Sunday, October 28, 2012

Frankenstorm

I was tempted to title this post "Boring Weather in Tucson," but then who would read it? Like most people this weekend, I'm spending a lot of time tuned to The Weather Channel watching the updates on this major storm. Although it has absolutely no impact on Arizona, I still have family on Long Island and friends in Massachusetts and I'm concerned for them.

One of the advantages of living in southern Arizona is that you rarely pay attention to weather reports. You don't have to. Most days are warm and sunny. It gets hot in the summer. In the fall, nights are in the mid-fifties and days in the mid-eighties. You get to turn the air conditioning off. It gets colder in the "winter," but if there's anything of significance, like a hard freeze, the local news programs go berserk reminding you of The Three Ps (pipes, pets, and plants). Since homes don't have basements and water pipes are above ground coming into the house, you need to wrap them in insulation when it stays below freezing overnight. Pets need to be brought indoors. Sensitive plants need to be covered.

We don't have hurricanes, tornadoes, or blizzards. No earthquakes, either. Yes, we sometimes have severe monsoon thunderstorms with flooding in the summer, but most times you can pull into a Starbucks and order a latte and wait an hour until it passes and the roads have drained. (Unless you're unfortunate enough to need to use a road that has been constructed where a wash that drains the higher elevations passes over it. Some of those places take days before they're passable.) Sometimes there are haboobs, huge dust storms, but those tend to take place north of Tucson.

I kind of miss these major weather events. There are no "snow days" off from school or work. You don't get to anticipate how bad it will be this time for days on end. And you don't get to bring out all your old storm stories and relive your memories.

When I lived in Massachusetts, the storm that all other storms were measured against was The Blizzard of 78. Snow started falling on a Monday morning and didn't quit until Tuesday evening. Winds were hurricane-force. And, as the pictures in the link above show, one of the most devastating effects was the flooding from an angry ocean. Because snow hadn't started falling before dawn, people headed off to work as usual, expecting the storm to blow out to sea. This is common with storms along the east coast. You never know exactly what you're going to get until it happens. By the time people realized how bad it was, it was too late for many to get home safely. Roads were clogged with cars buried under the snow. People were stranded far from home.

On Long Island, it was always the Hurricane of 1938. They didn't name hurricanes back then the way we do now, but this one earned the nickname of The Long Island Express. This one changed the coastline of Long Island, cutting Shinnecock Inlet through the barrier beach on Long Island's south shore. Weather forecasting wasn't very sophisticated then and this storm took everyone by surprise.

I went to college at Michigan State. That's where I learned about tornadoes. Although one never came close to the campus, there were several times we ran down the stairs to the basement of our dorm to wait out a threat. I'll never forget the odd look to the sky on those days.

Now I live through storms vicariously, watching on television and congratulating myself on picking such a safe place to live. But I don't get to stock up on candles and batteries and junk food and watch the wind howling past my windows. I don't get to huddle under blankets with a book while a snowstorm rages outside. No going down to the seawall to watch the waves crash over it. And it's months before the next monsoon season. Weather really is boring in Tucson.

Meanwhile, for those of you in the path of Hurricane Sandy enveloped in a Nor'easter, stay safe, my friends. My prayers are with you.

Sunday, October 07, 2012

Truth and Fiction


 I love mysteries, not that that's news to anyone who knows anything about me. I love reading them, watching television shows and movies about them, and writing them. I even like computer games that are really mysteries in disguise. I love the puzzles and the knowledge that justice will prevail at the end.

Massachusetts Police Officer

 As a member of Sisters in Crime, I've had the chance to listen to lots of members of law enforcement. I attended the Tucson Police Department's Citizens Police Academy and the Pima County Attorney's Office Prosecutor's Academy. One thing that always comes up during these talks is all the things writers and television get wrong.

We've all heard of "the CSI effect." In case you haven't, that's where juries have come to expect that a prosecutor will be able to get DNA evidence analyzed in 24 hours, have all this wizardly equipment that makes the verdict incontrovertible, and, when this doesn't happen, they determine that the prosecutor and/or the crime lab is incompetent.


Guess what? That's not reality. There's usually a waiting list to get DNA evidence processed. Most crime labs can't afford the equipment shown on television. It's not in the budget. And--gasp!--CSI makes some of that stuff up.

Lee Lofland does a weekly review of "Castle." This started because writers wanted to know what parts were done right and what was done wrong. There's lots that's not technically correct in this show, not the least of which is having a civilian trample all over crime scenes, interview suspects, and often be smarter than the police. Lee has a particular dislike for Lainie, the voodoo M.E. It's as if she's psychic because she knows all kinds of things about how a person was killed even before doing an autopsy. Or with no evidence whatsoever.

Crime Scene Tape
Recently a National Park Service Ranger spoke at my local chapter of Sisters in Crime. I was really enjoying his talk--until he started picking on one of my new favorite shows, "Longmire."

Mostly this had to do with jurisdictional issues on an Indian reservation. (And, for all you politically correct people out there, the term is Indian, not Native American. The official government term for places on reservations is "Indian Country." Those people who own the casinos call themselves Indians.) Who's in charge when a crime is committed on a reservation gets very complicated because in some ways the reservations are treated as independent nations. This came about because of the separate treaties that were negotiated with each tribe. Tribal authorities have jurisdiction over misdemeanors--if they have a tribal police department. Lots don't have their own law enforcement. If I remember correctly, major crimes like murder and rape are handled by federal authorities. Most of the time. If at all.

The Ranger's point was that Walt Longmire, a county sheriff, would never be caught on a reservation chasing suspects. He has no jurisdiction.

Now, writers usually do want to get details correct. They do an incredible amount of research checking out those details. This includes talking to law enforcement, doing ride-alongs with the police, reading books on forensics and poisons and criminal investigation.

But writers aren't in the business of creating criminal procedure manuals. They're in the business of telling stories. What kind of series would it be if Sheriff Longmire had to go back and sit in his office while the FBI or Federal Attorney did the criminal investigation on the reservation? Viewers would decide that the main character wasn't Longmire, but FBI Agent Smith because Smith was doing the good stuff.


Same thing with Castle. If Richard Castle is sitting in his townhouse typing his next novel on his computer (where he should be) instead of running all over New York with Kate Beckett, they'd have to retitle the show. And probably cut him out entirely. There's nothing more boring than watching a writer at work.


My point is that mystery fiction doesn't have to be totally true to life. It just has to be true enough. Most readers aren't going to notice the "mistakes" like the minutiae of jurisdiction. They're just looking for a good story.

Photo Credits:
Massachusetts Police Officer: qwrrty (Tim Pierce) photostream on Flickr.
Crime Scene Tape: Tex Texin via Flickr