Monday, December 27, 2010

Some Recommendations

Tis the season for lists. As someone who reads (a lot), I’m inclined to recommend books I enjoy to my friends and even strangers.

So, like many others, I’m offering here some of the books I read, enjoyed and reviewed in 2010. Not all were written in this year and they are a mixed assortment of fiction and non-fiction. Here they are, in no particular order:

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
The story of Henry VIII and his many marriages has been told before. But this is a version seen from another angle. Henry, Anne Boleyn and the stars in other depictions here become pawns of another player’s game. Though it is Henry’s and Anne’s desire for a marriage blessed, if not sanctified, by the church around which much of the book centers, it is the character and vision of Thomas Cromwell provides the driving force and interest.

The Killer of Little Shepherds by Douglas Starr
Starr tracks the pursuit of a brutal serial killer in 19th century France and parallels it with the development of the forensic sciences which aided his capture and assured his conviction. In fact, it may have set the pattern for how law enforcement would gather evidence and pursue criminals in the future.

Kings of the Earth by Jon Clinch
Clinch tells the tale through the viewpoints of a variety of characters from the present and past, painting the rural landscape and people in vivid, poetic colors. His inspiration was the real-life story of the Ward brothers told in the 1992 documentary film, ‘Brother’s Keeper,’ but this is his own retelling of that narrative. It is a tale as moving as it is bleak.

Best American Noir, edited by James Ellroy and Otto Penzler
If you’re already a fan of the genre, you’ll be pleased with this magnificent edition. If you don’t know what noir is, then this is a splendid introduction.

The Glass Rainbow by James Lee Burke
Few today write such poetic prose about such dark and horrific events. An absorbing plot, fascinating characters, plenty of suspense—what’s not to like?

The Queen of Patpong by Timothy Hallinan
You don’t have to be an old Asia hand to enjoy this book. But, if you are, it’s certain to bring back memories and an itch to revisit some former haunts.

Cornelius The Orphan by Douglas Quinn
Cornelius is based on a real person, though Quinn has used the broad brush of fiction to depict his history. If this novel whets your taste for more (as it has mine), there is a sequel in the offing involving the orphan’s son, Samuel.

The Tiger by John Vaillant
People are fascinated by monsters, be they human or other animal. If this book were simply about a man-eating tiger and the hunt to stop the beast it would have an attraction for many readers. But Vaillant’s story goes much deeper.

Heresy by S J. Parris
Building on the historical fact of Giordano Bruno’s visit to Oxford in 1583, S. J. Parris has crafted an intriguing mystery set against the religious turbulence of Tudor England.

Monster in the Box by Ruth Rendell
No one explores criminal motivation quite so well as Ruth Rendell, and this novel is additional proof of her skill.

The Day After Yesterday by Wayne D. Dundee
Get set for nail-biting action when PI Joe Hannibal confronts a murderous conspiracy which puts him on a collision course with rightwing militia, a dangerous terrorist, the FBI and Homeland Security.

Talking About Detective Fiction by P. D. James
The focus is mostly on English writers. But that’s okay. Who is better qualified to comment on the subject?

The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag by Alan Bradley
Bradley has created one of the most engaging sleuths in recent years and I’m glad to see her adventures are just begun. He reveals in an afterword he is already at work on the third novel in the series.

The Adventures of Elizabeth Fortune by Kae Cheatham
If you enjoy fast-paced adventure, accurately depicted historical fiction, mysteries and/or romance, this is a recommended read. Personally I’m looking forward to a promised sequel.

The Man From Beijing by Henning Mankell
Mankell has penned a riveting thriller which has its dark origins 150 years in the past and takes the reader on a wild ride from Sweden to the United States, from China to Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

A King of Infinite Space by Tyler Dilts
Haunted and guilt-ridden by the tragic death of his wife and their unborn child, Detective Danny Beckett is in limbo, taking refuge in the routine of his job and alcohol. The brutal murder of a teacher—who he eventually learns had ties to his past—gives his life a new incentive.

Passing Strange by Martha Sandweiss
Sandweiss has written an important and moving book which inspires the hope one day we might move above the minor differences which separate us, amalgamating even beyond Clarence King’s ideal to a truly “human race.”

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson
Though Larsson did a commendable job of wrapping up the trilogy, this third novel in the series is not a standalone. The first hundred pages or so are an attempt to fill in what happened before, but I think reading the first two is necessary to fully understand what is going on.

Caught by Harlan Coben
Coben has crafted another fast-paced thriller displaying his superb insight into life in suburbia and a gift for realistic depiction of teen angst.

The Lost Cyclist by David Herlihy
This book had a personal interest for me since my maternal grandfather was one of those cycling pioneers and might have felt at home in company with men like Lenz and Sachtleben.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Holiday Book Event

Indies (writers who self-publish) and those of us with small publishers share some common problems.

We’re not known to the larger reading public. We don’t have big-budget publicists (in fact, many of us lack both publicists and budgets). We’re constantly told we need to get our “brands” known if we’re ever to compete in the marketplace. Whatever is to be done to tempt people to try our books is squarely upon our individual shoulders.

Darcia Helle, author of The Cutting Edge and five other mystery/suspense novels, was pondering this situation one day and came up with an idea to showcase authors, thank readers who have supported them and introduce more people to a variety of books. She contacted others and had an amazing response. I was among those contacted and I’m offering a print copy of Being Someone Else, fourth in the Sticks Hetrick mystery series.

The big holiday giveaway event officially launched on Dec. 1 and continues through the month. It features hundreds of print and e-books by 47 writers. There’s an entry form at the site: The event is international, so you can win a book no matter where you live, and there are titles sure to suit every taste.

So come on over, join in the fun and browse the selection. You’re certain to find some exciting new additions for your To-Be-Read list and you might win a free book.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

A Writing Option

Writers today have more options for publication than ever before. Which of them we choose to utilize is a matter of personal preference.

Rights to The Accidental Spy, a novel I published with Lachesis, a Canadian firm, recently reverted to me as the contract period elapsed. The novel was published during the period of my mother’s final illness and never had the promotion it deserved.

As I was debating whether to submit it to another publisher I read several articles about the success other writers were having with Kindle versions of their books. Whiskey Creek Press is already offering others of my books in various electronic forms, including Kindle. The dominance of the e-novel in the current economic state has been trumpeted by the press this year and Amazon claims its Kindle sales in recent months have exceeded print.

This convinced me there was nothing to lose by converting my novel to Kindle and giving it a try. I made an arrangement with Laura Givens to retain the cover she had designed for the previous edition, and which I liked. The conversion process wasn’t exceedingly difficult, even for someone as technologically challenged as me. I admit to a few minor glitches, though none make the book a difficult read. If I decide to do another, I now know how to avoid my past errors.

The book is available at the low price of $2.99 here
I’m looking for people to tag, review and (naturally) buy it. Any of the three would be appreciated.

What’s the book about? Here’s a synopsis:

Dandy Dan McCracken is a rogue wandering around eastern Pennsylvania and living by his wits in the middle years of the American Revolution. Through circumstance, he becomes a spy, first for the British and then for the Americans.

Wounded and on the run from a sheriff, he’s rescued and nursed back to health by the lovely ward of Benedict Arnold’s procurement officer in Philadelphia. McCracken is enamored of the girl, but when her husband returns from the front, he flees and falls in with a band of British spies.

He switches sides again when he discovers his conscience as a result of falling in love, and not because he favors one side over the other. His actions now—not through choice but again through circumstance—make him a hero.

Monday, November 15, 2010

What Writers Read

I recently wrote about the importance of reading for writers. That, naturally, leads to the question of what to read.

Reading preference is a subjective matter. Still I thought it might be interesting to consider the choices of some of my favorite authors and see what they have to say on the matter.

One might think a writer of mysteries would have an affinity for that genre. Yet in an article (archive article, originally published in 1987) in the December issue of The Writer Ruth Rendell remarks that she no longer reads crime fiction. Instead she said she “reads and rereads” the great Victorian classics. Her recommendation for all who aspire to write is Ford Madox Ford’s “The Good Soldier”. And Rendell says she reads this one book annually.

Though he admits to having grown up with the Hardy Boys, James Lee Burke lists among his favorite writers Faulkner, Joyce and Hemingway (see favorites of many writers in “The Top Ten, Writers Pick Their Favorite Books”, edited by J. Peder Zane).

Elizabeth George in “Write Away” identifies Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird,” as her favorite novel but says her greatest influence as a writer was John Fowles. Fowles himself was a great admirer of Thomas Love Peacock, Daniel Defoe, Albert Camus and Thomas Hardy.

Robert Louis Stevenson also spoke highly of Defoe, in addition to Alexandre Dumas and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

Jim Harrison puts Dostoevsky, Proust, Emily Bronte and Herman Melville high on his list. John Irving also has praise for Dickens, Hardy and Melville. Another personal favorite, Peter Matthiessen, admits an admiration for Conrad, Dostoevsky and the other great Russians.

Referring again to “The Top Ten,” I was pleased to see some of my favorite books on so many of the lists. These included (in no particular order), “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” by Mark Twain, “Lolita” by Vladimir Nabokov, “Moby Dick” by Herman Melville, “Wuthering Heights” by Emily Bronte, “Tristram Shandy” by Laurence Sterne, “Candide” by Voltaire, “Don Quixote” by Miguel de Cervantes, “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare, “Dubliners” by James Joyce, “The Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoevsky and “Silence of the Lambs” by Thomas Harris. I was shocked none of the writers mentioned Fowles, Matthiessen or John Gardner (author of “The Sunlight Dialogues,” not the other one).

So what books should you be reading? I’d say anything and everything. But most importantly those which inspire you to re-reading and better writing.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Reading for Profit

One of the key ingredients of advice to aspirant writers is to read.

The neophyte might then ask, what am I to read? Does it mean how-to books? Books written by the advisor? What?

My personal feeling is a writer should read the types of books he or she wishes to write. Most would-be writers are already readers. Inspired by the books they read for pleasure or edification, they strive to emulate, feeding both an innate need and a desire to share their thoughts and imaginings with others.

What moves a person to become a writer or engage in other creative activities is a matter for the psychologist and not our interest here. What is obvious is not every person who loves to read becomes or wants to become a writer. What is also obvious is the person who wants to write will eventually do so, regardless of advice or lack thereof.

I’ve never met a writer who wasn’t a reader. I think most of us would agree it was a love of reading that first stimulated our desire to write. But I’m constantly surprised by the number of writers who fail to profit by their reading. Some read only for entertainment. Others read for instruction. The good writer/reader can and should do both. And there are more than a few ways to profit. Reading properly can improve your writing ability, stimulate your creativity and put more dollars in your pocket.

How, then, should a writer read? The answer, of course, is alertly. No writer worth his/her salt should ever read without a notebook at hand.

As Dumas put it a long time ago: Writing can not be taught; it can only be learned. One learns, initially, by reading. Anything you read will influence your writing style, either consciously or subconsciously. That’s why many novelists refrain from reading while working on a book. However, it has been found that reading good writing can provide the impetus for recharging the creative juices when you’re stalled or suffering a block. Even junk can be beneficial, but if you want to do creative writing, then you should read the best writing available. You can improve your style, your language and rhythm by the subconscious influence of good literature.

Robert Louis Stevenson advised, “When you read a book or a passage you admire, immediately set yourself to aping it so that you may capture the flavor of it.”

Some might frown on this as plagiarism. But that wasn’t what RLS meant. What he suggested was a concept no different than the training methods of the great masters of art and music. Art imitates nature and, it follows, art imitates art as well. Stevenson felt by copying an admired passage one gained insight into what made it work.

Charles Nodier, a lesser known writer, suggested, “A writer should read until he is filled to the brim and like a pitcher which is over-filled overflows, and then he should write.”

Monday, October 18, 2010

Positive Envy

We writers are an envious lot.

It shows when a peer gets a good review. We grumble when another has a successful signing. A good contract—well, you get the idea.

It may be human nature to covet the good fortune of others. But such expressions of spite are negative envy, which is not a good thing. In its stead we should employ positive envy. Positive envy, you might ask. Is there such a thing?

Most definitely. People, however, have a tendency to envy others and pass off their good fortune as luck. Webster defines luck as a casual event or accident. A secondary definition is having good fortune or being successful.

In one form or another, luck crosses our path every day. How we respond determines the outcome of these exposures. The same applies to our reaction to the luck of others.

One positive aspect is to employ envy as a stimulus. Instead of being jealous examine what the other writer did to achieve good results. Consider how you might profit by their example.

You might also consider what I have dubbed OPW. This is a most valuable procedure many overlook. In business there’s a principle called OPM (Other People’s Money) which means you get someone to assist when you have insufficient resources. With OPW, you utilize another person’s labor to supplement or conserve your own energy.

You can start by seeking mentors, people with wider knowledge and experience who are willing to share what they have learned.

Another aspect is that of cause and effect. It may be a cliché, but we really do get what we give out. The Internet has vastly expanded opportunities for networking. But don’t forget, networking is a two-way street. Be prepared to share. If you want your work critiqued, be willing to do something in return. If you want a contact, be willing to offer something in exchange.

For example, Ray Bradbury never went to college. Instead he educated himself in the public library, spending all day, three times a week for a period of 10 years. In gratitude, he now makes a habit of organizing fundraisers for libraries.

A chance encounter with British writer Christopher Isherwood in a bookstore provided Bradbury the opportunity to put The Martian Chronicles in the hands of a respected critic who gave it a glowing review.

And—though they might not seem to have much in common—it was Truman Capote who recognized Bradbury’s talent and pulled his story Homecoming out of a slush pile and convinced an editor to publish it in Mademoiselle. In turn, Bradbury helped Hugh Hefner get Playboy off the ground by giving him copy at a price he could afford.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

No Free Kindle For Me

Over at Shelfari ( there was a contest going on for a free 3G Kindle. Since I want a Kindle and getting one for free would definitely be a plus, I jumped to the site to see what the contest involved.

To qualify members of the Shelfari librarians and editors group (I’m eligible) had to post contributions on the current New York Times Bestsellers lists prior to October 5. So, I took a look at the lists.

In the area of hardcover fiction I found only one book I had been interested in reading: Stieg Larrson’s The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest. Now that was a book I liked and I supposed it would be possible to post some positive facts. But that probably wouldn’t be enough to win me a Kindle. The situation in hardcover non-fiction wasn’t much better. The only two books on the list I want to read are Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns and S. C. Gwynne’s Empire of the Summer Moon.

I fared a bit better in paperback trade fiction. I’ve read and adored Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, Larrson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire and Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain. I’ve also read and liked Jamie Ford’s Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and Robert Goolrick’s A Reliable Wife. Cutting For Stone by Abraham Verghese is on my TBR list and at some point I’ll probably also read Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls and probably could be tempted by Grisham’s Ford County or King’s Under the Dome.

In paperback mass market there were the two Larrson novels, Ford County, Dave Baldacci’s True Blue and Robert Parker’s The Professional. Mass market non-fiction offered Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink as possibilities.

The final choices were hardcover and paperback advice where I found absolutely nothing I cared to read.

I guess I’m going to have to buy my own Kindle.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Review Redux

Writers like reviews. Especially good ones.

Not only do they stoke our egos (which, alas, are often in need of massaging), they attract attention and can help make the difference between success and failure for a book. Those of us who are still struggling to attract an audience rely on a corps of reviewers, some sought out by ourselves and others solicited by our publishers.

Most writers published by small press can only dream of attracting the attention of The New York Times Book Review, Kirkus or other such prominent venues. So we are always grateful when someone—anyone—takes the time to say they like what we’ve written.

What might be even better than a good review is having the reviewer call attention to the book at a later time when your public’s interest in it may have waned.

Kevin R. Tipple did that recently for Cruel Cuts, second in my Sticks Hetrick mystery series, when he highlighted it in his Friday’s Forgotten Books segment in his Kevin’s Corner blog. He called this second novel in the series “a complex and very enjoyable read full of murder, deceit and greed.” You can read the full segment here:

The replay came as a pleasant surprise and I was gratified because not only is Kevin a perceptive reviewer he’s also a fellow writer and an editor. His stories have appeared in a variety of print magazines as well as on line in such sites as Mouth Full of Bullets, Crime and Suspense and Mysterical-E.

I was also pleased because Cruel Cuts introduced rookie officer Flora Vastine, who has become a key player in the series. I have a particular affection for this novel and don’t think it has received the attention it deserves.

So thanks again, Kevin.

Monday, September 13, 2010

A Lesson in Practical Magick

Today, Monday, Sept. 13, has been designated Positive Thinking Day. Now I’m not about to reveal some secret here, some magick formula which is the key to success. But I do believe attitude has much to do with the achievement of goals.

The United States has been a fertile playing field for optimists and has spawned a variety of theories and even several uniquely American religions linking spiritual and material success with attitude. Science has confirmed that a positive attitude does help in matters of health. Why should not the same apply to other aspects of life?

Optimists have a tendency to face up to problems and actively seek to solve them. Pessimists, on the other hand, are more prone to give up without a fight. As Frank Lloyd Wright put it, “The thing always happens that you really believe in; and the belief in a thing makes it happen.”

Quantum theory has demonstrated what we deem reality is a transitory state and nothing is impossible. Thus life events can be influenced. Success is an evolutionary process and it isn’t necessarily measured in dollars. It can and must have a personal definition. For one person it may mean wealth and fame. For another no more than the successful completion of a project. Its validity is dependent on the individual.

I’m not talking magic here, other than the kind coming from a belief in yourself.

Asked about her success, Victoria Holt, who wrote historical fiction under a variety of pseudonyms, said, “Make up your mind that you will succeed and go all out for it.” At the time of her death in 1993 it was reported more than 100 million copies of her novels had been sold.

That definitely illustrates the power of positive thinking.

Oh, one other ingredient too often left out of these prescriptions for willing success—work. Wright, named the ‘greatest American architect of all time’ in 1991 by the American Institute of Architects, also said, “I know the price of success: dedication, hard work, and an unremitting devotion to the things you want to see happen.”

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Better Than An MFA

John Grisham wrote in the New York Times recently ( of the various jobs he held before becoming a popular and successful author.

Though always an avid reader, Grisham comes from a working class background. As he points out in this article, writing was not his childhood dream. He came to writing after a series of low-paying, dead-end jobs, a general law practice and a period as a legislator in Mississippi.

A Time to Kill, his first novel, was inspired by witnessing the testimony of a 12-year-old rape victim. It had a rocky road to publication and was not an immediate success. The Firm, his second effort, was the seventh best-selling novel of 1991 and paved the way for his new career.

In the Times article, Grisham calls writing the most difficult job he’s had.

Most of us who have come to writing—whether it was a childhood dream or not—have suffered a variety of other jobs over the years. There are few overnight successes in this business.

Personally, in my jobs resume, I can list periods as a waiter, fruit/vegetable picker, laborer on a roofing crew, clerk, warehouse worker, antiques picker, painter, chicken factory worker, among others before becoming a reporter and later newspaper editor. In the Army I went from rifleman to military police trainee, to reporter and editor.

Though I didn’t like many of these jobs at the time, I no longer regret any of them. They provide me a broad canvas of characters and knowledge. If we’re honest, I think most of us who write can be thankful for the insights into other ways of life these varied opportunities provide. It can’t be equaled by reading or in a classroom. Such knowledge is second-hand. Experience is the greatest teacher and imagination craves such stimulus.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Words of Encouragement for My Peers

Fellow writers, if you’re feeling discouraged I ask you to consider the career of John Dunning.

A high school dropout, he was rejected by the Army after only two weeks service because of a broken eardrum and then spent a period working for $1.05 an hour in a glass shop and later as a stable boy at a horse-racing track.

In a biographical sketch on his webpage,,
Dunning explains his problems in school were the result of attention deficit disorder (ADD), which wasn’t diagnosed until years later. John’s life might have continued in that distressing state save for one thing—he had a dream. He wanted to write.

And he wasn’t ready to give up on his dream. Dunning persevered. He got his GED, got a job on The Denver Post and gradually worked himself up from clerk to copyboy to reporter. In 1975, Bobbs-Merrill published his first novel, The Holland Suggestions.

Since then, in addition to a slew of novels including the fabulous Cliff Janeway mysteries, Dunning has earned regard as a radio historian, taught writing and journalism at the University of Denver, worked in film and operated a bookstore with his wife. The first Janeway novel, Booked to Die, won an Edgar in 1992. Despite some recent health problems, he is reportedly back at the typewriter (yes, I said typewriter. It’s his preferred instrument, which he refers to as “an honest machine”.).

So what advice does Dunning offer most frequently to aspiring writers? You guessed it: Don’t give up.

I must credit Margot Kinberg for giving me the idea for this blog when she wrote about books as an element in crime novels in her Confessions of a Mystery Novelist blog (

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Get Your Facts Straight

Many writers fantasize about having their novels adapted to film. While the idea tantalizes with money and fame, there are adequate reasons to resist.

A case in point are the two cinematic versions of Ira Levin’s A Kiss Before Dying (1956, a B-grade noir drama featuring Robert Wagner and Virginia Leith and the 1991 remake with Matt Dillon and Sean Young). Both have their entertaining aspects but do little for Levin’s reputation.

Now a modern crime classic, the 1953 novel won Ira Levin an Edgar for Best First Novel in 1954. Since Levin began his career as a TV script writer and wrote several plays, including Deathtrap (1978, the longest running Broadway mystery to date), it puzzles me why he wasn’t chosen to do the script for either film. Perhaps he was asked and declined.

There are some holes in the first version scripted by Lawrence Roman. But I find less fault with it than with the James Dearden 1991 version. I’m not speaking of the acting here. My concern is with the script.

We’re talking fiction—a film based (loosely) on a novel. With fiction there is leeway; we are not bound with all the consequences of reality. But if you want a work to be taken seriously it’s important to provide a level of verisimilitude. Levin was noted for far-fetched plot twists, but he was skilled at making you accept them as believable. Dearden’s script is riddled with “huh” moments, not to mention clichés and far too many coincidences.

There’s a scene in a hospital emergency room which is almost laughable for the number of errors which would be obvious to the most doped up patient. The most blatant was having Sean Young, the heroine, give the nurse a wad of money for the patient’s bill. Since when do nurses handle billing? Then there’s the scene where Dillon and Young’s father (Max von Sydow) are discussing fishing and Sydow proudly displays a prize carp he caught in Maine. Duh. Carp are not game-fish and there’s no need to leave Pennsylvania (the film location) when the commonwealth’s waterways are teeming with these trash fish. That’s just the tip of the iceberg in glitches.

Dearden is no novice at writing. His screenplay for Fatal Attraction was nominated for an Oscar. A fact-checker was definitely needed on this script. And that’s the point I want to make here. If you’re attempting to portray reality, verify your facts. If you don’t catch your errors, guaranteed someone else will.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Don't Take My Word For It

A review of a novel, film or other creative work is one person’s opinion.

And that’s exactly what it’s meant to be. As Darryl Ponicsan, a better known coal region-born writer, put it, “An honest reviewer reads a book and says, ‘I like it’ or ‘I don’t like it’ or ‘I’m lukewarm about it,’ and why.”

So what does that mean to you, the reader?

Many select a book on the basis of genre, their knowledge of the author or the suggestion of a friend or family member. There also might be the influence of advertising, an intriguing cover design or, simply, a whim. The reviewer is just another adjunct.

An honest review can help you sort out from the estimated 190,000 new books published every year in the U.S. those you might want to buy or borrow from your local library. That’s just the estimate for the U.S. Add another 130,000 for the United Kingdom. Care to guess how many worldwide?

My historical novel Watch The Hour just received an encouraging review ( which termed it “a page-turning yarn.” I’m not about to argue with a description like that.

My point is, don’t take my word for it. Watch The Hour is a book worth your time. The novel has received repeated good reviews elsewhere. To name a few:

Saturday, July 31, 2010

To Be (Shelved), Or Not

“Why can’t I get your books in (name your favorite chain bookstore)?”

It’s a complaint we hear from time to time. The public may not be aware of it, but not all publishers are linked with Ingram or Baker & Taylor, the distributors of choice for most of the chain bookstores. It’s not my purpose to get into the reasons here. Just stating the fact, ma’am.

My response to the complaint is usually to inform the person my books are available from the publisher, from Amazon and numerous other on line sources or directly from me.

They also have the option of going to a real (i.e., independent) bookseller who can, and will, order the book from the publisher (who offers discounts and other provisions on a par with most of the standard distributors). So why won’t the chains do this? Got me. Maybe they’re locked into contractual obligations. Maybe it’s just bad business judgment.

Until recently I sold my books in a local independent which, unfortunately, was forced to close its doors this year due to the economy and competition from the chains. Since there are no other independents in the vicinity, I made another stab at the local chain store.

Though the manager found mine in Books In Print (the essential bibliographical tool for libraries, booksellers and publishers), she said my publisher wasn’t available through her distributors. I suggested ordering through the publisher. She said they couldn’t do that.
What if I provided the books on a consignment basis with a return provision? She shook her head. “Have your publisher link with our distributor,” she urged, “then we’d be glad to carry your books.”

I find the situation frustrating. I’ve heard similar tales from others. Some say it depends on the manager and store, that some are more amenable.

I realize no store can carry every published book. But it seems to me good business sense to carry the books of a local writer with an established platform and whose books have had good reviews, a sales record and a retinue of repeat customers. But I’m only a writer. Maybe the chains think it is good business to have potential customers go elsewhere to buy.

Would I still like to be on their shelves. Sure. As long as readers can still find me, though, I don’t have to beg for it.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Fourth in Series

“Being Someone Else,” fourth in the Sticks Hetrick mystery series is scheduled for release today, July 15, by Whiskey Creek Press,

Some people believe violence is foreign to our nature. Dan ‘Sticks’ Hetrick, retired chief and consultant to the Swatara Creek police department, knows better. We put a lid on our natural tendency to violence when we started living in groups, devising moral codes to hold it in check and allow us to live in harmony with others. But, deep down in the Id, there is always that tendency to violence.

When an out-of-state reporter is found murdered in the restroom of a disreputable bar the tendency to violence spirals in the rural Pennsylvania community, and the investigative trail keeps bringing Hetrick and his team back to the family of a wealthy doctor who has returned to his hometown in retirement.

Hetrick and his protégé Officer Flora Vastine are joined by an old friend from his State Police days as they unravel old secrets and mysteries in a tale with as many shocking twists as a country road.

If you haven’t read any of the other books in the series, now is a good time to start. Others in the series are “Something In Common,” “Cruel Cuts” and “Corruption’s Child.”

Review snippets for the series:

“Lindermuth does a wonderful job of bringing his fictional small Pennsylvania town to life by getting us into the minds of a multitude of characters. I enjoyed Lindermuth’s writing and the story itself was interesting and without a dull moment.” Judy Clemens, author of Three Can Keep a Secret, Crime Spree Magazine,

“J.R. Lindermuth doesn’t write fiction. He writes life! There are twists and turns in every chapter.” Anne K. Edwards, author of Death on Delivery,

“Lindermuth has magnum sizzle. Reading him is like a fresh bullet fired from a newly minted gun.” Eric Meeks, author of The Author Murders.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Secret Ingredient

Name your favorite novel.

Now consider what makes that novel stand out from others.

I’ll wager for many of us the answer will be character. Your particular favorite character may differ from mine. But many will cite Emma. Or David Copperfield. Ahab. Atticus Finch. Holden Caulfield. A dozen others who have achieved immortality in our imagination.

So what is it about our particular favorite character that resonates?

Again I’ll wager the answer is because the author has created a character who is as real to us as any flesh and blood person we’ve ever met. So how the heck did he/she do it and can we mere mortals hope to emulate such talent?

The answer is simple and involves no secret ingredient hidden from the hoi polloi.

Back at the beginning of the 20th century a physiologist named Jakob von Uexkull coined the term umwelt to describe the technique of stepping into another creature’s world. What he described was, in fact, nothing new but a revival of a lost art. Hunters did it from the beginning of time. In order to hunt a creature the successful hunter becomes, in essence, that creature. He enters its world and thinks as it does.

A nifty trick. But can anyone do it today?

Writers also have been doing it for a very long time.

This secret ingredient has another name. Empathy.

Webster describes it as: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also : the capacity for this.


Not really. But it’s a talent which can be improved upon with practice. Do you think Dickens was capable of creating David Copperfield the first time he picked up pen to write? Of course not. Emma was not the first (or best) of Jane Austen’s creations.

All it takes is imagination and practice.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Being Someone Else

Whiskey Creek Press ( will publish Being Someone Else, fourth in the Sticks Hetrick mystery series, on July 15.

Some people believe violence is foreign to our nature. Dan ‘Sticks’ Hetrick, retired chief and consultant to the Swatara Creek police department, knows better. We put a lid on our natural tendency to violence when we started living in groups, devising moral codes to hold it in check and allow us to live in harmony with others. But, deep down in the Id, there is always that tendency to violence.

When an out-of-state reporter is found murdered in the restroom of a disreputable bar the tendency to violence spirals in the rural Pennsylvania community, and the investigative trail keeps bringing Hetrick and his team back to the family of a wealthy doctor who has come back to his hometown in retirement.

Hetrick and his protégé Officer Flora Vastine are joined by an old friend from his State Police days as they unravel old secrets and mysteries in a tale with as many shocking twists as a country road.

I’ll be posting sample chapters in the coming weeks.

As noted, this is the fourth in the Hetrick mystery series and I’m now at work on the fifth (tentative title, Practice To Deceive). If you haven’t read them, now’s a good time to start. The novels are available in print and electronic form, including Kindle. Other novels in the series are Something In Common, Cruel Cuts and Corruption’s Child.

In a review of Corruption’s Child in the summer issue of Mysterical-E, Montiese McKenzie said: “It's a well-written and short book but it leaves readers wanting more of these characters and this town. From one page to the next, you aren't sure just what's going to happen but in a good way. There is a buildup to a slightly predictable but no less exciting climax and when the mystery is solved, it's breathless and fantastic.” You can read the full review here:

And, by the way, my short story, “An Undesirable Customer,” is in the same issue:

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Here's to You, Dad

The Christian bible (and tenets of other religions) admonishes us to honor our fathers. Unfortunately, it’s taken us awhile to get around to it.

For instance, a day to honor them was first proposed in the U.S. in 1910 by Sonora Smart Dodd, a Spokane, WA woman who thought fathers deserved equal recognition with mothers. But when President Woodrow Wilson suggested making it a national observance a few years later Congress balked, contending it would become commercialized. (Can you imagine Congress today missing an opportunity to commercialize anything?)

Sen. Margaret Chase Smith of Maine chastised Congress in 1957 for ignoring fathers while paying tribute to mothers. In 1966 President Lyndon B. Johnson issued the first presidential proclamation. But it wasn’t until 1972 that it finally became a national holiday, signed into law by President Richard Nixon.

To say we have been remiss in failing to equally honor both our parents would be an understatement.

My Dad’s been gone 26 years now, but I don’t think there’s a day goes by that doesn’t remind me in some way of his character and guidance. I may not always have followed his advice. Yet, looking back on it now, I realize how often his judgment was right.

Dad was a railroader most of his working life, a rough and demanding occupation. He grow up in a tough and ethnically-mixed neighborhood in which he learned to use his fists as well as common sense and picked up a smattering of several languages. Dad also loved music and taught himself to play a number of musical instruments. He and my mother also had a local reputation as ballroom dancers. While my sister inherited some of this musical ability I missed out on that gene. I also love music, but I get static even trying to play it on the radio. As to dancing, I’m better at tripping over my own feet.

He was also one of the most creative people I’ve known. When my sister and I were young he spent many hours in his shop creating sulphur diamond jewelry and coal novelties which he sold to supplement his income. With the decline of deep mining, material for those pursuits became difficult to get and he turned his attention to ‘picking’ and restoring/refinishing antiques, an enterprise in which I joined him. We shared many happy hours attending sales and scouring the countryside for goods. This largely replaced the comradeship we had enjoyed earlier in hunting, fishing and camping and continued until I went off to the Army.

I cherish the fact we had those times together. I’m also glad he lived long enough for my children and my nieces to know him. He had a temper, never shirked saying what he felt and couldn’t stand a hypocrite. You always knew exactly where you stood with him and, if you were his friend, you couldn’t find a more loyal one.

So here’s to you, Dad. I’m not contributing to Hallmark’s bounty for a sloppily sentimental card. But I hope you know how much we love and miss you.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Coming Soon

If you’ve read and enjoyed any of the Sticks Hetrick mysteries, you’ll be pleased to know Whiskey Creek Press soon will release BEING SOMEONE ELSE, fourth in the series.

If you haven’t read them, now’s a good time to start. The novels are available in print and electronic form, including Kindle. Other novels in the series are Something In Common, Cruel Cuts and Corruption’s Child.

Daniel ‘Sticks’ Hetrick is the retired police chief of rural Swatara Creek, Pennsylvania, and serves as consultant to his less experienced successor, Aaron Brubaker. Other regular characters are Hetrick’s protégés, Corporal Harry Minnich and rookie officer Flora Vastine.

As a note of interest, Hetrick—a longtime widower—has a new woman in his life in this novel and is offered a new job.

And, in case you’re wondering, I’m already at work on the fifth in the series.

Here’s the back cover blurb from Being Someone Else:

Some believe violence foreign to our nature. Dan ‘Sticks’ Hetrick, retired chief and consultant to the Swatara Creek police department, knows better. We put a lid on our natural tendency to violence when we started living in groups, devising moral codes to hold it in check and allow us to live in harmony with others. But, deep down in the Id, there’s always that tendency to violence.

When an out-of-state reporter is found murdered at a disreputable bar, the tendency to violence spirals in the rural Pennsylvania community, and the investigative trail keeps bringing Hetrick and his team back to the family of a wealthy doctor who has come back to his hometown in retirement.

Hetrick and his protégé, Officer Flora Vastine, are joined by an old friend from his State Police days as they unravel old secrets and mysteries in a tale with as many shocking twists as a country road

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Understanding Backwards

History too often gets a bad rap.

Students dismiss it as boring. Politicians and others with a biased agenda abuse its factuality. But the truth is out there and available to any willing to take the time to search. Since that involves time and effort, history is either ignored or perverted.

“A land without ruins is a land without memories—a land without memories is a land without history.”

The poet Abram Joseph Ryan who penned those lines recognized that history is based on memory. Though not always accurate, history is important to a society. Thucydides rightly called history philosophy learned from examples.

As Soren Kierkegaard so aptly put it, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forward.”

As a writer and genealogist, I devote a lot of time to the study of history. Several recent events raised my optimism about public perception of history and its value.

Our historical society is located in the home of the last commandant of Fort Augusta, Pennsylvania’s largest provincial fort, which was commissioned for the French and Indian War and used through the Revolutionary War. Volunteers logged many hours to transform our former exhibit space into a more detailed interpretation of the importance of this historic site and the life of those who lived here.

Dedication of the new exhibit attracted more than 400 people and we have had a steady stream of requests since for group tours for families, clubs and school and scouting groups. The first of four scheduled Living History Days at the site of Fort Augusta was also successful and well attended.

Over the Memorial Day weekend my hometown of Shamokin held the fifth annual Anthracite Heritage Festival of the Arts, which also attracted larges crowds. While there’s plenty of emphasis on food and fun, history is not neglected in the mix which celebrates the mining heritage of the region and its polyglot ethnic society.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Romeo and Juliet in Pennsylvania

The theme of forbidden love has been used to advantage by many writers, from ancient times to the present.

Consider Abelard and Heloise. Launcelot and the Lady of Shalott. And, of course, Romeo and Juliet. A thousand other examples might be suggested. There are many reasons for love being forbidden. The most common include social distinctions such as class, religion or ethnicity.

Probably no one has used the theme to better advantage than Will Shakespeare—most notably in Romeo and Juliet, but also in a number of other classic plays and poems.

I don’t intend comparing myself to Shakespeare, but I’ve used the theme in my novel Watch The Hour and don’t feel it would be out of line to say it might be seen as another variation on Romeo and Juliet.

Fleeing famine and brutal oppression, more than a million Irish refugees flocked to the United States between 1846-1855 in search of opportunity and a better life. They worked whatever jobs they could find and were routinely exploited. Many found their way to Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region where they encountered some of the worst exploitation and hatred.

In the 1870s, mine owners and their employees, particularly the Irish immigrants, were in conflict over working conditions. Private police forces commissioned by the state but paid by the coal companies were sworn to protect property of the mine owners. The miners knew their real purpose was to spy upon targeted agitators and intimidate and break up strikers.

My Romeo is Benjamin Franklin Yeager, a coal company police officer. He does his best to follow orders while trying to be fair to the workers whose lot he sees as little different from his own. Despite his efforts at fairness, Yeager’s job makes him the enemy of the Irish.

And that’s the crux of his troubles. For Ben is in love with an Irish girl, Jennie Teague. You’ll have to read the book to see how their love plays out.

Watch The Hour is available in print and electronic forms from the publisher at

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Wind In His Face

I’m reading David Herlihy’s excellent “The Lost Cyclist,” which recounts the story of Frank Lenz, a Pittsburgh adventurer who disappeared in the 1880s while attempting his dream of cycling around the world.

Appropriately, this is National Bike Month. And that brings fond memories of my maternal grandfather, George Lester Sears, in whose life the bicycle played an important role.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was the bicycle that first made Americans mobile. For the first time, the average person who could not afford to buy and maintain a horse and rig could travel increased distances in speed and comfort by his own power. Boundaries were extended to the distance a person’s energy could carry him. The bicycle was reasonably priced and easily maintained, requiring no feeding, stabling or cleaning up after.

The first U.S. bicycle craze, circa 1860-70, succumbed to faulty equipment and poor roads. Interest resurfaced in the 1880s with such improvements as the pneumatic tire. In the 1890s, while farm prices fell and unemployment rose, the bicycle industry was thriving. Mass production methods developed by the bicycle firms, which typically employed about 50 people each, became a model for the auto industry. By the turn of the century, the bicycle was a fixture with the public and the preferred mount of both police and the military.

A bike was my grandfather’s first major acquisition and his fascination with both its use and repair soon made him the acknowledged expert among his peers and earned him the nickname “Bicey.” It also gave him one of the several trades he practiced throughout his life. Though he was a blacksmith, farmed and worked in the silk mills, he was best known to many as a bicycle repairman. It was a skill he passed on to his sons Pete, Raymond and Walter who also operated shops to supplement their income.

Growing up, it seemed to me Pop divided his time about equally between the bike shop, the garden and fishing. I’d like to say he met grandmother bicycling. Actually, he skated across the frozen Susquehanna one winter to court her.

Even marriage failed to constrain his urge for mobility. By my mother’s tally, they lived in more than 20 locations in several counties and each of his nine children was born in a different place. Perhaps his restlessness can be traced to his British ancestors who were seafaring men. Even after his forebears turned inland they kept their feet wet as canal boatmen, a profession that was in its decline as he reached manhood. Late in life, he confided he might have gone to sea had he not married.

A quiet man full with his own thoughts he seldom put into words, the bicycle may have given him some sense of the wind in his face that his genes craved and his erratic pursuit of new horizons may have had a similar source. I believe he’d be pleased health and environmental concerns and sporting enthusiasts are contributing to a new surge of interest in bicycling.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Homage to Mom

Finding a significant way to honor one’s mother isn’t the easiest task.

If you’ve been fortunate enough to have a good mother, there’s no gift you can buy sufficient to alleviate the guilt of not being able to do more. For those who haven’t had a good mother, the task is no easier because you’re exposed to a plethora of emotions in regret of such misfortune.

The second Sunday in May is the date selected for Americans to remember their mothers by some act of gratitude, a practice mirroring an earlier European custom, Mothering Sunday, where children give small tokens to their mothers. The traditional gift in many parts of Europe is a bunch of violets, the symbol of faithful love.

Perhaps such a token remembrance is the best course to follow since most of us would be hard-pressed to find anything to accurately respond to the love of a mother. Indeed, even the name “mother” can be seen as a form of veneration, since its Sanskrit root is “origin” or “source” of life.

Personally, I’m grateful to have had the kind of mother whose love can’t be repaid in ample proportion. We lost Mom on March 28, 2008, at the advanced age of 100. Even in her final years her energy belied her age and put to shame many who saw half as many summers. After a lifetime of work, both in the home and in area factories, retirement was a concept and not a reality.

The eldest daughter in a family of nine, she learned early responsibility and hard work. She possessed a multitude of talents that could not be learned in any school but life—and I don’t mean just culinary and household skills, though she excelled in those as well. She inherited a love of travel from her vagabond father and proved a boon companion on many a jaunt.

An eternal optimist with an indomitable spirit, she was always an inspiration in times of discouragement. Though distance separated us at the time, my efforts to raise two children as a single parent could not have been as successful without her constant support and advice.

She was always a liberal, open to new ideas and unafraid of change, but one guided by solid principles from which she never veered. If she had any vice it was a streak of stubbornness that brooked no interference with the goals she set for herself.

She was always the primary booster and supporter of any enterprise in which my sister and I engaged and, later, offered the same encouragement to her four grandchildren and four great-grandsons. We all miss you Mom.

This, then, is a small token of appreciation for all those mothers whose devotion didn’t end when their children left home.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Got Kindle?

If you have a Kindle wireless reading device you have ready access to more than 500,000 books.

That number includes the first three novels in my Sticks Hetrick mystery series—Something In Common, Cruel Cuts and Corruption’s Child, published by Whiskey Creek Press,

This series involves the title character, Daniel ‘Sticks’ Hetrick, retired police chief of rural Swatara Creek, Pennsylvania, who has been called back to service as consultant to his less experienced successor, Aaron Brubaker, along with Hetrick’s protégés, Corporal Harry Minnich and rookie officer Flora Vastine.

Check out Corruption’s Child, latest in the series, here:

My historical novel, Watch The Hour, is also available in a Kindle version:

And now, three short stories which had been available in the Amazon Shorts program are also offered to Kindle users. They are:

Twin Stars,

Trees And Memories,

Thin Ice,

Monday, May 3, 2010

A Question of Morality

Priests and ministers condemned it from the pulpit. Newspapers editorialized against it. Physicians called it a threat to the health and morality of the young. Government bodies and businessmen assailed it.

What was this thing that outraged so many segments of society across the nation in the early 1880s?

The skating rink. Huh? Seems rather benign these days, doesn’t it? But after equipment improved and roller skating became a popular activity in the late 19th century many civic leaders raised a national outcry against the recreational arcade. One major concern seemed to be the meeting of “the virtuous girl and the woman of loose character” on a common plane.

A Belgian, Jean-Joseph Merlin, is credited as the inventor of the roller skate in 1760 and the first patent for a skate design was awarded to a Monsieur Petitbled in France in 1819. Since these early skates were not very maneuverable, inventors continued improving design and James Plimpton of Medford, Mass., came up with the first practical four-wheel skate in 1863.

The first public skating rink opened in 1866 in Newport, Rhode Island. Design improvements continued and mass production of skates in the 1880s spurred the first of the sport’s several boom periods.

The first woman to publicly demonstrate her proficiency in roller skating was Carrie A. Moore in 1871 at the Occidental Rink in San Francisco.

When an indoor roller skating rink opened in Dodge City, Kansas, on April 6, 1885—considered the peak year for the skating craze in America—the Dodge City Globe derided its patrons as “intellectual paupers.”

It’s been estimated more than $20 million was invested in roller skating rinks in cities and towns across the United States in 1885.

“Patrons would find far more rest, if not recreation,” the Globe said, “in the reading of some valuable book and in acquiring information upon current events about which they are in woeful ignorance.”

The Lowell, Massachusetts, Sun called the rink “…the resort of some of the most immoral classes of the community, prostitutes and libertines, both married and unmarried, and that it serves for many the purpose of a house of assignation; that it is in its effects the most immoral licensed institution that we have; that it is the cause of more and worse immorality—yes, ten times more—than the worst conducted rum-shop in the city.”

An editorial in the Jan. 30, 1885 edition of the Shamokin Weekly in Shamokin, Pennsylvania, called that community’s rink a “propagator of prostitution and sapper of health.”

This editorial said, in part: “The skating rink craze has become epidemic in this country, and is spreading in every direction in spite of all righteous opposition. If it were one of the silly harmless crazes that sometimes affect empty heads and light heels it might be left to run its natural course like a case of cold. But it is a demoralizing evil, injuring the health, corrupting the morals, and ruining the souls of some of the infatuated devotees of the rink. There can be no question but that these rinks have led to a great increase of extravagance and there are a great many opportunities for indiscretions and the first steps toward vice; there is no parental supervision; legitimate business is interfered with; and the craze is a direct antagonist of all religious effort.”

A Scranton, Pennsylvania, newspaper charged that the daughter of a respected railroad superintendent had eloped with a railroad brakeman she met at a rink. It was reported a girl named Ida Clayton died of convulsions after suffering an injury in a fall at a Yonkers, N.Y., rink. The Shamokin Times quoted a Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, story of a seduction case resulting from a chance meeting at a rink.

A Danville, Pennsylvania, school director charged some students were forging absence permits in their parents’ names so they might spend more time at the skating rinks.

One report even made the ridiculous comment that “Supporting posts for the roof of a roller skating rink may be regarded as useful, but they are unsightly and even dangerous. Abolish them!”

The Shamokin Times reported both the Catholic and Protestant clergy were sermonizing against the dangers of frequenting the rinks. Rev. Joseph Koch, who shepherded St. Edward’s Catholic Church for fifty-one years, expressed the hope young people would seek more suitable recreation and urged parents to supervise their children on this point. He also warned continued patronage of the rinks by members of his flock would bring offenders under the discipline of the church. Rev. J. A. Flickinger of Shamokin’s Lutheran Church expressed the view that as between two evils, ballroom and rink he would choose the former as the least dangerous to social morality.

When pleas of immorality fell on deaf ears civic leaders turned to physicians for support. Prominent physicians agreed, declaring the skating rink a hot bed of disease and a source and cause of physical debility. One declared spending time and exerting oneself in an over-heated space and then going out into the cold laid the foundation for quinsy, consumption and pneumonia.

A father complained to his local newspaper, “I was puzzled for some time to account for the failing health of my daughters. They complained of languidness, fever and nervousness. The family physician ascribed it to undue exercise. I scoffed the idea, until he spoke of the rink. Investigation proved him right. My daughters were frequent visitors, wearing themselves out in misconceived recreation.”

Shamokin Borough Council took action to impose an amusement license tax it hoped would drive the owners of the local establishment out of business. These upholders of morality must have shouted with glee when it was announced at the end of January 1885 that the county sheriff was holding sale on the property since one of the three owners had defaulted on an outstanding loan.

That may have resolved their situation, but it remained an issue elsewhere. In February 1885 a grand jury was convened in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, in an effort to have the rinks condemned as a public nuisance. In recognition of the charges brought against the rinks, Judge J. W. Simonton instructed the grand jury to carefully investigate and report on the issue. Their response is summed up in a brief paragraph:

“In the matter of the skating rinks in this city (Harrisburg), we would respectfully present that with the information laid before us, we believe such places of amusement to be detrimental to the health of our young people and in a great measure destructive of the morals of the youths who frequent them. And in the opinion of this grand jury in this respect they are nuisances.”

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Sample Chapter

Neil Kehler pulled back the sleeve of his jacket and squinted at his watch. Blurry. But it looked like past midnight. Past midnight on Friday. He should get home. Ruthie would be pissed. Shit! Nothing new in that. Lately she was always pissed. Neil swallowed the last dregs of his beer. All he’d wanted was a couple beers and a game of pool. A little sport. Nothing that had anything to do with how he felt about her. Hell, they’d been together since high school. Did she really think he was looking for someone else after all this time?
Despite the hour, the place was still packed as it always was on a Friday night. Raucous, too-loud voices droned in his head. Country music on the juke box added to the din. The floor vibrated beneath his feet. Clouds of tobacco smoke stung his eyes and the stench of spilled beer, nicotine and unwashed bodies cloyed in his nostrils.
Well, he might as well go home and face her wrath. The couple beers had turned to too many after Earl took his money again. Nothing new in that either. Bastard must be cheating. But nobody had caught him yet. And who would dare accuse the man anyway?
Neil placed his hands on the bar and pushed off from his stool. Better hit the john first. He knew he couldn’t make it all the way home without emptying his bladder. Neil staggered around to the hallway.
His shoulder bumped against the wall on one side and propelled him across to the other. Neil staggered on. Dark. Overhead light was out again and Vinnie was too damned cheap to replace the bulb. Well, he’d been back here often enough to find his way without light. The ammonia stench of the urinals was enough to guide him. He figured he was almost to the restrooms when another hurrying figure bumped against him, knocking him up against the wall. “Watch it, buddy!” Neil squawked. The other person kept on going without a word of apology.
Neil might have had another retort but the urgency of his need made that less impelling. Just ahead he saw the dim glow of the restroom lights through a crack in the doorway. Neil pushed on.
As he stepped up to the urinal Neil noticed, from the corner of his eye, someone sitting in one of the toilet stalls. Jeez. He liked privacy when tending to business and this guy didn’t even have sense enough to pull the stall door closed. Neil unzipped, flipped out his penis and breathed a sigh of release as his stream flowed. Aaah! He leaned forward, hands against the wall. “Needed that,” he said aloud. There was no response from the guy in the stall. Shit. Probably passed out.
Finished, he zipped up and moved over to the sink. As he turned on the faucet he glanced into the mirror. What the…? Oh, shit!
Neil staggered out into the hall. “Vinnie! Vinnie! Get your ass back here,” he screamed. The noise from the barroom drowned out his voice.

“In the John?”
“Yep. Shot dead while sittin’ on the pot,” Aaron Brubaker said.
Sticks Hetrick was just crawling into bed when he got the call. He was filling in for Brubaker who was down with the flu. Somehow the dispatcher on duty hadn’t got the word and contacted the chief.
“Where’d it happen?”
“Out at Vinnie’s.”
Hetrick grunted. Vinnie’s Bar was a dive out on the highway that should have been closed down long before. It was a blot on the community and its owner and his premises were no strangers to trouble.
“Who’s the victim?”
“Dunno. All I know is what Fred told me. Sorry about this Sticks. If it wasn’t for this bug…”
“No sweat. I volunteered, remember? Get some rest. Talk to you later.” It would have made no sense to be irritated with Brubaker. Hetrick, who had retired as chief, now served as a consultant to his less-experienced replacement. Filling in now gave him a taste of the old days and he was enjoying it—probably a lot more than Brubaker who just yesterday had given him a litany of the gruesome aspects of his illness.
Hetrick swung his feet out of bed, sat up and reached for his glasses. He wiped them clean with a Kleenex and put them on. Then he pulled himself erect, took off his pajamas and got back into his clothes.
Yeah. Just like the old days—getting called out of bed in the middle of the night to clean up some other person’s mess. Well, he’d asked for it, hadn’t he.
It wasn’t far from his house on Plum Street out to the highway junction where Vinnie’s Bar was located. As he pulled onto the gravel parking lot he saw two Swatara Creek cruisers and an ambulance with motors running and lights flashing pulled up close to the entrance. A scattering of other vehicles, including Vinnie Nungessor’s Lexus, were still in the lot. Not many for a Friday night. Hetrick anticipated a number of the regulars had taken off as soon as they were informed of the discovery. Nungessor’s customers included a number who might be suspect in whatever transgression arose.
Repressing the smile that thought prompted, Hetrick got out of his pickup, hitched up his trousers and entered the tavern.
Nungessor, leaning on the bar and nursing a mug of beer, glanced over as Sticks approached. “How long your guys gonna keep me shut down this time?” he asked.
A few customers, owners of the vehicles outside he surmised, lounged at tables back in the shadows. None of them spoke. Brent Taylor, a Swatara Creek officer standing watch over them, raised a hand in greeting. Hetrick nodded back.
“It’s past two Vin. Closing time anyway.”
“Yeah. I’m thinkin’ about tomorrow and the days after that. Youse closed me down for a week that time we had the stabbin’ here. And nobody died that time. Haint my fault some guy gets hisself shot.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.”
Vinnie chugged his beer. “Can I go home?”
“Not yet. After I talk to my people. I might have some questions for you.”
“How ‘bout us?” a raspy voice Hetrick recognized, asked from the shadows.
“Might have questions for you too, Fingers.”
“Yeah. You usually do—even when I haint involved,” Earl Schurke responded. He earned his nickname long before because of his propensity for putting his digits where they didn’t belong.
“Christ. I already answered their questions,” Nungessor said. “It was Friday night. Busy like always. Noisy. Nobody heard nothin’, seen nothin’.”
“Somebody did,” Sticks said, strolling on by him and going down the hall to the restrooms.
Standing at the doorway he saw Fred Drumheiser talking to Arnie Templin, the coroner. “Hey, Chief,” Fred said, spying him. “We’re just about to haul him out. You wanna have a look first?”
Hetrick nodded and they made way for him to pass between them and into the restroom. The corpse had been zipped into a body bag. An EMT kneeling by the carrier unzipped the bag to let Hetrick have a look at the victim. Sticks leaned over, hands on his thighs. It was a young man, mid-twenties with straight, recently barbered hair. A plump face, smooth-shaven. There was a small hole ringed by powder burns between his closed eyes.
Hetrick stood straight and waved a hand for the tech to re-bag. “Anybody know him?”
Fred shook his head. “Not Vinnie’s usual clientele. Clean-cut, wearin’ a suit. None of the regulars would admit to having seen him before.”
“Any ID?”
“Wallet with a driver’s license, press card, couple credit cards and about sixty bucks in cash.”
“Press card?”
“Yeah. Name was Christopher Bachman. From down in Maryland.”
“Any idea what he was doing here?”
Fred shook his head. “Might have been a drug deal gone sour. Course he couldn’t have bought much with what he had on him.”
Hetrick turned to Templin. “Cause of death, Arnie?”
“I expect the bullet between his eyes. I’ll know better in the morning.”
“Found a casing on the floor,” Fred said. “Twenty-two short. Wouldn’t have made much noise and with the normal commotion out there don’t expect nobody would have heard it.”
“Who found him?”
“Neil Kehler. You know him?”
“Yeah. I think so. Lives over on Cherry, near Roger Steinbauer.”
“Right. That’s the guy. Have him coolin’ his heels out front with a couple other guys. None of them claim to know anything, though. Half the crowd was cleared out by the time I got here.”
“You came alone?”
Fred nodded. “Yeah. We’re short. Half our people are out with this damned flu or whatever it is. Harry’s at the station, Flora’s out on patrol. Harry sent Brent over here in case I needed him. Don’t even have a regular dispatcher tonight. One of those auxiliary police types fillin’ in.”
Sticks frowned. The auxiliary had been formed just this year by the township supervisors. To him it indicated a lack of confidence in their police force and not any effort to be helpful. Sure crime had increased here—just like everywhere. A factor of the times and the economy. The problem wasn’t an inefficient department but rather a lack of sufficient funding to provide manpower for increased patrols. Hetrick was a big believer in both foot and cruiser patrols as a means of curtailing crime.
“You about wrapped up back here?” he asked Fred.
“Good. I’ll see what Kehler and the others have to say.”
A light had been turned on over the pool table and Earl Schurke was shooting a game with one of the other customers. Kehler and another man were watching. Fingers looked over his shoulder as Sticks came up. “Haint no gamblin’ going on,” he said. “Just passin’ time waitin’ on you.”
With a little chuckle, Sticks nodded. He knew pool hustling was one of Schurke’s sources of income. “Get to you shortly,” he said. “Mister Kehler.”
Kehler turned to face him. “Yeah?” Fully sober now, the tautness of his nerves revealed by the twitch of a muscle along one cheek.
“Need a word with you.”
“Hey,” Nungessor said, “what about me?”
“In good time.”
“Whadya want me to do, Chief?” Taylor asked.
“You can head on back, Brent. Harry might have other need for you. Let’s sit down over here Mister Kehler,” he said, indicating a nearby table. “You live out by Roger Steinbauer don’t you?” he asked as they pulled up chairs and sat.
“Work out at the chicken plant?”
“No. That is, my wife does. I’m a USDA inspector. The poultry plant is one of my sites.”
Schurke gave a coarse laugh. “Makes you really feel secure, don’t it—knowin’ a twerp like him is makin’ sure our food is safe.”
“Shut up, Earl. Mind your game before I have to bust you for interfering in an investigation.” Schurke laughed again, turned back and racked up the balls. Sticks wrinkled his nose. Even this far away and over the other powerful odor in the room he smelled the stench of the restrooms. “Now, Mister Kehler, why don’t you tell me how you came to find the body.”
Kehler squirmed. The seat squeaked under his weight. He ran a hand over his face, his eyes darting at Hetrick. “Think I could call my wife? She’s probably worried I haint home yet.”
“In a few minutes, sir. First…”
“I already told the other fellow. Don’t know what else I can add.”
“Humor me.”
Kehler was quiet a moment longer, the only sounds in the room the clinking of the pool cues, the ticking of a clock on the wall behind the bar and the hum of the coolers. Then, like rote, he reeled off his tale.
Sticks leaned toward him, listening intently, taking a few notes. At the end, he asked, “And you’re sure it was a man bumped into you?”
Kehler shrugged. “I don’t know. It was too dark to see but—based on the weight of the body struck me—I guess I assumed it must be a man. Could have been a woman. Can’t say for sure either way.”
“Thank you, Mister Kehler. I know where you live if we need to talk to you again.”
“I can go?”
“You’re free to go.” He swiveled in his chair. “Fingers.”
“Damn it, man,” Nungessor squealed, “when’s it to be my turn?”
“When I’m ready. Come on over here, Fingers.”
Hetrick made Vinnie wait until he’d talked to Schurke and the few others who had stayed on. None of them had anything worthwhile to add. None admitted to knowing the victim and all said they didn’t remember seeing him earlier in the evening. Most confirmed they had made a trip or two to the restroom but didn’t notice anything amiss. Schurke was certain the stall in question was empty the last time he’d visited which he thought might have been in the neighborhood of 11:45. “Can’t be sure about that, though,” he said. “You know how it is when you’ve had a few. Hell no, you probably don’t Sticks. Can’t remember I ever saw you enjoying a beer.”
Hetrick didn’t reply to that. He liked a beer now and again as much as any man. It was company he was particular about.
“Bout time you got to me,” Nungessor grumbled as he finally walked up to where the owner sat.
“I don’t suppose you have anything worthwhile to add.”
Vinnie scowled. “If I did, don’t know I’d be inclined to tell you.”
“That would not be wise.”
“Yeah. Well, truth is, I don’t know that I can tell you anything helpful.”
“So you didn’t know Christopher Bachman?”
“The victim.”
Nungessor shrugged. “Can’t expect me to know everybody that comes in here. I know my regulars. But this is a business. My doors are open to anybody wants to come in.”
“Even the police?”
Nungessor gave him a little smile. “Even the police. I got nothin’ to hide.”
Hetrick had his doubts about that but he let it slide. “You on your own here tonight?”
“Ronnie was helpin’ out as usual,” he said. Ronnie Huber was his barmaid and lived in an apartment above the tavern. “Complained of a headache. I let her go early.”
“How early?”
“I dunno. The place was busy. I wasn’t watchin’ the clock.”
“Make a guess.”
“Maybe ten-thirty, eleven.”
“We’ll have to talk to her, too.”
From the corner of his eye Hetrick saw Fred coming toward him, loaded down with his evidence case, camera and other paraphernalia. “All done back there, Sticks.”
“We’ll be on our way then.” His gaze swung back to Nungessor. “You can shut down now. Ronnie can be interviewed later. We’ll escort you out and you can lock up.”
“Hey! Can I open tomorrow?”
“We’ll let you know.”

Monday, April 12, 2010

Homage to the Library

Most writers would be inclined to agree the public library was one of the greatest ideas of all time.

My hometown didn’t have a library until 1953. It wasn’t that we were ignorant savages—there were school and church libraries and commercial lending libraries before that time.
Desire for a community library dates back to at least 1866 when an editorial in a local newspaper proclaimed: “A place that is lacking in facilities for gaining information can never hope to compete with other places whose influential people give their children and others the means of personal, intellectual culture. People may come here to make money, and stay for a few years; but we can never hope to have a solid, stable, attractive population unless there be opportunities for proper mental development.”

The writer of the editorial was not without a plan for meeting the goal, either. He suggested a three-story building be erected. The first floor would be rented for stores or offices, the second floor to house the library and the third would be a lecture hall. He thought rent of the stores would pay a good percentage of the library expenses and said occasional lectures by popular speakers would fund the rest. He felt a membership of 150 persons who contributed about $3 annually would keep up the supply of papers and periodicals and add some new books.

Unfortunately, his plan did not bear fruit. There was a fund drive for a library before World War II, but the war interfered with those plans. It took a major campaign headed by the local Woman’s Club and a number of other concerned citizens and organizations to realize the dream which finally resulted in the opening of the facility, which remains a vital factor in boosting the cultural and educational level of the community. It’s worth noting, women’s clubs were a chief proponent in the move to establish libraries in the U.S. after the Civil War. So, ladies, a tip of the hat to you.

Though we lacked a public library, my family had a good supply of books at home and the several independent bookstores which existed in the town at the time got a good share of my spending money.

Libraries are another of those good ideas we owe to the Greeks. And they weren’t even the first to have them. The concept existed in ancient China and the Central Library of Astan Quds Razavi in Mashhad, Iran, is more than six centuries old. The Francis Trigge Chained Library of Grantham, Lincolnshire, England, dates back to 1598 and is still in use.

Benjamin Franklin was responsible for the opening of the first in my home state in 1731—one of his best ideas, in my opinion. The Quebec Library, the first publicly funded in Canada, opened in 1779. But Mexico pre-dates both in claiming the first public library in the New World. Don Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, bishop of Puebla and Viceroy of New Spain, opened the Palafoxian library in 1646 when he expelled the Jesuits and confiscated their books. This library still exists and holds some of the oldest books in North and South America.

The point of all this is, of course, is recognition of National Library Week, April 11-17.
With the advantage of the Internet and having a large personal library, I don’t frequent my public library as often as I did in the past. But I’m eternally grateful for its existence and to those who maintain it and I believe the world would be a bleaker place without the public library. Truthfully I’ve probably spent more indoor time in libraries and book shops than anywhere else. And, if I have to be indoors, I can think of few places I’d rather be.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Wanna Kiss a Frog?

It seems there’s a day or month to celebrate everything under the sun. April is National Frog Month.

Some might ask why should we celebrate the frog? Well, to me, the frog is one of the most anticipated harbingers of spring. When I was a boy their singing from a nearby marsh announced the arrival of this cherished season. The marsh is gone now, paved over and sanitized. I miss that familiar herald and have to go elsewhere in search of it. Though more fond of birds, the noble Gilbert White among other naturalists had good things to say for the amphibian.

The back legs of a frog are a delicacy worthy of gratitude, and the source of an unflattering nickname for our French friends.

In many cultures the lowly frog is considered magic and symbolic of water and, therefore, life. The frog and lotus symbol is found all over Egypt and India. Frogs are also found frequently in the myths of the American Indian. If you care to go classical, consider Plutarch’s comment, “…though the boys throw stones at frogs in sport, yet the frogs do not die in sport but in earnest.”

The frog hasn’t fared so well in literature. There’s that repugnant reference in Macbeth and the sporting link in Twain’s tale. He comes off little better in Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” when the shepherds are turned to frogs for having taunted Latona.

Really though, there’s a serious reason for paying homage to the humble frog. Their numbers are declining and scientists are concerned not only for the welfare of the frog but for what it might mean to us and other creatures. The National Wildlife Federation is looking for volunteers for its Frogwatch USA program which seeks means of helping the frog survive. Check out the program here

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Homage to the Humble Pencil

Today is National Pencil Day.

Personally I think it’s an observance that should be international, maybe even a worldwide holiday.

Next to the gift of speech and the advent of reading what has been more important to the spread of ideas then the means to transcribe them? Though writers today are less apt to use a pencil, the humble instrument is still valued by artists, carpenters and craftsmen, not to mention children.

The original pencil was probably the stylus, a stick of metal used to scratch symbols on papyrus. Sometime in the early 16th century, a deposit of graphite was discovered in Cumbria, England, revolutionizing the instrument. Erroneously mistaken for a variety of lead, it was referred to as plumbago (Latin for lead ore). We still refer to the core of the pencil as lead.

Graphite was deemed so valuable ownership of the mines was taken over by the Crown and England held a monopoly on pencil making for a lengthy period. Nicholas Jacque Conte, a Frenchman, perfected the instrument in the form we know it today in 1795.

Americans imported pencils from Europe until after the Revolution. William Munroe, a cabinetmaker in Concord, Mass., is credited with the first American-made pencils in 1812. Henry David Thoreau, a more famous resident of Concord, later developed an improved pencil-making process, binding inferior graphite with clay. Joseph Dixon, another Massachusetts inventor, was the first to mass produce pencils in this country and Dixon pencils are still among the most popular.

Artists from Leonardo to Durer, from Rembrandt to masters in modern times, such as Eakins and Wyeth, have cherished the pencil. Just look at this selection by Rembrandt,
Or these from Constable’s sketchbooks, as examples of what beauty can be created with a mere pencil.

As noted, the pencil isn’t the chief instrument of the writer today. But John Steinbeck is said to have used up 300 pencils in the writing of East of Eden. Hemingway also relied on the pencil for his first drafts and Nabokov was another advocate. There are still writers who start a story in longhand, feeling it’s more intimate; not so many as in the past, though; machines have spoiled most of us.

Still, I think it important we all recognize our debt to the pencil and pay homage at least once a year.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

We're All Guilty

Today is the International Day of Remembrance of Slavery Victims and the Transatlantic Slave Trade and I have seen not a single reference to it in the media this morning.

The United Nations proclaimed March 25 as a day to annually honor the lives of those who died as a result of slavery or experienced the horrors of the slave trade. It is also an occasion to raise awareness about the dangers of racism and prejudice.

What’s that? Your ancestors didn’t have any slaves, you say. Doesn’t matter. You’re still guilty.

Slavery and the prejudice which feeds such abominable practices isn’t restricted to one race, ethnicity, culture or religion. There’s enough guilt to go around and we need once and for all to rid ourselves of the stupid opinion one human being is worth less than another on the basis of race, appearance, belief or whatever excuse we can find for separating us.

An estimated 17 million people were transported against their will and held in bondage between the 16th and 19th centuries. This violation of human rights was conducted and/or condoned by whites, blacks, Christians, Jews and Muslims (as well as agnostics and atheists).

Even the U.S. Constitution—seen as a model for documents ensuring tolerance and freedom for all—is tainted by provisions which comprised on the issue of slavery and the slave trade. Luther Martin, a delegate from Baltimore, labeled as absurd that the United States should permit states to continue “…the only branch of commerce which is unjustifiable in its nature and contrary to the rights of mankind.”

It’s economic and personal ramifications are still being felt today in countries which have abolished slavery. And, unfortunately, the practice has not been eradicated worldwide.

In his message for this year’s observance, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, in part, “Slavery and slavery-like practices continue in many parts of the world. Slavery is mutating and re-emerging in modern forms, including debt bondage, the sale of children and the trafficking of women and girls for sex. Its roots lie in ignorance, intolerance and greed.”

Friday, March 12, 2010

Observing Genealogy Day

National Genealogy Day will be observed on Saturday. As one who has spent considerable time on genealogy I thought it appropriate to expend a few words on the subject here.

Since retiring from the newspaper business in 2000 I have been librarian of our county historical society where I assist people with genealogy and historical research. I was doing it on a personal basis long before that and took on this responsibility partly to share what I had learned, but also because I enjoy it.

Call it a hobby if you will, but it is one pursued by increasing numbers of people around the world. I like the solving of puzzles, the detective work necessary to tracking down that elusive ancestor and discovering why he did this instead of that. It can become an absorbing addiction.

Genealogy is best defined as the study of family history. There was a time when it was chiefly the pursuit of maiden women and doddering eccentrics who sought some glory for themselves in the achievements of their ancestors.

As Plutarch wisely put it many centuries ago, “It is indeed a desirable thing to be well descended, but the glory belongs to our ancestors.”

People now pursue genealogy for a variety of reasons. For some, like the Mormons, it is a necessary adjunct to their religion. Others are simply curious about the lives of their ancestors or need to confirm facts in order to join the Daughters of the American Revolution, Mayflower Society and similar groups. More recently, there has been an emphasis on inherited diseases and genetic influence.

In truth, we are the sum of what we inherit from our ancestors, though we make our own additions to the mix. I like to recall Edmund Burke’s comment, “People will not look forward to posterity who never look backward to their ancestors.”

Friday, March 5, 2010

Irish-American Heritage Month

March is Irish-American Heritage Month. In honor of the observance, I offer these notes:

Fleeing famine and brutal oppression, more than a million Irish refugees flocked to the U.S. between 1846-1855 in search of opportunity for a better life. It’s been estimated an amazing 44 percent of immigrants in that period were Irish.

They worked whatever jobs they could find and were routinely exploited. That exploitation was partially based on their poverty and willingness to accept whatever wages they could get. A more shocking element was religious bigotry. The majority of the immigrants were Roman Catholic and anti-Papist sentiments boiled up in tandem with economic concerns in this same period. Newspapers of the period are full of examples of anti-Catholic/Irish sentiment, including cartoons depicting them as savages and animals.

Many of the Irish found their way to Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region where they encountered some of the worst exploitation and hatred. Wayne Broehl in his excellent The Molly Maguires says “All the past hatreds and slights came welling up again, and the mining patches were quickly divided, physically and socially, along ethnic lines. Soon the Irish turned to protective societies.”

Among these societies were the Molly Maguires, still controversial today with many refusing to believe the organization existed or was guilty of the alleged crimes. It's probable more atrocities were attributed to them than did exist. But the organization’s existence is documented and people do have a tendency to strike back at oppression.

In the 1870s, an expanding economic depression pitted mine owners and their laborers, particularly the Irish, in conflict over wages and working conditions. This situation spawned a wave of violence that was not limited to the Irish. The Molly Maguires became a scapegoat for those in authority.

It’s against this backdrop I’ve set my novel Watch The Hour in a fictional patch called Masonville. Why fictional and not an actual patch? Simply because the fictional setting did not limit me to a known set of circumstances. I was able to depict my characters and their actions in a historically-accurate setting but controlled by my imagination.

Benjamin Franklin Yeager is a coal company police officer. He does his best to follow orders while trying to be fair to the workers whose lot he sees as little different from his own. Despite his efforts at fairness, Yeager’s job makes him the enemy of the Irish. And that’s the crux of his troubles. For Ben is in love with an Irish girl.

The love interest is central to the story (I prefer to call it the Romeo and Juliet element). But, as one recent reviewer noted, “There are numerous other interesting characters and entertaining subplots that not only make Ben’s life and decisions more difficult, but create tragedy and sorrow for those already suffering under the oppression of an American feudal system meant to take advantage of the masses by the rich and powerful.”

That clearly spells out the early Irish experience and not just in the coal region.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

A Prologue is Just a Beginning

I’ve been monitoring a hot and heavy discussion on prologues on one of the writer forums.

The contention has been advanced readers don’t like them and many editors and agents now decline to consider a novel with a prologue.

Personally I find that ridiculous. Why would an author include a prologue if he/she didn’t intend it to be read? A prologue is defined as a preface, an introduction to a story, providing background or other details essential to the tale. The narrative device has been in use at least since the time of Euripides, who is sometimes credited with its invention.

There are two valid reasons for having a prologue. One is to provide backstory without resorting to flashbacks or other devices which might bog down succeeding chapters. The other is to provide a hook for the reader and target toward which the rest of the book is directed.

Many writers will tell you both goals can be achieved in a first chapter and therefore a prologue is unnecessary. Generally a prologue relates to events before the novel begins. It’s an introduction set apart from the rest of the novel by time and/or viewpoint. To me that does not always make for an effective first chapter.

Prologues have been used since the beginning of the novel. Willa Cather begins “Death Comes for the Archbishop” with a prologue, as did Kenneth Follett with “The Pillars of the Earth.” Peter Matthiessen employs one in “Lost Man’s River” and Umberto Eco in “The Name of the Rose.”

They are most efficient in mysteries and science fiction. Some examples in the former genre might be Ian Rankin’s “Dead Souls,” Elizabeth George’s “A Place of Hiding” or Patricia Cornwell’s “Cruel and Unusual.”

Admittedly, not all prologues are equal. Many great novels dispense with them. But they are generally brief and I see no sensible reason for not reading one.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Speaking in Strange Tongues

Americans have long been xenophobic when it comes to language.

This is apparent in Benjamin Franklin’s warning about German “aliens” who he feared would gain prominence over the English-speaking populace:
“And since Detachments of English from Britain sent to America, will have their Places at Home so soon supply'd and increase so largely here; why should the Palatine Boors [Germans] be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.” (Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind, 1751).
The same attitude is repeated in Teddy Roosevelt’s comment that “We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language.”
And we see it now in the outcry against alleged catering to Hispanic immigrants in the use of dual language signage. Despite these fears, studies prove English is not threatened. As has been the case in the past, most children and grandchildren of immigrants do become proficient in English. What is less known is that a higher degree of bilingualism exists today than in the past. And that is a good thing.
An ironic aspect of the English-first proponents is that few of them have ever tried learning another language or, if they had, gave it up as too difficult.
I grew up in a place which was enriched by its many immigrants. In my father’s time the children learned English in school and became the translators for their parents who often only learned enough to get by on their jobs. Through socialization with these families my father acquired a smattering of German, Italian and Polish. By my generation, many of the grandchildren no longer spoke the native language of their families. Even the native German dialect of my paternal ancestors is now a dying language.
Aristotle taught language is intrinsic to man and the foundation of society. Though there is much speculation on the evolution of language, science seems to support its value in the creation of sophisticated social structures. “Perhaps of all the creations of man language is the most astonishing,” said Lytton Strachey. We who are writers should love the very fact of language, since one of its primary purposes was the telling of stories.

Samuel Johnson said, “We would not be at the trouble to learn a language, if we could have all that is written in it just as well in a translation.” True, but reading Don Quixote in translation is not quite the same experience as reading it in the language of Cervantes. As Voltaire put it: “The first among languages is that which possesses the largest number of excellent works.”