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.

Going to Jail and a Lesson on Settings

The first time I went to jail was an experience I didn’t particularly want to repeat. And yet I did. Hundreds of times. But that first time? It was a Saturday night and the smell of overindulgence and sweat slapped me the minute I walked inside. The door clanged shut behind me and the cinderblock walls closed in. I didn’t know what to do. Guys stared at me through small holding cell windows and catcalled as I walked past. I missed the weight of the equipment that normally hung around my waist.

By comparison, my field training officer (FTO) didn’t seem the least bit fazed. Even my arrestee was more comfortable than I was. Of the three, I was the only one experiencing the sights, sounds, smells, and feel of the county jail for the first time. So, while we all stood in the same building, how we experienced it and the impressions we formed were vastly different.

Writing authentic crime fiction is difficult—even for authors who have experience in the trenches. But there are plenty of exceptional authors who have never donned a uniform or been arrested who create compelling crime fiction. What sets them apart is they’ve taken the time and made the effort to get the details right.

This past week, I’ve been putting the final touches on a writers’ workshop on settings and world-building that I’ll be presenting as part of the Florida Authors Academy. At its simplest, the setting establishes a story’s time and place. I entered the Santa Barbara County Jail for the first time in 1989. Those two facts certainly ground readers, but setting, when used properly, has the ability to create conflict, amplify mood, and obliquely reveal bits of characterization.

I’d like to think my nervousness didn’t show that night, but of course it did. I was a rookie. Years later when I was an FTO, I saw that initial nervousness repeated with each of my trainees. Fortunately, that night, my arrestee didn’t bust my chops for being new, despite knowing my partner was a field training officer. As part of the arrest, I’d searched him in the field. Since he was going to jail, I placed his personal belongings into a brown paper sack the size of a lunch bag. In the patrol car, he politely answered all my questions and joked with my FTO while I filled out the booking sheets. Inside the jail, he knew where to go and where to stand until a correctional officer (CO)—who he also greeted by name—was able to come over and conduct another search to make sure I hadn’t overlooked anything.

Thankfully, I had not.

But this brings me back to my earlier point. To write convincing crime fiction, the author must establish how a character feels about the place. And to do that, one must cultivate a passing knowledge of a couple of key settings and what goes on at those locations. For police procedurals, at some point, that often involves a station house, patrol car, and jail.

I once started reading a novel where the protagonist was booked into jail and the CO took all his personal property…with the exception of his Rolex wristwatch. Then, the CO immediately tossed him into general population. As might be expected, this did not turn out well for said protagonist, and the scene devolved into a melee with everyone trying to play snatch the bauble. No one familiar with the workings of a jail would ever write that scene and I put the book aside.

For the uninitiated, individuals are not allowed to have property with them in their holding cells. No wallets, no cellphones, no purses, no jewelry (including piercing bling), no belts, no shoelaces, etc. If arrestees aren’t released on their own recognizance or make bail, a classification interview will determine where in the jail they’ll be housed. At that point, they’ll even need to change clothes. They certainly wouldn’t be flashing their Rolex. That would be logged on an inventory sheet and safely locked away in the facility’s property room.

What do you do if you don’t know a thing about the place you’re writing about? Do your research. Most police departments have a public information officer who deals with the media and can field questions. Better yet, authors can schedule ride-alongs and get a first-hand experience of what it’s like to sit in the front seat. Best of all, many jurisdictions offer a Citizens Police Academy (CPA) that typically meets once a week over the course of several weeks. Members of the department share information on what they do and includes representatives from patrol, dispatch, the K9 unit, bomb squad, crisis teams, school resource officers, investigations, internal affairs—the whole gamut of department operations. Bonus, not only will you be able to see the inner workings of a police department and communication center, but you’ll most likely also see their range facility as well. And I know from experience that authors avail themselves to these programs.

It’s how I met Sue Grafton.

Stay safe,

Micki Browning

Follow the link for more info on the Florida Authors Academy.

Writer’s Block

By Brian Thiem: Today, I thought I’d dispense with my typical police-related blog for something near and dear to most writers—Writer’s Block.

Writer’s block is the inability to proceed with one’s writing. Nearly all writers face it at some time. It can manifest itself in writers who for months (or even years) are unable to start or finish their novel. Or maybe an entire wasted day perusing social media or playing solitaire when your half-finished novel stares at you from another open window on your computer.

There are many causes of writer’s block. Possibly the main underlying cause is fear. Fear that you’re not a good enough writer. Fear that your work will be adversely judged. Fear that you cannot possibly finish the product. Even fear of success.

Writing a 90,000 word, 300+ page novel is a daunting task. I remember my own self-doubts about my chances of succeeding when I made my first attempt more than ten years ago. When I begin working with new writers in the MFA program where I’m a mentor/adjunct professor, one of the first things I ask students is why they want to write. If they’re looking for fame or fortune—seeing their name atop a Bestseller’s List or affording the house next to James Patterson’s West Palm Beach estate—I see writers set up for failure. If they tell me they enjoy the creative process of telling stories that others might enjoy reading, I see a real writer.

Real writers learn to ignore their fears or at least work through them.

I’ve learned that all I can control is my writing process—putting the best words together in the best order to tell the best story. But I can’t control the outcome. I can write the best novel possible, but I can’t control the fickle publishing industry. I can’t control the sales of my books. I can’t control what  reviewers might write about my book…and therefore, about me as a writer.

Sometimes there are external factors that block our writing. It’s normal to be blocked for a while if you’re going through a divorce, a major health issue, a job change, or a move. Other reasons for the block can be overcome. I remember one day in my second semester of my MFA program when I literally sat at my desk staring at the computer screen for the three hours I had committed to writing that day. When I talked to my instructor/writing mentor about it, he asked me what the chapter was about that I was working on. After an exceedingly long conversation, I realized I didn’t really know.

He suggested I stop writing and plot the rest of my story to the end. That was the day I became a plotter. Novelists will often define themselves as plotters or “pantsers,” those who write by the seat of their pants. Jeffrey Deaver, the bestselling author of the Lincoln Rhymes series, says he prepares a 150-page plot outline before he starts writing a new book, while Stephen King claims he just comes up with a setting and characters then lets his characters loose to tell their story. Although I suspect the great Stephen King has at least figured out his story in his head even if he hasn’t outlined it on paper. If I let my characters loose to tell their story without direction, they’d just run amok for hundreds of pages that I’d eventually trash.

Most authors land somewhere in between, but all successful authors I know develop some sort of plot outline before they write. It may be an outline of the main plot points—a few sentences of what each scene should cover. It may be a stack of notecards with some details about the journey the characters will travel toward the story’s climax. It might be a storyboard or white board with dozens of ideas and arrows. Or it might be an outline that only exists in the author’s head—some plan about what the story’s about and how to get there.

In my experience, writers who begin writing when they don’t know how their story begins and ends (which might change as the story progresses) and a path to get there are doing little more than exploring what their story might be about before they get down to the real task of writing it.

With my plot outline in front of me, I never have to sit down at my computer and wonder what I should be writing today. Things change as I write. Sometimes my story takes a different turn, but that’s okay, because a plot outline is not written in concrete.

Despite my prior outlining, my acceptance of lack of control over the outcome, and the facing of my fears, sometimes the creative juices don’t flow. I might need a break, so I’ll take Annie for a second walk, go to the driving range and hit a bucket of balls, or head to the gym, even though it might be my third workout day in a row. I’ll often come back refreshed. And if there was some stumbling block that had been interfering with my writing, it will often be resolved.

But what I won’t do is wait for inspiration. I’ll sit in my chair and write. Even if it’s a so-called shitty first draft, because I’ll then have something I can revise. I’ve heard some of the most successful writers say that the only solution to writer’s block is to sit your ass in the chair and write. When I do that, words begin to appear on the page, and inspiration normally follows.

A Touching Case

Police detective Martin McFadden patrolled downtown Cleveland, Ohio as a plainclothes officer, alert for pickpockets, shoplifters, and other criminals. On Halloween 1963, he was a 39-year veteran of the police department and had patrolled this vicinity for 30 years. Considered a local expert on theft, McFadden taught classes on the tricks of criminals. Throughout the day, he observed the routine habits of the shopping public, watching for anomalies.   

Mid-afternoon, he saw Richard Chilton and John Terry standing on the corner of Huron Road and Euclid Avenue. He had never seen the men before but something about them didn’t look right. He moved closer. McFadden watched one of the men walk down Huron. There he paused and looked in a jewelry store window. Rejoining his comrade, the two spoke briefly. The second man then repeated the actions; walking, stopping, looking in the window, returning and finally, conferring with his associate. The two repeated the process five more times apiece. A third man joined them briefly. After he left, the two continued their ritual pacing, peering and returning. Then they walked down Euclid, following the path of the third man.  

Having observed all of this, Officer McFadden suspected that he had just witnessed the store being cased for a robbery. As potential felons, he feared that they may have weapons. Officer McFadden felt he had a responsibility to investigate. He followed the two men. Outside of Zucker’s store, McFadden witnessed them talking to the third man. He approached them, identified himself as a police officer and asked for their names. The men mumbled something. Moving decisively, McFadden grabbed Terry, spun him around, facing the other two and quickly patted down the outside of Terry’s clothing. He felt a pistol. Herding the three men inside Zucker’s, he removed a .38-caliber revolver from Terry’s overcoat. He found another handgun in the pocket of Chilton’s coat. McFadden patted the outside of the third man’s coat but felt no weapon. He never reached inside his jacket. McFadden asked Zucker to call for a police wagon. Chilton and Terry were charged with carrying concealed weapons.  

At trial, John Terry sought to suppress the evidence arguing that the weapon was found after an illegal search. The court declined to call McFadden’s actions a “search” but rather a frisk following an investigatory stop. McFadden’s response protected himself and others. The pat down was essential to the proper performance of his duty.  

On June 10, 1968, the United States Supreme Court ruled. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that the court could not skirt the constitutional issues of search by labeling the actions differently. “Stop and frisk” did not give the police a pass to interfere with a citizen’s liberty. The court also recognized that the technique may be used disproportionately to harass some communities. That, however, did not deny the need for the tool if it were to be found constitutionally justified. At this point, Terry seemed to be winning.  

The Supreme Court held that in light of Officer McFadden’s experience and the facts, the limited pat down was justified to protect the officer. A reasonable person standing in the shoes of Officer McFadden would investigate based upon these facts. That same person would be warranted in believing Terry to be potentially armed and a danger to McFadden and the public. The pat down, the court held, was a tempered act for a police officer required to make a quick decision. Once he felt the revolver, McFadden was justified in going inside Terry’s coat to seize it.  

The pre-Terry world had two categories of police/citizen contact. A voluntary encounter—an officer has a conversation with a civilian—and an arrest. Terry v. Ohio introduced the concept of a “detention”. An officer with a reasonable suspicion that something illegal is afoot may maintain the status quo briefly to investigate. Reasonable suspicion doesn’t require the officer to observe anything actually illegal. Think back over McFadden’s observations of Terry and Chilton. Each individual act was understandable, but the totality viewed through the lens of McFadden’s experience became troublesome.  

If during the pat down for a weapon, the officer feels something that is immediately apparent to be contraband, he or she can search to recover the suspected item. This “plain feel” doctrine became an important extension to Terry’s stop and frisk.  

Consider the consequences of Terry v. Ohio. If the police saw a masked man holding a prybar and shining a flashlight outside your house at midnight, the Terry decision is the officer’s authority to detain him for an investigation.  

I can’t tell you how many cases I’ve handled over the years that relied upon Terry. The case and its progeny have become such a standard tool for law enforcement and prosecution that it is easy to forget the requirements: 1) the observed behavior seen through the lens of experience leads to a reasonable belief that criminal behavior has occurred or is about to occur; 2) articulated reasons why a limited frisk was necessary for the safety of the officer and the public; and, 3) the description of what was felt to justify the further intrusion into the privacy of the detained individual. When I’ve seen cases founder, it is usually because officers or prosecutors have become so complacent about the Terry stop that they fail to articulate the elements making this intrusion constitutional.   

John Terry, a heroin addict, died while incarcerated. Richard Chilton was killed during a robbery. Martin McFadden retired from the Cleveland Police Department after 45 years of service to his community.  

In my mind, when Martin McFadden finished his shift on October 31st, 1963, he went home and perhaps opened a beer. When asked about his day, he likely replied, “Typical.” For him it had been an ordinary day. Five years later, the Supreme Court would take this commonplace day and bring about a paradigm shift in criminal jurisprudence. McFadden had an unplanned, everyday encounter with history.  

For its unquestioned impact on the way police, prosecutors and defense lawyers do business, Terry v. Ohio is my trial of the month.  

Mark Thielman

A Return to Normalcy?

-Ben Keller

In the 1920 Presidential Election, candidate Warren Harding promulgated a message of recovery from the trifecta of crises of World War I, the First Red Scare, and the Spanish Flu. He summarized this sentiment with the slogan, “A Return to Normalcy.” Now, a century later, and after our own cluster of crises including riots, violence, and a pandemic of our own, President Joe Biden invoked that same slogan, hoping to spur Americans toward recovery. Alas, the only thing I drew from my research on this point was the realization that mixing Presidents Harding and Biden resulted in a startling resemblance to Judge Smails from Caddyshack.

Nonetheless, that return to normalcy is trudging toward us. As cases decline and vaccinations increase, we are seeing restrictions fall away and people slowly coming back to pre-pandemic activities. In my day job, I consult on investigations and security issues around the world. I’ve been actively involved in advising on how to return to the office safely. While not strictly a security issue, the types of processes and technology the security world uses has been pressed into COVID service. We can monitor social distancing and mask-wearing with a video surveillance system. We can use a badge access control system for contact tracing. And in a broad sense, security practitioners are fundamentally risk management experts, and can help balance the rapidly changing landscape.

Of course, a major part of the return to work is the transition away from working from home and resuming a commute. One challenge to that is how comfortable many people have become working from home. It was a welcome benefit to have more time for work or personal life when one didn’t have to drive in, hop on a train or – let’s be honest – wear pants every day.

On a more serious note, another challenge to returning to work is a concern about crime, especially in major cities. We’ve seen reports of dramatic spikes in crime, and instances of racially and/or ethnically motivated assaults. Helping to sort through and analyze these types of reports, separating rumor from reality, and assessing for potential impact is at the heart of what I do. So I thought I would share the some the recent analysis I’ve done with you here.

First of all, and perhaps counter to what we’ve heard, crime dropped around the world during the lockdown. It’s still a bit too soon for much true scholarly analysis, but at least one academic paper here traces the demonstrable reduction.

That said, we are seeing spikes in violent crime in urban areas. While the afore-mentioned lack of true study renders certainty elusive, most analysts theorize that a multitude of factors are contributing to this spike. Simmering tensions, civil disturbances, changes to police practices and resources, and changes in bail and incarceration practices have all had at least some measurable effect on recent criminal activity.

On top of that, there is another factor I believe is impacting the perception of these crimes, and that is the ratio of criminal acts to the population. Let me explain what I mean in the context of someone returning to work in an office for the first time in over a year. Imagine commuting into Manhattan in January 2020. Let’s say I got off an LIRR train at Penn Station. I would be one of tens of thousands of commuters trudging through the corridors. Naturally, I would see a usual number of panhandlers, vagrants, and people experiencing homelessness. Some might be aggressive, some may be actively committing public nuisance crimes such as noise violations or public urination. But because I’m in the safety of my pack of 10,000 commuters, I don’t pay those crimes any attention.


But now if I take that same train in June 2021, The number of fellow commuters has drastically fallen. Now, though it may be the exact same number of criminal actions, the ratio is way off, and it feels like a lot more. I’m now surrounded by crime, instead of my tribe having the numerical advantage. I believe this phenomenon is impacting trains, subways, and other forms of commuting. The most pernicious thing about this is the Catch-22 it creates: I won’t feel safe unless more people start taking the train; but more people are less likely to take the train if they don’t feel safe.

For what it’s worth, when I was advising a Fortune 200 company on how to re-open their Manhattan headquarters, we took a survey of all the people who had volunteered to return to the office. We mapped their reported commuting methods, and I scoured all the intel sources I could get my hands on to get a real-time snapshot of the local conditions. The day before the pilot was to begin, I walked the route for every bus stop, train station, and subway line those volunteers would use. I found nothing that would give me concern. Sure, there were a couple of trouble spots. But this was New York, and these volunteers were New Yorkers… they would know how to handle a couple of trouble spots.

One thing I’ve learned in my career is that people have different levels of risk tolerance. As we contemplate going back to our lives, we all will have to set the fear, rumors, and noise aside and take a grounded look at the landscape before us, and make the choices best for ourselves and our families. I wish you a happy, healthy, and above all safe return to normalcy!

Guest Blogger Claire Matturo And Her Brother Bill Write a Book

Isabella Maldonado here, and for my contribution this week, I wanted to share this wonderful post from writer friend Claire Matturo. Check out the links after the post to learn more about Claire and her work.

My brother Bill and I are sharing pizza and a pitcher of Amberbock at our favorite restaurant, Demetrios, as he carefully explains to me how to build a fertilizer bomb. If the waitress overhears, she is keeping any concerns to herself. I munch my vegetarian pizza with extra peppers and he chews his pepperoni pizza with extra anchovies. We’ve been coming to Demetrios since before they could legally serve us beer.


Conversation between us turns from building bombs to smuggling marijuana, and then devolves into unique ways people commit murder. He shares some grisly stories. I make a couple of notes on a napkin.
The waitress remains cool about whatever tidbits she hears. The pizza is good, and the beer is cold. No one calls the law on us.


Nope, neither of us are criminals nor deviants. We are, instead, co-conspirators in hatching plot points for fictional projects.


Brother Bill is a dedicated law enforcement officer zeroing in on 50 years of service–yes, five decades. He has booked many years as a detective during those decades in which he lived up to the motto “to protect and serve.” On the other hand, I am a reformed appellate lawyer from the civil side turned first to teaching then to writing crime/mystery fiction. But truth is, nothing in my legal or teaching career gave me the factual foundation I needed to write accurate, realistic, compelling crime scenes in my mysteries. As a believer in the adage “write what you know,” or at the very least write what you can learn, I didn’t want to sound like someone whose primary exposure to police work was TV or other crime/mystery books.

So, enter the enduring collaboration between Bill the cop and Claire the reformed lawyer.
Years ago, I turned to writing fiction a bit secretively after deciding not to return to teaching at Florida State University College of Law. Despite the fact brother Bill and I are close, I felt sheepish about what I was doing and so hadn’t told him. After all, giving up a teaching position at a good college to try to write a book was a bizarre career move at best. Thus, Bill had no idea what I was up to. Except as far as he could tell, I was unemployed, yet still maintaining a comfortable lifestyle, which raised the curious specter of no visible means of support. His cop nose might have been twitching. One day, I hit a conflict in an early draft of my manuscript that I could not satisfactorily answer with standard internet research. Eager to tap into his experience, I gave him a phone call. After the usual exchange about his kids, and other family tidbits, I eased into my question. So, I asked, “if a person is tied up underwater in a scuttled boat, how long would it take for the body to decompose to the point no one could get fingerprints?”


There was a long pause. I could hear him breathing over the phone. Then, with the kind of low-key yet stern voice I imagine he uses during police interrogations, he asked, “Claire, what have you been up to?”


At that point, I confessed to writing a book. Or trying to do so. Ultimately that particular manuscript got put in a drawer while I pursued writing some comedic legal thrillers (where I stood firm on the solid ground of “write-what-you know), but then came a pause in which I wanted to return to writing serious crime novels and mysteries. I tracked down the flashdrive with that early manuscript, plugged it into the PC, and started reading. And was politely speaking, horrified. Oh, well, yeah I had the dead-body-under-water part down pat but there was just a whole bunch of other cop stuff that didn’t seem right at all.


The manuscript, much (much) revised and now published as The Smuggler’s Daughter (Red Adept Publishing 2020), contains a highly fictionalized, (emphasis on highly), retelling of the 1977 Florida Sandy Creek/sinkhole murders, in which drug smugglers shot some folks on a deserted beach and dumped their bodies into a sinkhole. Despite how obsessively I researched the sinkhole murders, I still needed police procedural information with a Florida slant from the 1970s. A large part of the novel also takes place two decades later, so I also needed police detective techniques which were authentic to the 1990s.

Once more, my brother was the perfect source as he had been with the Tampa Police Department in the 1970s, though not involved in the sinkhole murders, and was also working as a detective in Alabama in the 1990s. Thus, I gave him a call, said I was at it again, and asked if he would help once more. Of course he would. We renewed our collaboration, forming an intense and rewarding relationship of exchanging emails and phone calls–about the nitty-gritty details of violent crime and police work. Whenever he was in Florida visiting, which was often, we would head for Demetrios and catch up, with the conversation turning to crime at some point between the first and second mug of beer.
When I started sending him chapters, Bill read the dialogue between the two police detectives, Ray and Luke, and he informed me that real cops didn’t actually talk like that.


I interpreted this observation as his volunteering to edit the dialogue between Ray and Luke for me. Bless his heart, he did just that. He also took a swing or two at revising my fight scenes.


Oh, and then there’s the gun stuff. While I know the difference between a pistol, a shotgun, and a rifle, my knowledge didn’t advance too far beyond that. My legal practice had been relatively safe, and fortunately I never had to delve too deeply into weaponry or violence-inflicted wounds. The fact I could prattle off all the elements of a medical malpractice case, explain the difference between a statute of repose or limitation and define sine qua non didn’t do me any good when faced with bullets, ballistics, and bombs. Brother Bill had to save me from such mistakes as having a cop release the safety on a named brand handgun that didn’t have a safety. And don’t even get me going on the autopsy.


With his innate sense of pacing and his gift for storytelling, Bill did more than a bit of editing along the way too. So in the end, all I really kept from that first early draft was the concept–oh, and the dead-body-in-the-scuttled shrimp trawler. In truth, The Smuggler’s Daughter was a team effort, and I owe a great debt of appreciation to one veteran law enforcement officer, Bill Hamner, for his generosity in time, talent, and expertise.


Our deal now is that when he retires, if he ever actually does, he will write a book and I will serve as his collaborator. I look forward to the adventure. Maybe he will need to know all the elements of a malpractice case or the definition of sine qua non.

The Smuggler’s Daughter – Kindle edition by Matturro, Claire. Mystery, Thriller & Suspense Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com.  

The Smuggler’s Daughter

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The Great Translators: Some of My Crime Fiction Writing Heroes

by Roger Johns

 

             I write crime fiction, and as part of my ongoing effort to hone my craft, I read a lot of crime fiction—both novels and short stories—and I listen to a lot of old-time crime fiction on the Sirius XM Radio Classics channel. Some of it is transcendent, some of it is terrible, and a lot of it is in between. Some writers are consistently at one end of the continuum or the other, and some seem to float around the middle, occasionally catching lightning in a bottle.

              My taste generally runs toward the transcendent end, but not exclusively. Just as there are things to be learned from studying the best work, there are lessons to be learned from dissecting the lesser examples of the genre. If nothing else, one learns who to avoid (in order to avoid an unsatisfactory reading experience) and who not to model (so as not to pick up bad writing habits).

              That said, I devote as much of my reading and listening time to consuming the best I can find, in an attempt to learn how the writers did what they did. So often, when I’m moved by a beautifully told story, or a particularly well-crafted piece of prose, I can hear myself think: “I see what you did, but not how you did it.” It’s like watching a skilled magician perform a wondrous trick. As a reader I always want to experience that sense of wonder, but as a writer, I want to know how to do it myself.

              But always wanting that peek behind the curtain raises the question: Does learning how the trick is done spoil the wonder? Sometimes. But sometimes it does just the opposite. The ingenuity that goes into devising and performing the trick can be as amazing as the trick, itself.

              In this regard, I’d like to draw attention to a few of the writers whose work both dazzles me with the effects it produces, and leaves me speechless with the ingenuity by which those effects are achieved. The more I read, the more I’m convinced that those rare writers who can do both, on a consistent basis, are more than simply dexterous describers of events or clever tellers of tales. They are expert translators of experiences.

              Life comes to us as a continuous flow of sensory impressions, and we learn to understand and respond to those impressions by categorizing them according to our own past experiences. And because no two of us are exactly alike, or have exactly the same experiences, the way we understand the world is very personal. Yet, there are some among us who can translate their unique experience of life into language that enables all of us to understand and feel what’s happening in their heads and in their hearts. Some are translators of sensory experiences, some are translators of the broader tapestry of times and places and events, and some are able to handle all of these, simultaneously.

              I think I first began to consider writing in this way as I was read Bellman & Black, a thriller with supernatural elements, by Diane Setterfield. Her ability to make the reader feel rare and subtle emotions, and to string her characters’ individual actions into a story that flows naturally from these emotional reactions, is as much a feat of translation as it is matter of transcription, and it changed, forever, the way I read fiction. I was no longer simply being entertained, I was being hijacked.

              In a similar vein, there are the non-science fiction, non-Travis McGee novels by John D. MacDonald. The principal subject of these works is the personal, political, economic, criminal, and social culture of Florida during the 50s and 60s. A singular focus, to be sure, but the size of his canvas does not diminish scale of his achievement. His ability to translate the time and place and people into a reading experience that made it seem like I’d been to those places, and done all those things, was nothing short of astonishing.

              And, I will close with a nod toward James Lee Burke, whose work is, to me, more like casting a spell than writing a story. Reading Burke is not simply a case of riding along, seeing through his characters’ eyes and hearing through their ears (although, the ability to authentically produce that effect is an important skill). Reading Burke’s prose gives me the unmistakable sense that I am the character. The distinctions between reader and character, between reader and place, between reader and situation dissolve, and I am inside the world he has created. The translation is so complete and seamless, it becomes a truly immersive experience.

              I’ve learned a great deal from all three of these writers (and, others, of course), but I’m always on the lookout for new horizons. So, if there are writers whose work profoundly affects you, I’d love to know who they are, so I can read them and learn from them.

Decision Making in Police Organizations

Prior to retiring from law enforcement, I was invited to write an essay for a police administration textbook in 2010 while I was a captain on the Durango Police Department. It was meant to give an insider peek at how decisions were made–specifically at the command level. It’s a process that varies by individual departments and their level of bureaucracy. When I reviewed the essay recently, I realized that the underlying message is as important today as the day it was initially published.

The Decision-Making Process in Police Organizations, originally published in Police Administration, 3rd Edition

Decision-making in law enforcement is as dynamic as the profession and there is no single process that will work in all situations.  The course of action undertaken by an officer involved in a critical incident must be made quickly, under pressure, and often in isolation.  These decisions are made instinctually, based on the individuals training and experience.  Decisions made by command-level officers are more apt to be made in a collaborative environment, after extensive research, and under flexible deadlines.   Whether the decision is made to quell a crisis or serve an administrative function, the immediate and long-term repercussions of these decisions can reverberate throughout the community the officer serves, as well as the agency in which he or she works.  Law enforcement professionals have an enormous responsibility and obligation to make ethical, legal and knowledgeable choices that safeguard the public’s trust in our abilities to establish law and order in our communities.  

Administratively speaking, decisions rarely need to be made in a vacuum.  I have the incredible good fortune to work with a Command Staff that has enormous respect for each other’s opinions and we all tend to come at problems from different angles.  If I were pressed to label our personalities, the Chief is our visionary.  He often identifies a problem before it is fully formed.  He thinks aloud as he chews on a problem, and we, as his staff, have to recognize that his words are unedited, global and in their infancy.  He relies upon us to nurture his thoughts through their adolescence until they mature into a cohesive plan.  The Operations Captain is all about strategy and tactics. He looks at the nuts and bolts of a problem and grounds us.  The Chief and Captain often tease me that I’m the kinder, gentler of the two Captains, and for the most part, they’re probably correct.  While like any administrator I’m charged with safeguarding the department, I’ve always been concerned with how a decision will impact the individuals involved. I’ve always considered the human element involved in decision-making.  

This works for us—especially when we disagree.  My Chief has had to mediate more than a few knockdown, drag-out arguments between his captains, but when the decision is reached and the door opens, we present a unified front.  In the end, healthy (and respectful) debate allows any problem to be examined in greater detail.  More than once I have challenged someone to back up their viewpoints with facts and had them change my mind.  Administrators must not fear being wrong.  A bad decision defended beyond reason can inflict incredible damage upon an agency. Collectively, our input makes arriving at a viable decision an easier task and one that yields far better results. 

Administrators must trust the people throughout their organization to make appropriate decisions– to do otherwise is to sacrifice sleep and encourage ulcers.    Police officers tend to be opinionated, outgoing, decisive people.  This is a good thing.  Imagine calling for help and the officer who responds is timid and incapable of deciding on a course of action.  Worse, imagine the officer as impulsive, reckless, and rigid.  Either extreme can cause problems for the individual officer, the agency and the community who expects better from their police force.  Hiring the right people from the onset is foundational to forming an agency capable of future good decisions.  

Often bad decisions only surface when someone lodges a complaint either against an officer’s conduct or a procedural process that seemed like a good idea on paper but resulted in unintended consequences upon implementation.  An environment that fosters open communication and an ability to fail forward will result in corrective processes that will strengthen the agency.  

So how can making a bad decision result in a stronger agency?  It gets back to that whole willingness to be wrong.  It takes strength and humility to admit being wrong.  Considering the number of decisions made on a daily basis, administrators have a lot of opportunity to mess up.  It takes courage in a paramilitary organization to approach someone higher in rank and suggest that something could be done better, or that something is flat-out wrong.  It is every bit as important for officers to trust their command staff as it is for administrators to trust members of the department.  Alexander Pope (1688-1744) said it best, “No one should be ashamed to admit they are wrong, which is but saying, in other words, that they are wiser today than they were yesterday.”

Police officers and administrators are called upon to make myriad decisions each and every day of their careers.  Whether made individually or collaboratively, the best decisions often start in the heart, process through the mind, and fulfill a vision.  Education, training, ethical motivations, liability, precedent—all these aspects are consciously or unconsciously considered during the decision-making process.  Open communication, trusted advisors, and an ability to question the status quo, leads to an environment where people feel comfortable deviating from the “Yes Man” mentality and offer true and valuable input into a decision-making process.

Stay Safe,

Micki Browning

National Law Enforcement Memorial Day

By Brian Thiem—TODAY, May 15, is National Law Enforcement Memorial Day, as proclaimed by President Kennedy in 1962, and established by a joint resolution of Congress to pay special tribute to those law enforcement officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty for the safety and protection of others.

The National Law Enforcement Memorial, paid for and maintained with private funds, is located in Judicial Square on E Street in Washington, D.C. Along the walkways of the park-like setting are walls inscribed with the names of those law enforcement officers who were killed in the line of duty. This year, 394 more names were added to the walls, for a total of 22,611 names.

I have been there for Police Week, the week of May 15, several times to see old friends and to honor the fallen officers. The most heart wrenching visit was the year when the names of four Oakland police officers, all killed in one tragic incident and friends with whom I had served, were added to the wall and recognized during the solemn candlelight ceremony and vigil with more than 20,000 attendees.

Four bronze lion sculptures sit at the entrances to the memorial. Below each is carved a different quotation.

“It is not how these officers died that made them heroes, it is how they lived.” —Vivian Eney Cross, Survivor

“In valor there is hope.” —Tacitus

“The wicked flee when no man pursueth: but the righteous are as bold as a lion.” —Proverbs 28:1

“Carved on these walls is the story of America, of a continuing quest to preserve both democracy and decency, and to protect a national treasure that we call the American dream.” —President George H. W. Bush

I will never forget the first time I visited the memorial, I fought to choke back tears as I reflected on the quotes and prepared to seek out the names of those officers with whom I had served alongside that gave their lives for their community.

That night, I was with a group of active and retired Oakland officers and surrounded by officers and families from arounds the country at the candlelight vigil, where the names of the officers added to the wall were called. Within our group were spouses and children of fallen officers from years past. These survivors were there to remember their spouse or parent and to offer support to the most recent survivors. I listened to the stories about the kind of husband and father these men were, the parts of the officers I knew little about.

When you go about your life today and see a US flag, know that it is flying at half-mast for the National Law Enforcement Memorial Day. Maybe you can take a moment to remember those law enforcement officers who gave their lives to protect and serve the citizens and their communities.

ON CAMERA

Lissa Marie Redmond

Photo by Luis Quintero on Pexels.com

Ever get the feeling that you’re being watched? If you’re on a modern American street, the answer is probably yes. With cell phones, body cameras and home and business security systems, cameras have played a pivotal role in law enforcement lately.

According to a CBS News report from December 2019, there were 70 million surveillance cameras in use in the United States. That’s on par with China, which has one camera for every 4.1 persons. The United States has one camera for every 4.6 persons. Who controls those cameras is more of a mixed bag in the states – with private citizens, businesses, organizations and the government contributing to the numbers.

I sat down with a recently retired homicide detective from an average mid-sized American city to see what those numbers mean for criminal investigations.

Q:  With both public and private cameras are you sometimes able to piece together the whereabouts of suspects, victims, and witnesses?

 A:  Yes. One of the things that I noticed during my time in the homicide squad is that we were more often able to ascertain vehicles’ or people’s whereabouts based on cameras. Many times we were able to gather up all those videos, and paint a clear picture for a jury on what the suspect’s timeline was before and after a crime.

Q:   Can you give me an example of such a timeline?

A:  We had a murder that occurred in a house. The suspect was driven there by another person. For this investigation, based on cameras from a store, we ascertained who was driving the vehicle. We tracked the vehicle to literally all around the homicide scene at the time of the murder. Using our intelligence analysts, we gathered up the pictures and videos and were able to provide a video of the travels of the vehicle that wasn’t just chopped up bits and pieces of information. It looked almost like a short movie of the travel of the suspects.

Q:  This was using both private and personal home video cameras?

A:  Yes, along with businesses in the area.

Q:  How did you get that footage?

A:  We used to do neighborhood canvases to look for eyewitnesses to crimes, to see if they heard or saw anything. But now it’s also a video canvas because a person may not have been home at the time of the crime, but they’d tell us, “I have a video camera.”  You’d glean tons of information off of those.

Q:  Is it fair to say that at any given moment when you’re walking down a street you’re probably on camera?

A:  Yes, and a lot of the newer cameras that businesses use not only record video but also audio.  We had another case where there were people talking out in front of a store, and we could hear what they were saying.

Q:  Do you think cameras are the future of policing?

A:  It’s not the future of policing, it’s the future of society. Everything is on video now. It’s very difficult to not be tracked by either a public or private entity, and by that, I mean cameras.

Does the presence of cameras reduce or deter crime? Some studies say evidence shows that the introduction of cameras in an area leads to a decrease in crime. Others suggest that any reductions is due to displacement, that the criminals find less surveilled places to commit their crimes. One thing that can’t be argued is that video surveillance has become a permanent part of the law enforcement landscape.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Lissa Marie Redmond is a retired cold case homicide detective. The author of the Cold Case Investigation series, Lissa also wrote the standalone thriller The Secrets They Left Behind. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and publications.