online showcase for debut and aspiring writers from International Thriller Writers––and he runs the “Noir at the Bar” series in Washington, DC. His new novel, The Unrepentant, from Down & Out Books, is a compelling story that tackles a tough subject with sensitivity and care.EdAymarHeadshot

MB: Ed, welcome to Murder Books. Tell our readers a little bit about yourself. What’s your day job? How did you come to creative writing?

EA: My day job is in marketing. I’ve worked for the C-SPAN networks since graduating college twenty-two years ago. That could sound like some sort of accomplishment but, really, I’m just a barnacle. I cling to things––work, writing, marriage––until someone scrapes me away.

I studied creative writing in college, after failing out of psychology, and had the accidental benefit of attending a university with a spectacular writing program (George Mason University, home of the 2006 Final Four Patriots). The teachers there, particularly Alan Cheuse, were exceptional, such a guiding force that I still hear his criticisms twenty years later.

After college, I knew I wanted to write, and that instinct was propelled by my studies, and by a life experience that filled the pages of an early book. That book was never published––probably for the best––but it served as a wonderful introduction to the passion and techniques that fill better novels.

MB: The story in your latest novel, The Unrepentant, deals with a difficult subject––human trafficking. What drew you to this, and what was it like to write about such a heart-wrenching topic?

EA: The research was tough, but I was spared because, no matter what I wrote, it was never as brutal as the experiences conveyed to me. In that sense, The Unrepentant was a book I wrote with purpose . . . an odd, selfish thing to realize, because I’d written two other books and neither had a reason (outside of my own concerns) that drove my writing to this extent.

Which isn’t to say that those two books weren’t driven, or The Unrepentant wasn’t personal; the balance was simply skewed differently this time. Most of my writing deals with elements of violence, and the effects that violence has on people. The co-protagonists of The Unrepentant are both dealing with violence from their pasts, and struggling to understand how it’s shaping them. That’s a topic that interests me greatly––the forces beyond our control, and how we adjust to them. And if we can eventually bend them to our will.

MB: Your writing has a strong feel of authenticity to it, so I’m guessing you did a fair amount of research as you were bringing this story to the page. Tell us about how your researched this?

EA: Thank you for saying that! This was the first time I’d done this amount of research for a novel. I don’t think I’d ever interviewed anyone for a book, and that was nerve-wracking. Particularly because I was speaking with women who had worked, or were working, in the sex trade. And I didn’t want to come off as insensitive to their experiences.

There’s a naively romantic sense to the idea of a writer talking to current or former sex worker . . . like I was walking down dark alleys, and offering women a cigarette for information. That was definitely not the case. The women I spoke with had often written or spoken about the sex trade, and they were comfortable doing interviews. And I think they were happy that I was trying to understand their perspective. The myth of the “happy hooker” is a damaging trope in crime fiction, and they had no qualms ending that stereotype.

UnrepentantCoverArt

MB: Were there times when what you found made you question whether you would be able to continue with the project?

EA: Not really, but there were things I found that I largely avoided in The Unrepentant, like the attraction men seem to have toward young girls. In a couple of interviews, I read that prostitutes sometimes tell men they’re younger than they actually are. They do this to excite the men, that way the men will finish faster and the experience will be over quicker. That’s a powerful, terrible thing, and not the kind of thing I thought belonged in this book.

Sexual abuse is such a tough topic for readers, and you can’t really write about it commercially without glossing over some of it. I didn’t want to do that, but I also didn’t think it was necessary to over-commit. The Unrepentant, after all, isn’t a book about sex trafficking, or non-fiction. So I didn’t need to provide a comprehensive analysis of the practice.

MB: What advice do you have for writers who are contemplating writing about difficult subjects?

EA: That’s a good question. I guess the first thing I would say is to make sure it’s an issue you can stare at. I was able to write this book because I could absorb a lot of the information. There are other subjects that I can’t do that with. I have the right head space for this one. But if you can’t look at a subject honestly, and as objectively as possible, then your writing is going to show that absence. And it will be glaring.

The other thing I would say is tread carefully. There’s a healthy, necessary debate going on about voice and perspective, and who has the right to tell certain stories. I won’t weigh in on that here, but I will say that you have to take pains to understand and empathsize with everyone you plan on writing about, especially when it’s a character whose experiences are far from your own.

MB: You’re also a very capable short story writer. I’ve learned, through repeated failures, that writing short form fiction is very difficult. What’s your secret for being able to do both, so well?

EA: Ha! That’s nice to hear, even though I’m laughing at the word “capable.” I don’t feel like a very capable short story writer. I think that’s because I’m good friends with Art Taylor and Tara Laskowski and Jen Conley, and their short stories are fantastic. Not only some of the best in crime fiction, but the best in contemporary writing.

As of now, I really only write short stories for readings or anthologies. I haven’t sat down to write a short story, for the sake of just writing a story, for quite a while. I prefer novels.

But I generally view short fiction like an abrupt song. It has to capture the tone and melody immediately, urgently, whereas a novel can take time to develop, or contain different songs. When I write short fiction, I try and make sure that the reader or listener feels like he or she belongs to it, that they have a need to hear this.

And then I usually include some weird sex stuff.

People tend to like the weird sex stuff.

MB: If you could live anywhere, and cost was not a consideration, where would that be, and why?

EA: I traveled a lot when I was younger and hate it now, much to the chagrin of my wife, so probably not somewhere overseas. Well, I’d definitely buy a beach house in Panama. I was born in Panama, half my family lives there, and it’s important for me to have a better understanding of that culture, and for my son to have that understanding. I do study the country, but my visits every three to four years aren’t enough for any depth.

But I’d keep living in America, and I’d probably travel between the D.C./MD/VA triangle and Arizona. This area means a lot to me, and I’m convinced it’s currently producing the country’s best crime fiction. It’s a wonderful community to be a part of. And the diversity here is wonderful. I was always the only mixed kid growing up. If we stay here, my son won’t grow up feeling that way.

I grew up in Arizona, and the land just speaks to me. I deeply love that state, like family. Admittedly, if Arizona is family, then it’s the drunk racist uncle complaining about Mexicans during Thanksgiving dinner, but family nonetheless. I don’t know if I could ever move back to Arizona, but every time I visit, I know I’ll have to return.

MB: What’s next from the pen of Ed Aymar?

EA: I’m working on a new book that’s due to my agent in December of 2018, so I really should get on that. Otherwise, it’s the monthly columns for the Washington Independent Review of Books and the occasional short stories for readings.

Thank you so much for this interview, Roger!

Visit Ed at his website EAymarWrites, where you can get a copy of his terrific new novel The Unrepentant, recently published by Down & Out Books.

Ed Aymar was interviewed for Murder Books by Roger Johns.

 

 

 

A Day of Remembrance

by Micki Browning

Arlington

Work long enough as a cop and most holidays have a way of becoming just another shift. That’s not the case with tomorrow’s holiday.  Memorial Day honors the men and women who died while serving in the United States military. The focus of this day is on military not law enforcement, but the parallels between the two professions are obvious. Soldiering and policing are dangerous jobs. Both careers can be thankless. A day in either life may be full of confrontation with people who want to hurt or kill them.

There is a kinship between people who have strapped on tactical gear and run toward danger while others flee. Any man or woman willing to put themselves in harm’s way to ensure another’s freedom deserves respect. Let’s face it, being a hero can get you killed, and yet despite the risk, there are people who don their uniforms every day — and I am grateful.

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Perhaps the holiday resonates so strongly with officers because our ranks are filled with military men and women who transitioned into law enforcement after they completed their tours of duty. They are our brothers and sisters. Regardless, Memorial Day tends to make officers reflect on those who have gone before and the value of their service.

There will always be those who view Memorial Day solely as the unofficial start of summer. Yes, it is a three-day weekend and a wonderful occasion to fire up the grill. It’s an even greater opportunity to reconnect with someone who’s served—or who may have lost someone who served. Sharing time with loved ones is a meaningful way to observe the day.

Flag protocol on Memorial Day is unique to the holiday. After initially raising the flag to its peak, the flag should be lowered to half-staff until noon to honor fallen soldiers. At noon, the flag should be raised to full-staff in order to honor the living.

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Since the year 2000, our country has asked for the voluntary participation in the National Moment of Remembrance. As the afternoon progresses, please take a moment at three o’clock, your local time, to reflect upon the bravery of the men and women who paid the ultimate price for our freedom.

 

All of us at Murder Books understand and appreciate the sacrifices made by those who have fallen — and we thank those who continue to carry the torch. Be safe.

Getting the Cop Stuff Right

by Brian Thiem

In the past few weeks, I’ve had the opportunity to help four writer friends get the cop stuff right in their novels. My cop friends know this stuff, but unless a crime fiction writer has carried a badge and gun for a living, they can make procedural errors that will make more knowledgeable readers cringe. Glock-23-40S-W_main-1

Most fiction writers these days (although a few are still clueless) know Glocks don’t have manual safeties and police officers carry their pistols with a round in the chamber, so there’s no dramatic racking of the slide before they go into a dangerous situation, as we often see on TV. Therefore, the questions I normally get are more nuanced and complex.

I helped two writers understand crime scene security. On major cases, such as homicides, the mayor, the victim’s mother, and reporters cannot enter the scene. In Oakland, our rule was that as soon as the life threating activities (medical care to the injured, arresting suspects, and searching and securing the scene) were complete, the only people allowed into the scene were the field supervisor (normally a patrol sergeant), homicide investigators, coroner’s deputies, and crime scene technicians.

Since every officer on the scene had to write a report, if some captain tried to pull rank to come in and “take a look,” I would just tell him that per the Report Writing Manual, he must complete a supplemental report detailing everything he did and saw while on the scene and his reasons for entering. I’d remind him he might have to testify in court because defense lawyers love to question everyone present looking for inconsistencies. In my time in Homicide, I never had any brass insist on entering a major crime scene.crime-scene-tape

I helped another writer create a realistic police detective character. Most major police departments require that all new hires start as a uniformed police officer and work their way through the ranks, except for possibly police chiefs, who are sometimes hired from outside the department. After a number of years in uniform, an officer may be promoted to detective. In some departments, detective is a duty position within the same ranks as those in uniform, such as officer or sergeant. In others, such as LAPD and NYPD, officers test for a separate detective rank. And if the detectives (or investigators, as many departments actually call them), work in crime-based units (homicide, robbery, burglary, etc.), they normally have to work their way up to Homicide.

I helped another writer understand the boundaries of an investigator’s legal jurisdiction. Investigators often have to cross jurisdictional lines to do their job. Crooks don’t stay within a particular city’s boundaries, so investigators can’t either. However, states have different laws governing the extent of a police officer’s authority. In California, for instance, a peace officer has police powers anywhere in the state. Even though I worked for Oakland PD, I could legally make an arrest in Los Angeles, although I’d be a fool to do so without the help of LAPD unless I accidentally stumbled on something and was forced to take action. Even if I was going a few blocks outside Oakland to make an arrest, I’d always notify the neighboring city first, and they’d often send their officers to assist.

Even though I had no peace officer authority outside California, I traveled to other states a number of times when investigating homicides. We’d always make contact with the jurisdiction we were visiting, either a city police department, sheriff’s office, or state police, as a matter of courtesy, but also because they knew the locale, the bad guys, and had direct access to a cavalry of blue suits if the feces hit the fan.

One investigation took me to Washington D.C., where the city’s homicide unit assigned two detectives to me and my partner to assist us as we interviewed an Oakland murder suspect they had arrested for us and helped us locate several witnesses in the seedier parts of our nation’s capital. I recall their assistance even included taking us to dinner and drinking with us at the local cop bar. Cop Bar

I worked with another writer whose police detective was getting into a romantic relationship with a crime victim. I won’t say it never happened in real life, but police officers know that’s an ethical no-no. Firstly, the investigator is in a disparate power position with a citizen victim or witness, somewhat like a teacher and a student or a therapist and a patient. Secondly, a personal relationship could taint the investigator’s objectivity and therefore, the investigation. And lastly, if the case goes to trial, the defense attorney will have a field day with the investigator in court, challenging his professionalism, objectivity, and honesty (he probably lied about the affair or at least kept it secret), which will likely damage the case beyond repair.

I’m not telling my author pals not to do it, because it makes for such great drama—the dedicated detective willing to destroy his career for the beautiful heroine or the flawed detective who breaks the rules in the name of justice and love—but understand the consequences in the real world.

I’m impressed with authors who try to get the cop stuff right in their novels, so don’t be afraid to ask if I can assist. And if you’re a writer and going to the Mystery in the Midlands conference next month, I’ll be teaching a masters class on Police Tactics for Writers.

A Malice to Remember

Well another Malice Domestic Mystery Writer’s Conference is in the books, my third to be exact. And although the District of Columbia hasn’t quite released her grip on me, stuck at Reagan National even as I type this, it was a fabulous conference. From Donna Andrews, guest of honor, to my impromptu pre-banquet chat with the charming Cathy Ace, to having my most recent novel in contention for the coveted Agatha Award for Best Contemporary Mystery, it was a Malice to be remembered.

People often ask me what it is about writer conferences that make them special. There are so many different things it’s really hard to give a succinct answer. Getting to see the friends we generally only connect with on social media or by email, cheer on each other’s latest book or short fiction, talk about all things writing and our shared love of the craft, attending and taking part in panels, signing books and meeting fans, and on and on. What’s not to love?

Mystery conferences are very similar to mystery authors in that they come in all shapes and sizes, and they might just pop up most anywhere. Some conferences focus more on craft, some on getting published, some are largely fan based conferences and some are a combination of all these things. Malice is one of my favorite conferences, probably because it’s close to home (that is unless thundershowers thwart your flight plans), it’s warm and inviting, and because I know so many of the attendees. As far as size goes, Malice is what Goldilocks would have described as “just right.” Not too big to be impersonal and not so small that it won’t inspire.

This year I had the honor of taking part in a panel titled “Simply the Best” along with fellow Agatha Nominees Ellen Byron, Annette Dashofy, and Hank Phillippi Ryan. Also nominated was Louise Penny but she was unable to attend this year. Each of us was up for the Agatha for Best Contemporary Mystery Novel. The panel, which was a total blast, was moderated by Kristopher Zgorski, CEO and Chief Bottle Washer (BCW) of BOLO Books. Kristopher did a great job of putting us all at ease, and the attendees were very engaged.

Saturday night was perhaps the most fun of all. Every attendee got dressed to the nines for the Malice Banquet and Award Ceremony. My wife helped me pick my wardrobe so I couldn’t screw it up, or at least not too badly. There were many first time winners at this year’s awards, including two ties! Best First Novel was split between Dianne Freeman for A Ladies Guide to Etiquette and Murder, and Shari Randall for her novel Curses Boiled Again. And the Best Short Story Award was shared by Leslie Budewitz for All God’s Sparrows, and Tara Laskowski for her short The Case of the Vanishing Professor. Other Winners include Sujata Massey who won Best Historical for The Widows of Malabar Hill, Cindy Callaghan who won the Best Young Adult Mystery category for Potion Problems (Just Add Magic), and Jane Cleland who won the Best Nonfiction for Mastering Plot Twists.

Beyond the Truth didn’t win the Agatha Award, that distinguished honor went to the very talented Ellen Byron (no relation to John…at least I don’t think she is) for her novel Mardi Gras Murder. But surrounded by a multitude of friends, at one of my favorite mystery conferences, it’s hard to imagine anything more rewarding.

If you’re a fan of mysteries, or perhaps a writer of them, I highly recommend that you check out Malice Domestic. You won’t be disappointed.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think my rescheduled flight is boarding.

Write on!