Monday, September 17, 2018

STOUT READING!


I devour books, in all forms. Most of them in their print version, which may surprise some people who have labeled me an apologist for all things Amazon and Kindle-ish. But I am an unregenerate library rat.

The city where I live, Naples, FL, has the best library system I’ve ever seen. The Headquarters Library is housed in a building that resembles the Alamo (pre-Santa Anna), and there are more branches in town than Publix supermarkets, which as anyone in Florida knows, seems impossible.

As a thriller and mystery writer myself, I’m always looking for inspiration, so I recently grabbed some Nero Wolfe mysteries. Addictive? Think Hershey’s Kisses or N.C.I.S.

I don’t know why I picked up Might As Well Be Dead, my first Wolfe. I didn’t even know much about the author, Rex Stout, who sounds like a star of silent Westerns, but is in reality one of the finest mystery writers this, or any country, has ever produced. After finishing Might, I rushed out to get the first two Nero Wolfes, Fer-De-Lance and The League of Frightened Men, published in 1934 and 1935, respectively. Both are superb and created a huge splash back then.

Nero Wolfe as a character is, well, a character. He is a huge man, fond of orchids, beer and gourmet food. He regularly humiliates cops and prosecutors, solving crimes that always stump them. He rarely leaves his New York brownstone, delegating the necessary footwork to a band of retainers led by Archie Goodwin, a tough, street-wise private eye with a nose for trouble, an eye for the ladies and a penchant for milk and cookies.

Goodwin, who freely trades insults with his boss, but considers him a deductive genius, narrates the novels, and is often astonished by Wolfe’s ability to solve a case by collating a series of apparently random clues brought to him by his employees. (Example: A woman’s brother is missing; she asks Wolfe for help. A prominent man dies of an apparent heart attack on a posh golf course. The brother also turns up dead, miles away. From a newspaper ad that no one else noticed, Wolfe deduces that both men were murdered by the same man. He’s right. Of course. And you won’t believe what one of the murder weapons was. The cops didn’t, and eat crow after Wolfe forces them to dig up one of the bodies!)

Despite references to the Lindbergh Kidnapping, Lynn Fontaine, roadsters, newspapers (remember them?) and the like, the early Nero Wolfes are eminently modern in approach and style. The prose is remarkable and literate, the banter between characters priceless, the plots fascinating and full of surprises.      

Rex Stout’s own life reads like fiction. He was a Navy yeoman on Teddy Roosevelt’s Presidential yacht as a young man before deciding on a writing career! While he is best known for his Nero Wolfes (33 novels and 39 novellas between 1934 and 1975), he also wrote a gazillion other things (poems, magazine pieces, other novels and the like) and was an intellectual leader in the battle against Hitler, becoming a radio celebrity.

I would urge everyone to Google his accomplishments and awards, especially if they, like me, sometimes need their egos deflated. How I ignored Stout for so long is a source of supreme embarrassment. This is an author that Boucheron, the world’s largest mystery convention, anointed as the best mystery writer of the 20th Century.

Monday, September 10, 2018

YOU CAN LOOK (OR MAKE) IT UP!




It is a given among many thriller writers like myself that research is a royal pain in the asterisk. I mean, nothing can ruin a good story like facts can! After all, fiction writers are in the business of making stuff up, right?

Now, take “virons”. These nasty bits are a combination of viruses and prions. They are so small it takes millions of them to get through the eye of a needle, after the camel. They kill camels, humans, fish, asparagus – anything you can think of.

And they don’t exist.

I made them up, and they wreaked appropriate biological havoc in my thriller, “The Viron Conspiracy”. I’m pretty sure there are people out there who now believe in virons. I’m also pretty sure that someday some scientist with too much time on his or her hands will produce a real viron, which will wipe out the human race and root vegetables before the scientist can even collect a Nobel Prize.

(Just for the record, and to prove that I do look stuff up: a prion is, according to the online Encyclop√¶dia Britannica, “a small proteinaceous infectious disease-causing agent that is believed to be the smallest infectious particle.” Among other things, prions can cause Gertsmann-Straeussler-Scheinker disease, which is as bad as it sounds.)

Writers do need to get some facts right, if only to provide a dash of verisimilitude to their books. I mean, readers get downright nasty if you put the Pacific Ocean in Kansas (unless you are writing a global-warming thriller, that is).  

And, occasionally, research can be enlightening.

Take gun silencers, also known as suppressors, which professional assassins use in many thrillers. But sometimes the good guys need them. I used to agonize over how one of my heroes could obtain one. Not to worry. A quick Internet search revealed that  the following states allow private ownership of suppressors: AL, AR, AK, AZ, CO, CT, FL, GA, ID, IN, KS, KY, LA, ME, MD, MI, MN, MO, MS, MT, ND, NE, NV, NH, NM, NC, OH, OK, OR, PA, SC, SD, TN, TX, UT, VA, VT, WA, WI, WV, and WY. And, as the Internet search revealed, “buying a suppressor is a simple process which generally requires less paperwork than buying a new refrigerator.” (Using refrigerators as a murder weapon is problematic.)

In my home state of Florida, the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission repealed a six-decade-old law that prohibited the use of pistol and rifle suppressors in hunting for deer, gray squirrels, rabbits, wild turkeys, quail, and crows. Now, I’m not an anti-gun or anti-hunting fanatic. I believe honest citizens should be allowed to have guns for self-protection or to take game. I once shot a deer, as a rite of passage, and basically ate everything but the hooves and antlers.

But silencers for squirrels? Are people afraid that a wounded rodent will track down the source of the shots and attack! Isn’t hunting supposed to give animals a chance? A gunshot that misses presumably alerts an animal to the realization that it is probably a good time to beat feet. Can you imagine a hunter who uses a silencer to pick off a flock of turkeys, one by one. Do the other birds see a fowl fall over and think: “Gee, Fred must have had a heart attack; we told him to lay off the stuffing.”

Now, if it’s easy to shoot squirrels with silenced guns, it’s pretty darn easy to shoot people with them. Gee, you could probably go classroom to classroom before anyone noticed.

Maybe that’s why I limit my research. It’s too damn scary.

STOUT READING!

I devour books, in all forms. Most of them in their print version, which may surprise some people who have labeled me an apologist for a...