Paris, Sept. 2017

I forgot how beautiful and inspiring this city is. The last time I was here was 1985. The train from London was smooth, fast, comfortable and quiet. Here are a few photos.

The view from the roof of my hotel. Paris. Sept. 15. 2017.

Cafe near Montmartre. Sept. 15, 2017

Soft clouds above the Seine on a September afternoon. Sept. 15, 2017

Jardin des Tuileries. Sept. 15, 2017

Strawberries at a Paris market. Sept. 15, 2017. That red is so intense.

Me, in a past life. Sept. 16, 2017. (Louvre, Paris)

Rear of the church on Montmartre. Sept. 15, 2017.

I forget the name of the artist, but these two are his sisters. Louvre, Paris. September 16, 2017.

This looks like the top to a sarcophagus, minus the actual container. The pallbearers, with their downcast faces, are carved in stone.

A stairway inside the Louvre. Note the door in the center that opens out from a private room and leads to nothing. I’ve walked through a few of those in my life. (Sept. 16, 2017)

Sept. 15, 2017

Montmartre – Sept. 15, 2017.

Statues atop the Paris Opera. Sept. 16, 2017.

My hotel is next to the Montmartre Cemetery, so I took a stroll through there after a long day of walking.

 

Statue of a woman in mourning. Montmartre Cemetery. September 16, 2017.

An angel with broken wings prays atop a moldering grave. Time has worn away the tomb’s engravings, and the occupant is unknown.

The woman in this tomb was a dancer and sculptor. This image of love among the monuments of death and remembrance is deeply moving. (Montmartre Cemetery, Sept. 16, 2017)

 

Impala Wins Gold in Reader’s Favorite Book Awards

ReadersFavorite.com announced the winners of their 2017 awards contest yesterday. Impala won the gold medal in the General Mystery category. Here’s a screenshot from the awards page, showing Impala with its alternate cover:

Impala also won first place for genre fiction in the 24th Annual Writer’s Digest competition, and received honors from Amazon.com, IndieReader, and Kirkus.

The writing life can be lonely and isolating, with discouragement at every turn. So it’s nice to get some recognition now and then.

When I finished writing Impala, I sent copies out to a number of reviewers and contests. One of those contests sent me a private review of the book, giving it F’s across the board. (That’s F like on a school report card. F as in Failure.) The reviewer gave it an F for plot, F for characterization, F for originality, and F for the overall quality of the writing. (That last F, by the way, really pissed me off. I taught high school English for a while, and I know what F writing looks like.)

Then one of the book’s first Amazon readers left a scathing two-star review. Try putting a year of work into something and then getting that response.

Having a day job is much easier than writing. At your day job, people don’t walk up to you and say, “Hey, I just took a look at that project you’ve been working on, and boy does it suck! Oh my God! I had no idea how stupid you are.”

In some ways, the reader-writer relationship is like dating. When you hit it off with someone, it feels like magic. And when there’s a gross mismatch and you just can’t connect, it’s awkward and painful.

Many of the things that those first reviewers disliked about the book were singled out for praise by later reviewers. And most readers seem to like the book. I’m thankful for that.

I’m currently waiting for my latest book to come back from the editor. I’ll do some revisions on that, and then I’ll send it out into the world and hold my breath, the way you might just before you go on a blind date. You know that feeling? Anticipation and dread, all mixed together, as you think about all the ways it could go right and all the ways it could go wrong.

The new book is tentatively titled gate 76, and you can read the first chapter here.

You can find Impala on Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, and in the Apple bookstore.

 

The Bestseller Code

The Bestseller Code, by Jodie Archer and Matthew L. Jockers, describes the results of a five year computer analysis of over 20,000 novels. The authors wanted to figure out what differentiates the 500 or so New York Times bestsellers in their corpus from the rest of the titles that didn’t make the bestseller list.

The subtitle, Anatomy of a Blockbuster Novel, describes the book’s goal, which is to describe the common traits of bestsellers, revealing some hidden and unexpected characteristics along the way.  The book does not pretend to offer a formula for writing bestsellers. A similar book in the world of sports might reveal insights into what made Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James such great basketball players, but that doesn’t mean you or I could follow the formula and become the next NBA superstar. This book is a descriptive anatomy, not prescriptive how-to.

The authors use highly-customized Natural Language Processing (NLP) software to analyze thousands of data points within each book, including the frequency of different words and word types, sentence length, which topics appear and with what frequency, and where the emotional high and low points of the plot occur.

One thing you should know about NLP software is that it enables the computer to describe a text, but it does not enable the machine to understand the text. For example, in reading Harry Potter, NLP software will point out that virtually every paragraph that mentions Voldemort is full of words that express negative sentiment (words like evil, terrible, fearful, etc.). From this, the software can infer that Voldemort is the villain. However, NLP software does not understand what it reads the way a human does. It cannot answer complex questions like, “How does Mrs. de Winter’s understanding of her world change when Maxim says, I never loved her?”

Most of Archer and Jockers’ findings make perfect sense, and will be familiar to people who read a lot of novels and to those who read the advice of successful authors on the craft of writing. Readers prefer an active protagonist to a passive one. Readers prefer language that’s close to the everyday vernacular over the more formal type of writing that appears in essays. Bestselling authors do not overload their sentences with adjectives and adverbs. They convey meaning with nouns and verbs, which makes the reading experience smoother and more fluid.

Bestsellers tend to focus on a few topics within each work, rather than trying to hit on every theme the author can think of. Typically, the three major topics of a bestseller account for about 30-40 percent of the total topical matter of the work. Certain topics are more likely to make a bestseller: technology, work, family life, close interpersonal relationships. Surprisingly, sex is not one of those topics, and bestsellers in general tend to feature less sex than non-bestsellers.

Archer and Jockers identify seven structural patterns common to the plots of all bestsellers. They present the structural patterns as line graphs, which give a clear picture of the story’s emotional highs and lows. The summary of the classic love story, for example, is “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back.” If you were to draw that as a line graph, there would be a high point near the beginning when the boy first meets the girl, followed by a low point in the middle when he loses her, and another high point at the end, when he gets her back.

One of the book’s surprising findings is that the emotional curves of all bestsellers follow one of these seven graphs. The plot lines hold for trashy romances, far-fetched thrillers, and revered literary prizewinners. The Bestseller Code even charts the plots of some of these seemingly disparate novels together on the same graph to show you how similar they are.

Much of the value of this book comes from its clear and well-described insights into what readers respond to, and from the authors diving into a number of texts to provide illuminating examples of the generalized patterns that the computer has revealed. Jockers has more of a traditional English-lit background, and will occasionally touch on books by Virginia Woolfe and James Joyce. Archer comes from the publishing world, and her discussions focus on more current works.

One work they dig into is the unexpected phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey, which, on its surface, seems to defy all the rules. It was written by an indie author with no marketing to propel it, one of its primary topics is sex (and not mainstream vanilla sex, but BDSM) which is not part of the “bestseller DNA”, and both readers and critics mocked the quality and style of its writing. But for all that, it sold hundreds of millions of copies. Why?

This is where the computer analysis really shines, as it points out characteristic patterns of the work without the baggage of emotional or aesthetic judgement that a human reader would bring. The analysis showed that E.L James, despite what some might call a lack of style, had hit on every element of the blockbuster novel, from topical makeup to plot structure to character. The analysis also showed that, based on the number of paragraphs devoted to each topic, the book was more about close interpersonal relationships than sex in general. And “close personal relationships,” the authors remind us, is one of the top themes common to all bestsellers.

While the overall public discussion of Fifty Shades tended to focus more on the sex, the computer was able to see that readers were experiencing, perhaps on a less unconscious level, the same sorts of interpersonal relations that fascinate them in the genres of mystery, thriller, and historical drama.

Even more interesting, Archer and Jockers point out, is the plot structure of Fifty Shades, which is a subtle and unusual variation of one of the six basic structures common to all bestsellers. James’ novel, generally follows “Plotline 4,” which Christopher Booker, in The Seven Basic Plots, calls “Rebirth.” Archer and Jockers point out that “these plots tend to see the main characters experience change, renewal, and some sort of transformation.”

The twist that James put on this basic plot is that, instead of following the plot’s typical emotional pattern of beginning-high-low-high-low-end, she created a series of highs and lows throughout the book, which occurred at such regular intervals that the graph of them looks almost like a perfect sine wave. Archer and Jockers refer to this pattern as the emotional rhythm of the plot.

Outside of the Harry Potter series, which was primarily aimed at young readers, the only “adult” book in the past twenty years whose sales numbers compare to Fifty Shades is Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. The authors point out that although The Da Vinci Code’s basic plot differs from Fifty Shades, the two books share an almost identical emotional rhythm. Page 106 of The Bestseller Code shows a graph of the two plot lines, with the high points, low points, and inflections points of both novels appearing almost in lockstep. Now who would have thought to compare those two books, or even mention them in the same breath?

Both were runaway bestsellers, and on an emotional level, both provided a strikingly similar reading experience despite their differences in topic, style, tone, and genre. That insight about emotional experience reminded me of a question and answer I read recently on Quora. A reader asked why the Harry Potter series was so popular despite the fact that its plots were not necessarily new and other writers had more interesting styles and were better at world building. An author named Nick Travers offered this response:

I used to think the same as you. I even thought, ‘I can write as well as that,’ so I started to write a novel to prove it.

Four novels later and I can write as well as J.K.Rowling, but the quality of my stories pale into insignificance compared to hers. What I’ve learned is that J.K. Rowling is not a particularly good writer, but she is a master story teller. When she tells a story it sparkles with magic in a way that draws people (especially youngsters) into her world. I wish I could tell stories like that.

The Bestseller Code maps out some of the characteristics and common traits of great story-telling in illuminating ways, and the authors’ commentary on a diverse body of well-known works makes it a fun and interesting read. If you’re interested in understanding what drives readers to buy books, this one is worth a read.

How’s this for coincidence?

Back in April of this year, I was heading to south Florida to present at a conference at the University of Miami. By coincidence, my wife was returning from Miami just as I was packing to go. She had been visiting her father, and she said, “My dad wants a copy of Impala. Will you bring him one?”

I said, “Sure.” I signed a copy of the book and tossed it into my suitcase. And then for no particular reason, I tossed in a second copy. I flew out on a Tuesday for the conference that would occupy all of Wednesday and Thursday. On Thursday night, I would have dinner with my father-in-law and his wife in Key Biscayne, where I’d give them the book. On Friday, I’d fly back to Virginia.

After arriving in Miami and checking in to my hotel in Coconut Grove, I had dinner, and then went to a bar called The Grove Spot and had a beer. I gave my credit card to the bartender. She rang up the sale, and when she returned with the card, she said, “You have the same name as my husband.”

I said, “Andrew?”

She said, “Andrew Diamond.”

I told her I had once met another Andrew Diamond, in New York, around 1990 0r so.

Before I went to bed that night, I grabbed the second copy of Impala from my suitcase, signed it with a message for the bartender and her husband, and dropped the book off at the bar.

The conference occupied most of the next two days, though each morning, I got up between 4:00 and 5:00 to write. I was working on another mystery, and for several weeks, I’d been compiling a list of questions about the logistics of drug smuggling, distribution, and money laundering. My plan was to finish a first draft, in broad strokes, and then find answers to these questions so I’d be able to fill in the finer details. I was wondering who who would be able to answer these questions, and I figured I could get some leads by asking other authors, people on Goodreads, and the readers and writers on Quora.

The conference went well, for the most part, and after it ended late Thursday afternoon, I took an Uber across the bridge to Key Biscayne and had dinner with my father-in-law and his wife on the patio of an Italian restaurant. We talked for an hour or so, lingering over a glass of wine, and then I gave them the book.

They drove me back to Coconut Grove, and as it was still early and the air was warm, I took a walk. Before I went back to the hotel, I stopped again at The Grove Spot for a beer. The woman who had served me the first night wasn’t behind the bar this time. She was at a table on the patio with some friends. The bartender, a man, gave me my beer. I took two sips, put the glass down on the bar, and started thinking through my questions about drug smuggling and money laundering, and how I should write them all down.

Just then, someone beside said, “Andrew Diamond!”

I turned and saw a guy with brown hair and a brown mustache, dressed casually in slacks and a collared shirt. He held a beer in one hand and extended the other in greeting.

I shook his hand, and he said, “I’m Andrew Diamond. Thanks for the book.”

He took the seat next me and we started chatting. He asked me what brought me to Miami, and I told him about the conference. I asked him what he did, and he said he was a retired federal agent.

“What agency?”

“Customs, which used to be part of the Treasury Department, then was merged into Homeland Security.”

“What kind of stuff did you work on?” I asked.

He worked on cases involving drug smuggling, distribution, and money laundering.

We talked for about an hour, and I went through every one of the questions I’d been compiling. He answered all of them, and even gave detailed examples, from cases in which he was personally involved, of how drugs are smuggled into the US, how they are distributed after they get here, how the dealers launder the profits, and how the feds, through painstaking work, are able to bust them. He even touched on some topics I had not considered, such as the tensions within and among different agencies of federal law enforcement, and different ways in which they approach their work.

Now how’s that for serendipity? My wife returns home to catch me while I’m packing and tells me to put a book in my suitcase. For no particular reason, I throw in a second copy, which will soon open the door to an unexpected meeting. On my first visit ever to Coconut Grove, I happen to go to the bar where the guy with the same name as me hangs out. And he happens to be the person who can answer all the questions I’ve been turning over in my mind for the past few weeks.

It’s now mid-August. I got an email from Andrew Diamond a few days ago saying he had just finished reading my novel. In case you haven’t read it, Impala is about a twenty-something hacker named Russ who finds himself with a load of stolen Bitcoin that a bunch of Russian thugs are eager to take back from him. He’s also being pursued by another gang, and by a federal agent who wants to haul him in before the thugs can get him.

In a final twist of coincidence, here’s Andrew Diamond’s commentary on Impala.

Thanks for the book. Good summertime read. Character reminded me of a Russian whiz kid we picked up in Cyprus in 2010. All of 23 years old and managed to swindle millions in New York and laundered it through bitcoin. Unfortunately for him, he also took a bunch from some businessmen in Russia with strong Kremlin ties, so – in the spirit of detente – we were all looking for him. Like your character, this kid was smart and tenacious. Unlike your character, he was arrogant and in love with the flash. It was ultimately his undoing. Truth be told, he was lucky my partner and I got to him first. US prisons always get far better TripAdvisor ratings than Russian gulags…

Not only did I give the book to someone with the same name as the author, he had actually participated in a story similar to the one I wrote. The federal agent in Impala, Jack Hayes, is not an upstanding citizen. Andrew Diamond seems to be, from what I know of him. And that’s a good place for the coincidences to end.

First Draft of a New Novel: “gate 76”

A few months ago, my wife brought home a book by Micheal Tolkin called Among the Dead. Tolkin was the author of The Player, which was made into a film directed by Robert Altman, and like The Player, Among the Dead is a dark satirical look at the vanity and egotism of the bit players in the entertainment industry.

Among the Dead begins with a man missing a flight that he was supposed to be on with his wife. The plane crashes, and the rest of the book is an examination of the man’s thoughts and character, and of his failure to deal with or even care about the real consequences of what has happened. The man himself, with his shallowness and lack of empathy, can be counted metaphorically among the dead.

When I read it, I thought, “This book would have been a lot more interesting if the woman hadn’t gotten on that plane.” I explained the idea to my wife, but she didn’t quite get it. So I wrote the first chapter of the book and showed it to her. I said, “See? Now that’s an interesting story.” I had no intention of finishing it. I just wanted to show her what a good premise that would be. But after reading the first chapter, she was hooked. She said, “You have to finish this! I need to know what happens.”

So I did. You can read the first chapter here.

The manuscript is complete, and I’ve started to get feedback from beta readers. It will go to the editor in a few weeks, and then I might try shopping it around to publishers.

The Deep Blue Good-By

Two things struck me while reading John D. MacDonald’s The Deep Blue Good-By. The first was the quality of his writing, which can be witty and insightful, and is never cliché. The second was how, especially in the case of this book, the hard-boiled detective genre can pander to male fantasy in the same way romance panders to women.

In this book, every young woman between puberty and thirty practically throws herself at the protagonist, Travis McGee, who who lives on a boat and seems interesting and likable in some regards, but just doesn’t seem to have that much going for him. It’s easy to mock those cheesy romance novels that sell for 99 cents on Amazon, where every guy seems to have tattoos, six-pack abs, a rebel bad-boy streak, and a ready erection. But in MacDonald’s book, which has been widely praised as a work of art, every woman is just a hole waiting to be filled. Every woman is well-built, willing, tipsy, and half nude, when she’s not completely nude.

I get that this was written in the early sixties, when the birth control pill first appeared, and women were exploring the newfound freedom of sex-without-consequences. This was about the same time as Mad Men, and with regard to male-female relations, The Deep Blue Good-By has a skewed perspective similar to the one portrayed in Don Draper’s world.

I get the whole living-on-a-boat thing. I’ve seen enough of that lifestyle in South Florida and in the Caribbean to have a first-hand knowledge of the dissolute ways of the sun-drunk layabouts. They drink a lot, and they have more sex than mom and dad who come home tired from the office at 6PM. But seriously, no matter how bored a woman gets, it takes more than just a complete stranger showing up at her door with a bottle of liquor to get her interested. You might run across one woman, once in a great while, who’s willing to jump in bed with whoever happens by on a lazy afternoon, but the next thousand won’t be like that.

In MacDonald’s book, they’re ALL like that. Even the ones who just got raped. And that’s just wrong. That just doesn’t happen.

Travis McGee is living the ideal guy’s life. He has no job, but enough money to get by. He has no responsibilities, no commitments, no emotional ties, and whenever he wants a little action, he just strolls on over to one of the neighboring houseboats, where there’s always a party, and picks out a woman to bring home. And he actually complains that they’re not fulfilling. Just flip the genders of the protagonist and harem here, and you have a romance novel. Except that a romance novel ends with the traditional woman’s fantasy, where the main character gets to keep her one-and-only forever on after. This one ends with the traditional man’s fantasy, where the guy ends up unattached with nothing to get in the way of his continued booty hunt.

Other books in the classic pulp/crime genres include a good bit of sex as well, but it’s not quite so over-the-top as here. Jim Thompson’s protagonists usually have a steady, adoring girlfriend, and a second woman on the side. But in Thompson’s case, the protagonist is usually somewhat insane, and his “other woman” is insane in some catastrophically complementary way, like nitro and glycerine. Many of the better books in the genre, like Elliott Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel and Kenneth Fearing’s The Big Clock, follow a formula in which one particular man plus one particular woman equals disaster.

The overall plot of The Deep Blue Good-By is nothing ground-breaking. It’s genre fiction, after all, and a hard-boiled detective novel ends with the wise and cynical detective outsmarting the wily and dangerous bad guy. Plots aren’t that big a deal in genre fiction. They have to have twists, but we all know how they’re going to play out. Romance novels end with the woman getting her man, just as surely as thrillers end with the good guys sticking it to the bad guys. It’s how it all plays out that keeps our interest.

And McGee, for all his flaws, is consistently interesting. When you dive into this novel, you dive into his world, and you get to live there for a while. Although McGee can be quite insightful, you know his view of the world is skewed and unreal, just like you know the world in a Carl Hiaasen novel is skewed and unreal. You’re there for the ride, and McGee makes the ride worth the effort.

MacDonald’s rich style brings characters and places vividly to life. However, it’s a bit too elaborate for some of the action scenes. Sometimes you get to the end of a thirty-word sentence, and you wonder, “Wait, did he hit the guy or not?”

If you want a little flavor of his writing, and of McGee’s perspective and insight, the long paragraph below is a shining example. McGee has just been flirting with a waitress in order to get some information out of her. She’s very young. Nineteen or so. And of course, she comes out of the encounter desiring him (of course!), but he’s not interested.

The references to rabbits and bunnies are double-edged. McGee has already talked about people breeding like rabbits, and the vast space America still has to absorb its booming population. He’s also referred to some of the young women he’s picked up from the houseboat parties as rabbits, because each one is just a quick, impersonal lay.

Here’s what’s going through McGee’s mind when he walks away from that 19-year-old waitress he was just flirting with:

Bless them all, the forlorn little rabbits. They are the displaced persons of our emotional culture. They are ravenous for romance, yet settle for what they call making out. Their futile, acne-pitted men drift out of high school into a world so surfeited with unskilled labor there is competition for bag boy jobs in the supermarkets. They yearn for security, but all they can have is what they make for themselves, chittering little flocks of them in the restaurants and stores, talking of style and adornment, dreaming of the terribly sincere stranger who will come along and lift them out of the gypsy life of the two-bit tip and the unemployment, cut a tall cake with them, swell them up with sassy babies, and guide them masterfully into the shoal water of the electrified house where everybody brushes after every meal. But most of the wistful rabbits marry their unskilled men, and keep right on working. And discover the end of the dream. They have been taught that if you are sunny, cheery, sincere, group-adjusted, popular, the world is yours, including barbecue pits, charge plates, diaper service, percale sheets, friends for dinner, washer-dryer combinations, color slides of the kiddies on the home projector, and eternal whimsical romance–with crinkly smiles and Rock Hudson dialog. So they all come smiling and confident and unskilled into a technician’s world, and in a few years they learn that it is all going to be grinding and brutal and hateful and precarious. These are the slums of the heart. Bless the bunnies. These are the new people, and we are making no place for them. We hold the dream in front of them like a carrot, and finally say sorry you can’t have any. And the schools where we teach them non-survival are gloriously architected. They will never live in places so fine, unless they contract something incurable.

That paragraph shows many of McGee’s most fundamental characteristics. He feels both empathy and contempt for the troubled people around him. He laments the unfulfilled promise of their lives, but he doesn’t mind taking advantage of them when it suits him. Even in the end, when he restores a tiny measure of justice to a badly wronged woman, he’s just gotta get a piece of booty for his trouble, because, hell–it’s what she wants.

I look forward to reading more of MacDonald’s work. I just hope that in subsequent novels, McGee’s blood starts flowing a little more toward his heart and mind, a little less toward that other place.

 

An Award and a Sale

Impala won first place for genre fiction in the 24th Annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards. They announced it in the March/April issue of the magazine.

 

Writer’s Digest Awards

That comes on top of Amazon naming the book one of the best mystery/thrillers of the month in September, 2016, and IndieReader naming it one of the best of the year. It’s nice to get a little recognition.

Impala will be on sale for $0.99 during the week of Feb. 20-25, 2017.

 

Thirty Years a Detective

30yearsadetective

Although this is by no means a great book, it is well worth reading as a historical document. The book is not a biography or autobiography of Allan Pinkerton. If you want that, look elsewhere. It is a fascinating description of the practice of crime in 19th century America.

This book’s main flaws are 1) it often reads like advertising or even propaganda for the abilities of the Pinkerton agency to thwart crime and protect moneyed interests, and 2) the prose is wordy and overwrought, even by 19th century standards.

There is more than enough interesting material in here to excuse both of those flaws. As one Goodreads reviewer notes, Pinkerton (or his ghostwriter) tends to write that many of the criminals in this book were geniuses, or somehow super-criminals. Actually, many of them were, which is why they’re included in this volume. If the book described the cat-and-mouse game between smart, resourceful detectives and crude, run-of-the-mill criminals, it wouldn’t be too interesting.

There’s an entire chapter on “burglars,” which in this book refers specifically to those who crack bank safes (as opposed to typical house burglars). Of the safe-breaker, Pinkerton says:

…experience has demonstrated beyond question that he is possessed of more than ordinary mechanical knowledge, and that his energy and patience are phenomenal. Nor is there any reason why this should not be so. The burglar is trained to his vocation by the hardest discipline known to man.

Pinkerton goes on to say:

So exceedingly proficient have many of them become in the art of safe-opening, that I have known of more than one instance where burglars have been taken from their prison cells to open safes and vaults whose owners have forgotten the complicated combinations…

The “safe-openers” of the 19th century were akin to the hackers of the 21st century. They had to outwit the most sophisticated security designs of the cleverest minds of the era. But unlike today’s hackers, they had to do their work onsite, in the dark, almost always between the bank’s closing on Saturday evening and when its reopening on Monday morning.

Like today’s best hackers, the safe-openers worked with a set of specially-made tools, often of ingenious design, and many of which they built by hand specifically for the task. The best of these criminals carefully studied safe manufacture and design, knowing that they could defeat the security of the safe only by attacking it at its weakest point. Pinkerton provides illustrations and descriptions of some of these tools, and describes how they were used in specific heists.

A number of bank burglaries described in the book depend less on cleverness than on perseverance. Sometimes burglars, like hackers, ignored the obvious point of attack and found a way into the vault that no one would have ever anticipated. (If you’ve seen the film Sexy Beast, you’ll have an idea of how this type of burglary works. It depends on tremendous audacity, patience, and perseverance.)

The book also contains a long chapter on counterfeiting, which describes a number of fascinating characters. Counterfeiters are by nature patient, subtle, wily, wary, detail oriented, and highly skilled. Compared with common thieves, who rip people off one at a time, counterfeiters operate on a huge scale, and by the time anyone recognizes that false currency is in circulation, the perpetrators are gone.

Thirty Years a Detective is most interesting as a description of how crime was practiced in the 19th century, and how it was detected. In this book, as in The Expressman and the Detective, Pinkerton shows that there is a fine line between the top-notch detective and the top-notch criminal. Both are deceptive and elusive. Both employ similar tactics to case their targets. Both are preoccupied with the questions “How does one deceive an honest citizen?” and “What weaknesses in the system can I exploit for gain?”

The criminal works forward from these questions to engineer his crime. The detective works backward to figure out what was done, how, and by whom. The criminal merely has to commit the act. The detective has the much tougher job of proving it was done, who did it, and how. In this book and in others, Pinkerton admires and laments the misapplied genius of his toughest adversaries, and it really is an interesting read.

In Memory of O’Neil McGean

oneil_mcgean

I knew O’Neil since I was about 12 years old. We called him Neil back then. He was about 16 years old, and my mother used to have him come to the house to watch my brothers and me when she went out. Neil’s main job was to keep my older brother, Dan, from beating the crap out of my younger brother, Paul. Neil was very good at distracting Dan, who was 13 at the time, and the two became close friends.

After he graduated high school, Neil worked for the small business my mother owned and ran. The company collected data from the Labor Department and from the Securities and Exchange commission, verified it and cleaned it up, then published it in volumes that were sold to professionals in the financial industry. Neil’s job was to call the companies that had filed documents with Labor and SEC, and verify that all the data was still accurate. He was good at it, because he was good at talking to people.

After he left that job, he started working at the Charles Jourdan store on Wisconsin Avenue, near Friendship Heights. How he pulled that off, I still do not know. The guy didn’t shave half the time, he didn’t dress particularly well, and he seemed to always have a toothpick or a plastic straw hanging out of his mouth. (Maybe some of his other friends from that time will remember how, whenever he went to McDonalds he always came out with a pocket full of straws. He’d stick one in his mouth and chew on it for a while, and then when he got sick of it, he’d unwrap another one, like it was a fresh cigar.) Anyway, this somewhat slovenly guy somehow wound up being so good at selling high-end shoes to rich women that they promoted him to manager.

He stayed there for quite a while before he decided it was time to move on. And what’s the logical next step in that career path? Why, landscaper, of course! He left the fancy shoe store and started rooting around in the dirt. In the summer of 1988, we were both working again at the same company. I forget the name of the place, but the headquarters was in Rockville, and they had a fleet of 30 or 40 white pickups, along with a few larger trucks. About 90% of the business was mowing, so that’s what 90% of the employees did every day.

We used to roll in a little before 7 A.M. Neil and I drove separately, but we both liked to get there early because there were only three or four fast self-propelled mowers and whoever got there first got to take them for the day. We were also both pretty particular about which truck we drove, and the trucks too were first-come, first-serve. Almost the whole fleet was Dodge, and the Dodge trucks of the late 80’s had the brake release directly above the parking brake pedal. When you pulled the release, the pedal would shoot up and crush your fingers. I always tried to take one of the Ford trucks to avoid getting my fingers crushed. Neil seemed to favor one really old truck that reminded me of Sanford and Son. (It wasn’t quite that old, but you get the picture.)

Each morning, we’d be assigned a partner, and we’d go out in teams of two, with a list of 20 or 30 lawns to cut. Neil and I were both very efficient, and they’d give us the longest lists. We’d take the fast mowers and head out with our partners.

One day, after the rains had made the grass unusually tall and thick, I remember Neil had his truck all loaded up with two mowers and a trimmer and blower, and he was pacing around the shop and cursing because he had a huge list and his partner had not shown up.  Neil called the guy’s house, but there was no answer.

I headed out with my partner, and we had a lot of trouble getting through the high, wet grass. We typically ended our days at the Montgomery County Transfer Station up in Gaithersburg, where we’d dump our truckload of grass. Actually, we had pitch the grass out with pitchforks. Unlike the dry yellow grass of late summer, the tall green grass would get heavy in the truck bed. We’d start pitching it out, and when we dug down to the middle of the pile, it would be steaming. The decomposing grass got so hot that if you fell on it (which I did many times), it burned your skin.

On that particular day, my partner and I were in the transfer station before noon, unloading more than a full day’s worth of clippings. We were only half way through our list, and we knew we’d be back later with another full load. A couple other trucks from our company were unloading next to us, and trucks from other companies were streaming in as well. Everyone was having the same problem.

We usually started around 7 AM and finished around 3 or 3:30. That day, my partner and I finished the last yard around 5:00, and we had a long drive from Bethesda to Gaithersburg to dump our grass. We were on River Road, rolling up to a red light, in the left turn lane so we could make a U-turn. Neil’s truck was up ahead, already stopped at the light, and he had a mountain of wet, heavy grass piled high above the top of the cab. His mower was on top of that mountain. I have no idea how he got it up there, but I imagine he was cursing the whole time. The back of the truck was sagging so low that the wheels were almost scraping against the wheel wells.

I pulled up next to him, and I said, “Hey Neil!”

He was angry and tired, and his face was sunburnt.

I couldn’t help teasing him. “Did you get through that whole list?”

He said, “I have one more to go.” Then he held up his middle finger and repeated. “One.”

I said, “Where’s your partner?”

“Looking for a new job.”

That was about the most annoyed I’ve ever seen him. Then he started laughing.

When the light turned green, I started my U-turn. He hit the gas, and his overloaded Sanford and Son truck stalled. As I headed up the road in the other direction, I heard him yell, “Fuuuuuuuuuuuuck!!!!!!”

I didn’t see him again until the next day. He came in a little late, which was unusual for him, and he walked right up to me, laughing, and he said, “You know what happened yesterday? Right after I saw you? Like one minute after I saw you?”

“What?”

He told me he got the truck started again after the stall, and it took a while to get the thing up to speed because it was straining badly under the load. He was approaching a yellow light, which he wanted to run, because he wanted to finish that last lawn and get that miserable day over with as soon as possible. He sped up for the light, trying to squeeze through, and assumed the driver of the school bus in front of him would do the same. The school bus stopped, and Neil said that it wasn’t until he slammed on the brakes that he realized an overloaded truck takes a lot longer to stop than an empty one.

He was laughing when he told me, “I rear-ended that bus so hard, I snapped the truck right in half.” The frame of the truck broke just behind the cab, the mower flew up over the bus, and 2000 pounds of grass went all over the road. Neil wasn’t hurt, and there was no one on the bus but the driver. The cops were pissed about having to clean up all that grass in the middle of rush hour, and Neil wound up stuck at the accident scene for an hour or two. After that, he went out and got drunk.

Somehow, improbable things were always happening to him, and he would report them as if they were nothing out of the ordinary. Like the time he found an envelope in the alley with $2000 or $3000 in it. Neil, the good Samaritan, turned the money over to the police, because he thought whoever had lost it really needed to have it back. He asked the cops what would happen to the money if no one claimed it, and they said in that case, it would be his.

A few months went by and no one claimed the money. When Neil tried to get it back, the cops said they were keeping it. He was pretty pissed about that. He said that if he ever found a big wad of cash again, he’d just put it in his pocket and keep his mouth shut. He also said, “You know, I wish I could have learned that lesson with, like, fifty dollars.”

In 1993 and 1994, Neil had his own landscaping business, and for several months, I was his sole employee. We liked working together, because we were both efficient. We’d spend the days out in Montgomery County, cutting grass and cleaning up yards, then pick up a six pack on the way back into DC.

I’d see him now and then in the evenings walking by the Fox and Hound on 17th Street, where I used to drink at the sidewalk tables with my friends. There was one point when we weren’t doing any work, and I hadn’t seen him for several weeks. Maybe it was winter. I don’t remember. But when I finally did run into him and asked where he’d been, he said, “I was walking down the street, and I got this sharp pain in my side, and then I just doubled over and passed out. Right on the sidewalk. I woke up in the hospital, and they told me they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, so they just took my appendix out. That must have been it, because I feel fine now.”

I think he was living down near 9th and O Streets around that time. He had bought a house in a neighborhood known for its drug dealers and prostitutes. This was during or near the end of the crack epidemic in DC, when the city was the murder capital of the US. There was a crack house across the street, and Neil would watch the dealers and the addicts quite openly, and report to the police who was there and what they were doing. The cops raided the house so many times, they finally shut it down. The dealers and the users were so sick of being harassed, they just left.

Neil spent a lot of time cleaning up the yard, because he wanted the house to look good, and he wanted to provide a visual symbol that someone cared about the neighborhood, as well as an example that showed that if you try to make things better, they will eventually get better.

Anyone who lived in DC in the 70s, 80s, and 90s knows that it was a city of deep racial tension. In the late 80s and early 90s, DC was had the highest per-capita income of any major city in the US, and the highest poverty rate. Think about that. The white minority had more money than almost every other group in every other city in the US. The black majority had almost nothing. And there was a lot of mistrust and resentment on both sides. The city’s own mayor, Marion Barry, once publicly refused to plow the streets of Northwest DC after a blizzard (even though he had plowed out the rest of the city), because, as he put it, “Those people didn’t vote for me.”

Down at Ninth and O, Neil was the only white person in a tough neighborhood that was many years away from becoming gentrified. On the one hand, his convictions were powerful enough that he would risk his personal safety almost daily to shut down the crack house across the street. On the other hand, he often felt in danger. He told me that he used to weed his garden with one hand while he held a pistol in the other, just so people knew he had a gun. (And by the way, handguns were illegal in DC back then.) When his neighbors said hi, we would smile and wave back with his gun hand.

The gun, and the fact that he so frequently talked to the police in front of his house, led many of the neighbors to believe that he was a cop. After a while, they started addressing him as “Officer Neil.” He thought that was funny, but he also liked that it provided some protection, and made people less likely to mess with him.

He told me that one day, one of the neighbors came banging on his door, crying. She said her boyfriend had just beat her up, and she wanted Neil to come over and arrest him. Neil said he didn’t want people to know he wasn’t a cop, so he put his gun in his pocket and went over to the woman’s house and starting talking to her angry, violent boyfriend. He actually managed to calm the guy down. Anyone who knew Neil knows he could connect with anyone, in any situation, because he was a good listener, he was empathetic, and he was a straight talker. There was never any bullshit with him. He got the guy to leave, then he talked to the woman about filing a formal report and getting a restraining order.

Somewhere in this time frame, Neil was living with a guy named Brian, who I think was first guy Neil was really in love with. I don’t remember if that was just before Ninth and O, of if that was at Ninth and O. Neil and Brian had this giant Saint Bernard that was always slobbering on everything, and the only toy the dog would play with was a 16-pound bowling ball that he pushed around the house with his nose. The dog would nudge the ball down the basement stairs, and watch it thump down each step, one by one. Then he’d slowly turn his giant head to Neil, as if to say, get that for me, will you?

Over the course of twenty minutes, Neil must have hauled that bowling ball up the stairs a dozen times. His fingers kept slipping out of the holes because they were filled with dog slobber. Finally, he said to me, “You see how backwards this is? Most people throw the ball, and the dog has to get it. Some of my friends say this dog isn’t very bright, but you can see who’s running the show here.”

I only saw Neil upset twice in my life. Once was after he and Brian split up. He didn’t go into details, but I could tell the end of that relationship really hurt him. The other was on a drive home after a long day of landscaping, when we were both covered with dirt. We stopped at a little grocery store off of Connecticut Avenue in Kensington and picked up a six-pack of Budweiser. We were drinking them on the drive back into city, joking and having a light-hearted conversation.

As we were going around Chevy Chase Circle, I mentioned something about him being left-handed. He got upset, suddenly and inexplicably. And he glanced over toward Blessed Sacrament, just east of the circle, and there was a lot of emotion in his voice when he said, “Those fucking nuns used to smack my knuckles with a ruler when they were teaching me to write. They said, you’re using the wrong hand. Use the other hand, like everyone else. Why couldn’t they just understand I was made that way?”

When I first met Neil, he was still in high school, still dating girls, or at least flirting with them, including my cousin, Regina. He was probably beginning to suspect by then that he was gay. I don’t know if coming out was a struggle for him, but I know that, on some level, the nuns got to him. If being left handed was unacceptable in the eyes of the God they represented, how much worse was it to be gay? When he finally chose to come out, he chose to be the person God made, and not the one anyone else was telling him to be.

The honesty that everyone who knew him could sense in everything he said and did started there, in his acceptance of himself, and pervaded every aspect of his character. He was honest to the point of trying to give back an envelope full of cash to someone he had never even met. And in the end, he was robbed and killed by people who just wanted to take from him the money he didn’t really care that much about. His first love, Brian, who was also an unusually generous and open person, came to same end just a few years ago. Someone killed him just to get his bank cards and empty out his accounts.

All I can think is, what the fuck? That would be Neil’s response too. I can hear him saying it. He had a perfect facial expression to go with that question. If you took a photograph of him when he uttered those words, you could show the photo to anyone and ask, “What is this man thinking?” And the viewer would respond without hesitation, “What the fuck?”

Neil, I am glad to have known you, and I am sorry you are gone. There is no replacement.

[Update: Nov. 13, 2017] The Washington Post today ran a front-page story about O’Neil.