Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Domestic Violence Deaths as Public Health Crisis

White House Staff Secretary Rob Porter recently failed to get a security clearance and was forced out because of evidence of physical abuse of two ex-wives and a girlfriend. Porter did not fit the stereotype that many people have of "wife beaters" as low-status, drunken products of abusive environments. He was a successful, attractive, Harvard-educated scion of good family. I think Porter's long escape from scrutiny reflects to some extent a denial about the frequency and seriousness of domestic violence. But there's a reason mystery writers rarely use spousal abuse in their murder puzzles; it's too common for a challenging plot. There's a reason fictional and real police investigators of female homicides put the husband or boyfriend at the top of the list of suspects. The real mystery of domestic violence is how little priority it is given as a "public health problem." Domestic violence isn't garnering terrifying headlines like mass shootings, but it takes more lives each year. A 2017 report by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) showed that about 50% of the female homicides were killed by intimate partners, and the vast majority of those were carried out by a male partner (98%). This female-murder-by-partner epidemic affects all races and ethnic groups as well, per the report. Yet this is not a completely intractable social problem. Consider that, in 10% of cases, violence in the month before the killing provided an opportunity for intervention. First responders could assess risk factors for violence to "facilitate immediate safety planning and to connect women with other services, such as crisis intervention and counseling, housing, medical and legal advocacy," suggests the report. And when it comes to weapons of domestic partner murder, more than half involved firearms and 20% involved some sort of blade. Thus, the report points out, statutes limiting firearm access for people who are under domestic violence restraining orders also could help reduce the risk of homicide. For more CDC data, see https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/07/21/538518569/cdc-half-of-all-female-murder-victims-are-killed-by-intimate-partners

Friday, February 2, 2018

In the Headlines: Kids Shooting Kids at School

There have been a couple of headline stories recently about K-12 school shootings involving minor shooters (a 15-year-old Kentucky boy and 12-year-old L.A. girl). School violence is always disturbing, but the idea of school children shooting each other is especially upsetting. I began to wonder just how common it really was and what steps at prevention we could take short of armed guards. I found some interesting research by Everytown for Gun Safety on K-12 shootings between 2013 and 2015. In that period, an average of two school shootings took place at K-12 schools each month, and, among the shootings in which the age of the shooter was known, 56% (39 of 70) were perpetrated by minors under age 18. Before parents of elementary-school children begin looking askance at their child's classmates, note that it is still rare for a child under the age of 14 to kill anyone, and especially rare for that homicide to take place at school. Approximately 74 children under age 14 commit murder in the United States each year, per other 2017 research. This is less than 1% of all homicide perpetrators. The majority (90%) are boys between the ages of 11 and 14. However, 75% of the time, the child kills someone older, not a school classmate. The older victim/victims are most often relatives (usually a parent or grandparent), adults shot during the commission of crime (usually a robbery or break-in), or victims killed in gang violence. But even one incident of a kid shooting up a school is one tragedy too many. How do we protect children from armed children? The research shows that children's access to guns is a big part of the problem. Guns are the weapon of choice for all child school shooters, about 60% of the time, per Everytown. When the source of the gun was known, more than half of young shooters obtained the gun at home—often because an adult did not store it locked and unloaded. Also, nearly one in six of Everytown's studied school shootings occurred after a confrontation or verbal argument intensified because of the presence of a gun, rather than in spite of it. In fact, the surprise is that more violence does not occur at schools given the common presence of guns on school grounds. A survey by the U.S. Department of Education found that, during the 2009-2010 school year, one in every 30 K-12 schools took serious disciplinary action against at least one student for use or possession of a firearm on school property. For more school shooting research, see https://everytownresearch.org/reports/analysis-of-school-shootings/

Monday, January 29, 2018

We're Still Afraid of Virginia Woolf

Last week marked the 136th anniversary of the birth of author Virginia Woolf, and it was noted by numerous newspaper articles and even an iconic sketch by Google. As the #MeToo and Time's Up movements step up to podiums, and powerful men's sexual abuses--in entertainment, politics, media and sports--grab headlines, it's not surprising that Woolf is suddenly accorded politically correct kudos (just a century late). Woolf was a pioneer of the stream-of-consciousness style of fiction in works like Mrs. Dalloway, a keen observer of society and art in her essays, and a member of the legendary Bloomsbury Group of British intellectuals that included economist John Maynard Keynes and writer E.M. Forster. But I would guess that she is receiving renewed attention now because of her feminism and her long essay A Room of One's Own, where she posited "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction," arguing that social and financial dependence prevent women from reaching their potential. As a result, "for most of history, Anonymous was a woman," she wrote. Certainly, women have made many strides since Woolf's birth in 1882 and her death in 1941 (a suicide). Yet gender discrimination and harassment continue because, as it turns out, intellectual emancipation via education, financial emancipation via the workplace, and legal emancipation via the courts are only the first rungs on the long ladder to equality and respect. The next step is political power, which requires a feminizing of boardrooms, legislatures and leadership. The surge in women running for political office in 2018 shows that this realization is taking hold. And then there must be a social emancipation, an acceptance of new rules and values by men and women at every level. The public #MeToo furor over sexual misconduct is just the first wave in a long battle to change hearts and minds. The fact that Virginia Woolf has been dusted off and honored as a "woman writer" and "feminist" pioneer just proves how far we still have to go. Great art, great ideas and great character are without gender. For some of Woolf's more quotable thoughts, see https://www.brainyquote.com/authors/virginia_woolf

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Authors Turn Journalists Into Murder Sleuths

The other evening I enjoyed watching the movie "The Post," about The Washington Post and the drama of the "Pentagon Papers" publication (you can't beat Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks), and it brought back memories of my own early years in newspaper journalism. Frankly, journalists are rightfully observers and recorders rather than participants in murder investigations, but authors of mystery fiction have created some great series starring reporter sleuths. There is Bruce da Silva's Liam Mulligan, an old-school newspaper reporter who debuts in Rogue Island, winner of the 2011 Edgar Award for best first novel, as he races to find the arsonist who is destroying lives in his hometown of Providence, RI. Best-selling author Allison Brennan's protagonist Maxine Revere is an investigative reporter driven to solve cold murder cases, and the series launches with Notorious, in which Max returns to old haunts to attend the funeral of a troubled high school friend once accused of an unsolved murder. Brenda English has created Sutton McPhee, a Washington, D.C., newspaper writer. The first in the series, Corruption of Faith, finds McPhee drawn into a murder case involving her own sister. There are also non-series journalist sleuths from some of my favorite authors, such as Sandra Brown, Harlan Coben and Fiona Davis. Brown's Seeing Red features TV journalist Kerra Bailey seeking an exclusive interview with the reclusive hero of a Dallas hotel bombing, only to be attacked by mysterious assailants. In Coben's Caught, reporter Wendy Tynes is making a name televising stings of sexual offenders when a male social worker walks into the trap, and old crimes and complex motives are revealed by the master of the plot twist. Finally, The Dollhouse by Davis is the haunting tale of a present-day journalist ferreting out the old, dark secrets of New York City's glamorous Barbizon Hotel for Women, where a generation of aspiring career women clawed for success in the 1950s. For more journalists in mystery/thriller fiction, see https://www.barnesandnoble.com/b/books/detective-fiction/detective-fiction-journalists/_/N-29Z8q8Z16gs

Monday, January 8, 2018

Start the New Year With New Mysteries

January can be a frigidly bleak start to the new year, but it's also a great month to stay cozily indoors enjoying the year's first crop of mystery debuts. For fans of J.D. Robb's Detective Eve Dallas, and her sexy husband Roarke, January brings a 46th entry in the Robb series: Dark in Death. A young woman is murdered with an ice pick during a screening of Hitchcock’s "Psycho" (during the most appropriate scene), and Dallas soon finds a link between the murder and a recent strangulation—with both deaths echoing scenes written by an author of procedural thrillers. Every mother's nightmare propels the tense Two Girls Down by Louisa Luna: Single mother Jamie Brandt leaves her 8- and 10-year-old daughters in the car for a few minutes while she buys a birthday present, and returns to find they've vanished. Brandt's sister enlists tough-as-nails bounty hunter Alice Vega to find the girls, and, when the police resist her help, Alice teams up with a disgraced former cop named Max Caplan. If you want to tap into marital nightmares instead, January offers a twisty psychological thriller in The Wife by Alafair Burke. After a tragic past, Angela is enjoying a quiet life with her son when she meets and marries Jason. Several years later, Jason’s writing career takes off and puts the family in an uncomfortable spotlight as several women make troubling accusations against Jason, and Angela realizes she may not know her husband as well as she thinks. Finally, for a dark exploration of how family legacies can shape us (and destroy us), read A Map of the Dark by Karen Ellis. When a teenage girl named Ruby disappears under mysterious circumstances, FBI agent Elsa Myers takes the case even though she’s already struggling with a dying father and dysfunctional family. As Ruby’s case unfolds, it stirs up long-buried secrets, and Elsa’s own painful history threatens to derail her investigation and her life. For a list of more mysteries and thrillers ahead in 2018, see https://www.amazon.com/Mystery-Coming-Soon-Thriller-Suspense/s?ie=UTF8&page=1&rh=n%3A10457%2Cp_n_publication_date%3A1250228011

Thursday, January 4, 2018

True Crime, or Fact Stranger Than Fiction

We're in an era when the lines between fact and fiction, truth and falsehood (alternative facts for some), seem more blurred than usual. When it comes to murder, the fictional tale is certainly easier to swallow, with mysteries solved, with good and evil clearly delineated, and with resolution cathartic and triumphant. On the other hand, the best of the true crime genre, going beyond prurient and sensational tabloid fare, exposes disturbing realities and forces readers to consider tough questions involving family, society and justice--often without clear answers. Consider Kate Summerscale's The Wicked Boy: The Mystery of a Victorian Child Murderer, winner of the 2017 Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime Book. In 1895, Robert Coombes (age 13) and his brother Nattie (age 12) kill their mother and go on a 10-day spree--eating at coffee houses, visiting the seaside and attending the theater. When their mother's decomposed body is finally discovered in an upstairs bedroom, Robert coolly confesses to stabbing her, while Nattie takes a plea and gives evidence against his brother. In his insanity defense, the court hears testimony about Robert's severe headaches, his fascination with violent criminals, and his passion for "penny dreadful" pulp fiction violence. He seems to feel no remorse, his laughing courtroom demeanor chills, and neither the prosecution nor the defense can find a motive. He is sentenced to Broadmoor, the infamous criminal lunatic asylum. Released as an adult, he moves to Australia and joins the army during World War I, becoming a band leader and stretcher-bearer, and earning medals for his courage under fire. He also later informally adopts a neighbor’s child when he sees the child abused. The journey from child killer to wartime hero is one of the tale's great mysteries, certainly unimaginable by Victorian theories about the "Wicked Boy." Another impressive fact crime book about the same time period is The Devil in the White City by Eric Larson, intertwining the story of the architect of Chicago's 1893 World’s Fair with one of the earliest serial killers, contrasting harbingers of our "modern" age. I also loved Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, a Southern Gothic murder set in Savannah, GA, high society. And of course, there's In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, the 1966 classic that launched the genre with an exploration of a family massacred in a small Kansas town and the dark hearts of two killers, a great read even if later criticized for sacrificing factual truth to storytelling truth. For more examples of top true crime writing, see https://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/industry-news/tip-sheet/article/73638-the-10-best-true-crime-books.html

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Holiday Merriment Via Bad Sex in Fiction Award

I usually blog about mystery or thriller writing, but during the holiday season, the dark side of human nature just seems an inappropriate topic. Luckily, even serious fiction can create light moments, especially when authors struggle (and fall) in coming up with new ways to describe sex scenes. So for some holiday merriment, I'll pass along excerpts from the annual Bad Sex in Fiction Award, established back in 1993 by London's Literary Review. The 2017 winner is American author Christopher Bollen for The Destroyers and a scene in which protagonist Ian describes his male equipment as a "billiard rack," creating some confusion over how many balls were involved. In the same scene, Bollen describes the female love interest's skin as "tan like water stains in a bathtub," which is erotic only for those who like their love action a tad grimy. The runner-up nominees include The Seventh Function of Language by Prix Goncourt winner Laurent Binet, who calls a felating female a "mouth-machine" and has a male lover whisper "with an authority that he has never felt before: 'Let’s construct an assemblage.'" The purpose of the award is to "draw attention to poorly written, perfunctory or redundant passages of sexual description in modern fiction," hopefully to inspire writers to do better.  Alas, every year there are still plenty of nominees! For more laughable, cringeworthy or simply baffling excerpts from 2017's nominees, see http://www.newsweek.com/bad-sex-writing-fiction-award-2017-728981

— just wasn’t written badly enough, calling the sex "very discreet".