"Mirror Image" (Poisoned Pen Press) now at your bookseller's.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Pretty much an equal-opportunity Grinch, I find the way holidays are celebrated nowadays to be a disheartening orgy of consumerism, enforced gaiety, and familial anguish. Not to mention the traffic, and the pervasive TV commercials urging the purchase of items we don't need to impress people we don't like. (And, despite the current economic crisis, I, unlike President Bush, don't feel it's a demonstration of patriotism to respond to crises by "going shopping").

All that said, if I have to pick a holiday worth celebrating, I'd pick Thanksgiving. No gifts, no lines at the mall, no months-long build-up of gift expectations and complicated social plans. Basically, Thanksgiving is about eating and watching football, with the culturally-approved nap thrown in.

Seriously, though, I also like the idea of a holiday that's built around gratitude. And while I'm deeply thankful for my family and friends, for good health, and for being born in the time period that saw the invention of microwave popcorn, I think there are a few other things to be grateful for this year. To wit:

1) Barack Obama won the election. As Bill Maher said a few weeks back on his HBO show Real Time with Bill Maher, "seven years after 9/11, we elect for president a black man with a Muslim name." Which is frankly amazing. And only goes to show that, with all its flaws (exacerbated during the painful eight years of the Bush administration), the United States, as a nation and as an idea, still has the capacity to astonish and inspire.

2) Sarah Palin is not our Vice-President in waiting. Yes, I know she's become a media and political superstar, with presidential aspirations for 2012. Yes, I know she's just signed one of those ridiculous book deals for $7 million. (Though, as my friend Garry Shandling remarked, she's probably under the impression that the fee is for reading a book, not writing one.) Yes, I know she's energized the GOP right-wing base (especially those impressed with her ability to shoot and field-dress a moose).

So, okay, she's going to be a splinter in the eye of progressives and moderates in the coming years (though personally, I think there's less chance of her running for president and a greater likelihood that she'll turn to the media, becoming the female Rush Limbaugh)...even if all this is so, we can still give thanks that she didn't make it into the White House. Symbolically, it would have been a disaster for the nation.

Pragmatically, given McCain's age and troubling health issues, it could have meant the possibility of something far, far worse...

3) Tina Fey's impression of Sarah Palin. In direct contradiction to what I wrote above, there was one good thing that came out of Palin's emergence on the national scene, and that was Tina Fey's SNL impression of the V-P candidate. As they say in those Master Card commercials, "Priceless."

4) The New York Times recurrent column featuring a conversation between two of their Op-Ed columnists, David Brooks and Gail Collins. Smart, funny, respectful of differences, their back-and-forth dialogue about the presidential campaign gave hope to those of us who enjoy reasonable people debating about unreasonable things with a degree of reasonableness. If that makes sense.

5) The NFL. Of course, I'm thankful for pro football every year, but never more so than at this time of year, when they stack the games up on the tube, and the only price for this gluttony of gridiron action is relentless truck commercials.

6) IPods. At my age, I'm rarely excited or moved by some new technological marvel, but when my family gave me one of these little touch-activated babies, with which I can down-load all my favorite (read jazz classics and 70's-80's rock) music and then listen to them on earphones...I mean, wow, how long has this been going on? Given how long my family and friends have been urging me to join the 21st century, especially when it comes to technology, and given my self-righteous refusal to share their enthusiasms, it comes as a great surprise to me that I LOVE MY IPOD!!!

7) Those new oatmeal cups at Starbucks. Great idea as the weather turns cool.

8) Writers who still write as if writing matters, including (among many others): Phillip Roth, Toni Morrison, David Rabe, Neil Labute, Ian McEwan, Ron Hansen, Anne Tyler, Annie Proulx, David McCullough, Timothy Ferris, Annie Dillard, and Michael Frayn. (I assure you, dozens more will come to mind minutes after I post this.)

9) Psychoanalytic Dialogues, still the best academic/clinical journal available when it comes to examining the latest thinking in self-psychology and intersubjectivity theory.

10) Did I mention those great new oatmeal cups at Starbucks?

Regardless of what's on your gratitude list, here's hoping you and yours have a safe, happy Thanksgiving.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Guess who supported Prop 8...?

I'm sure I wasn't the only voter who was stunned, outraged and disappointed by the passage last Tuesday of Proposition 8, which bans same-sex marriage in California.

What makes this obviously bigoted, probably illegal and morally repugnant proposition's success even more disturbing is that it was funded by coordinated, out-of-state money, much of which was supplied by the Mormon Church.

Of course, by now everybody knows this. What most of us didn't know, however, was the names of individuals and businesses that donated funds as well. Until now.

In recent days, a Blacklist has been posted online, listing the names of those who gave money in support of Proposition 8. And as heinous as it is for me to see how many names appear on the list, equally disturbing is the reaction of these people and businesses to seeing their names listed.

These donors are, believe it or not, offended that they've been "outed." Why?

Are they under the impression that financial contributions to political causes are supposed to be secret? Don't they support the transparency and open disclosure that are the hallmarks of a democratic society?

In totalitarian countries and dictatorships, which person or organization gave how much money to what cause is hidden, buried in secret files or disguised as something else. But here in the United States, such financial contributions are required by law to be disclosed, and subject to public scrutiny.

On a more personal level, as I perused the list of Prop 8 donors I was dismayed to see how many professional, obviously educated men and women gave money to support blatant discrimination and the abridgement of other Americans' civil rights.

To these people, I'd like to offer this simple lesson, one they should have learned in high school civics. Namely, in this country, people are either equal under the law or they're not.

I'll go one step further: either everybody is, or nobody is. That's the essence of the great American experiment. That's what underlies the hopes of the Founding Fathers.

Which is why they made sure that citizens had the right to assemble, organize and protest. And boycott. Boycott those businesses that donated money, those individuals who supported bigotry and discrimination behind what they wrongfully assumed was the cloak of anonymity.

Usually, money talks. In a boycott, money walks. That's why they're so effective. As a baby-boomer, I remember how effective boycotts were during the civil rights struggle of the late 60s.

As they will be this time around, I'm sure, in repudiating the miscarriage of justice that occurred on Election Day.

Friday, November 14, 2008

The Smart Guys Marching Society

Many readers of my recent collection of mystery short stories, From Crime to Crime, have wondered about the origin of the group of unlikely amateur sleuths who are featured in most of the tales. Calling themselves "The Smart Guys Marching Society," they meet every Sunday afternoon for deli, debate and puzzling out the occasional whodunnits that come their way.

Just so you know, their exploits fall under the category known to most crime fans as "armchair mysteries." That is, they usually take place in one room, in which the clever main character listens to a story told by someone else in attendance, and, based solely on what's been related, solves a baffling crime.

I first fell in love with this style of crime story as a teenager, when I was introduced--alas, not formally--to Agatha Christie. Her "Tuesday Night Club" stories featured a recurring cast of characters who met on the designated night and tried to solve mysterious crimes. As one self-important person after another invariably failed to figure out whodunnit, it remained only for the beloved Miss Marple to shed light on the problem.

Soon after, I learned that Isaac Asimov, usually known for his science fiction works, had also tried his hand at armchair mysteries. His "Black Widowers" stories featured a similar set of erudite, articulate characters—-all men—-who met regularly for elaborate dinners, during which they'd attempt to solve a crime or untangle a puzzle. When they failed to do so—-as they inevitably did—-their patient, long-suffering waiter Henry helpfully provided the answer.

With these classic stories as inspiration, I decided to try doing such a series myself. But I also wanted to bring a modern-day sensibility to the form. "The Smart Guys Marching Society" is the irony-drenched name chosen by four reasonably successful baby-boomers for their weekly Sunday afternoon bull sessions. Embattled males all, with assorted wives and kids and mortgages, they seek to hang onto whatever dignity is left to them in middle age by contentiously debating the issues of the day.

At least, that's what they thought they were going to do. Somehow, though, what they often end up doing instead is solving crimes.

Or rather, trying to solve them. To their surprise, the newest member of the group—-a wry, somewhat mysterious old man named Isaac—-is kind of a whiz at it.

Of course, there's another difference between the Smart Guys stories in From Crime to Crime, and those by Christie and Asimov I mentioned earlier.

Namely, the Smart Guys Marching Society is real.

Many years ago, my friends Mark, Bill, Fred and I met weekly in my house in the San Fernando Valley, north of Los Angeles.

Though other guys joined us for short periods, or even as invited guests, we four made up the core group. As in my short stories—-and for similar, self-deprecating reasons--we called ourselves "The Smart Guys Marching Society." We figured the name would imply that we didn't really think we were all that smart—-which, of course, was exactly what we did think.

Every Sunday, we'd scarf down snacks, drink beer and discuss what Fred invariably called "the big issues."

Trust me, it wasn't as lame as it sounds. Okay, maybe it was.

In any case, there is historical precedent. A similar "conversation group" was formed in 1872 by Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James and John Dewey, among others. (Apparently, even Asimov's stories were vaguely inspired by a men's club of which he was a member.)

Not that I haven't taken some dramatic license in my own stories. For example, the dialogue and interactions among the characters, though loosely based on the attitudes and opinions of the four of us, are entirely fictional. The Fred, Mark and Bill are all, to a man, more intelligent, articulate and reasonable than my narrative needs required. Believe me, they'll be the first to say so.

Even more importantly, the only mystery we ever tried to solve involved a missing tub of artichoke dip.

However, the greatest difference between the real-life Smart Guys and the stories in my book is that there never was an Isaac. Part wish-fulfillment, part tribute to Asimov's tales, part memories of my own beloved grandfather, the Isaac that populates these stories is—-for better or worse--a figment of my imagination.

That said, the book wouldn't exist without the real Smart Guys Marching Society, and the friendship—-hidden under all the bad jokes, endless debate, and high rant—-that grew out of those weekly Sunday get-togethers.

So thanks, guys. I hope I did us justice.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008


As a member of the Mystery Writers of America, this announcement from that organization caught my eye. Though my readers might be interested as well.

Mystery Writers of America to Honor Edgar Allan Poe Society, The Poe House at 2009 Edgar® Awards

November 12, 2008 -- New York, NY: Mystery Writers of America (MWA) has chosen the Edgar Allan Poe Society and The Poe House in Baltimore, Maryland, as the 2009 recipients of the organization's prestigious Raven Award.

To be presented at Mystery Writers of America's 63rd Annual Edgar® Awards Banquet at The Grand Hyatt Hotel in New York City on April 30, 2009, the Raven Award is bestowed by MWA's Board of Directors for outstanding achievement in the mystery field outside the realm of creative writing. Among past recipients of the award are the Library of Congress, Center for the Book, and two United States Presidents – Bill Clinton and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

According to MWA's President Harlan Coben, the dual choice of the Poe Society and the Edgar Allan Poe House is doubly appropriate: "Not only does 2009 mark the anniversary of Edgar Allan Poe's 200th birthday, but Mystery Writers of America has long-considered Poe a patron saint. In fact, the Raven Award, itself, is named after Poe's famous poem, and our Edgar® Awards -- or 'Edgars,' as they're more popularly known -- are awarded annually to authors of distinguished work."

Formed in 1923, the Edgar Allan Poe Society organized an annual series of public programs that included musical settings of Poe's poems, readings from his works, exhibitions of information and memorabilia, and lectures about his life and writings. In 1938, the Poe Society led efforts to save a house in Baltimore where Poe lived from 1833 to 1835. The efforts were successful and a bronze plaque was erected at The Poe House to commemorate the location in 1940. A full restoration of the home began in 1947, proceeding as funds and ingenuity permitted.

The Poe Society provided tours of The Poe House from 1950 until 1977, when responsibility for the museum was assumed by the City of Baltimore. Since 1977, the Poe Society has returned its focus to annual commemorative lectures and associated publications. They continue to maintain a website and respond to as many inquires about Poe's life and works as possible. Each year, the society receives letters from around the world, particularly from school children seeking general guidance for reports and other projects on Poe. The Edgar Allan Poe Society is a non-profit organization with no paid employees, relying purely on voluntary efforts.

"The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore is especially proud to receive the honor of the Raven Award during the bicentennial of Poe's birth," says Jeffrey Savoye, secretary/treasurer of the Poe Society. "Generally, we have been quietly carrying out our mission since 1923, promoting the best information available about Poe's life and works. It is gratifying to find that, occasionally, our efforts do not go unrecognized."

The Poe House is now under the control of Baltimore City's Commission for Historical and Architectural Preservation (CHAP) and continues to provide tours and education at the site.

"I'm honored beyond words to be chosen for such a prestigious award," says Jeff Jerome, curator of Poe House. "For 30 years I've been aggressively promoting the life and works of Eddie and this award has validated these efforts. The first thing I'm planning to do after receiving this award is to visit the Poe Grave and share it with Eddie."

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The EDGAR (and logo) are Registered in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office by the Mystery Writers of America, Inc.



Wednesday, November 5, 2008


...at least it was yesterday. Despite my innate pessimism, fierce dreads and occasional paranoid fantasies involving election fraud, Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States.
Boy, am I ever happy to be wrong...!