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.

Cruising

April may be a bad month to set sail on a cruise ship. Setting aside the dangers of exposure to a pandemic, the month doesn’t have a particularly good track record. The Titanic sank in the North Atlantic Ocean on April 15th, 1912. For April’s Trial of the Month, I’d like to focus on another fateful cruise and the litigation which followed.

            On April 19th, 1841, the William Brown lay off the coast of Newfoundland. At approximately 10:00 pm, the ship struck an iceberg. Aboard the cargo ship were 17 crewmen and 65 passengers, Scottish immigrants hoping to make a new life in Philadelphia, the William Brown’s intended port.

            As the ship flooded, the jolly boat (a smaller lifeboat with a sail) and longboat were lowered into the sea. The captain, second mate, seven of the crew and one passenger climbed into the jolly boat. The first mate, the remaining crew and 33 of the passengers jammed aboard the longboat. The passengers were dressed mostly in their nightclothes.

Brocken Inaglory, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

            31 passengers were left stranded aboard the William Brown. It sank within an hour.

            When the next day broke, the captain and crew sailed off in the jolly boat. Captain Harris’ final instruction before abandoning the surviving passengers was to obey First Mate Rhodes’ commands.

            The ice of the North Atlantic lay all around them, threatening to crush the small craft.

            Then, the long boat began to leak.

            Then it began to rain.

            Everyone desperately bailed water out of the boat. By Tuesday night, Rhodes decided that passengers needed to be thrown overboard to lighten the craft. 14 male passengers ultimately were tossed into the Atlantic. The crew spared the married men, casting only single men overboard. Among those sacrificed was Frank Askin who reportedly struggled and thrashed violently to remain on the boat. Eventually, he went over the side as well as his sisters. They, apparently, chose to accompany their kin. None of the crew were evicted from the boat.

                On Wednesday morning, the longboat’s survivors were plucked by a ship named the Crescent. By accounts, the ship was sighted approximately 30 minutes after the last man had been thrown overboard. The rescued passengers were delivered to their original destination, Philadelphia. (The jolly was rescued later by a French fishing boat.)

            In Philadelphia, several of the surviving passengers demanded that the district attorney prosecute this catastrophe. (A 1790 law prohibited sailors from committing manslaughter at sea. The punishment could be three years imprisonment and $1,000 dollar fine.) Alexander Holmes was the only sailor from the William Brown who could be found in the jurisdiction. He was charged with unlawful but not malicious homicide.

            Holmes admitted to helping throw Askin overboard. He argued, however, that his actions were necessary. Evidence showed that he was the last of the crew to leave the William Brown and that he had run back aboard the sinking vessel to rescue the daughter of one of the women aboard the long boat. Others attested that he gave away most of his clothing to the women in the boat to ward off exposure. Holmes reportedly took over command of the longboat when the first mate cracked under the pressure of the challenges. Evidence showed that he was a leader among the men hurling passengers into the icy waters of the Atlantic.

            Prosecutors argued that the longboat was in no immediate danger of sinking. The boat, after all, did not capsize during the struggle to toss the unwilling passengers overboard. The sailors should also have prioritized the life of the passengers above their own. Their duty to the passengers exceeded their claim to life itself.  

            The jury deliberated 16 hours before finding Holmes guilty of homicide. The judge, following the jury’s appeal for leniency, gave him six months imprisonment and a $20 fine. President John Tyler subsequently pardoned him. Holmes returned to the life of a sailor. He was the only person prosecuted in connection with the sinking of the William Brown.

            The case of Alexander Holmes turned on the idea that self-preservation may not be reason enough to justify homicide. The long boat of the William Brown offered stark choices for those aboard. Fictional lifeboats have routinely been used to force characters into hard decisions. It reveals sacrifice, honor, cowardice, as well as the breaking point of the human spirit. The story of the William Brown has been made into movies at least three times (beginning in 1937 with Gary Cooper as the character facing a murder trial for his choices aboard the lifeboat.) Hitchcock used the device as well.

            As writers we can use the cramped space of the lifeboat to magnify the tension, both internal and external, within a scene. All conflict is within arm’s reach. For readers, thinking about those desperate circumstances, we are compelled to ask what we might have done. Alexander Holmes survived those moments. Fred Askin and others did not. For the human drama played out in that small space, the William Brown is my Trial-of-the-Month.

Mark Thielman

A Sad State of Affairs

-Ben Keller

Since this blog caters mostly to the writing and fiction community, the phrase “Writer’s Block” will be familiar to you, I’m sure. Today, I’m having the opposite problem. As I sat down to write my turn at the Murder-Books.com blog, I didn’t go through my normal process. I have a folder where I keep snippets of ideas I have along the way. Sometimes, it goes into the folder for my current work in progress. Sometimes, it goes into a folder for a new story I’ve been pondering for a while but just haven’t cracked the code yet. Sometimes, I have a cool idea for a character beat, clever dialogue exchange, compelling opening line, etc., and I just don’t have a home for it at the moment. So that goes into my “Unspecified Ideas” folder. And of course, I have a folder for future Blog Post Ideas.

So I went to my Blog folder, and saw some topics I’d been saving for a while. I have one fun one about secret knowledge hiding all around us. I have a rather silly one about words and language, the stock-in-trade of a writer. But as I sifted through these ideas, I couldn’t escape the real-world events exploding around us.

In my day job, I’m an international investigations and security consultant. My job is to help people look out for dangerous risk facing their offices, homes, and personal safety, then come up with plans to mitigate those risks. In that capacity, I regularly monitor news media, law enforcement contacts, Regional Security Officers and FBI Legal Attachés at US Embassies around the world, intelligence sources, and my own proprietary network of colleagues. I do this to stay abreast of emerging threats so I can give proper guidance. It’s useful for my work, but a common side effect is that sometimes, as some other writer once said, “the abyss looks back.” It’s easy to get a little overcome by all the dark things happening.

I’ve written here before about how I think that generally speaking, the world is safer than it has ever been. The statistics still say that’s true. But as I sat to write my post today, I couldn’t ignore the feeling I was having despite any evidence to the contrary: things are bad.

Mass shootings. Racially charged violence. Civil unrest. Global pandemic. International conflict over nuclear facilities. Chinese labor camps. Thwarted coup in Belarus. The list goes on and on, and trust me as a professional in the field, the deeper you look, the more you’ll find.

Again, this was less about those facts. Yes, bad things are happening, but bad things have always happened throughout human history. The facts do support the notion that the world is objectively safer today. So where was my feeling coming from? Only when I tried to compare it to previous, similar feelings did I obtain some degree of clarity.

When I was about eleven years old, my family lived in a small brick house in a pleasant middle-class neighborhood near Lafayette, LA. It was the first time in my life I’d lived in a “neighborhood,” as opposed to a very rural area. The novelty of having friends I could see with a mere bike ride was a rare treat for me. I had a small bedroom that faced the street, with a view of the modest homes across from our rental house.

One day, from one of those homes, I heard a loud, flat noise. I didn’t know what it was, and I didn’t pay a lot of attention to it. Until I heard sirens, and saw several police cruisers and an ambulance arrive at the house, lights flashing red and blue through my window. What I ultimately learned was that the two teenage brothers who lived in the house across from me were playing with a handgun. As a “joke”, one pointed the pistol at the other and pulled the trigger, killing his brother. Of all the grim things I saw play out that afternoon, two images stood out to me the most.

The first was when the boys’ mother arrived at the house. She was met by police officers in the driveway, and seeing the mix of fear, grief, panic, and rage from that poor woman is not something I’ll ever forget. The next came later, after all but one police car had left the scene. A blue minivan showed up at the house, bearing a sign for a business that specialized in crime scene cleanup. Something about seeing that van made me marvel at how there was enough violence in our comparatively small, quiet community to support such a niche business, and it made real in my mind how gruesome the scene inside must have been.

This isn’t a post about guns, pro or con. In my personal opinion, the violence we see in our world has more to do with the condition of our hearts than it does with the methods we choose. I was raised with guns, and see them as a tool. But I also know they are a tool that comes with a heavy responsibility. I was once consulting with a Fortune 100 CEO at his townhouse in New Orleans in the wild, lawless days in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A building next to his had been destroyed, and an encampment of transient people had taken up residence in the rubble. New Orleans was seeing an incredible spike in violent crime at the time, much of it involved those transient people displaced by the storm. The CEO was worried, and asked me to review his home security. He also asked me if he should get a gun for protection. I told him of what I’d seen across the street. I reminded him that he had grandkids that visited this townhome. And I asked him if he was prepared to commit to the training, storage, and discipline that should necessarily come with owning a firearm. He ultimately declined to get one.

Again, I am not making any kind of political statement here, nor do I have any answers. I’m just recalling that the feeling I have when I look at what’s going on in the world today is the same feeling I had as an eleven-year-old boy watching a family destroyed from my bedroom window. I think what I’m realizing now is the same as I began to understand then: the danger to those two boys didn’t come from beyond their walls. The risk came from within.

I believe the same is true in our country today. The problem we’re having is with ourselves. The dissention, strife, polarization and demonization of people who simply hold opinions other than our own. The refusal of empathy. The rush to judge and reluctance to seek understanding. The tribalism that runs so deep. We seem to be a house divided; how then can we stand?

The story of those two brothers will always stay with me. The very first brothers, Cain and Abel, had that same strife we’re having today, and one killed the other. When the killer was confronted, even then, he offered no apology. No remorse. Not even an acknowledgment of his actions. He forsook any burden he had for his brother, asking “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Looks like we’re still asking ourselves that question today.

A Tale of Blackmail

a guest blog post by Jeff Cooper

A few years ago, just before I shut my laptop for the evening, I opened an anonymous e-mail.  The sender warned that he had hacked into my computer and compiled a log of all the inappropriate websites I had been frequenting.  Unless I sent a specified amount of bitcoin to a provided address, the nameless writer would send the information to my wife and expose me to the world.  I could pay the price or face the consequences.  The choice was mine. 

I was being blackmailed!

Fortunately for me, I’m a lot less interesting than the sender of that hoax e-mail may have hoped.  A listing of the websites I frequent would more likely make excellent bedtime reading than lead to an epic scandal.  But FBI data shows that others may have far more interesting search habits than I do. The year I received that e-mail, over 50,000 people reported falling victim to the same ploy, paying a total of over $80 million dollars to buy their blackmailers’ silence. Last year, according to the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center, the number of victims topped 75,000.

While it has reached new heights, or perhaps new depths, in the internet age, the crime of blackmail traces back some 500 years.  The original blackmailers were neither anonymous nor particularly subtle.  In the 1500’s, some enterprising Scottish chiefs visited local farmers and gave them the option of paying a tribute or having their estates plundered.  At the time, the word “mail” meant “payment” or “rent,” and many farmers willingly paid this black rent, or “black mail,” to ensure their protection. 

Over time, blackmailers changed the nature of their intimidation, threatening not to do physical violence but rather to expose or embarrass those who failed to meet their demands.  One of the earliest American victims of a blackmail plot was Alexander Hamilton, the nation’s first Treasury Secretary and the inspiration for a certain Broadway musical you may have heard of.  In 1791, the married Hamilton had a steamy affair with a woman named Maria Reynolds.  When Mr. Reynolds caught wind of the matter, he made Hamilton an offer—pay me for my silence or I’ll expose your adultery and ruin your reputation. Although Hamilton eventually did admit to the affair, his first response was to grab his checkbook, paying one-third of his annual income in an effort to buy Reynolds’ silence. 

Returning to the present day, text messages, e-mails and compromising selfies provide a treasure trove for would be blackmailers.  Hollywood agents report that their clients are routinely blackmailed, with former lovers, disgruntled employees, or hackers threatening to release damaging recordings or photos. Many simply pay the requested amounts and view them as a cost of maintaining their public image. Billionaire Jeff Bezos recently joined the list of targets, accusing the National Enquirer of threatening to publish private photos and text messages between the married Bezos and his married girlfriend, Lauren Sanchez.  Although the world’s richest man likely could have met any blackmail demand, he instead released the information himself, exposing his secrets but ending the alleged extortion. Two divorces soon ensued. 

Drawing upon this rich history and current relevance, I made the crime of blackmail a central theme in my debut novel. The wealthy widow of a U.S. Senator has both a very dark secret and nearly endless resources with which to protect it.  When a blackmailer threatens to expose her, she must ask herself what price she is willing to pay for silence.  How much is a secret worth?  To what lengths would she go to protect her reputation? 

Jeff Cooper is a lawyer, law professor and author of published fiction and nonfiction.  His debut novel, After the Fact, was a finalist for the Daphne du Maurier Award for Mystery/Suspense. Look for it in early 2022 from Red Adept Publishing.  Follow Jeff on Twitter: @JeffCooperCT

A SHORT INTERVIEW WITH A MURDER-BOOKS BLOGGER (AND A SHORT STORY AT THE END)

Happy Springtime, Everyone. I’m doing something a bit different this week. Over the years I’ve interviewed quite a few crime fiction authors, for the blog. Today, I’m interviewing myself. At the end of the interview (which is about writing short stories, sort of), I’ve included a (very) short story, which I hope you enjoy. So, without further ado, please join me in welcoming me to the blog:

MB: Roger, thank you for joining us on MurderBooks this week.

ROGER: Thanks, Roger. I love this blog and I’ve always wanted to be interviewed for it, so I’m thrilled to be here.

MB: You’ve written two novels, Dark River Rising, and River of Secrets, about a female homicide detective in Baton Rouge. But, I understand you’ve also been writing short stories. Tell us a bit about that.

ROGER: Well, I’m glad you asked me about this. Part of my writing journey has been the extremely personal discovery that I’m one veeeerrrry long-winded son of a gun. That shouldn’t have come as a surprise to me, though. I spent nearly twenty years teaching college, where I absolutely fell in love with the sound of my own voice, so I can go on and on and on about just about anything and every—

MB: Sorry, to interrupt (Whew! Trust me when I tell you that he ain’t kiddin’ about that long-winded business! It’s best not to let him get crankin’, or he will never ever shut up), but we were talking about short stories. The emphasis, here, being on the short part.

ROGER: Right. Sorry. Well, I found that writing novels was very satisfying because it let me exercise my write-till-you-drop tendencies, and it gives an author plenty of room to indulge those cravings to show off their prose styling. Not that my prose styling is any great shakes, but you know what I mean. Short stories, on the other hand, were a terrifying proposition for me, so it was a format I avoided like the plague, until recently. The idea of having to fit a beginning, middle, and an end, with a full story arc, some degree of character development, along with a satisfying resolution, into just a few pages, and then, to—

MB: Yes, yes, I get it. So, let’s concede that somehow you managed to overcome your fear of going short and actually wrote something…uh, non-long. What sorts of stories have you been writing?

ROGER: Interestingly, my earliest stories were tales of revenge. I haven’t got a clue why that holds such fascination for me. I don’t consider myself a vengeful person, but—

MB: Let me stop you there, before you stray into TMI territory, and remind you that this is an interview, not a psychotherapy appointment.

ROGER: (As if I’d let this guy psychoanalyze me, anyway.) So, what I was saying, and I’d appreciate it if you’d let me finish at least one thought before you cut me off again, was that…oh, never mind. Maybe the best way to get across what I’ve been doing is just to show you one of my stories.

MB: Is it short?

ROGER: Of course. Less than 700 words. It’s about a couple looking for a new house. And no, it’s not a revenge tale, although, it might be a murder-for-hire, but that’s all I’m sayin’.

*

HOUSE HUNTER

by Roger Johns

My wife Leah set up today’s appointment—the latest in our endless quest to buy a home. The place we’re renting is so cramped and impractical that what used to be happy evenings are now exercises in keeping the lid on. If the lid comes off…well, I don’t want to think about that, but the fact that we can’t agree on a house that suits us both is starting to feel like a bad omen. I push aside the do-or-die feelings the search is stirring up and force myself to believe this could be the one. The online photos perked up Leah’s waning enthusiasm and it looks promising to me too, even though it’s been vacant for a while and it’s a bit out in the sticks.

The owner, Tracy, is meeting us at 1:30. As usual, I’m early. At 1:29, Leah texts that she’ll be late—again. I grin. I bear it. I stuff my annoyance and my phone into my pocket as a black Jeep swings into the driveway. A big dude hops out and saunters over. From the name, I’d expected a woman. I chastise myself for stereotype thinking.

“I’m Anna,” I say, once he introduces himself. After a few minutes in the land of obligatory small talk, we move into the realm of awkward phone-gazing silence. Then, Leah texts again: Traffic sloooowww. Start without me. I tell Tracy the news.

Anxiety surfaces as we climb the steps. Never before have I gone alone into an empty house with a man I don’t know. I consider giving myself another demerit for indulging the all-men-are-predators stereotype, but he is huge. Plus, he knows we’ll be by ourselves until whenever. But he also knows that Leah knows. Right? I award myself the demerit.

“Y’all got kids?” He opens the front door with a key from under the mat. “My wife and me, we got three little ones. Stair steps.” He laughs, seeming not to notice I haven’t answered his question. “The last two’re actually Irish twins.” As if I’d just naturally be fascinated by oblique references to his fondness for postpartum intercourse. I hear the door close behind me.

“Sheila said she wanted all that childbearing business done before she turned twenty-four, so she’d have a…decent shot at…recovering her figure.”

The topic of his halting speech makes me wary. I know how men look at me, so I imagine his words coming slow because he’s preoccupied with what he sees as he checks me out. I turn, ready with a challenging look, but he’s just thumbing at his phone. Oops. Chalk up another stereotypo for Anna. Unless he’s been taking pictures. Of me.

The living room is huge. Running room, if I need it. “Wow. Look at the detail around this fireplace.” I snap a shot of the mantle with my phone. “Gotta text this to Leah.”

Instead, I write: Hurry UP!! Owner creeping me out.

We ooh-ah over the dining room, then move deeper into the house. Somehow, he’s always either behind me or between me and the exit. Reflected in a dark window, I see him leering at his phone. He doesn’t see me watching him. I’d bet money he’s been taking pictures of me, on the sly. Freakin’ perv.

He shows me his phone. How cute. Three small children clustered around a smiling woman next to a swimming pool. Why can’t I give this guy a break? Why doesn’t Leah answer my text?

We end up in the kitchen, chitchatting next to the wall mounted oven, and he turns out to be a pretty funny guy, in a corn-fed kind of way.

“Uh oh.” He sniffs loudly. “You smell gas?”

“Not really.” Not at all, actually.  Still nothing from Leah.

He opens the oven and ducks his head in, doing a deep noisy inhale through his nose.  “Hmmm. Could be.” He stands back. “Poke your head in. Tell me if you smell it.”

As I lean inside, past his beefy fingers coiled around the door handle, I notice his lifeless eyes just as I realize it’s an electric oven.

*

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 Fiction Award.  His short fiction appears (or is forthcoming) in the Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, the Mystery Weekly Magazine, Dark City Crime & Mystery Magazine, 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. Visit him at: http://www.rogerjohnsbooks.com.