Monday, October 31, 2011

Magna Cum Murder

It's a small con in Muncie, Indiana, sponsored by Ball State University. This year it was smaller than usual, due to the economy and perhaps the fact that Bouchercon was only a short time ago and relatively close.
The result was interesting: authors had, for the most part, only each other to talk to.
Only a very few tried the "Buy my wonderful mystery" routine on the group. There was tacit recognition that we were not going to sell a bunch of books, although authors know, of course, that buying books is good. (If we didn't, Parnell Hall reminded us with his song, "Support Your Local Bookstore.") Instead of fighting off crowds of adoring fans, we talked: about craft, about trends, about the future of publishing.
Yes, I know it happens at all cons, in the bar, in corners, even in passing. But this con settled down to pretty much just that. Authors asked each other tough questions about the business of writing and probing questions about the responsibilities of writing. We didn't have to pretend to be raking in the dough because people just can't keep their hands off the "Buy" button on our webpage. There was honest talk about all levels of publishing, from self to small press to big house.
I gotta tell you--it was great.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Review: Murder in the 11th House.

by Mitchell Scott Lewis

ISBN: 978-59058-950-2

a 2011 release from

Poisoned Pen Press

A team of intrepid and intelligent agents in league with an astrologer take on difficult cases of potential injustice. The feeling one gets from this debut novel about the Starlight Detective Agency is one of a small team of right-minded individuals with varied skills united around common goals. When government doesn’t get it right, the agency will. And they’re not above bending the law for all the right reasons. How that affects the lawyer/daughter on the team remains to be seen. The agency does work with police in New York City whenever possible, and because of his wealth and reputation, that seems to be often, but David Lowell, Astrologer non parallel, is not above spending his considerable money and influence to right apparent wrongs.

Angry bartender Johnny Colbert has a loud confrontation with a judge in a small New York Courtroom. It’s a civil case but the judge is soon dead in spectacular fashion and the bartender has no alibi. Enter Lowell’s daughter, defense attorney, Melinda, who prevails on her father to attempt to solve the mystery of who killed the judge and why, thus, presumably, exonerating Ms Colbert. The why of the murder proves far more fascinating that the astrological explanations. There are many explanations, and in some detail. They tend to slow the pace of the story considerably.

But it doesn’t matter whether you believe in astrology or not, the writing is generally smooth and the story develops logically. All of the characters stay in character, even if it’s a bit of a stretch for the young idealistic attorney to countenance what she knows is marginally illegal activity on behalf of her client. Several of the characters, Sarah and the client in particular, are interesting and well-drawn. all in all a nice traditionally-styled crime novel for a pleasant reading afternoon.

Carl Brookins, Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Do You Read Mysteries While You're Writing One?

There are some mystery writers who say they never read mysteries while they are writing one. Of course the reasoning is they don't want to borrow something from another author's work sub-consciously.

If I didn't read any mysteries while I'm writing, I'd never get any reading done. I don't read anyone's work that is anything like what I write. Lately I've been reading James Lee Burke. Wow, I'd like to write like him, but I never will. I don't write about the brutal crimes and crazed and warped people like he does. (Sure wish I could write descriptions like he does though.)

My books border on being cozies--I had one reviewer say my Rocky Bluff P.D. series was like a soap opera because of the way the private lives of the cops are depicted. To me, what is happening to them and their families at home is as important as what's going on in whatever crimes they are trying to solve. (Actually the review was quite flattering and had much more to say than that.) I have lots of characters and POVs in this series. The setting is a beach community and I love writing about the kind of place I used to live in.) Angel Lost is the latest one in that series.

In my Deputy Tempe Crabtree mysteries, Tempe is the main character and usually the story unfolds totally through her point of view. Her "side-kick" is her preacher husband and he often helps her a lot--and in Bears With Us, the latest, he is right there to assist her in chasing bears out of people's houses.

I say borders on being cozies because the cases are solved by law enforcement officers rather than amateur sleuths as what is the usual case in a cozy. However, I don't much bad language and you don't see much in the way of blood and guts, though both do get spilled. An Axe to Grind began with a beheading. Though my characters are normal they do have sex, but usually it happens behind closed doors. So I do have some of the ingredients (or lack thereof) that are required in a cozy.

I do read cozies, but I tend to like the ones best that are a bit edgier than the norm. Frankly, I'll read anything that comes my way--the only thing that holds me back is time. I read horror, thrillers, any kind of mystery, and occasionally non-fiction.

But when it comes to writing, though I've written other genres, right now I'm sticking to my not-quite cozy mysteries.

How about your? What do you read while you're writing?


Monday, October 17, 2011


The Occupy (Wall Street) movement has the attention of a bewildered media. Who does one interview when there are no leaders? How does one cover a story that appears to have no meaning, beginning, or end?  No purpose?  What is a reporter to do when the police DON'T step in?

The Occupy  movement hit Edmonton, Alberta, Canada this weekend.  The police refrained from ousting the illegally camped Occupiers, expecting perhaps that the cold weather would do their work for them.

The local media scrounged the grounds for their 15-second clips.  I loved this quote the reporter got from one young man identified as Ryan A. "Panda" 
"I'm able to resonate with people without feeling I have to change my frequency."
Carry on, people.  Keep resonating.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

An elderly man in Phoenix calls his son in New York and says, "I hate to ruin your day, but I have to tell you that your mother and I are divorcing; forty-five years of misery is enough."
"Pop, what are you talking about?" the son screams.
"We can't stand the sight of each other any longer," the old man says. "We're sick of each other, and I'm sick of talking about this, so you call your sister in Chicago and tell her," and he hangs up.
Frantic, the son calls his sister, who explodes on the phone. "Like hell they're getting divorced," she shouts, "I'll take care of this." She calls Phoenix immediately, and screams at the old man, "You are NOT getting divorced. Don't do a single thing until I get there. I'm calling my brother back, and we'll both be there tomorrow. Until then, don't do a thing, DO YOU HEAR ME?" and hangs up.
The old man hangs up his phone, too, and turns to his wife. "Okay," he says, "they're coming for Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

All about lie detectors...

While Canadian crime investigators use the polygraph as an investigative tool, our courts ban polygraph results from being presented as evidence because of their unreliability.  Just how accurate are polygraphs and can they be used in crime prevention? 

Polygraph expert, Ken Blackstone, gives us the latest low down on polygraphs and their use south of our border.

The Case for Forensic Polygraph Testing in Post-Adjudication Sexual Offender Examination and Management

By Ken Blackstone

In 1973, in the Multnomah County Circuit of Oregon, Judge John C. Beatty, Jr. was the first to order the use of the polygraph in the management of convicted sexual offenders. Today, almost 40 years later, the number of registered sex offenders in the US and its territories exceeds half a million and they are all under some form of management. The post adjudication polygraph is used by the responsible State and Federal agencies in three common circumstances: in prisons during the incarceration of convicted sex offenders; in the community during subsequent probation and parole; and during the civil commitment of sexually dangerous persons.  

The Problem

Polygraph examination is a catch-all term used to describe the use of the polygraph instrument, either as a forensic tool to determine the veracity of a statement or as a utility tool to generate statements and disclosures. While these two approaches are superficially similar their foundations are not.  

Law enforcement agencies use polygraph to support investigation of criminal matters and attorneys use the polygraph both for establishing direction in their cases and to present as evidence in an upcoming proceeding.  Whether the polygraph examiner conducts a forensic examination that is reliable or a utility examination that is undependable is often unknown to the agencies and attorneys involved.
In a pre-adjudication setting a suspect or person of interest may be asked to take a polygraph examination as a means of assessing his or her denials about being knowledgeable, involved or even responsible for the alleged crime.  A witness or informant may be asked to submit to a polygraph for the purpose of assessing the accuracy or truth of information he or she has provided.  Although it is barred in some states, in some cases, an alleged victim of a crime may be asked to take a polygraph test to determine the accuracy or truth of testimony to either support the conviction of a guilty person or prevent the wrongful prosecution of an innocent person.  Thus, polygraph examinations are a very serious matter that has great importance and impact on the tested individuals and the matters to which they offer evidence.   These situations are all alike in that there is an “issue at hand” and they are truly voluntary.

In a post-adjudication setting a convicted or committed offender is expected to take periodic polygraph examinations to encourage candor and discourage any lapse or relapse during treatment and supervision.  The use of the polygraph in the evaluation and management of convicted and committed sex offenders is of great interest; treatment providers will often agree that the polygraph is the only existing tool for measuring behavior and supervising officers see the polygraph as a way of keeping offenders accountable. A periodic post-adjudication polygraph examination in the community can be used to assess a variety of issues that may include precursors to a reoccurrence and whether the convicted person should be considered for early release of parole or a relaxation of probation controls.     These situations are similar in these examinations will seldom address a specific “issue at hand” and while they are an option the only other option is prison.

Scientifically based studies have concluded that the carefully administered, “forensic” or single-issue (one relevant issue) polygraph exam, conducted properly and optimally by a qualified examiner, is 89 to 92 percent accurate.  It is the most accurate tool available today for determining truth or deception.  When any reduction from the disciplined rigors of forensic polygraph examination occurs, the reliability of the results can and must be called into question.

However, in the post-adjudication sexual offender setting, a less rigorous “utility” approach is often taken and the accuracy of polygraph results diminishes for a number of reasons. The training, skills and discipline of the examiner are typically lower; the purpose of the examination may be far different and more exploratory; the questions are more generalized, ambiguous, and sometimes confusing.  The accuracy of a 91% accurate exam is now 50-50.

Unfortunately, at the present time, utility testing is the norm for post-adjudication testing of sexual offenders.  As a consequence, treatment providers and community supervisors are impacted by the outcomes of these “utility” examinations, even though the outcomes are unreliable because they are beyond the parameters established by research.   Fortunately, the utility test is not a necessity; it is conducted as a matter of economic convenience.

Proposed Solution

Forensic polygraph examination has safeguards which keep its error-rate below 10 per cent.  This type of polygraph testing is frequently used in the legal, intelligence and investigative communities.  Its popularity in the Federal and State agencies arena is encouraged by the high caliber of training and supervision provided its examiners. Similar standards and training need to be developed and deployed in the area of post-adjudication assessment and management of sexual offenders.

Utility tests, such as the ones most currently popular in sex offender management programs, actually invite errors (false positives and false negatives). A “false positive” can result in a waste of professional resources and it can unfairly hamper the otherwise honest sex offender who is trying to rebuild his life.  A “false negative” can allow recidivism that could have been stopped before anything happened*. Here are some examples where forensic polygraph examination may have helped prevent tragic crimes from occurring:

* Phillip Garrido was a registered sex offender on Federal and State parole for rape when he abducted then 11-year-old Jaycee Dugard and while he held her captive for the next 18 years.  He was excluded from required polygraph.

*John Couey was a registered sex offender in Florida and was on state probation when he abducted, raped, and murdered then 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford.  His probation supervision failed and he was excluded from polygraph surveillance.  Jessica’s body was discovered as a result of a polygraph examination.

Examples such as Garrido and Couey represent statistical outliers; however they underscore the need for a disciplined approach that requires forensic testing methods and standards. 


Post-adjudication testing of convicted sex offenders is a different arena than pre-adjudication testing; however, it does not require a “reinvention of the wheel”.  The parameters of forensic testing already exist.  The responsible agencies, instead of ignoring these disciplines, should incorporate them into their existing discipline. This, among other things, will improve the quality of post-adjudication polygraph examiners and their work product by: 

1.      Providing specialized forensic level training for these post-adjudication polygraph examiners

2.      Establishing standards for the conduct of professionals in post-adjudication polygraph testing

3.      Setting requirements for the deployment of diagnostic single-issue testing during examinations

4.      Providing supervision in the form of quality control and classroom review of examinations.

5.      Providing training for non-examiner treatment providers and other professionals who are involved in sex offender management.

About the Author


Ken Blackstone is an expert regarding polygraph examinations.  He is the author of the book Polygraph, Sex Offenders, and the Court (2011, Emerson Books ISBN 978-061-5506-80-7). Since 1979 he has been involved in more than 23,000 polygraph examinations as an examiner, consultant, and expert witness. He has conducted more than 15,000 examinations and consulted on a thousand more, including several high profile cases (including the Jon Benet Ramsey case and the Troy Davis case).  He has written numerous peer-reviewed articles on polygraph and forensic interviewing. The majority of his career has focused on sexual offense cases and the examination of convicted and/or committed sexual offenders. He lives in Stone Mountain, Georgia.  
Author, Ken Blacksone's, website

Monday, October 03, 2011

Review: Viper by John Desjarlais


by John Desjarlais


2011 trade paper release

from Sophia Institute Press

238 pages.

Set in rural Illinois, the novel follows disgraced DEA agent Selena De La Cruz as she tries to re-order her life into some semblance of normality after a drug raid gone bad results in a tragic aftermath. Leaving that life turns out to be more than just difficult. It is impossible. And so Selena leaves her insurance company and re-enters the dangerous world of undercover drug enforcement among a Latino population that is turbulent, ever-changing and marked with friends who become enemies and family members short on understanding.

The author cleverly establishes Selena as an independent capable woman beset on all sides by the chauvinism of her bosses and the cultural disapproval of her family. Good Latina women do not carry guns and arrest drug dealers. There is an invasive Latin Catholic presence throughout the book. The basic theme of the story is a list of names entered into a church’s Book of the Dead, requesting prayers for their souls. The problem is that the people represented are still alive as the book opens. But one by one they are murdered. Since Selena’s name is last on the list, she has more than usual reason to be concerned. Her interaction with law enforcement and Church officials becomes more and more intense as the list is shortened, one by one.

The novel is smoothly written, logical and mostly gripping. There are several sections of Aztec and other religious history and legends used by the author to explain some of the ritual Selena encounters which, while interesting in themselves, have a tendency to slow the narrative. Nevertheless, Viper is a worthwhile read, blending religious mystery with brutal modern crime.

Carl Brookins Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky