Land of Shadows

I’d likland of shadowse you to meet Elouise Norton. She’s an LAPD homicide detective stationed in the Southwest Division, an area that includes the fabled Jungle. You can call her Lou.
Most everybody does except for her mama, who calls her Lulu.

Lou is a success story. She came from poverty. Her father left when she was young. Her sister Victoria, called Tori, disappeared without a trace in 1988. But she’s married to Greg Norton, a highly successful commercial artist, and she’s a good cop.

Things aren’t all good though. Greg is in Tokyo, and he’s cheated on her once before, buying a Porsche Cayenne as an apology. Last time he strayed, the first sign was a bouquet of flowers. Now, after catching a murder case that has more than a little resemblance to her sister’s disappearance, Greg has sent her flowers again. On top of that, she’s saddled with a new partner, a white guy from Colorado Springs who’s never worked the bad side of any town, much less that bad side of LA.

So Lou decides to concentrate on the case. One Monique Darson has been found at the construction site of the new Crase Parc and Condominiums, hanging in the closet of the master bedroom in unit 1B. And whoever did the deed used a Gucci belt. She’s wearing a cheerleader uniform, and it’s made to look like a suicide, complete with a note on her iPhone. Problem is, her hands are tied, and that makes no sense for a suicide.

On top of that, the man who owns the Crase Parc and Condominium project is one Napoleon Crase, who owned Crase Liquor Emporium all those years ago—and what’s left of it is just a block down the street. Crase is known for his preference for young women and his habit of getting rough with them. Lou has suspected him as being the one responsible for Tori’s disappearance in 1988, as the store was the last place she saw her sister.

This is what you quickly learn at the beginning of Land of Shadows, the first novel about Detective Elouise Norton by Rachel Howzell Hall. You’ll learn more, too, as this is rachel howzell halla hard book to put down.

One of the things I truly appreciated about this novel is the author didn’t play the race card. Yes, Lou has had to contend with both racism and chauvinism during her rise in the department, but she’s overcome these things by being a good cop, not by crying “Affirmative Action” every time something goes wrong, In fact, at one point during this investigation, she tells another cop she doesn’t want an Al Sharpton showing up and playing the race card in this case.

The past makes itself known in this case as the similarities between Tori’s disappearance and Monique’s murder keep popping up. And witnesses who could help break the case keep ending up dead.

The voice Ms. Hall gives her protagonist is great. I’m a Southern white boy, and yet I could find myself identifying with this black woman from the bad side of one of the biggest cities in the world. Lou sometimes doesn’t know when to turn off her mouth or her anger, and this comes close to getting her in hot water more than once. But she’s a good person in a difficult situation, and not everything ends up happily ever after—but I won’t spoil the story for you any more than that.

Do yourself a favor: go out and pick up Land of Shadows. And if you’re like me and you love a well-written mystery that’s not cozy in any way, you’ll finish the book wishing there was already another Elouise Norton novel out there waiting to be read.

It’s that good.



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The North Hollywood Shootout

Phillips (left) and Matasareanu

Phillips (left) and Matasareanu

This is the kind of thing you expect to see in a big-budget Hollywood action movie: two bank robbers holding off police for almost an hour, with numerous bystanders getting wounded in the process, and the bad guys dying at the end.

Except, in this case, it really happened.

On February 28, 1997, Larry Phillips, Jr., and Emil Mătăsăreanu entered the North Hollywood branch of the Bank of America at the corner of Laurel Canyon Road and Archwood Street. They’d spent months doing recon on the bank while planning how to hit the target. They loaded five rifles and around 3,300 rounds of ammo—contained in box and drum magazines—in the trunk of their car, donned 18-kilogram full-suit body armor that included trauma plates covering their vital organs, and took barbiturate phenobarbital to calm their nerves.

Obviously, this wasn’t their first rodeo. They met at a Gold’s Gym in Venice, California in 1989. Both were bodybuilders and weightlifters.

In 1993, they robbed an armored car outside a FirstBank branch in Littleton, Colorado, just the first of their robberies that culminated in North Hollywood. In October of that same year, they were arrested for speeding in Glendale, a town northeast of Los Angeles. When officers searched the car, they found two semi-automatic rifles, two handguns, more than 1,600 rounds of 7.62 x 39 rifle ammunition, 1,200 rounds of 9 x 19 mm Parabellum and .45 ACP handgun ammunition, radio scanners, smoke bombs, improvised explosive devices, body armor vests, and three different California license plates. Charged with conspiracy to commit robbery, the pair served one hundred days in jail apiece and were placed on three years’ probation. Most of their confiscated property was returned to them after their release.

On June 14, 1995, they ambushed a Brinks armored car, killing a guard named Herman Cook in the process. Then, in May of 1996, they robbed two Bank of America branches, netting $1.5 million. Due to their use of heavy weaponry, law enforcement dubbed the pair the High Incident Bandits.

Then came February 28, 1997. Driving a Chevrolet Celebrity that held two modified Romanian AIM assault rifles—an AK-47 style rifle—one modified Norinco Type 56 S-1, a semi-automatic HK91, and a modified Bushmaster XM15 E2S, they arrived at the bank at 9:30 a.m. They set their watch alarms for eight minutes, the time they estimated it would take for police to respond, a figure they arrived at by listening to police scanners.

Unfortunately for them, a passing cruiser saw them enter the building and radioed in a possible 211.

Meanwhile, in the bank, Phillips and Mătăsăreanu fired off at least fifty rounds to discourage resistance, and intimidate bank employees and customers. They forced the manager to open the vault. In another snafu, Phillips argued with the manager when they discovered there wasn’t as much money as they’d anticipated, due to the bank changing its delivery schedule. Enraged, Phillips fired into the vault, destroying much of the money. Instead of the expected $750,000, they netted less than half that amount: $303, 305.

bankofamericaAt 9:38 the two exited the building, Phillips through the north door, Mătăsăreanu through the south. Outside, they faced not only dozens of LAPD officers responding to a shots fired call, but news helicopters that, despite being fired on during the shootout, maintained their reporting of live updates. SWAT commanders used these updates to communicate time-sensitive information to officers on the scene.

The pair wasted no time engaging the officers, who were armed with Beretta 92-type sidearms chambered for 9mm, or .38 revolvers. One officer on the scene had a 12-gauge shotgun. The pair fired armor piercing rounds into the patrol cars blocking the front of the bank on Laurel Canyon.

Eight minutes after the firing began, Mătăsăreanu entered the Celebrity in an attempt to flee. Phillips stayed outside the vehicle, firing up to one hundred rounds from his HK91. It was at this point that one round almost struck Phillips, but he ducked behind the car and evaded it. He slung the HK91 and began using the AKM.

An alert was issued and, eighteen minutes into the firefight, SWAT teams arrived. They were clad in shorts and running shoes under their body armor as they’d been in the middle of their exercise routine and didn’t have time to change. They were armed with MP-5s and AR-15s. Officers commandeered an armored crash-delivery truck to ferry wounded police and civilians from the fire zone.

At 9:51, Phillips broke from the cover of the getaway vehicle, headed east on Archwood Street, and took cover behind a pickup, where he continued firing on police with his AKM. After expending the first magazine, he reloaded with a 75-round drum mag, but discarded the weapon after it stovepiped on him. At this point he was wounded in the wrist by a bullet that deflected off the AKM’s casing and went through his thumb. He drew his Beretta 92FS and resumed firing on officers. He was shot through the right hand, dropped the handgun, then retrieved it, and shot himself under the chin while simultaneously having his spine severed by an AR-15 round. Officers surrounded Phillips, stripped off his armor, cuffed him, and tried wrapping a body sheet around him to staunch the flow of blood from the AR-15 wound, unaware he had shot himself and died from the head wound.

Meantime, the Celebrity Mătăsăreanu was driving had all four tires flattened by gunfire. He exited the vehicle and, at 9:56, carjacked a pickup truck on Archwood three carandpickupblocks from where Phillips died, but was unable to use it as the owner took the keys with him as he fled the scene. This after Mătăsăreanu went to the trouble of transferring all his weapons and ammo to the pickup. Helicopters from KCBS and KCAL recorded the action as Mătăsăreanu took cover behind the getaway car and engaged officers in a six-minute gun battle. He was unable to continue after at least one SWAT officer shot under the cars and wounded him in the legs. Raising his hands at least twice to show he was surrendering, he stopped firing. Officers radioed for an ambulance, but it took seventy minutes to respond, later citing standard procedure where an ambulance wouldn’t enter a hot zone when a suspect was still considered dangerous. Mătăsăreanu died from blood-loss trauma after being shot twenty-nine times in the feet and legs.

Most of the shootout was broadcast live by news helicopters, including Mătăsăreanu’s capture and Phillips’s death. The bank robbers fired approximately 1,300 rounds—one roughly every two seconds. Over 300 officers responded to the firefight, nearly 2,000 rounds were expended by both sides, seven civilians and eleven police officers were wounded, and numerous vehicles were shot full of holes.

Mătăsăreanu’s children sued LAPD officers, citing his civil rights were violated when he was allowed to bleed to death. The trial ended up deadlocked and was declared a mistrial. Mătăsăreanu’s family later dropped the suit with a waiver of malicious prosecution.

Thanks to the ineffectiveness of the police weapons, the Department of Defense gave the LAPD 600 surplus M16s, which were issued to patrol sergeants. LAPD units now carry an AR-15 in the vehicle as standard issue, as well as having Kevlar reinforced doors.

mannequinsIn 2004, two life-size mannequins of Phillips and Mătăsăreanu were put on display in the Los Angeles Police Department Museum, dressed in their armor and holding the weapons they used. And the getaway car, along with several patrol cars involved in the incident are on display at the Los Angeles Police Historical Society Museum in Highland Park.

Only in Hollywood.


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What’s In A Name?

Names. In a way, doesn’t seem all that important a subject. But it is.

Writer’s Digest has a whole book dedicated to the subject, The Writer’s Digest Character-Naming Sourcebook by Sherrilyn Kenyon with Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet,naming book 303 pages without the index. I put tabs on my copy to separate some of the ethnic categories to make them easier to find (you can tell it was when I was writing fantasy, too; the categories marked are: Celtic, English, Gaelic, Irish, Native American, Norse, and Welsh). I also have at least one baby naming book, and it’s a good one: 60,000+ Baby Names by Bruce Lansky. I should pick up a newer edition of it. What I like about it is it has lists of most popular names by decade.

So, between the character-naming sourcebook and the baby naming book, I’ve got over 80,000 names to choose from. Some of them are repeats, I’m sure, and many of them are variations, such as the different names for someone called Robert (Robbie, Bob, Bobby, etc).

And yet I still have trouble naming my characters.

I’m not sure why. I think part of it has to do with the fact that how someone is named gives us a preconceived notion of them. Think about it. Picture someone named Scott. Now someone named Tom. Different guys, huh? Even someone named Tommy looks different than a Tom. On the other side of the gender aisle, how about a Tiffany as opposed to a Gretchen? Or a Teresa as opposed to a Veronica? I’m sure you got a picture in your head—even if it was something of a generic one—at the mention of each name.

Childhood associations have somewhat to do with this. Think about that girl or guy everybody picked on in school. Chances are, they had an old fashioned name, or their last name was unfortunate. When I was in middle school, we had a girl whose last name was Pollock, and boy was she picked on. This was in the late seventies when Polish jokes were so popular, so you can imagine what this poor girl went through.

I’m horrible at remembering names. Even the names of my characters. I’ve had to make a character bible for my Rural Empires series, and even with some of the characters I use more frequently, I have to stop and think of their names. It’s kinda embarrassing to be this way, even though I’ve run into several folks who have the same problem. How do people feel when you can’t remember their name?

I think, too, this is related to the hard time I have coming up with titles. That should be evident by the titles I do use: Spree, Startup, Franchise, and like that. Simple titles. I try to find a title that sums up the book, and the fewer words I use, the better. Makes it easier to—wait for it—remember. And the reason I think it’s related is this: “Hey, you heard about the new Stephen King book?” “No. What’s the name of it?”

See? We even “name” our books.

calvinandhobbestenthMy favorite comic strip of all time is Calvin and Hobbes. In The Calvin and Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book, creator/author Bill Watterson does profiles on all the characters in the strip and tells where he got the names for them. Calvin and Hobbes are named for historical people. Calvin is named after a sixteenth-century theologian who believed in predestination, while Hobbes’s name comes from a seventeenth-century philosopher who had a dim view of human nature (appropriate for a tiger, don’t you think?). On the other hand, you’ll notice Calvin’s parents don’t have names. And Calvin’s teacher is named Miss Wormwood, after the apprentice devil in C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters
For me, knowing all these things just made the strip that much better. Though he’s only six years old, Calvin often starts asking really deep questions and using words that no six-year-old would have in his vocabulary (and no, I don’t mean profanity). He goes on at length about such things as the existence of Santa Claus as well as pretty much any moral issue you can think of. What makes these conversations so interesting to me is that Calvin will spend three panels (or more in Sunday strips) asking questions and rationalizing things. Then, at the end, Hobbes asks one simple question that pretty much cuts through the Gordian knot Calvin has constructed, which often sends Calvin off on another tangent.

All this from the names of the characters. Just goes to show how important those names can be.

I try to pick names that will give you an idea of what the character is like. But I also like to give them the names their generation would have, as well as the kind of names they’d have because of where they are in the social strata. In other words, I rarely have a country girl from the farm named Tiffany.

Sometimes I do like to make characters break those molds, though. I have two dealers named Justin Ingles and Travis Baker. They sound like they should be good ol boys, driving jacked-up trucks and wearing ball caps with rolled brims. Conversely, they dress hip hop, drive an Escalade tricked out with bling, and talk like gangstas. It’s fun breaking the stereotype sometimes.

The problem I run into is this: I try not to repeat names. The reason for this is because my main thrust is a series, and I often connect other stories to that series. So giving two different characters the same name could be confusing to readers. Yes, it happens in real life. But in real life we have very definite visual references to help us keep the two Bobbys we know separate. And since I tend to give vague descriptions in order to let the reader flesh them out, this isn’t a luxury I have.

So how do you name your characters? Do you just pick them out of thin air? Or do you try to pick one that means something? I remember when I wrote fantasy, I would pore over my name books looking for a name with a specific meaning that also sounded right. Thank God I went into crime fiction, where it’s a little simpler.

But even still, as the saying goes, a rose by any other name…rose


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La Madrina

She was known by several names: La Madrina—or The Godmother, The Black Widow, Cocaine Cowgirl, and the Queenpin. Her real name was Griselda Blanco, and she was quite a piece of work.

Griselda was born in 1943 in the poverty-stricken mountains of Medellín, Colombia and grew up during La Violencia, the Colombian civil war. She was childhood friends with Pablo Escobar, who later became a major player in the Medellín Cartel. And according to legend, it didn’t take her long to get into the murder business. Supposedly, she kidnapped the scion of a rich family and held him for ransom when she was 11. The parents wouldn’t pay, so she killed the boy.

She then became a pickpocket and, by age 14, ran away from her abusive mother and became a prostitute. When she was 20 she married Carlos Trujillo and they had three sons together: Dixon, Uber, and Osvaldo. Sometime during all this, her first husband passed away and she moved to New York in the early seventies with her second husband, Alberto Bravo, where they set up a cocaine importing business in Queens. She was one of the group responsible for the cocaine found on the Tall Ship Gloria that Colombia sent to New York as part of the bicentennial celebration for the US.

Over thirty of her cohorts were arrested. Depending on who you read, she either fled straight to Miami, or made her way to Colombia first, then to Miami. In either event, she ended up in Miami, and her drug business expanded exponentially. According to Charles Cosby, one of Griselda’s companions during her prison term in California (as well as being a crack dealer in Oakland and the subject of Cocaine Cowboys 2: Hustlin’ with the Godmother), she had over 1500 dealers working for her, and her weekly payroll was in the millions. She was the mentor of Pablo Escobar, introducing him to the drug trade, which elevated him from a car thief. In fact, there was a bronze bust of her in her Miami estate that dealers would rub when they entered the house, hoping some of her good luck would pass on to them.

It was during this time that Alberto Bravo returned to Colombia. He wouldn’t return her calls, so she jumped on Lear and flew to Bogotá to talk with him. They met outside a nightclub, he with his contingent of bodyguards, she with hers. Alberto accused her of letting the godmother image go to her head. Griselda let her temper get the better of her and pulled a pistol and firing on him. Alberto returned fire with his Uzi, hitting her in the stomach. She shot him in the head, killing him instantly. Her gunmen rushed her to a hospital, where she almost died.

Back in Miami, the killings went up, starting with a shooting at the Dadeland Mall in 1979. The shooters drove a truck outfitted for violence and killed some rivals in a spray of automatic gunfire. The van was found abandoned in the mall parking lot, the engine still running. It was a rolling arsenal disguised as a party caterer. Authorities believe Griselda ordered the shooting.

It stands to reason. Griselda was a violent woman. As Sergeant Nelson Andreu, a Miami homicide detective said, “What she would do is, if you bought drugs from her, she killed you. If she bought drugs from you, and didn’t want to pay you, she’d kill you too.” He also said a lot of people wouldn’t deal with her because of this violent streak.

In 1983 it all started coming back on her, though. She had married a man named Dario Sepúlveda, with whom she had a son named Michael Corleone, after the character in The Godfather. Michael was still a baby when Dario decided to return to Colombia. He and Griselda argued over who would keep Michael. Dario, under the guise of a visit to Michael, said he was taking him shopping. Instead, he boarded a plane for Colombia, kidnapping the child.

This incensed Griselda, and she took out a hit on Dario. She paid some Colombian police to stop and kill Dario, and Michael was returned to her in Miami.

But Dario had friends and relatives who didn’t like it that he was hit in Colombia, and the other cartel members turned against Griselda, putting a $4 million bounty on her head. According to Jorge “Rivi” Ayala, her head enforcer, all her hitmen turned against her and she almost got killed. He had already returned to Chicago when Dario and Griselda split up, going so far as to move from his previous residence and change his phone number. Griselda found him anyway and offered him huge amounts of money to come back.

All this started the Cocaine Cowboy wars eighties Miami is so famous for. Griselda’s monthly income plummeted from $80 million per month to $10 million due to all the violence, and she knew she was backed into a corner. So in 1984 she fled to California, where law enforcement eventually tracked her down and arrested her in Orange County. The arresting officer, DEA agent Bob Polumbo, who had been chasing her for ten years, ever since the bust in New York, fulfilled a promise he’d made by kissing her on the cheek when he arrested her.

It was during her time in prison in California that she met Charles Cosby. He wrote her a letter and they struck up both a personal and business relationship. She arranged for Charles to have fifty keys of coke delivered to him, and he in turn visited her in prison. They had conjugal visits, and Charles would pick up Michael Corleone and take him places for her.

While she was in prison, her other sons were released from their own sentences and deported to Colombia. Associates of Pablo Escobar killed Osvaldo first, but she was able to find out who the killers were. One committed suicide, and Dixon caught the other one, torturing him and killing him with a hot screwdriver.

Griselda served her drug sentence in Dublin, California. While she was there, Miami detective Al Singleton, part of a group called CENTAC 26, endeavored to build a murder case against her. One of their chief linchpins in this case was her former enforcer, Rivi Ayala. He had agreed to testify against her.

This frightened Griselda because Rivi knew everything. If he turned state’s evidence on her, it would be enough to put her on Death Row.
So, strange as it sounds, she hatched a plot. She had Charles pass some information to Dixon that amounted to kidnapping John F. Kennedy, Jr and holding him for a $5 million ransom and release from prison. The idea was, once she was safely back in Colombia, the kidnappers would release Kennedy.

But Charles really didn’t want a part of this. He called Griselda at prison right before the plan was supposed to go down. All phone calls were recorded, so the information was passed on to the FBI, who alerted the Kennedys. And, according to Charles, the kidnapping still almost happened. Two of the kidnappers, posing as a couple, were within arm’s reach of Kennedy as he walked his dog, but a NYPD cruiser happened to drive by and it spooked them. That was the end of that plot.

Meanwhile, in Miami, Al Singleton had built his case against Griselda, and they met her at FCI Dublin to take her back to Miami-Dade to face three first-degree murder charges. When she heard this, she vomited in the car.

Unfortunately, Rivi, who was something of a lady’s man, sabotaged the case when he had phone sex with secretaries in the State Attorney’s office. This humiliated State Attorney Katherine Fernandez Rundle to the point she plea-bargained Griselda down to twenty years with time served taken off.
Finally released in 2004, she was deported to Colombia, where she reportedly lived a good life from the sale of some of her properties. Then, on September 3, 2012, Griselda was gunned down as she exited a meat shop. The irony here is she was assassinated by a team riding a motorcycle. The passenger hopped off the bike, walked up to her, and shot her in the head twice, then hopped back on and they sped off. This was a technique Griselda is supposed to have pioneered.

Griselda is survived by Dixon Trujillo, her eldest son, who reportedly lives in Colombia to this day, and by Michael Corleone Blanco, who turned into a drug trafficker himself and was under house arrest at the time of her death for two felony counts of cocaine trafficking and conspiracy to traffic cocaine.

The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.


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Everglades City

Down on the southwest coast of Florida, almost to the tip, is a little town called Everglades City. It started out as Everglades, but the state legislature changed the name everglades cityto Everglades City in 1965.

Calling it a city is a reach, as the 2010 population was 400. It’s a fishing town located in the area known as 10,000 Islands, a gateway to the Everglades.

And it’s always been a haven for smugglers.

In the 1970s and ’80s, the contraband was drugs, especially marijuana.

The way this came about is interesting. In the 1940s, President Truman proclaimed the Everglades a national park. The Department of the Interior said that the inhabitants of Everglade City would never have to worry about being banned from fishing in the Everglades, but of course they broke that promise, claiming they had no choice.

Just like that, permit holders were put on a time limit that was rapidly running out on the only living they knew how to make. What were they supposed to do?

Well, one solution they turned to was the age-old one of smuggling. Only the locals knew the ways through the channels, so evading law enforcement would be easy. To that end, they struck up deals with Colombian marijuana exporters. Seven or eight boats would meet the ships at night and off-load the cargo in square bales. Sometimes the wires would get crossed and there would be two ships that night and the wrong one would get unloaded first. And sometimes law enforcement would discover these smugglers and they would have to throw their loads overboard. The bales came to be known as square groupers.

All of a sudden, fishermen who made $100 a night on a good night of fishing were pulling in $15,000 a night or more. As one former smuggler named Dana Masey said, idiots became millionaires. New houses popped up all over the city, and everybody was driving new vehicles.

Law enforcement knew something was going on, but they had no way to get next to it. Everglades City is small. Most of the inhabitants are related in one way or another, so sending in undercover agents was out of the question.

Problem was, as Mr. Masey said, idiots became millionaires. Aubrey Rogers, the Collier County sheriff, contacted the DEA and said he had a problem in Everglades City but had no way to move people in. The community was too tight-knit.

So the DEA sent in operatives disguised as buyers looking for “grouper.” One agent said they hadn’t been there fifteen minutes when an officer from teverglades-roadblockhe sub-station asked them their business. When they told him they were there to fish for grouper, he said they wouldn’t be fishing, but if they wanted a good price on better grouper than they could find in Miami, he would introduce them to someone who could help them. The agents were taken out a small dirt road where they were shown a “small mountain” of marijuana bales. Their contact told them to pick whichever one they wanted, then said they owed him $10,000. It was just that easy.

The DEA took over operations in one of the fish houses, and agents worked as off-loaders, guards, whatever. They were soon trusted inside the operations.

Then, early one morning, the DEA and FBI surrounded the town. Everglades City literally had only one road in or out—Route 29—and they blocked that off. Police sat
on the water in boats, cutting off escape that way. And then they moved into the town itself, rounding up suspects and taking them to jail, arresting 41 people altogether. This was in addition to at least 149 earlier arrests. In total, most of the adult male population of the town was arrested.

On top of that, they seized boats and airplanes they claimed were used in smuggling operations, as well as hundreds of thousands of pounds of marijuana.

In the end, the smugglers were fairly philosophical about it, exhibiting no animosity to the agents. In their opinion, they were doing a job and so were the agents. Family members told on one another because it was the only thing to do unless they wanted to spend an inordinate amount of time in prison.

our-tour-boatToday, Everglades City has returned to being a quiet commercial fishing village. If you Google the town, you’ll get results for hotels, restaurants, and fishing. You’ll get articles on 30 things to do in Everglades City. You’ll get sites talking about airboat tours. There’s even a site for the Everglades City School. And they still have their seafood festival every year.

If you’d like to know more about this story—and a couple others related to this that I might talk about in the future—check out the documentary Square Groupers: The Godfathers of Ganja. It’s available on Amazon for cheap (of course), and it comes to you from the creators of Cocaine Cowboys, Rakontur. Put the two together and you have a duology of drug smuggling in south Florida in the seventies and eighties. If you’re interested in this particular area of crime history, you can’t go wrong.


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Graduation Day

cap_and_tasselWell, it’s drawing to a close. After a year and a half, I get to graduate in a week and go out to seek my fortune. Again.

Going back to school in my late forties forced me to think about a lot of things and get a case of the “I shouldas.” You know, I shoulda done this or I shoulda done that.

old_computerWhen I graduated from high school in 1983, I just didn’t see things being the way they are now. I gave very little thought to how computers would become part of my life, and the idea of cell phones—let alone all this social media and Internet stuff—never even crossed my mind. Hell, we still had a rotary phone in my house, and the closest thing I ever saw to a cell phone back in those days was a year or so later when I started watching Sonny Crockett use his carcar_phone phone on Miami Vice. And I always figured those things would be so far out my reach financially that I’d never get a chance to own one.

Hindsight truly is 20/20—or better. I can look back now and say I shoulda gone to college instead of going in the Army. Back then, I thought I wanted to be a mechanic and that’s what I went into the service for. I was a 63 Bravo, which back then was (deep breath) a Light-Wheel Vehicle/Power Generation Mechanic/Recovery Specialist. In other words, we worked on wheeled vehicles under five tons and learned how to use tow trucks.

armyThe Army way, of course.

By the time I got out in 1987, a mechanic was the last thing I wanted to be. By then, the dream was to be a musician in a heavy metal band, specifically a drummer. I’ve never really had the patience to learn chords, but I can keep a beat pretty good. Over the years, that dream fell by the wayside, partly because it takes real dedication to be a drummer. If you wonder what I’m talking about, go to a live show early some time and watch the drummer carry in and set up his kit. Lots of parts there.

But in the meantime, the dream of being a writer slowly emerged to take place of the musician dream. It was very slow, granted, and there were lots of years when I barely wrote a word. But I read constantly, soaking in a lot of good stuff.

In 2008, I found myself a victim of the Great Recession. This had two effects on me. The first was being unemployed for almost four years. There was a short stint working for the Census in 2010, but that didn’t last. And I got one factory job that lasted all of two weeks or so before they decided I didn’t come to the job already knowing how to do it, so I didn’t fit their mold. It was (and still is, I’m sure) an employers’ market.

I lost count of the number of applications I filled out and basically threw in the trash can for all the good they did me.

Back in early 2008, I started attending online college for a bachelors in Network Administration. Despite being leery of computers in the eighties, as they grew more common in everyday life I became fascinated with them. I’ve always been the kind of person who likes to see what’s going on behind the scenes, and learning programming and networking fits right into that. I’m not motivated enough to write operating systems, but web programming—especially the basic stuff you do with HTML and CSS—is enjoyable. Write few lines of code, click Save, refresh the browser, and see the result blink into life. Very satisfying.

But after my negative experience with online college—we had a falling out when their financial department couldn’t find their ass with a map and flashlight, much less keep things straight with my educational loans—I was reluctant to get back into the field of learning. But after you throw away so many applications and have to sell enough plasma to leave a junkie scar on your inner elbow, you decide maybe you need a different plan.

After all, like the saying goes, if you keep doing what you’re doing, you’re gonna keep getting the same results. To expect anything else is the definition of insanity.

ntiBut I didn’t have time to pursue a degree. So I opted for a technical school. It gave me hands-on training—something that was sorely lacking in online classes—and promised a very good chance of getting a job afterwards.

I initially set out to take networking. I’d had some Java programming in college and knew I wasn’t programmer material. But when I found out I had a much better of chance of being employed if I took both programs, I signed up.

dreamweaverSpeaking from experience, JavaScript and PHP were invented by Satan. But HTML and CSS aren’t so bad. And if you’ve got a WYSIWYG program like Dreamweaver or Expression Studio, it’s even easier.

It seemed like from the moment I decided to go back to school, things started falling in place. My first novel was accepted for publication (having so much time off meant I got to do a lot of writing), and I’ve managed to score a place in Oghma Creative Media as Director of Digital Media—which will mean something when we get on a paying basis. Let me rephrase that: it already means something, and I’m enjoying the position, even if I sometimes feel like maybe I’ve jumped in the deep end of the pool. It’s just not delivering a paycheck. Yet. I have faith that when it does, it’ll pay off handsomely.

So here I am, about to graduate at 49, and it feels good. I overcame hurdles, such as failing my math class first time around and passing it with a B on the second try.

Now maybe I’ll have the urge to get back to my real vocation: writing.

Thanks to everybody who supported me along the way.



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The Salinger Contract

05book "The Salenger Contract" by Adam Langer.Have you ever wondered what happened with writers like J.D. Salinger, Harper Lee, and others like them who made a huge splash in the literary world, and then…just disappeared? At least in the sense of writing more books. Mr. Salinger—according to one rumor—is supposed to have continued writing while in seclusion, putting his manuscripts in safe deposit boxes. And Harper Lee? Well, according to some, Truman Capote—another one-hit wonder of sorts—actually wrote most of To Kill A Mockingbird and she was never able to follow up on it.

Well, I can’t tell you what happened to these and other writers who did this, but you can find one version of what might have happened in The Salinger Contractby Adam Langer.

Mr. Langer breaks the fourth wall in many ways. First of all, he’s both the author and narrator of this book, though the Adam Langer in the story is a fictional version. The fictional version is a stay-at-home dad in Bloomington, Indiana, whose wife, Sabine, is a professor. Adam is also friends with Conner Joyce, a crime fiction writer whose book sales have been falling off lately.

Adam and Conner met when Adam lived in New York—Manhattan, of course—and ran a magazine called Lit in which he interviewed authors. They appreciated him because he quoted them verbatim in his profiles, and accompanied these profiles with flattering pictures. He states that no one thought Maurice Sendak and Stephen King were handsome until he ran profiles on them.

Conner is on a book tour, pushing his latest at the Bloomington Borders, and he has fonder memories of Adam than Adam does of him. It’s not that Adam has bad memories of Conner—it’s just that Conner apparently considers them to be better friends than Adam does. The upshot of this is that, after a reading at the Borders, Conner starts telling him a story of meeting a man named Dex Dunford in Chicago after another disastrous reading at another Borders. It’s disastrous because, just across the street at Barnes & Noble, Margot Hetley, author of the Vampire Wizards Chronicles, is having a reading. Margot is hugely successful with her almost brainless stories—bringing to mind another popular author—of vampires and wizards battling one another and also having long sex scenes that produce hybrids known as vampards.

Dex Dunford has a proposal for Conner: write a novel just for him, preferably another crime novel, and in return, Dex will pay Conner $2.5 million. The stipulation is that he must write the novel either in longhand or on a typewriter, and the copy Dex pays for will be the only one in existence.

Dex then proceeds to show manuscripts from…Harper Lee, J.D. Salinger, Truman Capote, and other authors whojdsalinger disappeared after writing their novel for Dex.

At first, Conner isn’t sure what to write. He even tries writing stuff that’s not normal for him, but doesn’t get anywhere until he visits his publisher Sascha who has just had a visit from Margot Hetley, who has brought her the latest installment of the Vampire Wizards Chronicles on a jewel-encrusted, monogrammed flash drive. That’s when he gets the inspiration to write a heist novel in which the flash drive is stolen.

Conner is known for the meticulous detail in his novels, detail he makes sure is authentic through exhaustive research. He puts this detail in the book for Dex, only to find out later that the flash drive really was stolen. And, of course, Dex is the one who stole it.

I won’t reveal any more of the plot. I think that’s enough spoilers for this review, and quite a few more than I usually reveal. Suffice it to say things only get more complicated from there, if you can imagine that, so if what I’ve told you sounds interesting, find The Salinger Contract and give it a read.

harperleeIt’s not a perfect book by any means. There’s a lot of infodump in the beginning. It’s necessary information, I’m just not sure if it was presented the best way it could have been. But, being as this is a more literary novel than most of my fare, I guess it’s allowable. I would like to add that he makes fun of those who inhabit the literary world of books with lots of emotion but very little plot going for them, even characterizing many of the literature professors at the university as people who talk about books they’ve never actually read.

A fairly astute characterization, if you ask me.

On the whole, though, this is a good book, and it does a good job of portraying the world we authors find ourselves in with the looming failure of the Big Publishing Houses and the switch to ebooks and the surge of independent publishers. It’s a tumultuous time in publishing, and Mr. Langer brings that to the fore. For me, it’s a bit like riding a monster wave, trying to stay on top as you’re heading for the beach.trumancapote

Mr. Langer also puts enough twists and turns in his plot to keep you guessing, including one that recurred a lot that I especially liked in which Adam thinks he’s going to be the one who rescues the plot line of this real-life conspiracy only to be continually disappointed…and yet, in the end, he gets a job that lets him be the hero.

So if you want to read a book of writers writing about writing, go pick up a copy of The Salinger Contract. If nothing else, it’s a satirical, tongue in cheek look at the state of publishing today, and he uses an interesting story to illustrate all this.



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