Friday, October 24, 2014

The prologue from THE STITCHER FILE - available on all e-readers

As she’d done almost every working day for the past year, Dr. Aparajita Chatterjee, medical examiner for Polk County, Iowa, closed her file on the geologist Clyde Renner but let it sit on her desk for a full ten minutes, simply thinking about what the autopsy results implied, wondering who she should ask for an independent interpretation of the results, and sometimes shaking her head. She’d never seen a case like this one—so simple and obvious yet so complex, with so many people involved and such an unsatisfying set of conclusions, especially with those traces of veterinary pharmaceuticals in his blood. The unusual mix of attorneys, donors, and hackers who showed up at the college immediately after Renner’s death, and the apparent reasons for their interest in Renner’s work, only added to Dr. Chatterjee’s feeling that there was more to the scientist’s demise than just a routine heart attack and stroke.
The deceased had been delusional, that much was clear from the interviews and the conditions under which he was found, but there was nothing in the results that actually showed, at least convincingly, that his mental state was a significant contributor, or even an immediate one, to his death. Dr. Chatterjee struggled with that last conclusion, based only on statistics from similar cases over the previous decade. There had been times, in the past year, when she’d let her imagination run wild, and in the process found herself thinking not like the cool, analytical, pathologist she was, but almost like a writer working on her fantasy novel about a perfect murder. According to the interviewees, the man had no friends or close colleagues in his department at the small college where he reigned over a geology department filled with typical scientists and a couple of subdued staff members, women paid a pittance and expected to perform daily miracles, especially in the case of that accountant. Dr. Chatterjee had detected no outright hostility in any of these people, only a silent anger and an unspoken sense of relief that Clyde Renner was dead.
Renner’s mental condition, inferred from what his colleagues had said about him and what she’d found in his house, was no worse than others she knew about. Although infested with fleas and bedbugs, and cluttered with empty vodka bottles that should have been in the trash, or recycled, the house at 409 Cherry Lane, where he’d been found in the kitchen lying next to his starving and dehydrated Irish setter, was not the worst she’d ever been in to deal with a body. Her files contained cases of true psychotics—including serial killer victims, suicides, women who’d been beaten to death by their husbands, and kids who’d overdosed on whatever combination of drugs happened to be in vogue among the young and stupid. Yet there was something about the Renner case that just refused to disappear from her thoughts and resisted the closure that a medical examiner needs in order to proceed with a clear mind to the next unexpected death under suspicious circumstances.
She opened the file again, for maybe the two-hundredth time, and read through all the interview transcripts, her own assessment of Renner’s blood chemistry and histological specimens, and the descriptions of his home provided by those who’d had early access, including that guy from Homeland Security, the FBI agents, Renner’s son, and the nice but decidedly small-town policemen. Dr. Chatterjee’s education included an undergraduate degree, with honors, from Harvard, medical school also at Harvard, a residency in pathology at Johns Hopkins, and a doctorate in molecular biology from Case Western Reserve. None of this education, or her subsequent experience, seemed to help her forget about Clyde Renner, put the file away, and get on to the next challenge.
Dr. Chatterjee looked out her office window at the sleet and snow moving sideways, blanking out the familiar scene that told her she was at work: industrial buildings, a warehouse, and run-down frame houses. She needed to go home before she was locked in by the blizzard. She looked at her watch; 10:23 AM. She would never forget the time when her smart phone played its familiar tune, or the number that was now displayed on the small screen in her hand.

This excerpt is the prologue from THE STITCHER FILE, which is the second of the Gideon Marshall Mystery Series. It's available as an e-book from all the regular online sources.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

An excerpt, regarding oil drilling in North Dakota, from BERNICE AND JOHN: FINALLY MEETING YOUR PARENTS WHO DIED A LONG TIME AGO

This excerpt is from the e-book BERNICE AND JOHN: FINALLY MEETING YOUR PARENTS WHO DIED A LONG TIME AGO, available on kindle, nook, and other e-readers:

We can never know for sure why people do things. We can know what they say about their actions, and we can analyze the rationale behind their acts, but their innermost thoughts about what they’ve just done cannot be recovered, nor can we know what goes through the minds of those most deeply affected by decisions carried out. And so it is with John and Bernice in 1952. My mother was silent; she never talked about her husband’s relinquishment of a good career with an established company or about the consequences of that act a couple of years later. In a very small and symbolic way, my parents were re-playing the great historical migrations in which human beings left the certainty of a particular social and economic realm and set forth upon an adventure with unpredictable results and at a particularly vulnerable time in their lives. It’s great bar talk to speculate whether this same kind of unrest is hard wired into members of the genus Homo, thus, perhaps, fueling the original migrations out of sub-Saharan Africa two million years ago. My father would do it again within twenty four months, this time taking even more of a gamble, with his children’s futures even more vulnerable to disruption, and at a time when global events—especially the development of Middle Eastern petroleum resources following World War II—virtually assured his failure.
After leaving Tidewater, he took a position with a smaller company owned by a man named Laurence Youngblood, a very successful independent developer of oil properties. Compared to the Tidewater offices in the Hales Building—now demolished—Youngblood’s suite in the First National Bank building was luxurious. I visited his office there once and the memory is of dark wood, carpeted floors, and leather-covered chairs. A woman came in to the room where John was drawing one of his elegant maps. She had some papers in her hand and asked him a question about them, in the process putting her knee up on a chair and revealing a long length of very nice leg, quite possibly on purpose. I was sitting down in a chair next to this leg, so I don’t remember her face. Now, after working in offices for nearly fifty years, I can easily wonder whether those papers were simply an excuse to be in the room. That would not surprise me; my father could be a very interesting and patient man, qualities that evidently—if the fate of Enron Corporation is any indication—are becoming increasingly rare in the corporate world, especially that portion of it involved in the commercial development of fossil energy resources.
But over the next year or so after leaving Tidewater, it must have become obvious to both Bernice and John that something was wrong; as in the case of Tidewater, I sensed that my mother contributed significantly to her husband’s decisions. Youngblood was not a correct match, either, or else they saw no future in the company, but then again it could just as easily have been the winter in North Dakota that made my father resign from Youngblood and set out on his own as a consulting geologist. The year was 1953, and in late November he was sent to “sit” on a well somewhere near Bismarck. This phrase—“sit on a well”—was a familiar part of our family conversation; it meant go out to the rig, collect, wash, and examine the tailings (“samples”), call in Halliburton to run an electric log if necessary, perhaps call for a core, all preliminary to declaring the well ready for casing, perforation, and production, or, of course, a dry hole.
If it happened to be the right time of year, I’d sometimes get to go for a couple of days, maybe sleeping in the back seat of a company car or eating Vienna sausages and crackers in a cheap motel room while my father napped, waiting for a 3:00AM encounter with some candidate oil sand. Well drilling and sitting are 24/7 jobs; nobody can declare that the target formation will be reached a mile under the ground always at 10:00AM right after coffee and a leisurely donut. But I would not be going on the well sit near Bismarck in November; the overnights would turn into a month, maybe two, and Bernice and John both knew it. The Bismarck trip was only the latest of lessons in which I learned that certain professions required duty well beyond 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, and indeed the life of any professional could easily be a 24/7/365 commitment to one’s “job.”
Before he left, my father bought us a television set, upon which I then watched the Joseph McCarthy hearings. When he returned in February, he handed me a salted porcupine skin bought from “an Indian woman” who subsequent to skinning it, had eaten the animal. Now, more than half a century after the fact, I detect my father’s thoughts about his son—‘Johnny would like that skin; I’ll just buy it.’ The porcupine skin survived in our garage for several years; I still have some of the quills from it. He also returned with heavy army surplus clothing—40s period Arctic gear—that I still have and use sometimes in Nebraska. Whenever I don this long parka, it occurs to me that whatever clothing allowed Cro-Magnon people to survive the Ice Ages in Europe would probably also allow me to fire up the snow blower and clear a suburban sidewalk on the North Central American Great Plains during some February of the Third Millennium.
The porcupine skin was an artifact straight out of the 19th Century, symbolic of Little Big Horn, Wounded Knee, and the destruction of culture as a fact of human existence. The surrogate father television set with Joseph McCarthy leering through its lens, polluting an Oklahoma City living room with his hatred and disdain, was an artifact of modernism. Thus it was not the machine itself that turned out to be an unforeseen product of Hiroshima, but what it expressed, namely, a fear of communism, symbolized by the giant Soviet Union, and the manifestation of that fear—a United States Senator from Wisconsin. This same technology could, however, with the passage of a few hours, evolve quietly into confirmation that the American family had a bumbling titular husband, a feisty-mouthed red-headed wife, and conspiratorial neighbors. All was well; Lucille Ball cancelled out Joseph McCarthy—at least in our minds. Except in Bernice Locke’s mind that is. The McCarthy hearings were real; I Love Lucy was not; and never, ever, would Bernice’s children be allowed to forget the distinction.
The only other obvious and immediate multicultural result of my father’s winter in Bismarck was some vocabulary, for example, “head bolt heater,” a term that he used with a certain amount of amazement, perhaps more for the idea than for the resulting technology. A head bolt heater was a cylinder head bolt designed as a heating element and plugged into a wall socket in your garage; an automobile engine thus warmed would start when it was minus 30oF outside. The fact that its name entered our family lexicon was not deemed strange in any way. We learned the language of men looking for oil by listening to John’s long distance phone calls. All of the oil field words and grammar, all of the language of petroleum geologists discussing, late at night over a long distance connection, what to do about a hole into which money is draining at an alarming rate, and all the catch phrases involved in negotiating a lease also came into our home by way of my father’s work.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

An excerpt from BE CAREFUL, DR. RENNER, first of the Gideon Marshall Mystery Series, now available on all e-readers.

Here is a short excerpt from BE CAREFUL, DR. RENNER. This e-books, and the sequel--THE STITCHER FILE--second in the Gideon Marshall Mystery Series, are both available on all e-readers.

“I don’t know what detective Branch is able to do, or what he knows,” replied Mary, with a touch of sarcasm. She could easily have finished the sentence by saying “besides hassling us with his stupid conspiracy theories” but she didn’t. Nevertheless, in my mind I heard her say it.
“I’ll check with Elizabeth and find some time this afternoon to review those records.” I acted as if I knew exactly how to go about this task. “So let me get this straight: tomorrow, Branch is coming to do his version of an audit, and Mr. Stevens, along with his attorney, is also showing up to do God knows what about his daughter’s grade appeal. Right?”
“That’s correct, Dr. Marshall.” She tried to smile but the attempt was not very successful.
“Is there a chance they will be here at the same time?” A worst case scenario passed through my mind briefly, left, returned, lingered, and like a ghost, developed into something more elaborate.
“I don’t know, Dr. Marshall.”
The expression on her face indicated she was being truthful. Over the past week, I’d learned to translate Mary Duling’s body, and facial, language in a way I’d never noticed in her previous 23 years as our department receptionist and general assistant to the chairman. Aside from our shared appreciation for good dark roast coffee, we didn’t have much in common, or have a reason to engage in social conversation. But if you have Clyde Renner’s files at your disposal, and have read at least a few of them, Mary’s posture, facial expression, and tone of voice tell you a lot more than you could discover from either the files, or conversation, alone. What is my conclusion from all this amateur psychology? Mary Duling hated Clyde Renner enough to kill him, but had no experience as a hit-lady, and no real weapons at her disposal—at least to my knowledge.
“There is something else you’ll want to read, Dr. Marshall.”
“Some secret file, I presume?” My feeble effort to lighten up the conversation.
An answer I did not expect. Mary walked to a file cabinet, opened up the bottom drawer, pulled out a file, and laid it in front of me. The tab read “A. Stevens.” Clyde Renner kept a file on at least one coed and was stupid enough to keep it in his office. As I opened it, I half expected to see pictures of some babe without any clothes on. Instead, there were letters from her father, copies of her grade reports, and a scathing memo from Rebecca Stitcher demanding that Charles Weatherford be fired for violation of our policies regarding sexual relationships between students and faculty members. In Clyde’s easily recognizable scrawl, he’d written across the memo: TOTAL BULLSHIT.

 Let me know if you'd like to do a review of either of these books and I'll see if I can get you a free download code for iPad or laptop.

Monday, October 6, 2014


Below is an excerpt, from INTELLIGENT DESIGNER, that deals with irrationality in public office, regardless of whether that irrationality is politically astute or not. Nowadays, with so much willful ignorance being spewed in the political realm, and a couple of unqualified GOP candidates running for high office in my state, I thought this excerpt was applicable to our situation:

Thomas Frank, a journalist and Wall Street Journal columnist, describes an outstanding example of such population-level scientific illiteracy in his best-selling book What's the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (Metropolitan Books, 2004). Despite all kinds of evidence to the contrary, Kansans seem to consistently vote against their own vested economic interest and Frank’s only credible explanation is that the state simply has been taken over by a conservative ideology that is so severe it blinds the majority of voters to any rational and objective analysis of their situation.
Frank’s book formalizes our impressions of scientific illiteracy at the state level through use of data, i.e., a rather scientific approach. He gives us economic figures that nobody argues with (observations, records, neutral information), then proceeds to express his amazement at Kansans’ apparent willful ignorance relative to this information. Frank was preceded by Barbara Tuchman, who used a similar narrative strategy in her book The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam (Knopf, 1984), again asking the question: why do nations behave in ways that are clearly counter to their own vested interests? Individuals often seem to have the answer to this question; populations rarely do. Thus we have the big take-home lesson for elected officials: if an action is in the public’s best interest, and everyone can plainly see that this course of action is in the public’s best interests, yet the public is determined not to carry out the action, then an elected official’s job is to convince the public to behave otherwise, not to do what the public wants. If that sentence seems long and convoluted, then try reading it again a few times. The lesson is not a very difficult one to understand; it can be exceedingly difficult to apply, however, sort of like stopping a runaway train, although in this case the train is made of willful ignorance and outright stupidity.

ID is available as an e-book on kindle, nook, and smashwords, and as a nice paperback from createspace.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Writing assignment in a natural history museum


     Her trek through the arcane jungles of Invertebratology to the shores
of Dunwoody Pond began when she was given a small card with an odd name on
it: Siphonia tulipa.  Go to wonderland, she was told, and find Siphonia
tulipa.  But when she climbed the shining marble staircase and pushed open
the ancient creaking doors, she found so many elegant items that she forgot
Siphonia tulipa for a time, and became lost among the rock leaves, stared
back at the stone eyes looking up at her from their beds of green felt,
took a trip back four hundred million years, riding there in the frozen
writhing arms of a black star, felt sadness for the crushed flowers that
were not real flowers at all, but sea lilies, from a far off time.
     Around her feet the children played, and ran calling to one another to
come look at all the strange creatures made of rocks and epoxy and
information and the hard work of people who dug into the Earth for evidence
of past worlds.  I must find Siphonia tulipa, Tami thought, eventually, and
when I do, it will be the most beautiful of all these wonders.  She was
wrong.  It was not the most beautiful, nor the most complex of fossils in
the museum, but it was hers, for upon the card she'd been given was not
only a lyrical name, but also an assignment:  write a story, about Siphonia
tulipa, that will make one of these children want to grow up to be just
like me.  She leaned over, then, staring closely through the glass, and
asked her questions of the rock:  What is your secret?  How do I make a
person choose an animal, then because of that choice, choose a life, just
by telling a story?  What kind of a story might this one be? 

If you are a teacher, reading this short excerpt, I hope you are inspired to find a variety of ways to use your local museums as classroom resources. I did it for decades; nobody got hurt; my colleagues generally thought I was out of control for doing it. They were wrong.