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Review: Fan Fiction

We’ve all heard stories of the celebrity who is stalked by a psycho fan. But we’ve never heard it as told in Fan Fiction: A Mem-Noir Inspired by True Events written by Brent Spiner.

The story opens on the set of Star Trek: The Next Generation where Spiner is removing the gold makeup that turns him into Mr. Data. There is a knock on his trailer door and a large package, a gift from a fan, is delivered. I won’t spoil the surprise by telling you what’s in the box, but I’ll just say it shocks Spiner and freaks him out. It rreaked me out too.

The story continues with Spiner pulling in the LAPD, the FBI, a body guard, visiting with numerous friends, and telling stories of life on and off the set of his TV series, as they all try to find out the identity of the fan.

The line gets blurred between fact and what’s fiction. You’ll read a chapter and swear it’s fiction. But is it?

Oh yeah, the book is laugh-out-loud funny. Absolutely one of the best books of the year. Even if you’re not a fan of TNG, you’ll love this book.

Review: The Rat Began to Gnaw the Rope

Attorney Gil Henry gets a call to help a woman sell some stock. He’s not exactly the right person to do this, but he helps anyway. And that’s when trouble starts. His car tire is shot out. The man trying to buy the stock is shot to death. His client’s adopted brother is arrested for the murder. The wife of the stock buyer dies suddenly. The neighbor across the street is killed. Along the line, Gil is thrown off the case by his boss, he’s beat up…multiple times, he’s shot. Can Gil solve the murders? This was the first mystery published by C. W. Grafton. Written in 1943, it’s a look into the world in the middle of World War II. The language is rough, indicative of the time. And it’s a top-notch mystery. This book is also considered one of the earliest examples of putting humor into a mystery. Oh, and in case you recognize the name Grafton, C. W. was the father of Sue Grafton.

Review: The Chestnut Man

The Chestnut Man: A Novel by [Soren Sveistrup]

Naia Thulin is ready to leave the Major Case squad in Denmark for a new position with the cybercrimes unit, NC3. But when she’s suddenly paired with Hess, a screw-up from Europol in the Hague who has been sent back to Denmark, she can’t wait to get out. They are soon assigned to investigate a series of kidnappings a gruesome murder where a woman had her hands cut off with a saw. A single clue is left behind, a doll made out of chestnuts…a chestnut man. But this clue is more strange as it has the fingerprint of a girl who had been kidnapped and assume killed (a man confessed) a year ago. The girl was the daughter of government minister Rosa Hartung. The killings become more gruesome and more of the girl’s fingerprints keep turning up. Police leaders state it’s coincidence and the girl is dead but something keeps bothering Thulin and Hess.

In his debut novel, Søren Sveistrup has put together a masterpiece procedural. Gripping, intense, complex, spooky, thrilling, The Chestnut Man is a absolute must read. This may be the best book I’ve read all year.

Miranda Warnings

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We’re all familiar with the Miranda Warning. The reading of your rights came out of a 1966 Supreme Court case where it was determined that the rights of Ernest Miranda had been violated in his arrest in Arizona. On TV, we often see a suspect sitting in an interrogation room. The cops may ask each other if he’d been read his rights. But, as we should know, TV often gets things wrong and this is one of them.

Police can, and in real life often, do what is called a non-custodial interview where they don’t need to Mirandize the person they are questioning. There are two conditions that must exist for someone to be Mirandized.

The first condition is interrogation. If the person is being questioned, this condition is true. It can be at the suspects home, standing in a field, or in an interrogation room. Police generally prefer an interrogation room because they can more easily control things.

The second condition is custody. If the police say, “You are free to leave at anytime” and then allow you to leave, there was no custody. But if at anytime the police stop you from leaving for any reason, such as you don’t want to answer any more question, you are hungry, or you have to use the restroom, you are in custody.

If both conditions are not met, Miranda is not required.

Let’s look at a scenario. Fred is a suspect in a murder investigation. Detectives show up at his house and begin to ask questions. Fred gets up, goes to the kitchen and returns with a pack of cigarettes and lights up. A few minutes later, he admits to being the killer. The police then handcuff him, read him his rights, and takes him to the station. Is Fred’s admission admissible in court?

The answer is yes. Fred was not in custody at the time he admitted to the murder. But, any good cop would have him repeat his confession or even write it out, after the arrest.

So, to keep your stories accurate, remember my Miranda Warning.

Fingerprinting

Recently a question came up in one of my Facebook groups.

Do forensic techs still use black fingerprint powder? How do they life the prints? Do they cleanup the scene afterwards?

The answer wasn’t as simple as it sounds. But let’s start with how fingerprints are left. When you touch an object, the oils from your fingers are left on the object. This oil residue remains in the shape of your fingerprint. Fingerprints are different on everyone (almost, more on that in a moment). Even identical twins have different fingerprints. And, fingerprints start developing in the womb. Some criminals have tried to burn off their prints, but modern techniques still allow forensics to lift the print. Now, about that almost. There is a very rare genetic condition called Adermatoglyphia that causes the person to not develop fingerprints. It is so rare that only four families worldwide are known to have it.

Next we have to understand different types of prints. There are latent, which are invisible to the eye. This is what you see on TV and what I’m discussing here. Patent prints are in a substance like blood. And plastic prints are in a three-dimensional object such as putty. Law enforcement has even lifted plastic prints from a block of cheese.

The last thing to consider is the surface where the print has been left. For latent prints, the surface needs to be non-porous. That means it has to be hard like metal, wood, glass, or Formica.

But what about the powders that the poster asked about? Powders are used to find latent prints. In general, black fingerprint powder is used about 99% of the time, but they’ll use the powder color that gives the greatest contrast. So, if trying to get prints off of a light-colored object, a dark colored powder is used. If the object is dark-colored, a light colored powder is used. The doesn’t necessarily mean black and white. Powders come in several different colors including grey, pink, blue, green, silver-black, and others. Also, powders are made with different materials, some are magnetic, which are used in dry, desert climates or when the possible print has dried out. Powder can also be fluorescent, making it show better in the dark.

The tech will apply the powder to the area that is being fingerprinted. You don’t want to use too much as powder is expensive. The 2 oz. jar above costs $11.35. Also, if too much powder is used, then more has to be removed. The brush is used to help distribute and then remove excess powder. Ideally, only the fingerprint and a bit of residue remains. Then you use lifting tape. This is clear tape made especially for this. There are different types of tape for different surfaces. The tape is more like clear package sealing tape than cellophane tape (Scotch tape.) The tape is placed directly over the fingerprint. Technically, you are lifting the powder, which adheres to the oils left by the print.

The tape is then pressed onto a Lift Card. This is a 3″x5″ card. The back is blank and shiny. This is where the print is placed. The front has spaces for information such as case number, where the print was lifted from, date and time, officer or technician information, etc. This video shows the process.

The print can then be run through databases for a match. If you have been arrested, your prints will be on file. Computers are used to identify possible matches. A human must determine if the prints taken from the scene match any of the possible matches returned by the computer.

In older shows, you see the suspect has her fingers rolled onto an ink pad then onto a card. She then wipes the ink off her fingers with a paper towel. This card is not the same one for the print taken at the crime scene. Today, you mostly see the suspect fingerprinted digitally, so no more messy ink pads.

One important note for you authors. When a fingerprint has a circular shape, the correct term is whorl, not swirl.

So, who cleans up? It isn’t forensics. It isn’t the police. If your house or office is a crime scene, you clean up. Or you hire someone to do it.

And there you have it. If you want hands-on training for lifting fingerprints, I highly recommend The Writer’s Police Academy. I’ve taken fingerprint classes there taught by forensics experts, many of whom teach law enforcement the same techniques.

Writing Unplugged

This pandemic has not been kind to my writing. My wife and I live in a small townhome condominium so we have limited space. And when my oldest child had to move in after losing a job just before the pandemic, we had even less space. To top it off, my day job moved to remote work and my writing space became my work space. Being there all day for work killed any desire to be in that room at night to get some writing done.

The kid finally moved out, but work-from-home will be the default for the day job for the foreseeable future. When I heard about a three-day June writer’s retreat inside Capitol Reef National Park in Southern Utah, I was all-in.

If you’re not familiar with a writing retreat, they are magical. Words seem to naturally migrate from brain to fingertips to keyboard. It’s several days designed to mostly writing. Some offer optional classes, critiques, goal setting, and other things. This one did have classes, which I mostly passed on because I wanted to write. And I did.

It also helped that we were off the grid. 100% off. The location is a remote area of the park that is owned by the National Park Service, but run by Utah Valley University. There is no cell service. No wi-fi. All the electricity is solar generated on-site. All the water comes from a well and then processed with an on-site water purification plant. They compost. They even measured water usage and weighed trash to determine our impact on the environment.

Magic happened. Many words were written. Huge progress on the novel was made. Fantastic input was accepted. New friends were made. And I revisited the amazing scenery of Capitol Reef that I last saw way back when I was in high school.

If you are a writer, I encourage you to find a writing retreat in your area. Just get away for a few days.

Review: The Counterfeit Connection

Tony Flaner is one unlucky private investigator. Everything he touches seems to go bad…or get worse. Yet, he somehow manages to solve the crime anyway.

This the fourth (fifth if you count a novella) installment from Johnny Worthen, Tony is up to his eyeballs in cases. He gets four in one night. This time, he’s closer to home in Park City. Which is a welcome location as it gets him out of the awful air of Salt Lake City’s winter inversion.

He’s also up against people planning a coup in a Southeast Asian country and people who aren’t who they seem to be. A rival PI that has it out for Tony doesn’t help either. And, as you would expect, Tony figures he’s lost his girlfriend. Again.

This book is full of the wit and sarcasm we expect from Tony. Does he solve the crime. And the crime. And the crime. And the crime. (I told you, four cases.) Does he get the girl?

If you’re looking for a light and funny summer read, The Counterfeit Connection is a sure hit. Four stars.

Disclaimer: I was provided with an early access copy of the book.

The Counterfeit Connection: A Tony Flaner Mystery by [Johnny Worthen]

County Sheriff or City Police?

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I have seen lots of questions online recently about the County Sheriff. These are questions like Does the Sheriff report to the Police Chief? or Can someone help me understand the differences between detectives in a Sheriff Department and a city police department? Titles, reporting, cases across counties…any subject will help. I don’t know what I don’t know.

In this post I will explain the differences. As always, these are general guidelines and there are always local or regional exceptions. I will also explain some of those. Let’s start with the police department.

Police Department

Most cities have their own police department. These are funded by the city. The department head is the chief, who is hired by the city and reports to the mayor and city council, who are all elected. Some cities have a city manager, who is hired by the mayor and council. His job is to handle the day-to-day business needs of the city. The chief would also report to the city manager.

This department is responsible for policing inside the city limits. This includes traffic, patrol, detectives, etc. Some larger cities will have their own jail that may or may not be run by the police department. The larger the city, the more complete the forensics team will be. They will usually contract with a neighboring city, county, or state for more complex forensics work. Extremely large cities, like New York, have anti-terrorist units as part of the police department.

The org-chart of a police department is often made up of a Chief, a handful of Assistant Chiefs, followed by Captains, Lieutenants, Sergeants, and Officers. In many departments, Detective is not a rank, but an assignment. Some departments have different organizations. San Francisco has Inspectors rather than Detectives. Baltimore has Colonels. If you’re writing about a real city, check the department website or contact the department to learn how it’s organized.

Cities without a police department contract with a neighboring city or the county sheriff to provide police services. In this case, the city pays for those services.

Sheriff Department

The Sheriff Department is run by and funded by the county. The head of the department is the Sheriff, who is elected by all people of the county. He reports to the citizens but the department funding is controlled by the county commission, who is also elected.

The Sheriff has policing responsibility for areas of the county that are not inside a city, often called unincorporated areas. The Sheriff is also in charge of a county jail, prisoner transport (to and from court), and courthouse security. If your county has a search and rescue team, it is run by the sheriff.

The organization of a sheriff department is similar to a police department. Again, check with the department where your story is set to find out it is organized.

Cooperation and Exceptions

Often times a city or county needs help that it doesn’t have internally. This could be anything from forensics to murder investigation to traffic control to handle a multiple location or large-scale crime.

The city and county will know who to call for help. A few years ago there was a shooter driving through Salt Lake City, randomly shooting at cars and buildings. The crime scene stretch for many blocks. Salt Lake City police put out a general call for assistance because of size of the crime scene. Officers from as far away as 30 miles came to help. I remember seeing a line of nine police cars from outside Salt Lake City heading toward downtown, lights and sirens going.

There are also specialized needs that a city may not have. A smaller city is unlikely to have SWAT or a bomb squad, but the know who to call. The city that asks for help will get a bill from the city that helped to pay for the costs.

Other times, there may be a joint task force that works in multiple cities. A Gang Task Force is commonly setup with neighboring cities to fight this type of crime. The task force is paid for by each participating city and the command structure is determined by the agreement.

Other times, cities may be mandated to work together in different ways. In Utah, the state legislature passed a law that the three largest departments in Salt Lake County rotate over who investigates each other in the case of officer involved shootings or crimes committed by an officer.

If a city does not have a jail, it will contract with a neighboring city or usually the county, for jail services. The city needing jail service is billed by the jail.

In one unique and strange organization, the Salt Lake County Sheriff Department does not provide policing services. Instead, the Unified Police Department, of which the Sheriff is the Chief, provides those services. So cities without a police department will contract with Unified Police. The Sheriff Department handles the jail, prisoner transport, and search and rescue.

Forensics techs are not police officers. Contrary to what you see on CSI, forensics do not question suspects. They do not have arrest authority. They are civilians. Most states have a crime lab to handle things not done by a city. My city can process finger and shoe prints, photographs, ballistics, etc. But DNA, fibers, hair, and many other things are handled by the state crime lab.

I’m going to mention the coroner/medical examiner here even though they are not law enforcement. Remember that a coroner and ME are not the same thing. A coroner is elected and needs no medical training. A medical examiner has a medical degree and is hired. In Utah, the state runs the medical examiner’s office and it is part of the Utah Department of Health. No city or county has their own.

Finally I need to mention jurisdiction. You hear this all time on TV and in the movies, “We’re outside your city, cop, so you don’t have jurisdiction.” That may not be true. In Utah, all Law Enforcement Officers are certified by the state of Utah. This means they have can make an arrest anywhere in the state.

I hope this helps answer any question you have. And again, if you are writing about a real place, find out how that department is organized.

There are many more intricacies around crime investigation that are often shown incorrectly on TV and in movies. I have a presentation that discusses many of these tropes and how things are really done. Contact me if you are interested in having me speak to your group.

Parenthesis Negative

Imagine you are out for a drive in the country. It’s a wonderful summer day. The temperature is perfect, not too hot, not too cold. The air is not too humid nor too dry. The windows are down on your car and you can hear the birds chirping as you meander along the country road. Unexpectedly, are confronted with a road closed sign. You backup and head down a different road only to find it too is closed. As is the third. And fourth. And fifth. Your peaceful country drive is not so peaceful. You frustration continues to grow. Finally you give up, retrace to the original road, and head back home.

Once back home, you sit down to relax and pick up that new book you’ve been wanting to read. The one that has been receiving lots of praise and it’s pre-release press said it was highly anticipated. You start into the first paragraph and unexpectedly meet a parenthesis. It pulls you out of the story. You read the line again and continue. Only to be met with another parenthesis. And a third. And a fourth. And a fifth. Each time, you are pulled out of the story as you try to digest what’s inside them. You scan ahead and find just about every page has the same thing. You find you can no longer follow the story so you toss the book into the donate pile and never return to it.

This is what I’ve been met with twice in the last two months. Two different books. Two different authors. Two different publishers. I’ve been contemplating why this is happening. I certainly hope it isn’t a trend as each time, I get pulled out of the story. Like the road closed sign, the parenthesis is large, annoying, noticeable, and certainly overused. The only explanation I can come up with is it is some misguided attempt to make mystery/thriller into a literary work.

Here are two examples, the first, taken at random, is from Big Sky by Kate Atkinson.

“Don’t swear,” Jackson said automatically. It was pathetic in some ways (the smallest manned navy in the world!), but that was the charm of it, surely? The boats were replicas, the longest twenty foot at most, the others considerably less. There were park employees concealed inside the boats, steering them., The audience was sitting on wooden benches on raked concrete steps. For an hour before-hand an old-fashioned king of man had played an old-fashioned kind of music on an organ in a bandstand and now the same old-fashioned man was commenting on the battle. In an old-fashioned kind of way. (“Is this ever going to end?” Nathan asked.)

Jackson had come here as a kid once himself, not with his own family (when he had family) – they never did anything together, never went anywhere, not even a day trip. That was the working class for you, too busy working to have time for pleasure, and too poor to pay for it if they managed to find the time. (“Didn’t you hear, Jackson?” Julia said. “The class war’s over. Everyone lost.”) He couldn’t remember the circumstances – perhaps he had come here on a Scouts outing, or with the Boy’s Brigade, or even the Salvation Army – the young Jackson had clung to any organization going in the hope of getting something for free. He didn’t let the fact that he was brought up as a Catholic interfere with his beliefs. He had even signed a pledge at the age of ten, promising the local Salvation Army Temperance Society his lifelong sobriety in exchange for a lemonade and a plate of cakes. (“And how did that work for you?” Julia asked.) It was a relief when he eventually discovered the real Army, where everything was free. At a price.

The second, also taken at random, is from The Plot by Jean Hanff Koelitz.

May were the dreams of young Jacob Finch Bonner when it came to the fiction he would one day write. (The “Bonner”, in point of fact, wasn’t entirely authentic–Jake’s paternal great-grandfather had substituted Bonner for Bernstein a solid century before–but neither was the “Finch,” which Jake himself had added in high school as an homage to the novel that awakened his love of fiction.) Sometimes, with books he especially loved, he imagined that he had actually written them himself, and was giving interviews about them to critics or reviewers (always humble with his deflection of the interviewer’s praise) or reading from them to large, avid audiences in a bookstore or some hall full of occupied seats. He imagined his own photograph on the back jacket flap of a hard cover (taking as his templates the already outdated writer-leaning-over-manual-typewriter or writer-with-pipe) and thought far too often about sitting at a table, signing copies for a long, coiling line of readers. Thank you, he would intone graciously to each woman or man. That’s so kind of you to say. Yes, that’s one of my favorites, too.

These are two, randomly selected excerpts. I think if you counted up the parenthesis in either book, it would come out into the hundreds. Certainly when you scan down a page and see a dozen, you know it’s over used.

In the case of Big Sky, I abandoned the book. I started The Plot last night so the jury is still out. But each time I hit a parenthesis, I come to a complete stop and have to think carefully about the story and what is inside the parenthesis. It certainly doesn’t flow well.

So, who is to blame? I start first with the author. I include the editor and publisher. Why would you write a book that is difficult for the reader to consume? Don’t we as writers, writer for the reader? We should be. And as I said earlier, I hope this is not a new trend because if it is, it will cause me to stop buying books, which only hurts the author because reading, like a country drive, should be enjoyable.

Review: The Black-Eyed Blonde

When we think of the great detectives in American Hard-boiled Noir, two stand out. The first is Sam Spade created by Dashiell Hammett in the Maltese Falcon. The second is Philip Marlowe created by Raymond Chandler in The Big Sleep. Both these detectives came out about a decade apart with Spade being the first of the two. I often get these two mixed up. It doesn’t help that Humphry Bogart played both characters in the movies.

Back in 2014, a new Marlowe novel, The Black-Eyed Blonde came out, written by Benjamin Black, which is a pen-name for Booker Prize-winning novelist John Banville. I have to say, this book is every bit as good as any Marlowe story Chandler wrote. In fact, it’s as if Black channeled Raymond Chandler.

In this story, Marlowe is hired by Clare Cavendish to find her boyfriend who she saw on the street in San Francisco. Except, her boyfriend was declared dead two week prior. Marlowe sets out to figure out if the boyfriend is dead or alive and in general what’s going on. I don’t want to play spoiler so I’ll leave things there.

I figured out some of the mystery here, but not all of it, even though all the clues are there. Black does a masterful job of hiding them, many in plain sight. At times, I laughed out loud. I read passages to my writer wife because they were so well written. You can’t go wrong with The Black-Eyed Blonde. Five stars!