Friday, May 25, 2012

Crowdsourcing again

Yesterday I finished scanning into my Mac mini all 360 pages of my 1997 book Flight of the Gin Fizz, the one about learning to fly, buying a small plane, and flying it coast to coast. I'm getting ready to re-publish it as an ebook for Kindle and Nook, probably in the late summer or early fall. The scanning task was not overly wearying; I simply scanned one chapter a day and quickly cleaned it up as best I could.

Now I must set to locating all the pilots encountered on my adventure 17 years ago and updating their stories. This probably will take quite some time.

Meanwhile, I'm looking for a couple of volunteers who are sharp of eye and generous with time to look over the 19 chapters and Epilogue for typographical errors. ABBYY Finereader Express is extremely accurate (I'd say 99.999 per cent accurate) but the odd typo still sneaks through and past me.

If anyone's also a pilot that would be a bonus. FAA regulations have changed and so has small-plane flying in general, and I need to find out what's happened since 1997.

I know that as a no-radio pilot I could never again fly solo past the Statue of Liberty and up the Hudson River past Manhattan, the traditional beginning of a transcontinental aerial odyssey. In 2009 a helicopter and a small plane collided just off Hoboken, killing nine people, and the FAA consequently decreed that all aircraft flying up or down the Hudson must maintain radio contact with other traffic.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Sunset No. 1

The photograph above offers further proof that life in a cabin a few feet from the edge of Lake Superior in upper Michigan is far, far better than existence in a boring suburban house in northern Illinois. You just do not get sunsets like this in Chicago.

Of course, Chicago doesn't suffer stable fly hatches like the one we had last Saturday, when the wind blew in from the south and the temperature soared into the upper 80s. Stable flies are the vampires of the North Woods, nasty nanovelociraptors that feast on every square inch of mammalian flesh exposed to their fangs.

This was unusual. Ordinarily stable flies don't swarm until July 4 or so, when the smaller but equally vicious blackflies settle down (more or less), but the extraordinarily balmy two weeks in March that enveloped the entire Midwest has got nature happening early.

Some friends of ours arrived Saturday morning at their cottage down the beach, took one look and rushed for their front door without bothering to unload their luggage. They stayed in all day, and after a blue norther brought in heavy rains and 40-degree temperatures Sunday, said bah humbug and returned to southern Wisconsin.

We watched from our car early Saturday as a young woman in a skimpy tank top and shorty shorts emerged from her tent at a nearby campground and sprinted for the bathhouse screaming, arms windmilling and flailing, as a cloud of stable flies enveloped her.

I would not have blamed her had she shot the boyfriend who took her camping.

In fact, for a brief moment I thought that maybe stable flies might provide an engine for an interesting homicide. In the next moment I realized that first-degree murder—the only sensible charge to build a mystery novel around—isn't reasonable when biting insects are the provocation.

No prosecutor in this neck of the woods would entertain a charge more serious than involuntary manslaughter. Not after experiencing a weekend like that.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Those clever cops

While thinking about what might ensue at the crime scene described in the May 1 blogpost, I thought that maybe Sheriff Steve Martinez would figure that that the taped-off scene would attract not only the press but also the curious—including, maybe, the doer of the deed. Part of forensic pathology is for a perpetrator to revisit the scene, partly for his own secret jollies but also to see how the cops are doing.

So Steve enlists the tribal cops from the Ojibwa reservation in neighboring Gogebic County to come up in civilian clothes, bearing point-and-shoot cameras, and surreptitiously snap photos of everybody who comes to gawk. Two of the cops are assigned to photograph the license plates of the cars the gawkers drive in. Perhaps a photo might lead to the killer. It's a long shot, Steve reasons, but one worth taking.

But I wondered if perhaps privacy laws might be violated, that if they were perhaps a smart defense counsel could get his client off on a technicality. So I asked a veteran prosecutor if Steve would be treading on anyone's rights to have undercover LEOs photograph onlookers and their cars at the scene.

No, said the prosecutor. The crime scene in question is a public place, and the cops are perfectly within their own rights to gather evidence in this manner.

In fact, the prosecutor said, city cops often sponsor public neighborhood meetings near crime scenes, ostensibly to reassure residents that they're doing everything humanly possible to apprehend malefactors and solve the case. But there's another reason for these apparent public relations exercises. The criminal or criminals involved sometimes attend the events just to see how the investigation is going—if it's getting closer.

The cops, the prosecutor added, typically ask all attendees to sign a guest book, and they check out the names (and often faces) afterward. If someone refuses to sign, the cops definitely will investigate that person and might even get lucky.

I never knew that. Grist for a mystery writer's mill.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

New projects

Yesterday a new flatbed scanner (Epson V330 Photo, $98 from B&H in New York, free shipping) arrived at the Writer's Lair, and today I'll stop by the hardware store for an X-Acto knife and a slew of sharp blades. Then I'll be all ready to cut apart a copy of my 1997 book Flight of the Gin Fizz: Midlife at 4,500 Feet, then scan the pages and prepare the result for ebook publication this fall.

That won't be the only project for the summer. I've been contemplating the plot for a fifth Steve Martinez novel (the fourth is forthcoming late next year).

It so happens that the short line railroad in these parts of Upper Michigan, the Escanaba & Lake Superior, keeps unused cars in storage on a remote siding deep in the thick-woods boonies. A few of them are pulled out seasonally but others are left to rust, some of them for years, before being sent to the scrappers. Most belong to the E&LS but some are stored for other railroads.

What if an old covered hopper makes its way from the track to the West Coast for cleaning and refurbishing for bulk commodity hauling? What if, in the cleaning process, a set of human bones clatter to the roadbed? What if the bones are those of a young girl?

The cops trace the origin of the car and inform the Michigan State Police. Lieutenant Alex Kolehmainen (yes, the sergeant has been promoted) takes the call and immediately tells his old chum, Porcupine County Sheriff Steve Martinez, to saddle up.

The pair drive out to the siding in the woods. More than a hundred boxcars, gondolas, lumber-rack cars and covered hoppers in varying states of disrepair squat on the tracks. The two LEOs call in reinforcements and begin searching, starting with the oldest covered hoppers, the ones farthest up the siding.

Almost immediately they find the skeleton of a young human and remnants of clothing in one of the hoppers. A few hour later another car yields still another set of bones belonging to an adolescent—and also he skeleton of an adult. The back of the skull belonging to the latter has been pierced by a large-caliber bullet.

I've already floated the idea on a number of Internet forums catering to professional railroaders, and they've offered interesting insights into what happens with old railroad cars in storage.

One confided that the hatches atop stored covered hoppers are almost never locked, enabling a killer to open them and drop in a corpse easily. Another pointed out that the only way to the roof of a covered hopper is up a long vertical ladder, requiring almost superhuman strength to carry an adult body. (That's why the proposed victims will be early adolescents. Or maybe dismembered adults. I'd have to work out the forensics on these.)

Of course plot, suspect and motive, among other things, also need to be created. There's always an enormous gap between an idea and its execution.

But all this seems to be a promising genesis for a new novel.