“…down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid.” Raymond Chandler.

This is the detective fiction I’m talking about. Where something deep within the American psyche hungers for the solitary individual who struggles against all odds.

What’s strange about this is the depth of that emotional desire. This, despite the mythology which underlies it. And it really is a myth. Our country was not formed by individual good guys taking on the bad. Our history has never been one against the many—though we’ve always been more than willing to position ourselves as the “white hats.” I mean, we were just helping Native Americans who refused the “American Way” and therefore defined who they were as the “enemy” in order to virtually exterminate them.

And really, we were just making our country the way it was supposed to be when we bought, sold, enslaved, and slaughtered defenseless Black people. Hey, they were only worth three fifths of a white. Good versus less than human, right?

And the more one reads about The Pinkerton Detective Agency, the less one can believe in honorable detectives struggling against “bad guys.” Hell, for the most part they were the bad guys.

Even our war history is one of aggression and usurpation of other peoples’ lands. Just ask Mexico. Plus, during the First and Second World wars we rode the back of the wave while other countries took the major hits. Hardly the brave society leading the way down those mean streets.





World War 2 Total Deaths (Approximate):
Soviet Union 23,954,000
China           15,000,000
Germany       7,728,000
Poland          5,720,000
Japan           2,700,000
India             2,087,000
Yugoslavia    1,027,000
Rumania          833,000
Hungary           580,000
France             567,600
Greece            560,000
Italy                 456,000
Great Britain    449,800
United States   418,500

So really, detective fiction (of the kind I write, and am writing about here) has a whole lot less to do with who we are than a romanticized fantasy of who we would like to be.

So how the hell does a detective fiction writer create a strong, believable reality which, at its heart, is just a fairytale? Obviously a ton has to do with a believable plot that keeps a reader turning pages. But, at least in my thinking, plot, while critical, is only one factor in the creation of something out of nothing. It takes more to fashion a readable authenticity that feels like the honest present, but emerges from a myth.

For me that begins with the major character. In my Matt Jacob series, that’s of course Matt. But for detective fiction to be experienced as real, the other characters have to be recognizable as well. Too many false notes in any of the book’s personalities trash the suspension of belief which is absolutely necessary to maintain interest. Kinda like spotting a fly in the ice cube of your bourbon. Ruins the moment—and the drink.

So we got plot, lead character, other characters. And there’s more.

Relationships. Despite the popular misconception that mysteries (or genre books in general) occupy a lower rung on literature’s ladder, I think writing honestly about relationships is critical for any novel. And especially for those books that are considered “throwaways.” In fact, I sometimes wonder whether the sloppiness about relationships that often exist within many genre novels is the reason people don’t take them seriously. Which is a damn shame. Because great writers in any genre write great books. Including Romance. And there’s more.

A sense of “place.” Not for nothing is the best of the best detective fiction located in an area (usually a city) that is an actual one (with or without accurate street names and neighborhoods), or one that feels absolutely real. If a reader can’t imagine the place in which the book’s characters reside, they just won’t believe anything else about the novel. Why should they? (An aside—Richard Russo, a contemporary author (not a detective fiction or mystery writer) is exquisite when it comes to defining “place.” I urge anyone who wants to learn how to make a town or area sing with a life of its own to read his work. He’s just that good). If someone can’t “see” where the characters live or how they interact with their environment, a major building block of any story is terribly compromised. Nothing that any serious author wants.

When I look at this post everything I’ve written seems pretty elemental and basic. But like everything else, the devil is in the details and it’s the writer’s responsibility to create those human details that allow for the reader to ignore our actual reality and engage and believe in the detective fiction myth. Not too different than “literature” is it?

At least half the mystery novels published violate the law that the solution, once revealed, must seem to be inevitable. Raymond Chandler


I mean, come on! Did we honestly believe we had any real privacy since J. Edgar first came to power in 1919, led the Palmer Raids and named future Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter “the most dangerous man in the United States” for, among other things, founding the ACLU?

Did we honestly believe we had any real privacy after we learned the FBI spied on Dr. King and every other civil rights leader and follower? Infiltrated virtually every Vietnam anti-war organization? Photographed people who attended any other type demonstration? Or, collected personal data on those who protested military and corporate recruitment on college campuses?

Those of us who requested our personal files through the Freedom of Information Act and noticed the multiple redactions certainly knew privacy’s limitations.

It’s never been just Spy vs. Spy; it’s always been spy on all of us.

And even more so after the Internet jumped out to meet us and we climbed right aboard. Where the information superhighway allows data to streak throughout the world and where countries’ boundaries are virtually meaningless. Sure, there were encryptions designed to keep your stuff private, but we all knew they were a joke. Easily broken, even the most sophisticated programs. Still, we sent (and send) emails to each other detailing the most private parts of our lives. We open accounts in banks without walls. We use credit cards to buy shit from stores we’ve never seen and don’t even exist in the “real” world.

Then along came social media and we all announced to our “friends” and anyone else who really wanted to know, what we ate, drank, what music we listened to along with our personal politics, opinions, and attitudes.

And people are getting upset because their calls are being recorded, our privacy invaded? We gave our privacy away decades ago but now we’re shocked? Puh-lease.

Where was all that shock when we allowed the government to pass the Patriot Act? We volunteered to forego our civil liberties in the name of security. Or, the awe when the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act passed—fully equipped with its own secret court?

Secret fucking courts! That’s not what I believe democracy or patriotism is about.

Yes, we’ve been told that these more recent anti-democratic policies begun by President Bush after 9/11 and reauthorized multiple times since have thwarted a number of terrorist plots. Can anyone reading this post name or describe any of these plots? I mean, if they were thwarted, what possible harm would be caused by publicly telling us about them now? Unless of course it’s bullshit.

You all know the list of anti-democratic freedoms we have relinquished in the name of terror since 9/11 and the only reason the shit’s hit the fan now is we’ve discovered the scale to which Big Brother has applied the laws to which we quietly acquiesced.

Did anyone actually believe that Verizon and other telephone and internet carriers would refuse to bend over the chair when the government came calling? This angst and dram is a piss-poor excuse for our refusal to allow these un-American acts to pass and wend their way throughout our society, institutions, and mentality.

So what is going to be done about the fact that we’ve delivered our phone calls (and now the newest travesty, our DNA) into the hands of Big Brother? The ACLU will bring its lawsuits, maybe a few members of Congress will bitch and moan, and the media will express outrage as long as it garners viewers. In other words, nothing.

So let’s make a deal. Collect whatever the fuck you want, whenever you want, but unless the government can prove that any information it has will directly place a person in danger, all their records ought to be available to the public. Completely available. If our government wants to know all about me, then I want to know about each and every part of what they are doing. What’s good for the goose…

I know the naysayers will argue the government would be unable to conduct its business if everybody knew everything. But we did just fine after Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers, Woodward and Bernstein exposed Watergate, when Seymour Hersh disclosed the C.I.A.’s massive domestic spying. In fact, many would argue that we did better.

But we learned nothing. Actually, that’s not true. We learned to genuflect to a government (and I mean every administration I’ve lived through) and passively allow them to do it to us all over–again and again. This isn’t what I thought the phrase “what goes around, comes around” meant.

So, let’s demand the release of every government document that does not put a human life in direct danger. And, if it’s found that someone held back information when nobody was in harm’s way, well, then it’s time to open the jail cell doors.

I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.

City of Light

(Thank you, Sherri Frank Mazzotta for stepping in while I practiced for my music recital. Greatly appreciated!!)

This is the “City of Light,” the “most romantic city in the world.” But we may never see any of it if we can’t get out of the airport. First, we have to figure out how to buy train tickets from the ticket machines. We’re tired and cranky from the overnight flight. Hungry. And just want to get to our hotel. This is how our vacation begins.

The lines for the machines are long, and the instructions written only in French. When it’s our turn to insert a credit card, the machine advises us to do two things, neither of which we can understand. There are no staff to assist; no strangers willing to interpret. We push buttons, move levers, but no tickets appear. With the crowd seething behind us, we finally move to a longer line—to buy tickets from an agent at a window.

“Let’s just take a taxi,” he says.

But I shake my head. “The traffic in Paris is horrible. It’ll take us twice as long.”

“I don’t care.”

I say, “No.”

He looks angry, and I pretend not to notice.

We buy our tickets, ride the train into downtown, and finally arrive at our hotel.

It’s a beautiful building on the Left Bank. Our room is on the top floor overlooking shops and cobblestone streets. I’m eager to shower, find food, and explore the city. I’d been here years ago in my 20s and was excited to be back. But he’s talking about a nap and taking our time and it’s all I can do not to scream.

This is our vacation, after all, and we’re supposed to be having fun.

It’s late afternoon by the time we get outside again, and hotter than it should be in September. We’re still in a haze from jet lag, making our way through thick crowds of people. The sun seems too bright; the cars move too quickly on the narrow streets. We pass cafés and tabacs and creperies, but can’t decide where to eat. We’re timid; dizzy with hunger, but daunted by the chalkboard menus scribbled with words I’d never learned in high school French classes. When we finally choose a café and order food, it’s a relief. But the food is mediocre, unsatisfying, and I somehow feel defeated.

Afterwards, we take a cruise down the Seine on a bâteaux-mouches. Quietly, we study the monuments and museums along the quays of the winding green river. A woman approaches us with an armful of roses. She nods at the flowers, then at us, but my companion tells her “no.” She looks at me with pity.

We disembark from the boat but walk in the wrong direction. Turning a corner, we end up near a stone wall where a woman sits astride a man, kissing him passionately. I smile, it’s so quintessentially French; so perfectly clichéd. Still, I’m embarrassed. Envious. I think, this is what we’re supposed to be feeling in Paris, isn’t it? But I know that’s just a romantic fantasy; no more real than Doisneau’s famous photo of a couple kissing. As the sun sets, we head back to our room, too tired to do more. It’s only our first night, I think. We have time.

We sleep nearly nine hours and wake up feeling energized. We tour the Cathedral Notre Dame. Browse books in the stalls along the Seine. Walk through the Luxembourg Gardens. Our dinner that night is decadent, delicious. We leave the restaurant feeling woozy and relaxed. We’d had a good day.

We have other good days, too. But by mid-week, he realizes he’s getting sick. We can’t find a drugstore or anything even close to Nyquil. He gets grumbly. I feel annoyed that he’s sick, and then guilty for being annoyed.

Still, we head out to the Louvre with thousands of other people to stare at a surprisingly small Mona Lisa. We search for Jim Morrison’s grave in the Père Lachaise cemetery. Eat éclairs at a patisserie. We end each night early, heading back to our hotel to read in bed. Part of me is disappointed, because I’d hoped we’d be out at wine bars or the Moulin Rouge. Though I tell myself it’s because he’s not feeling well, I know it’s something more: Somehow, over the years, we’d lost our sense of adventure.

As the week goes on, things get worse. He doesn’t like the Metro, doesn’t feel safe on it, and wants to take taxis everywhere. This infuriates me more than it should.

We used to travel well together, and I don’t know when that changed; when this low-grade irritation began to buzz inside my head, inside my heart. Not just while we were on vacation, but most of the time. I’m not enjoying myself, I realize. And neither is he.

Our fury comes to a head at the Eiffel Tower, when I want to wait in line to see the view from up above, and he doesn’t.

“Can you wait down here?” I ask. “Or back at the hotel?” 

Instead, he begrudgingly gets in line with me. It’s humid. The line is long and moving slowly. I try to make jokes, to point out interesting things about the Tower, but he’s silent and miserable. It starts to rain, and we don’t have an umbrella.

“This sucks,” he says, “I don’t want to do this.”

“Go back to the hotel,” I say again. But he won’t.

We press into the elevator with what seems like hundreds of people, and it takes us to the first level of the Tower. It’s cloudy and difficult to see—though I’m no longer excited to see anything. Couples hold hands and wrap arms around each other. Kids smile as they peer out into the distance. There’s barely room to stand. I look at him, but he refuses to look back.

Afterwards, it takes an hour to return to our hotel. Now that it’s over he’s talking again, thinking about dinner. But I’m worn out; choked with unspoken anger. This is our vacation, after all, and we’re supposed to be having fun.

Days later, we head back to the States. I stare out the window as our plane lifts off, relieved but saddened by the undeniable truth that nothing lasts forever.

“Life is very short and what we have to do must be done in the now.”


(Once again legal columnist Harry K. has graced these pages with another insightful story. Thank you, Harry.)

Powerless, hopeless people sometimes overcompensate for those feelings with anger and rage the court system generally does not tolerate, let alone understand. I learned this from Juanita fairly early in my career of representing poor people accused of criminal activities.

Juanita took $400 worth of merchandise from Filene’s Basement. She admitted her guilt and was placed on probation with a sentence of 60 days in jail if she screwed up. It should have been easy, but for Juanita, it was anything but.

Just a month shy of finishing probation, Juanita was driving her jalopy out to a decidedly white part of Boston in order to braid a friend’s hair. A police officer saw her approaching the parking lot at a “high rate of speed.” He followed her, watched her legally park the car, and then pulled in behind. She was already halfway to her friend’s door when the officer stopped her to request a license and registration. Juanita’s temporary license was at her mother’s. She knew that being stopped without having it might be cause for a problem, so she asked the officer “What for?” in what was probably not a particularly respectful tone–if her voice in the retelling was any indication.

“You were going a little fast back there.”

The cop said Juanita shoved him. Juanita denied it. The cop said he tried to arrest her and she “flailed her arms” screaming all the while. Juanita denied it. The cop said it took two officers to arrest her and that she shoved the second officer too. Juanita denied it.

Juanita was unable to meet with me in advance of her probation violation hearing so we met in the hallway of the courthouse and talked for some time about what had occurred. In the course of our conversation I realized that there was a problem with dates. The police report of the incident said that Juanita shoved the officers on June 9, but the document giving her notice of the probation violation said that she had committed an assault and battery on a police officer on June 10. It turns out there was another police report for another incident on June 10. It involved the same cop and the same parking lot. Supposedly, Juanita had tried to run him down with her jalopy. She was not arrested or charged, but it could NOT have been a charge of assault and battery on a police officer as recited on the notice. So which was it? The notice said the right date but the wrong offense or, the right offense on the wrong date. These due process defects were going to be my reasons to request a continuance.

I started to explain my thinking but she went on and on about how she hadn’t done anything wrong. I told her I believed and understood her, but it was not something I needed to tell the judge at the hearing. I explained that I would ask for a dismissal, but we could really only hope for some more time (during which one hope, among others, would be that she would demonstrate good reasons for not being sent to jail for 60 days). Her back stiffened, her speech switched from play-by-play to color commentary about what had happened. She was especially mad because I was going to argue a legal point rather than telling the judge that she had done nothing wrong and was a good person.

Suddenly she said, “I don’t want you representing me no more. If you ain’t gonna tell the judge I didn’t do nothing wrong, I just don’t want you.” I apologized, realizing that enthusiasm for my own agenda had overshadowed my client’s need to be heard.

“Juanita, I’m sorry, I will tell the judge whatever you want me to, so long as it does not hurt your case.”

She had me practice what she wanted me to say in front of her. “No, no, you ain’t saying it right. You ain’t saying I didn’t do nothing wrong!”

To borrow a term from the police report, she flailed her arms. “You gotta tell ‘em that other charge (she had been charged with hitting a cop several years before) was bullshit and was dismissed.” I, though, didn’t think it should mentioned at all.

“Who ARE you, anyway? Are you my lawyer or what? I want you to tell ‘em that wasn’t nothing and I ain’t done nothing and this here is bullshit too! And you know what? I want another damn lawyer!”

I tried capitulation, cajoling, both to no avail.

Juanita shook her head and walked away waving dismissively, “Yeah, yeah.”

The cop arrived and Juanita approached him in the hall, hand on hip, head cocked to the side. “Did you say I hit you? DID you?” I told her not to speak to the officer. She said, “I’m just asking him a question, I can do THAT, can’t I?”

She had a point.

Her case was called and I moved to withdraw as her lawyer. The judge asked Juanita if that was what she wanted. She hesitated almost imperceptibly, but then said, “I don’t want HER no more, that’s for damn sure.”

A new attorney was appointed and the judge gave him a date to return for a hearing– just one week later. Juanita had apparently liked my plan of getting much more time, because she went ballistic. Her arms truly flailing now, she started yelling, “NO, NO, NO. I want another date. I have two kids. I can’t be here then, I need another fucking date man, this is more bullshit!”

The judge simply said, “Take her into custody.”

Juanita calmed slightly and said, “Ahh, what the fuck. Shit man, okay, okay.” Ramping up again and worried she might not be able to reach her new attorney from jail, Juanita yelled to the assembly, “Don’t I get no piece of paper or nothing? Fucking shit ass bullshit motherfuckers!”

My briefcase was packed and I headed for the door. I heard her shout “Raggedy ass BITCH!” I hoped she was yelling at her probation officer so I kept walking away chagrined, but grateful to Juanita for an important lesson learned. If I planned to remain in this line of work, I’d better learn to listen to my clients–even if their powerlessness speaks with rude profanity.

“The greatest oak was once a little nut who held its ground….”