Survival Signals

woman with groceries
photo: Charles Nadeau, creative commons license

The situation described by the writer of a recent letter to Carolyn Hax, Washington Post advice columnist, sounded to Hax like “abuse.” I would never have guessed that, which is why she writes a successful newspaper column, and I don’t. One of the sources she suggested her correspondent consult was Gavin de Becker’s book, The Gift of Fear. At least I’d read the book! And grateful to be reminded of it. Perhaps it’s timely to repeat my review. The cover says, “This book can save your life,” and, whether that’s true, it sure can save the lives of the characters you’re writing about and suggest ways to put them in peril.

The Gift of Fear is a 1997 classic on recognizing the subtle signs of personal danger in many situations. So often in news stories about the capture of a murderer, people say, “We had no idea. She didn’t seem the type . . .” This book, like a 2018 FBI report, says baloney to that. There are signs. You just have to recognize them and accept their validity.

As a crime fiction writer, I hope those signs might be usefully incorporated in my stories, whether my bad-guy characters were aware of sending them and whether my good-guy characters perceived them. Or not. Especially or not.

The book’s author is Gavin de Becker, who has worked with government agencies and law enforcement and as a private consultant on personal threat assessment for media figures, victims of stalking, and others. Much of the book is written in the annoying “you can do it!” style of a self-help book, but his examples are excellent.

Especially useful was the chapter on “survival signals.” In it, he deconstructs the experience of a young woman he calls Kelly who encountered a helpful stranger in the lobby of her apartment building. When one of Kelly’s grocery bags spilled, he insisted on carrying the bags for her. He followed her into her apartment, then held her captive for three hours and raped her. She barely escaped with her life. Other women had not.

From the outset, Kelly received numerous signals that something about the man was “off,” which made her uneasy, though she couldn’t say why. De Becker says, “the capable face-to-face criminal is an expert at keeping his victim from seeing survival signals, but the very methods he uses to conceal them can reveal them.” The signals in Kelly’s case are easily adaptable to fiction.

Seven Key Survival Signals

  • Forced teaming—Kelly’s attacker tried to establish rapport with her, with statements like, “We’ve got to get these groceries upstairs.” A fictional criminal could plausibly say many similar things, like, “Luckily, we’re on the same side here.” David Mamet’s characters use this strategy superbly in his fascinating movie, House of Games.
  • Charm and niceness—Charm is a strategy, de Becker maintains, “a verb, not a trait.” The person trying to charm is a person who wants something. In two words: Ted Bundy.
  • Too many details—People trying to deceive pile on information, in the hope of being more persuasive. Details distract a potential victim from the bigger picture, which is that the encounter was (possibly) unsought and potentially problematic.
  • Typecasting—It’s human nature to want to be thought well of. Women, especially, are likely to demur or try to disprove a mild criticism, such as, “Someone like you probably wouldn’t give me the time of day.”
  • Loan sharking—A person may offer—indeed, may insist on—helping a potential victim, as Kelly’s assailant did. Putting her even slightly in his debt made it harder for her to rebuff him.
  • Unsolicited promises—“I’ll just put these groceries down, then leave. I promise.” De Becker says any unsolicited promise shows merely “the speaker’s desire to convince you of something.”
  • Discounting the word ‘no’—people with ill intent ignore a ‘no’ or try to negotiate it away. Either they are seeking control, or refusing to give it up.

Though even a benign character might display one or two of these behavioral traits, start piling them on, and readers will recognize the danger, even subliminally. They give characters real menace and ratchet up the tension long before the weapons come out!

Order it here on Amazon or from your local indie bookstore.

Coming Attractions

Detective Montalbano

Here’s an encomium for one of the most entertaining TV crime series ever—Italy’s Detective Montalbano. Read why it’s so popular, how it was made, and watch clips of the earliest episodes, with a preview for the very last one, coming July 6. We’ve watched all the seasons so far at our house, including the bonus interviews with actors, author, and crew.

Luca Zingaretti, who plays the taciturn Salvo Montalbano is especially interesting. He’s played the role so long, it’s fascinating to hear him display his deep understanding of the role and the values the late author, Andrea Camilleri imbued his creation with.

When the director insisted the show be filmed in Sicily (to the RAI backers’ skepticism), they visited the island’s community and regional theaters to find quintessential Sicilians to play the bit parts—the gossipy landlady of the deceased, the creepy boyfriend, the femme fatale sister—and, believe me, these actors make the most of it!

If you do visit the link above, at the bottom of the story, you’ll see reference to the Young Montalbano series. All the main characters in their younger days, with different actors channeling the later portrayals. A delightful way to feed your obsession! Both series have subtitles, but don’t let that put you off. Honestly, the Italian body language is so transparent, you begin to feel you don’t need them!

When we were in Sicily two years ago, there were Montalbano tours all over the southern region, pointing out places where this or that was filmed, primarily in the charming town of Ragusa (above).

The Unforgotten

Season 4 of the award-winning London-based police procedural about a cold case team returns to PBS, Sunday, July 11. Nicola Walker is brilliant as the lead detective with Sanjeev Bhaskar as her second. There’s a strong and believable relationship between them, and an appreciation of the long-lasting impact murder has on those left behind, handled admirably. Good, solid mysteries too (trailer).

Top Crime Writers Salute the Classics

Around the world, crime fiction is a top choice of the reading public. And there are SO MANY of these books, to the despair of every writer pondering how to promote their own new book in such a crowded field. But, what’s worth reading?

Let’s turn to the experts. Though publishers and others produce lists of the 20, 50, 100 “best” crime and suspense novels of all time, easily googlable, what do the real experts—authors themselves—say? The Guardian asked 25 top mystery writers for their picks and recently reprinted their replies—the article itself being a classic from 2018. (Purists will cringe at this carefree interchange of crime, mystery, and suspense, as if they are all one thing, but the categories are broad and their edges fuzzy.) Here are the first eight:

Val McDermid, who writes impeccable police procedurals, recommends On Beulah Height by Reginald Hill, which she calls “the perfect crime novel,” one that acknowledges the author’s roots in the traditional English detective novel, but also the “complexities of contemporary life.”

Lee Child, whose recommendations you will find on so many book covers, he must never say no to a request, suggests The Damned and the Destroyed by Kenneth Orvis. “The story was patient, suspenseful, educational and utterly superb. In many ways it’s the target I still aim at.”

Ian Rankin’s choice was Charles Dickens’s Bleak House. I’ve read this one! Against the background of a family fortune being frittered away by endless legal proceedings, Rankin wrote, “As in all great crime novels, the central mystery is a driver for a broad and deep investigation of society and culture.” Its strengths are a “mazey mystery,” shocking murder, slippery lawyer, and large cast of memorable characters. Dickens reportedly modeled Inspector Bucket on a real-life detective in Scotland Yard’s newly formed Detective Branch.

Sophie Hannah picked The Hollow, her “current favorite” of the Christie canon. She said the outdoor swimming pool scene in which Poirot discovers the murder is “the most memorable discovery-of-the-body scene in all of crime fiction.”

SJ Watson suggested Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938). Another check-mark! He called it “a dark, brooding psychological thriller, hauntingly beautiful, literature yes, but with a killer plot.” While it superficially appears to be a romantic drama, it is “an exploration of power, of the men who have it and the women who don’t.” Timeless? I hope not.

James Lee Burke picked Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River. I can’t claim to have read this one, but the movie was terrific. Burke said it’s “the best crime novel written in the English language.” Lehane’s poetic lines, reflecting to Burke’s ear an affinity for Victorian poet-priest Gerard Manley Hopkins “somehow heal the injury that his subject matter involves.”

Sara Paretsky’s choice was The Expendable Man by Dorothy B. Hughes, whose novels “crackle with menace.” This one plays out in a bleak New Mexico landscape. “Insinuation, not graphic detail, gives her books an edge of true terror.”

Dreda Say Mitchell, in a sort of ouroboros, recommended Lee Child’s debut novel, Killing Floor. She cited its parsimonious style, a lead character both traditional and original, and a plot “put together like a Swiss watch.” Plus the x-factor of righteous anger that leads Jack Reacher to single-handedly “dish out justice and protect the underdog.” Read this one too.

Some interesting choices among the remaining 17—including two authors who picked Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park. Time to reread it, apparently.

The 21st Century P.I.

Writers who focus on stories about crime are doubtless aware that the job description of today’s private detective has expanded dramatically. Tyler Maroney in his book: How Corporate Intelligence is Reshaping the World, looks far beyond the old-fashioned gumshoe, sitting in his beater, chain-smoking and sipping from a flask outside a no-tell motel. In fact, several of the books I’ve enjoyed most this year take advantage of investigators’ diverse roles–like New Jersey Noir: Cape May, and The Measure of Time.

Says Maroney, who has his own firm, Quest Research & Investigations, America’s 35,000 private investigators “are everywhere,” working for a long list of clients–large companies, government agencies, A-list movie stars, professional athletes, non-profits, sovereign nations, media organizations, and business tycoons. They work for lawyers preparing cases and politicians running for office. Why are they hired? To uncover wrongdoing, right wrongs (real or perceived), satisfy curiosity, and find someone or something, for revenge or competitive advantage. Sometimes the hiring is in a worthy cause, and sometimes it’s merely to feed paranoia.

The book describe a series of interesting cases, among them, helping a civil rights law firm free a wrongly incarcerated client, using computer forensics to ferret out employee fraud, conducting background checks on company executives before a client invests, recovering assets from American debtors hiding abroad, and negotiating with foreign strongmen. In the chapter on a surveillance assignment, he says (and this will be contrary to every television show you’ve ever seen), investigators cannot lie to a subject, they cannot impersonate or deceive. In many states, they cannot fabricate their identities. Despite the many prohibitions, Maroney says, “about once a month in my job, someone asks me to break the law.”

There are good stories here and no doubt equally good ones buried in some of those illegal requests. Enough story ideas to last the decade!

The sheer variety of the work is fascinating, especially for those who write about crime and what it takes to ensure an investigator’s clients “get the hidden information they need. We are lubricant, bandage, and weapon.”

Find it on Amazon or at your local indie bookstore.

Get Your Motor Running

Fifty-two years ago, Columbia Pictures released the low-budget film, Easy Rider (peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson) and saw its $400,000 investment balloon into more than $60 million in box office. Never an industry to ignore the possibility of a big payday, Hollywood got its motor running and two years later, the studios offered American audiences a rich diet of long hair, antisocial behavior, and oddball relationships.

With predictable results.

Despite the tepid audience reaction, in 1971, the industry here and in Britain produced intense, dramatic, even arty films that defy the year’s overall poor box office numbers. Film historian Max Alvarez highlighted a number of them in a Zoom program yesterday. Here are the ones I remember seeing that year. Remember these?

A Clockwork Orange – Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of a book by Anthony Burgess starring Malcolm McDowell. In a dystopian London, a crime spree is led by a young man obsessed with “ultra-violence” (everyday fare in 2021). Warner Brothers.

Klute – Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland star in this noir drama about a high-priced call girl who helps a detective solve the case of a business executive who’s gone missing. Fonda won the Academy Award for Best Actress, and I fell in love with Donald Sutherland. There’s a talkback about this film on Sunday, 6/27. (free, but register)

Roman Polanski’s Macbeth – starring Francesca Annis and Jon Finch. What I most remember about this were complaints about “so much blood.” 1971 was the year Charles Manson and his family were convicted of multiple murders, including that of Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate. His response was that he’d seen that crime scene: “I know about blood.”

The French Connection – a crime thriller directed by William Friedkin, starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider as NYPD detectives in pursuit of a wealthy French heroin smuggler. Even if you’ve never seen the whole movie, you’ve probably seen the car chase. Academy Awards for best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay, and best actor (Hackman). 20th Century Fox.

The Last Picture Show – based on a book by Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove), with Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Ben Johnson, Cybill Shepherd, and Cloris Leachman. Shot in black and white, it well portrays the bleakness of small-town life. Leachman and Johnson won Academy Awards for their supporting roles.

Harold and Maude – starring Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon. This film was among the year’s subversive comedies that Alvarez highlighted. A flop at the box office, it found its way to college campuses where it became a cult classic.

The Hospital – this satire, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Arthur Hiller, starred George C. Scott, Diana Rigg, and Robert Walden. Academy award for best original screenplay. Here’s a great scene.

The film was inspired in part by the poor hospital care his wife received, and Chayefsky became so leery of medical treatment that he didn’t get optimal care for his cancer and died at age 58.

Now, In Theaters!

Finally breaking out of our covid-cocoon and our addiction to streaming, in the last week we’ve seen two movies in an actual big-screen movie theater. Neither was too challenging to our dulled senses, whereas the previews of superhero films the theatres blasted at us were overwhelming, not in a good way.

Dream Horse

We’re suckers for horsy movies, and this pleasant film about a working class Welsh woman who gets the notion to raise a thoroughbred racehorse, though based on a true story, hits all the predictable Hollywood beats. Wild ambition, success, setback, and so on. Directed by Euros Lyn, the film stars Toni Collette, Damian Lewis, and Welsh actor Owen Teale (trailer). No new dramatic ground broken, but it eases you back into your theater seat. Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 89%; audiences 97%.

Enjoyment of the film is marred by awareness of the current state of U.S. thoroughbred racing, including the tanking reputation of super-trainer Bob Baffert and William Finnegan’s article in the 24 May New Yorker, “Blood on the Tracks,” about the dozens of race-horses who have died recently, especially at Santa Anita Park outside Los Angeles. Not an easy story to read if you love horses. As Finnegan points out, thoroughbred racing, “once the most popular spectator sport in America, has been in decline” for decades. Not because of high-minded animal rights concerns, but because it lost its near-lock on legal gambling before the pre-casino era.

In the Heights

A lively portrayal of the Latinx residents of Washington Heights, in sight of Manhattan’s George Washington Bridge. The film, directed by Jon M. Chu, based on Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway version (trailer), has not one, but two love stories! And expands the definition of family. The stars are engaging, the production numbers huge, and the music toe-tapping.

Anthony Ramos stars as the bodega owner who longs to return to the Dominican Republic where he says he had “the best days of my life.” Fans of Hamilton will find Miranda’s lyrics as entertaining and cleverly rhymed as ever. Sets and costumes are colorful and fun. Loved the food! Apparently the Rotten Tomatoes critics did too, giving it 96%; audiences, 95%.

Preceding the film was a thank-you and welcome back to the movie theater from Miranda, Chu, and one of the film’s writer-producers, Quiara Alegría Hudes.

This film is more directly linked to controversy than Dream Horse. Here’s Lin-Manuel’s Twitter response to criticisms the film lacks sufficient Afro-Latino lead characters.

Streaming Movie Picks

Preparations to be Together for an Unknown Period of Time

We liked this unusual Hungarian romance written and directed by Lili Horvát and starring Viktor Bodó and Natasa Stork, one of the most pleasant-looking actresses around (trailer and interview with the filmmaker).

Márta Vizy, a successful 40-year-old neurosurgeon, working in the United States, meets a man at a conference in New Jersey, and they agree to meet a month hence. She abandons her prestigious position in deference to romance, but when she encounters him again in Budapest, he claims they’ve never met. This confuses her to the point that, while she rebuilds her career in her home country, she has to sort out where reality and wishful thinking collide.

While the Rotten Tomatoes critics gave it an 88% score, the few audience ratings averaged out to only 55%.  I suspect what American audiences didn’t like were exactly the features that made us admire the film—primarily, the unexpected plot twists. Certainly (and thankfully) it follows no familiar, superficial formula! Oh, and there are subtitles. “A very engaging film to watch,” says Cinetopia’s Jim Ross

The Outside Story

This drama/comedy is kicked off when Charles locks himself out of his New York apartment. He’s a screen-obsessed introvert (a video editor, who assembles online obituaries for people not quite dead yet). He just broke up with his girlfriend and doesn’t know any of his neighbors. Well, he meets them now, and quirky and charmingly human they are.

Brian Tyree Henry is a genial if befuddled Charles, Sunita Mani, is a parking enforcement officer who’s hilariously suspicious of him, Sonequa Martin-Green is the super-glam former girlfriend. Numerous others turn even the smallest roles into gems. Written and directed by Casimir Nozkowski. This is a lot of fun (trailer)!

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating 92%; audience rating 79%. The critics consensus: “A refreshingly optimistic look at urban community life.”

A Place of Paramount Peace?

Sometimes a long-ago web post urgently needs an update. In September 2016 I wrote about the BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir the beautiful new Hindu temple in nearby Robbinsville, New Jersey. I’ve taken visitors there. It’s fantastic (in both senses) and a multimillion dollar operation.

But, there’s a dark side. Brought to the United States to construct the temple and associated buildings were Dalits, members of the lowest caste in India, also called “untouchables.” The temple has been open since 2014, but only last week was a lawsuit filed in federal court changing that the BAPS sect had recruited the workers under false pretenses, then exploited them. The FBI and other federal agencies are now investigating, according to Annie Correal’s story in The New York Times. It also revealed that the BAPS organization “has strong ties with Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Modi gave a eulogy at the funerl of the sect’s spiritual head.

According to the lawsuit, working conditions were severe. Workers were told they would be working four to seven hours a day and 20 to 25 days per month. Instead they were required to work 13 hours a day and rarely had a day off. For this, they made about $1.20 per hour. Workers had to live in trailers on BAPS’s 162-acre property and not talk to anyone. The lawsuit claims they had to pay their own way to the U.S. and, upon arrival, their passports and visas were confiscated. They were stuck.

“Because so many Dalits are socially, politically and economically disenfranchised, they are more easily exploited by duplicitous individuals and powerful groups,” said Johan Mathew, director of Rutgers University’s South Asian Studies Program.

You can read my original article here.

The Rehearsal Process: Preparation

Actors and directors prepare for the initial stages of play rehearsal in many ways. A Zoom class I’m taking, led by Theatre J artistic director Adam Immerwahr, showcased some of those approaches. He said he starts by focusing on the ideas of the play (this is not the plot). A lengthy close read, noting every time the audience receives a new piece of information, helps him because “the job of the director is to represent the audience.” From then on, he’ll make sure that fresh information comes across clearly.

Experienced actors Cody Nickell and Kate Eastwood Norris described how they prepare for rehearsals. Norris said she tries to suss out why she was cast! If she knows why the director envisioned her in a particular role, she can emphasize that element—physical, vocal, emotional—and have a leg up on fulfilling the director’s vision.

She reads the play several times and pays special attention to what other characters say about her character—their impressions have to ring true to the audience. Among the marks she makes in her script are indications of all the places where “things change.” If she has a monologue, she starts memorizing the words but not, she said, the emotions.

Nickell approaches the early rehearsals of each play differently, depending on how many lines he has, whether there’s a monologue, how he fits into the story, whether dialect is needed, and so on. He likes to ask a lot of questions, to make sure he’s on the same page with the director and his scene partners.

In this class, Neil Simon’s Last of the Red Hot Lovers is being used to demonstrate how the rehearsal process works. The actors had several “aha! moments” in an earlier table read of Act I. Norris talked about how her character (Elaine) uses humor as a shield. It seems defensive and habitual. For Nickell, whose character Barney has a long monologue at the end of the act, a lot depends on the lead-up to that moment. How much of what he says then has he told himself many, many times over? As Immerwahr said, such an explosion of words must have been building in his head during the whole act.

One idea the three are exploring is that Elaine is ill, and when she says “I myself passed away about six months ago,” she’s referring obliquely to an actual fatal diagnosis. This interpretation, says Norris, helps explain Elaine’s aggressive, almost bitter humor and her desperation to connect with Barney.

An impression I’m clearly coming away with is how collaborative the process is. Of course, each participant depends on the others to know their lines and stand in the right place clutching their martini. As important, in fact maybe more so, they each rely on the others to create a shared and coherent version of the emotional truth of their words and actions.

This terrific class is just one of many Theatre J classes launching this spring, expressly designed for people who love (and miss) live theater!

Jewels That Made History

American Ancestors recently featured an entertaining session with author Stellene Volandes, editor-in-chief of Town and Country magazine and author of Jewels That Made History: 101 Stones, Myths, and Legends. As jewelry is considered one of the decorative arts, it often hasn’t been taken seriously. Volandes likes to look below the surface to uncover what the piece was designed to convey. Immediately, you think of Madeleine Albright and her carefully curated collection of pins!

Now I look more closely at Queen Elizabeth II, too. Her predecessor, Elizabeth I, used her jewels to express her power. That association was the reason the Justinian code said only the emperor could wear pearls, sapphires, and emeralds. Charles I was beheaded wearing his pearl earring, a symbol of his power & status. With the development of the cultured pearl industry, which accounts for virtually all pearls sold today, they are less rare and, therefore, less precious.

Volandes credited Queen Victoria with creative use of her impressive supply of jewelry, pointing to her use of a coronet (small crown) as a holder for her hair arrangement, as shown in an 1840 painting by Franz Xaver Winterhalter.

Not just royalty has made a statement with their jewelry choices. Volander said the development of Art Nouveau, which influenced all the decorative arts, can be linked to the opening up of Japan, which inspired a whole new aesthetic tradition. Receptivity to Eastern influences was, in turn, a reaction against the Industrial Revolution.

When the French wanted to erase the legacy of their aristocracy, the leaders planned to sell the crown jewels. Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of New York’s Tiffany & Co., palace of breakfasts, bought many of them in the 1800s. He knew his clientele was hungry for items with a royal provenance, and the act brought him the sobriquet “King of Diamonds.”

One of Tiffany’s best-known gems today is the 128 carat yellow diamond that Lady Gaga wore at the 2019 Academy Awards. She was only the third person to wear it. Tiffany paid $18,000 for it (uncut) in 1877. Now, it’s “basically priceless.”

Read my Pins: Stories from a Diplomat’s Jewel Box, by Madeleine Albright, 2009. Order here from Amazon or shop your local indie bookstore

Jewels That Made History: 101 Stones, Myths, and Legends, by Stellene Volandes, 2020. Order here from Amazon or shop your local indie bookstore