Check-kiting the truth

Truth and Power.
In college, I was a (late) founding member of the Univ. of Washington Shakespeare Society, together with a number of friends. I’m not sure the Society lasted much beyond our graduation, and I’ve lost touch with most of those friends, but it was great fun while it lasted, and we put on some excellent productions. Together, we put on Henry IV, part one; Macbeth, Twelfth Night and Romeo and Juliet.

Mistress Quickly and Falstaff (BBC)

There’s a moment in our production of 1 Henry IV that stands out for me, and asserts itself in my mind more than 25 years after it happened as I look at the skirmishing remains of the “post-truth” political landscape.

In scene II.iv of the play, the sheriff comes to the Boar’s Head Inn to arrest Falstaff for a robbery committed earlier that evening. The stage was a very simple, minimalist set, with carpets hung to conceal the upper stage left and -right entrances. In rehearsal, the actor playing Falstaff suggested that it might be funny for Falstaff to poke his face in from offstage where he’s hiding, through the “arras” at stage left.

It was a funny bit, but as happens so often in Shakespeare, it did even more work. What began as a bit of a goof became something of a sinister moment, too.

In the scene, the sheriff says to Prince Hal that he has testimony that Falstaff committed a robbery earlier that night and is even now there at the Inn. In our production, Falstaff peeks out at this moment. The actor playing the Sheriff does a double take. The Prince sees Falstaff, and he sees that the Sheriff has just spotted Faltaff, but he says, walking downstage: “The man I assure you is not here…” and then he goes on to say that he has sent Falstaff on an errand.

During the performance, there’s a nice laugh as Falstaff sticks out his head and then quickly, guiltily pulls it back in like turtle who can’t be bothered; followed by a long, uncomfortable pause as Prince Hal and the Sheriff look at one another.

In rehearsal, the director had paused the action and asked the actor playing the Sheriff what (as his character) he was thinking.

“I’m thinking that Sheriff or not, I can’t go up against the Prince,” he said.

“Do you just accept it?” the director asked.

“I have to, don’t I? But I don’t like it.”

The scene isn’t over, and Prince Hal further impresses his birthright advantage. When the Sheriff bids Hal farewell with: “Good night, my noble lord,” Hal pauses, making the Sheriff stop is backward, bowing exit, to say: “I think it be good morrow, is it not?”
The Sheriff eats some more shit: “Indeed, my lord, I think it be two o’clock.”

Among other things, 1 Henry IV is about the nature of power and ruling. Prince Hal will become Henry V, scourge of the French, victor at Agincourt, the soul of honor. How, the play seems to ask, did this entitled, drunken rich kid turn into a proper king? His father worries he won’t. Falstaff and his crew worry that he will.

I’ve always found the exchange disturbing.

Hamlet and Polonius

One further example, also from Shakespeare, Hamlet, this time: Polonius has gone to sound out Hamlet’s mind. They gaze at the sky. When Hamlet corrects Polonius about what he sees in the shapes of the clouds, and Polonius readily agrees with everything Hamlet says, the scene is often regarded as being about how transparently craven Polonius is. And he is that, but given the absolute power of the royal family, how—and why—should he be anything different?

The reason these instances keep coming back to me is that in both of these examples the knuckling under by the non-royal characters is obvious, and is clearly about staying on the good side of those in power. There’s dramatic irony in what’s said and what’s known. We in the audience note it, as do the other characters on stage.

What is KEY though, is that the truth is known, agreed upon and shared, but not uttered or acted upon. Which is chilling.

How much worse then is our own post-truth era? When people are forced not just to accept, but to believe the lie—and worse, to make/force others believe it?

Covid deniers, anti-vaxxers, Stop the Steal thugs spring to mind–the elected officials who claim that the January 6 insurrectionists were just a tour.

This is not knuckling under because you have no choice. It’s a complicit trick of the mind to believe “correctly.” In the novel 1984, there’s one particular part that goes a long way toward describing the current overheated state of the Grand Old Party: The key to citizens’ ceding of power is the mental discipline known as Crimestop, defined as, “the faculty of stopping short, as though by instinct, at the threshold of any dangerous thought. It includes the power of not grasping analogies, of failing to perceive logical errors, of misunderstanding the simplest arguments if they are inimical to Ingsoc, and being bored or repelled by any train of thought which is capable of leading in a heretical direction.” I think about that quote every time I remember how some in Congress decried the January 6 hearings as “boring.”

I think of it whenever I see that labrador-quizzical (quizzling?) face Tucker Carlson makes when he wants NOT to understand. The unwillingness (or inability) to grasp analogies, reflects an incapacity for empathy, to be sure, but it also serves as a kind of training.

And just to make sure there’s no back-sliding, there are Telescreens everywhere tuned to Fox News channel to stoke the hatred-abasement matrix. I make my way from Shakespeare to Orwell because there is a kind of double-think/Crimestop consciousness about this unknowing, wholly different from what Elizabethans were subject to.

The “determining factor,” Orwell writes elsewhere in the Goldstein Book passage, “is the mental attitude of the ruling class.” And the level of no-nothing depravity among GOPArty leadership is breath-taking. The bone-chilling part is that they really seem to believe their apocalyptic rhetoric. And they care so little for democracy, that it doesn’t matter if their voters die.

I’m actually hopeful that we as an electorate are waking up. The next election is Nov 8th. We ought to know pretty soon thereafter where we stand on the shifting sands of truth.

# # #

You can check out McCrone’s recent short stories and novels below:

Eight O’Clock Sharp” in Retreats from Oblivion: the Journal of NoirCon. (free online)
Set in Philadelphia’s 9th Street Market, Thomas is a man outside of time, forgotten, but trying to do the right thing while contending with avaricious forces.

“Ultimatum Games” in Rock and Hard Place magazine issue #7
A rare book heist, bad decisions. The narrator and his partner-in-crime clash over evolving bourgeois norms.


“Nostalgia” in Low Down Dirty Vote, vol. 3
An armed group tries to resurrect a past that never was as they struggle with change.

James McCrone

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless ElectorDark Network and Emergency Powers–noir tales about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, your local bookshop, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

His next book, w/t Bastard Verdict, is a noir political thriller set in Scotland, currently under review. His work-in-progress is a mystery-thriller set in Oregon’s wine country…A (pinot) Noir, called Witness Tree.

A Seattle native (mostly), James now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. He’s a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and is the vice-president of the Delaware Valley chapter of the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.

For a full list of appearances and readings, make sure to check out his Events/About page. And follow this blog!

Dark Skies – writing for your breakfast

I have joined the ranks of the #5amwritersclub—an elite band whose only membership requirement is that you haul yourself out of bed and write until it’s time to go to work.

When I started a new job in May, I gave myself permission to put my writing on the back-burner for the first two months while I got my feet under me. I would write nights and weekends, I told myself, as I had done before, producing three novels—Faithless Elector, Dark Network and Emergency Powers. All would be well.

The new Director of the Tacony Community Development Corp. (Phila.)

But it’s now three months since I started, and writing at night isn’t working this time, and spending weekends at the keyboard was like trying to add distance to a run or establish a rhythm to a workout you only did once a week. Yes, I made progress on the current book, Witness Tree, but it was tortured, and it wasn’t much. I wasted a lot of Saturdays just getting back to where I’d left off.

The doubts and problems every writer faces grew larger, more numerous, and more ominous.

(writer)-Doom scrolling through social media, I’d see the writer Richie Narvaez post something on social media about the “#5amwritersclub.” His Tweets were often 2 hours old when I came to them. So I reached out to him about 5am writing. Did it work? Was he productive? I was leery of trying to be sparkling and brilliant at such an early hour, but he graciously told me about his routine and process, and he said he’d been able to get things done. I resolved to begin immediately, the next day.

But what one resolves to do and what one does are often two very different things, and I slept through to my second alarm the whole first week, the dark sky writing hours passing me by. I think my determination was undermined in part from my teaching experience of some 30 years ago when I taught English comp at a pair of community colleges in the Seattle area–and two winters in a row I was assigned the early morning classes (for students who worked 9-5, as I do now).

Those two winters, my first class began at 6:30 in the morning. My second class was at 7:30. I was done with my teaching day just as the first rays of sunrise brightened (if you can call it that) the unrelenting Pacific Northwest cloud cover with faint yellows and purples, like a deep bruise that isn’t healing well. One day, a young woman came in to tell me she was dropping my class. It took me a moment to even remember that she’d been in the class, until I realized that she had been the one who slept, her head tipped backward into the row behind. I knew her neck and the underside of her jaw better than her face.

Sometimes, rather than get up at 5am to be on time to teach my class, I would just stay awake. Students would see the stamps from various clubs on my hand and wonder what I’d done the previous night.

I wanted to say to them: “this is the previous night!”

I consoled myself with the difficulty of those winters by telling myself that I was young, this kind of thing wasn’t forever. Yet here I am.

Finally I’ve begun to get up, to put my ass in the chair and get to work. Not every day is perfect, but then they never were, even under the best circumstances. It’s often said that someone “finds his rhythm,” whereas I think rhythm found me. The book is moving forward again, I’ve started two new short stories. And there are extras, too.

A raccoon couple kisses goodnight

There is no punishing heat when I step out back for a coffee before settling to work. It’s cool (or at least not blazing hot) at 5 am, the humidity tamed, even if the wildlife isn’t. I feel that I stand at the edge of a dark sea of possibility. A sense of hope attends those first caffeinated sips and carries me through the first half hour or more of writing. The birds aren’t even awake. But some things are.

Two mornings in a row, I watched a pair of South Philly raccoons tenderly…[OK, I gotta be honest here: I have no idea what they were doing] …retire to wherever it is they go when they climb across my neighbors’ roofs and disappear for the day. I see the bats call it a night and zip off somewhere.

I’m glad I started when I did. Already, the sun is rising later and setting earlier. Had I tried to begin this journey in the winter, I’m not sure I’d have made the tentative start I have so far.

# # #

You can check out McCrone’s recent short stories and novels below:

Eight O’Clock Sharp” in Retreats from Oblivion: the Journal of NoirCon. (free online)
Set in Philadelphia’s 9th Street Market, Thomas is a man outside of time, forgotten, but trying to do the right thing while contending with avaricious forces.

“Ultimatum Games” in Rock and Hard Place magazine issue #7
A rare book heist, bad decisions. The narrator and his partner-in-crime clash over evolving bourgeois norms.


“Nostalgia” in Low Down Dirty Vote, vol. 3
An armed group tries to resurrect a past that never was as they struggle with change.

James McCrone

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless ElectorDark Network and Emergency Powers–noir tales about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, your local bookshop, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

His next book, w/t Bastard Verdict, is a noir political thriller set in Scotland, currently under review. His work-in-progress is a mystery-thriller set in Oregon’s wine country…A (pinot) Noir, called Witness Tree.

A Seattle native (mostly), James now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. He’s a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and is the vice-president of the Delaware Valley chapter of the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.

For a full list of appearances and readings, make sure to check out his Events/About page. And follow this blog!

Dangerous Foods? (part one)

Is the way to my secret heart through my stomach? Do I come to crime and thriller writing through food, or have I become an (allegedly) international scofflaw because I’m drawn to crime? Am I just cheap?

I think it’s probably the former, and that my love of food has driven me to spirit (all right, smuggle) regional delicacies and foodstuffs home.

chieftain o’ the pudding-race

I have detailed my quest for Haggis for Burns Suppers and St. Andrew’s Day celebrations in “Thunder Road.” And I’ve battled with Parisian waiters – “A Very French Battle.”

Those who follow me on social media know that I struggle mightily to achieve the perfect pie crust, and that I practice “seasonal gluttony.” That is, I gorge on fresh, local and in-season food. Miraculously, right about the time I’m getting tired of eating strawberries or asparagus, for instance, blueberries and cherries are coming on, and artichokes are plentiful. Later still, peaches, tomatoes, fresh corn…until we’re finally down to roots and tubers, cabbages and kale—plus whatever I’ve frozen!

But some things fall outside that cycle, and outside my (free) range.

bottarga (tuna)

Botarga is one such (sometimes spelled with two “t’s”). It’s Italian, dried fish eggs (either tuna or red mullet) that you grate over top of (preferably bucatini) pasta and serve tossed with capers, garlic, parsley and oil. Interestingly, you don’t put cheese on the dish, but rather a very light coating of breadcrumbs. It has a distinct aroma and taste—at once sharp and earthy. A pleasant funkiness, too! I prefer the tuna version, but its cost per ounce here in the U.S. rivals cocaine.

On my last trip back to the States from Italy, I made room in my bag for guanciale, prosciutto, pancetta, some smoked duck breast from my Oxford butcher. And botarga.

I had nothing to declare.

Surely “meat” on the declaration list meant fresh meat, which I would never have brought in my suitcase. These were cured! The customs official ordered me to open my bag. My wife looked on, shaking her head. The children stared glumly at me as though they might not ever see me again. The customs officer unzipped the bag and turned over a pair of blue jeans revealing my stowaways. She said I couldn’t have any of it, and my heart sank.

She began plucking out the various vacu-packed salumi. First the pancetta and the duck breast as I watched with tears in my eyes, then the prosciutto. She tossed them unceremoniously into a bin. (I expect customs officials eat very well.) She took hold of the guanciale and held it up to me: “No meat, sir,” she said.

Boldly, I grabbed hold of the botarga. “This isn’t meat,” I said, holding it up briefly before stuffing it into my laptop bag. Her eyes narrowed as she looked at me. I manfully met her gaze. “Not meat, officer,” I said again. Which was the truth. More or less. She sighed, looked around for a moment and then scribbled something on a form. With a flick of her hand she indicated that I should leave now.

Which I did before she could change her mind. There was a long line behind us.

Next up: Montreal Bagels, smoked haddock and Cuban cigars (I know, cigars are not food—but truly, almost as important!)

# # #

You can check out McCrone’s latest short stories and novels below:

Eight O’Clock Sharp” in Retreats from Oblivion: the Journal of NoirCon. (free online)
Set in Philadelphia’s 9th Street Market, Thomas is a man outside of time, forgotten, but trying to do the right thing while contending with avaricious forces.

“Ultimatum Games” in Rock and Hard Place magazine issue #7
A rare book heist, bad decisions. The narrator and his partner-in-crime clash over evolving bourgeois norms.


“Nostalgia” in Low Down Dirty Vote, vol. 3
An armed group tries to resurrect a past that never was as they struggle with change.

James McCrone

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless ElectorDark Network and Emergency Powers–noir tales about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, your local bookshop, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

His next book, w/t Bastard Verdict, is a noir political thriller set in Scotland, currently under review. His work-in-progress is a mystery-thriller set in Oregon’s wine country…A (pinot) Noir, called Witness Tree.

A Seattle native (mostly), James now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. He’s a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and is the vice-president of the Delaware Valley chapter of the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.

For a full list of appearances and readings, make sure to check out his Events/About page. And follow this blog!

Representing

Recently, I’ve seen Facebook posts and a Tweets (each with a dozen attending comments) regarding fellow writers’ concerns about in-person readings and book signings; and I’ve heard privately from others about their discomfort over large gatherings. I absolutely get those concerns, and I would never disparage or second-guess another person’s reasons for wanting to remain safe and healthy.

What I would like to do is talk about the importance and value of these get-togethers, and my hope that they will return in full force sooner rather than later. The Zoom readings do have value in a number of ways, but they are no substitute for a live gathering.

Annamaria Alfieri and Gary Cahill

Last night (Tues., April 12, 2022) I was the first reader in the latest installment of the MWA-NY Reading Series at KGB Bar, along with Gary Cahill, Tom Avitabile, Bill Chambers, A. J. Sidransky and Albert Tucher–and it was wonderful! It felt great to be out and about, to (re)connect with old friends, meet new people, and to hear first-hand what others are doing and working on. The place filled up nicely, too. A good mix of people (say, 20+) came out on a Tuesday night to hear crime stories. There was an energy and vitality in the room that you can’t get over a screen.

At KGB, as is true at Shade Bar, in Wilmington, West Chester and other venues, the audiences are generous, knowledgeable, and attentive. As I’ve written elsewhere there’s no substitute for a live audience, and these readings series and Noirs at the Bar give us one filled with writers and readers who are both avid fans.

Like many writers, I use these short readings as a way to try out new work or work-in-progress. It’s similar to stand-up comedy, I think, in that there’s no buffer. You wrote the words, and you’re speaking and representing them. You’re putting it out there. And there’s no mistaking a moment when you’ve lost the audience. These writers and readers know what grabs them, too, and you can see it in their faces when something you’re reading doesn’t sound right…or drags on too long.

Which, when/if it happens is a horrible moment (not that I would know, personally! :). But it’s a necessary moment, and it’s far better to be forced to grapple with why and how something isn’t working early(ish) in the process before you start pitching and querying. Even when you’re reading something that’s already out in the world, audience reactions can inform and inspire a current work.

As a reader/performer, I think, you have at least two reciprocal roles for the evening–performer and audience member. As writers in a community, we do more than just cheerleading. It reminds me of moments when you hear professional athletes speak about a fellow athlete, sometimes even a competitor. They’re fans, too! They understand and respond to another athlete’s playing on an informed level.

There’s also the serendipity of being in a room full of people who care about writing and story. One of the readers last night, Tom Avitabile was answering a question from someone who was clearly very taken with Tom’s reading. In his response, a single word leapt out at me that fused a lot of things I had been thinking about my own work, an image grew in my mind for how I should think about the structure of the rest of the book. I’m not sure when or if that spark would have come without his comment–one about something else entirely, and not even directed to me. (And bonus, his new thriller hits the ground running, and sounds fabulous.)

Finally, it’s just fun to be out and hearing stuff!

The next MWA-NY/KGB Reading Series is June 14 (I think). I’m planning to go, and I hope to see all of you there.

# # #

The selection I read Tuesday night, from Witness Tree is months away from being finished. But you can check out my latest short stories and novels below:

Eight O’Clock Sharp” in Retreats from Oblivion: the Journal of NoirCon.
Set in the 9th Street Market, Thomas is a man outside of time, forgotten, but trying to do the right thing while contending with avaricious forces.

“Ultimatum Games” in Rock and Hard Place magazine issue #7
A rare book heist, bad decisions. The narrator and his partner-in-crime clash over evolving bourgeois norms.


“Nostalgia” coming May 15 in Low Down Dirty Vote, vol. 3
An armed group tries to resurrect a past that never was as they struggle with change.

James McCrone

James McCrone is the author of the Imogen Trager political suspense-thrillers Faithless ElectorDark Network and Emergency Powers–noir tales about a stolen presidency, a conspiracy, and a nation on edge. All books are available on BookShop.org, IndyBound.org, Barnes & Noble, your local bookshop, and Amazon. eBooks are available in multiple formats including Apple, Kobo, Nook and Kindle.

His next book, w/t Bastard Verdict, is a noir political thriller set in Scotland. He’s currently writing a mystery-thriller set in Oregon’s wine country…A (pinot) Noir, w/t Witness Tree.

A Seattle native (mostly), James now lives in South Philadelphia with his wife and three children. He’s a member of the The Mystery Writers of America, Int’l Assoc. of Crime Writers, Int’l Thriller Writers, Philadelphia Dramatists Center and is the vice-president of the Delaware Valley chapter of the Sisters in Crime network. James has an MFA from the University of Washington in Seattle.

For a full list of appearances and readings, make sure to check out his Events/About page. And follow this blog!