Archive for December, 2012

Christmas is over. People are making plans for New Year’s Eve. I expect most people will opt for a quiet New Year’s, seeing as the first day of the New Year will be a Tuesday. (I can’t help noticing that the current Islander Poll shows most Islanders are planning on celebrating at home with friends.)

I’ve never been one for parties, so in my case it would be the same if New Year’s fell on a weekend or a weekday.

Whatever your plans, I hope you have a fun weekend. And, like everyone else, I’m hoping next year is better than last. I’m not saying it was a bad year. Yes, the economy is not what it could be. But the fact remains that most of the people I know have been surviving if not thriving. That’s a promising start.

Maybe next year, or the year after, I’ll get to visit the Island for New Year’s. I’d like that. This year it wouldn’t be practical—I have work and personal commitments here on the mainland. But Catalina is a lovely place—I much prefer the clear waters of Avalon Bay to the murky waters off the Seal Beach Pier—and when it is practical, I’d like to visit. Until then, Catalina—happy New Year!

I’m going to offer the following last-minute gift suggestions for mystery readers because I have some small knowledge of the subject of detective fiction. I started reading and collecting detective stories when I was 14. (My life plan was to be the world’s greatest mystery writer.)

A certified collectibles appraiser, I used to lecture annual at the (now defunct) Collector’s Conference on the history of detective fiction as a literary form and collecting obsession. Twentieth century detective fiction is my specialty and every suggestion below comes from that epoch.

Warning: your favorite mystery fan may have actually read some of these stories. Some of these stories are out of print, but should be available at online used bookstores or through interlibrary loan.

“Last Seen Wearing” by Hillary Waugh—A young woman vanishes from a small town college. The police force is so small, the detective bureau consists of one man. A perfect snap shot of New England in the 1950s, this classic police procedural is consistently ranked among the 100 best crime novels of the 20th Century. Many crime novels claim to portray police work realistically. Frankly, this is the only police procedural I would dare recommend to a law enforcement officer.

“Eight Million Ways to Die” by Lawrence Block—Matt Scudder used to be a policeman. Now he’s battling alcoholism and hunting a serial killer.

“And Then There Were None” by Agatha Christie—Ten people who allegedly got away with murder are invited to an island. One by one, they die. Who is the killer?

“Dance Hall of the Dead” by Tony Hillerman—Two 14-year-old Native American boys, one a Navajo, disappear on the big Four Corners Reservation in the Southwest. The Navajo boy went looking for God in a part of the reservation populated by anthropologists, drug smugglers, antiquity thieves and DEA agents. Lt. Joe Leaphorn, of the Navajo Tribal Police, goes looking for the missing Navajo boy—and finds murder, blasphemy and an ambitious college professor.

“Friday the Rabbi Slept Late” by Harry Kemmelman— David Small, a rabbi in a small town, has a few problems. His contract is up for renewal. Some members of the temple board of directors don’t like him. And he has no alibi for the murder of a young woman whose corpse found in the temple parking lot. The only person in town who seems to genuinely respect Rabbi Small is the Catholic police chief who considers him a prime suspect.

“The Burglar in The Closet” by Lawrence Block—Bernie, the best burglar in Manhattan, can pick almost any lock. Alas, that talent does not prevent him from accidentally locking himself in a bedroom closet in an apartment he is burgling. Then the tenant arrives. Bernie waits for her to leave or go to bed. Unfortunately, she’s murdered by another visitor. Just as Bernie gets out of the closet, the police pound on the apartment door. A comic whodunit—one of the most difficult to write.

“The Caves of Steel” by Isaac Asimov—A human police detective is forced to work with a robot police detective who replaced a fellow human investigator. Today, science fiction and fantasy mysteries are common, but this book challenged the assumptions of two genres.

“The Chinese Bell Murders” by Robert van Gulik—In 7th century China, there were no police detectives or lawyers.
There was only a judge and he could only pronounce sentence if the accused confessed. In theory, Judge Dee could use torture to extract confessions—but if the accused died without confessing, Judge Dee could be prosecuted for murder. Judge Dee, in his first adventure, tackles three cases at once and tries to stay on the safe side of both the law and imperial politics.

I cover local governments in Avalon, Paramount (a small town north of Long Beach), Seal Beach in in Rossmoor (a small, land-locked “island” surrounded by the cities of Long Beach, Los Alamitos and Seal Beach.

I keep hoping the communities I cover will look at Avalon and learn from example.

This week, I wrote a news story about Avalon’s plans to apply for grant money to replace the existing trolleys with electric buses. On the front page of the paper is a picture of the latest bird to join the ranks of the falcons that drive off Avalon’s undesirable birds.

On the mainland, in Seal Beach, the city’s iconic pier is covered with bird droppings and I find myself wishing Seal Beach would hire a falconer as Avalon has done.

I like the current Seal Beach City manager well enough, but when our last city manager quit, I found myself wondering if more cities would be better off by following Avalon’s practice of hiring a part-time city manager and part-time chief administrative officer.

In a time of tight budgets throughout the state, perhaps it is time for mainland communities to start looking at communities that have always had unique challenges—to steal, for lack of a better word, their ideas. Avalon abounds in creativity, be it in the art shows, the Christmas events, the art festival—or public administration.

I didn’t take the photo above, but I couldn’t resist using it to illustrate this post..

I’ve never been to the Catalina Island Museum. In six or seven years of covering Catalina for the Islander, I’ve only visited the Island twice and I didn’t have occasion to visit the museum on either of those trips.

Yet reading about the museum these last couple of weeks has brought up strangely personal memories. The museum’s newest exhibit, “First Line of Defense,” opens tonight, Friday, Dec. 7, and looks at Catalina’s role in World War II.

My stepmother, who is 93 and homebound, served in the US Army during World War II. A lot of people of her generation—those few still with us—served the country stateside or overseas, in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard or in some other service.

My father served in the US Army Infantry and, like a lot of guys from that era, was convinced that he personally stopped Hitler—with a little help from a few million other guys. And of course his service was the best service.

I’m not sure when I first learned about World War II, though the case containing his dog tags, an Army patch and his Purple Heart, always drew my attention and touched my curiosity. (He earned his Purple Heart, the medal I personally hold in highest esteem, during the Battle of the Bulge.)

As I grew older, I heard more and more about the Good War. I dug a trench in the front yard of our second house in Compton—my father probably wasn’t thrilled with that–and played World War II war games in the yard. I had no idea of the reality my silly games “imitated.” I nagged at him to tell me stories about how he got wounded—stories that varied with each telling, except for the part that could be varied: the bullet penetrating his right shoulder. The scar was too obvious a detail to gloss over.

He brought the war home with him. How could he not? Whenever I touched my sleeping father, he would physically lash out—in self-defense against an enemy long vanquished. I learned to stay away from him when he was asleep. That was really the only time I was actually afraid of my father. That wasn’t his fault. It’s just the way it was.

My father died late in the 20th century. I miss him. And I always think of him when the subject of “his” war comes up. It might be a movie, a book title … or a museum exhibit

You are now on the record

Once you start talking to a reporter who has identified himself as a reporter, you’re on the record.

I feel compelled to explain this in large part because people don’t always know what they mean when they use that phrase—and because journalists can’t allow people to pull things off the record retroactively. And our bosses won’t allow us to accept it either. The issue has come up twice in the past month, so it seems necessary to explain myself.

First, let’s define the phrase in question: when a source says “off the record” first, it means I am obligated to act as though the source never spoke at all. I am not allowed to use the off the record source’s information. If another source gives me the same information on the record, I’m allowed to use that information from that source.

That wasn’t always the case. Back during World War II, “off the record” meant you couldn’t use the information under any circumstances. FDR would call the White House press corps into the Oval Office and say, “Boys, the following is off the record … ”

After the war, the press changed the rule so that if you got the information on the record from a different source, you could write a story. I once obtained an off the record report about the arrest of a mainland city treasurer for embezzlement. I obtained the information on the record from the DA’s Office and scooped the major papers in our area. So obtaining information off the record is useful.

I’ve also had sources attempt to retroactively take information “off the record” in order to advance a morally suspect agenda. I didn’t play along and one of the reasons for the rule against the retroactive “off the record” quote is to protect reporters from being “ethically compelled” to manipulate information to advance a predatory source’s goals. (Most sources aren’t predatory, but it is often hard to recognize all but the most flagrant louts.)

And, for the record, I’ve never caught an Islander lying to me. That’s not true of some of the mainlanders I’ve worked with.

The catch for those of you dealing with the press is this: Once I’ve identified myself as a reporter, you have to say “off the record” first or anything you say can and will be considered on the record. I’ll use it. Feel free to phone Islander Editor Dennis Kaiser on this matter.

Some of you are thinking: “But if I can’t take something off the record, how do I know you’ll quote me accurately?”

Switching back and forth between “on” and “off” the record actually increases the risk of a misquote. I’ll get confused and use information I shouldn’t have. You’ll feel betrayed and I’ll feel like I’ve been set up to fail. We’ll both lose.

The two best defenses against being misquoted are to ask the reporter to read his notes back to you or to answer questions by e-mail. (Warning: there have been lawsuits over altered quotations, so if you send something by e-mail there is a real possibility that your exact words—spelling and punctuation errors left intact—could end up in print. Use Microsoft Word and run a spelling and grammar check on everything before you send it out.)

If this seems like an inflexible position for me to take—it is. But it’s an industry standard and there’s a good reason for it. We reporters are manipulated, intimidate and lied to every day. Family and friends may try to influence us to advance their agendas. Strangers will try to manipulate us into giving away free advertising so they won’t have to spend money—despite the fact that our paychecks are derived from advertising revenues. It is hard not to become cynical in the face of that. It also makes us suspicious of criticisms that upon reflection might be valid.

I’ve had family members of suspected criminals tell me charges were dropped against their loved ones when in fact the prosecution was proceeding. I was once accused of improperly linking a mainland bar to a stabbing—despite the fact the police report clearly said the fight started in the bar and despite the fact that I reported that bar security tried to stop the fight. (Faced with the facts, my accuser phoned my editor to say he wasn’t accusing me of anything and to praising our coverage of the community.)

I’ve been accused of misquoting people when I’ve quoted them quite accurately and they’ve gotten into hot water as a result. To be fair, I’ve also been accused of misquoting people when I may, in fact, have misquoted them. It isn’t always easy to tell the difference between a legitimate complaint and an illegitimate complaint. I’ve generally found that when people complain immediately, I’m in the wrong. When they wait weeks and suddenly complain about unspecified misquotes in past interviews, they are generally in the wrong. That may not be fair, but it is how most working journalists I know look at their relationships with their sources.

This particular rule about when something is truly “off the record” protects my ability to function on the job. So, to repeat: if I identify myself as a reporter for a given publication and say I’m working on a story—you’re being interviewed. Make no mistake about that. I did not time out of my workday to interrupt you, a stranger, on your workday, to have a casual and secret chit-chat. I’m interviewing you.

You can quote me on that because, obviously, I am on the record.