Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The Funniest Word in English

Even outside his plays, Neil Simon put forward the proposition that some words were funnier than others. A summation of this idea appears in a monologue in The Sunshine Boys.

Willy Clark:

Fifty-seven years in this business, you learn a few things. You know what words are funny and which words are not funny. Alka Seltzer is funny. You say 'Alka Seltzer' you get a laugh … Words with 'k' in them are funny. Casey Stengel, that's a funny name. Robert Taylor is not funny. Cupcake is funny. Tomato is not funny. Cookie is funny. Cucumber is funny. Car keys. Cleveland … Cleveland is funny. Maryland is not funny. Then, there's chicken. Chicken is funny. Pickle is funny. Cab is funny. Cockroach is funny – not if you get 'em, only if you say 'em.

He's saying that the "K" sound is funny, since I assume the character was not so poor at spelling. From the above examples, several have multiple "K" sounds.

Bugs Bunny may agree with this theory. The trains that took off in his cartoons had as their destination: Anaheim, Azusa, and Cucamonga. As Bugs explained when he became lost, somehow tunneling through to Antarctica or a Foreign Legion post in the Sahara: "I should have taken a left turn at Albuquerque."

Even as curmudgeonly a writer as George Mencken subscribed to the K theory, listing such towns as Kalamazoo and Keokuk. Mencken was also responsible for one of my favorite flights of words in his description of the inauguration speech of Warren G. Harding:

Setting aside a college professor or two and half a dozen dipsomaniacal newspaper reporters, he [Harding] takes the first place in my Valhalla of literati. That is to say, he writes the worst English I have even encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it. It drags itself out of the dark abysm (I was about to write abscess!) of pish, and crawls insanely up the topmost pinnacle of posh. It is rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash.

There I go, being anti-Harding. A bold choice in these divisive political days.

Neil Simon was one of a famous group of writers for the classic Sid Caesar Your Show of Shows (a writing stable which included Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Carl Reiner, and Larry Gelbart). Those writers once came to the conclusion that the funniest number is 32. I would have gone with "gazillion," although 32 gazillion is damn fine.

Thomas Moore Devlin, writing for the linguistic journal, Babbel Magazine explored the subject of the funniest word. First he derived four rules for what makes a word funny.

    It should be an uncommon word.
    It should ideally have some kind of humorous use in the native language.
    It should have hard stops, especially "k" sounds.
    It should be a benign violation. [that is, it should be offensive or suggestive, but not very.]

From this he [somehow] came to the conclusion that the funniest word is "cucumber," one of the words that appeared on Willy Clark's list.

Long ago, I recall reading a magazine article on Monty Python coming to America. In this article the comedy troupe provided a longish list of words that are inherently funny. I remember not being stirred by most of them, but one did make me guffaw and stands out in my memory: batshit.

The word "batshit" no longer causes me to involuntarily laugh. Maybe it is overused, or maybe my tastes have changed. I think "guano" is funnier. On the other hand, I did chuckle when I read a political commentary that described our current state of affairs as bat-shittery. My own rule of what makes words funny: add an incongruous suffix like -ery or -orama. As Gordie commented in Stand By Me: "And Lardass just sat back and enjoyed what he'd created -- a complete and total barf-o-rama!"

This leads me to the conclusion that many of the funniest words are directed toward my inner adolescent.

Colonel "Bat" Guano from Dr. Strangelove. Played by Keenan Wynn whose father, Ed, famously said on his deathbed: "Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.
Robert Beard of alphadictionary.com assembled a list of the 100 funniest words in the English language which he published with commentary in a book he imaginatively titled, "The 100 Funniest Words in the English Language." (Amazon sends me to Amazon.UK for this book. Maybe it is not available in American.)

The entries are a personal selection which he presents in alphabetical order which offends my antialphabeticalmentarianist views. The first word is abibliophobia, the fear of running out of things to read. He does include all-time greats like argle-bargle, collywobbles, and brouhaha, the last of which has a built in laugh.

This site, which extends on Wikipedia's entry on Inherently Funny Words, has a number of additional takes on different approaches to the funniest words as they appear in fiction.

George Carlin is cited as saying "kumquats," "garbanzos," "guacamole," and "succotash" have names that makes them too funny to eat.

Science to the Rescue

There are scientific studies into what is the funniest word because, of course, there are.

One study had a group of 821 English men and women rate approximately 5000 common words on a scale of 1 to 5, with five being the most humorous. The winning words?

Booty (4.32)
Tit (4.25)
Booby (4.13)
Hooter (4.13)
Nitwit (4.03)
Twit (4)
Waddle (4)
Tinkle (3.94)
Bebop (3.93)
Egghead (3.92)
Ass (3.92)
Twerp (3.92)

Thankfully the study group recognized these two words were the least funny:

Rape (1.18) and Torture (1.26).

It should be noted that this study looked at the five thousand most common words, so kerfuffle was likely never a choice. Only tinkle had a K sound. A predominant theme was the dirty-but-not-too-dirty-word snort. As School Superintendent Chalmers on the Simpsons once said: Now if you'll excuse me, I'm off to my vacation at Lake Titicaca. Try to make a joke out of that, Mr. Smart Guy.

The people studying artificial intelligence are trying to make computers funny. In their journals are a number of studies looking at funny words. One such study performed a crowd-source review of 120,000 English words and "phrases." The phrases they list are word pairs like namby pamby or woo woo. It took English speakers from all over the word, with a fair number from India.

Of course each individual didn't rate 120,000 words. The words were divided up in chunks, rated and the top 216 were examined. From there, the funniest were selected.

The funniest words? 

1. asshattery
2. clusterfuck
3. douchebaggery
4. poppycock
5. craptacular
6. cockamamie
7. gobbledegook
8. nincompoops
9. wanker
10. kerfuffle
11. cockle pickers
12. pussyfooting
13. tiddlywinks
14. higgledy piggledy
15. kumquats
16. boondoggle
17. doohickey
18. annus horribilis
19. codswallop
20. shuttlecock

Fourteen of these have K sounds. Seven have multiple K sounds. My personal choice for funniest word is kerfuffle. The complete list of 216 finalists is included below.

I'll end with this tangential anecdote. Once in my pharmacology class, I thought I'd perform an ice-breaker. I asked students to write down their favorite name for a body part. For example, euphonic words like uvula, or my favorite: the zonules of Zinn. Reading through the selections I came across one answer that I accidentally read out loud before editing: my clitoris. At first I thought, this is a male student having a snickering joke at my expense. I reminded the students that the exercise was not about your favorite body part, just your favorite word naming a body part. Then a female student raised her hand and announced, "That was me. I really like my clitoris."

The complete 216 word list mentioned above in descending order:

asshattery, clusterfuck, douchebaggery, poppycock, craptacular, cockamamie, gobbledegook, nincompoops, wanker, kerfuffle, cockle pickers, pussyfooting, tiddlywinks, higgledy piggledy, kumquats, boondoggle, doohickey, annus horribilis, codswallop, shuttlecock, bejeezus, bamboozle, whakapapa, artsy fartsy, pooper scoopers, fugly, dunderheaded, dongles, didgeridoo, dickering, bacon butties, woolly buggers, pooch punt, twaddle, dabbawalas, goober, apeshit, nut butters, hoity toity, glockenspiel, diktats, mollycoddling, pussy willows, bupkis, tighty whities, nut flush, namby pamby, bugaboos, hullaballoo, hoo hah, crapola, jerkbaits, batshit, schnitzels, sexual napalm, arseholes, buffoonery, lollygag, weenies, twat, diddling, cockapoo, boob tube, galumphing, ramrodded, schlubby, poobahs, dickheads, fufu, nutjobs, skedaddle, crack whore, dingbat, bitch slap, razzmatazz, wazoo, schmuck, cock ups, boobies, cummerbunds, stinkbait, gazumped, moobs, bushwhacked, dong, pickleball, rat ass, bootlickers, skivvies, belly putter, spelunking, faffing, spermatogenesis, butt cheeks, blue tits, monkeypox, cuckolded, wingnuts, muffed punt, ballyhoo, niggly, cocksure, oompah, trillion dong, shiitake, cockling, schlocky, portaloos, pupusas, thrust reverser, pooja, schmaltzy, wet noodle, piggeries, weaner, chokecherry, tchotchkes, titties, doodad, troglodyte, nookie, annulus, poo poo, semen samples, nutted, foppish, muumuu, poundage, drunken yobs, yabbies, chub, butt whipping, noobs, ham fisted, pee pee, woo woo, squeegee, flabbergasted, yadda yadda, dangdut, coxless pairs, twerps, tootsies, big honkin, porgies, dangly, guffawing, wussies, thingies, bunkum, wedgie, kooky, knuckleheads, nuttin, mofo, fishmonger, thwack, teats, peewee, cocking, wigwams, red wigglers, priggish, hoopla, poo, twanged, snog, pissy, poofy, newshole, dugong, goop, whacking, viagogo, chuppah, fruitcakes, caboose, cockfights, hippocampus, vindaloo, holeshot, hoodoo, clickety clack, backhoes, loofah, skink, party poopers, civvies, quibble, whizzy, gigolo, bunged, whupping, weevil, spliffs, toonie, gobby, infarct, chuffed, gassy, crotches, chits, proggy, doncha, yodelling, snazzy, fusarium, bitty, warbled, guppies, noshes, dodgems, lard, meerkats, lambast, chawl.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 

Martin Hill Ortiz is also the author of A Predator's Game. His epic poem, Two Mistakes, won second place in the Margaret Reid/Tom Howard Poetry Competition. He can be contacted at mdhillortiz@gmail.com.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Writing Companions, Suitably Stuffed

A time-and-a-half ago I decided to buy some dolls representing famous figures. These were offered for sale at our local art museum gift shop. Along with satisfying my scientific side (Einstein), and my wife's artistic side (Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Van Gogh with a detachable ear, and Frida), I bought some literary luminaries including Shakespeare and Poe.

Right now Poe stares my way: his soulful sad eyes unblinking, a raven perched on his shoulder. I could initiate a staring contest, but maybe the raven is waiting for the opportunity to fly over and peck out my eyeballs, something Poe would approve of.

My modest collection inspired me to explore the world of literary figurines. In doing so, I have returned from my venture dizzied by the choices and coveting many of the wonderful creations. How has my writing survived without this plenitude of muses?

There is this Jane Austen action figure. It's poseable. Surely, Jane Kick-Ass Austin would inspire and transform my writing.

Jane Austen Action Figure
All the pride and 30% less prejudice!
The same company sells a Poe action figure, complete with raven on his shoulder, naturally.

On Etsy, the online shopping market for all that is artisan, CELEBRITYwithYOU sells this set of Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot. I am not a clothing fiend, my general attitude is just find something in the closet that doesn't smell funky, but these dolls are worth the price for their costumes alone. They also make custom-made dolls to order, in case you want to inspire yourself with yourself.

The people (person?) at UneekDollDesigns, also an Etsy site, lists 175 male author and 69 female author dolls. They include a wide range of writers. Some examples:

Here is Dorothy L. Sayers.

I doubt that it took nine tailors to make her outfit.
It is difficult for me to hold back from screaming out: I need a Jorge Luis Borges doll and I need it now!


In case you need warning against writing too florid of sentences, perhaps you need an Edward Bulwer-Lytton doll. Or maybe it's Rasputin.

 A dark and stormy doll.

Paul Coelho. I enjoyed his book: Meditations on Being a Gazillionaire.

The Poe doll that I own. Made by The Unemployed Philosophers Guild.

And that Raven never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting,
On that woeful doll of Poe, full of cotton balls and gloom.
And its eyes, so darkly gleaming, held by stitches soon un-seaming,
While a teapot over-steaming, sounds its scream throughout the room,
And so imbued my squeamish dreaming thrills with chills from Usher's tomb.
Hill Ortiz - nom de plume.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 

Martin Hill Ortiz is also the author of A Predator's Game. His epic poem, Two Mistakes, won second place in the Margaret Reid/Tom Howard Poetry Competition. He can be contacted at mdhillortiz@gmail.com.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

The Tragedies of X, Y, and Z

With mathematical precision, the detective narrows down the list of potential suspects, placing each into a Venn diagram of motive, means, and opportunity, ultimately revealing the culprit.

          The notorious escape artist, famous for  telling detectives "Examine Your Zippers," and then fleeing while their attention is elsewhere,  is the culprit.

The subjects of this post matches the following three characteristics. They are two people who go by a singular name. They write mystery stories. Their name also happens to be the name of a prominent mystery magazine. There is only one pair of suspects who fits these descriptors: Ellery Queen.

(Alfred Hitchcock was a mystery writer via screen credits.)

Turning Venn diagrams into a lasso that also serves as a noose also happens to be the method by which Ellery Queen's detectives solve crimes.

Ellery Queen was or were the prolific writing duo of Frederic Dannay and Manfred Bennington Lee. Ellery Queen was also the name of their most-frequently-used detective (an early example of cross-marketing?) and the name of the mystery magazine that they started.

For me the joy of Ellery Queen mysteries are the small details of detection. Look, a letter in an envelope has the imprint of a paper clip on both sides while the envelope has a paper clip at one end. Did one paper clip disappear? No, then the envelope would also be marked at both ends. But, wait! The letter was taken from the envelope which had a paper clip on one end, read and then reinserted in reverse. Someone had steamed open the letter! An accumulation of these details, even if they are not perfect individually are cumulatively powerful and satisfying. Classic Sherlock: a world revealed by small details.

For me the taxing part of reading Ellery Queen is that some of conventions are strained. Murder victims leave baffling notes as to the identity of their murderers. The note has to be puzzling, both for the sake of the mystery. and because the murderer would scrub out a non-puzzling note. And so the gobbledy-gook message, when deciphered, solves the mystery. As a one-off notion, I suppose this is a fine clue. But after a few repetitions it feels as false as the victim muttering, "The killer is... gurgle," followed by the victim's one-way trip to the land of no more gurgles. (Meanwhile, a butler named Gurgle skips town.)

I've recently finished reading The Tragedy of X, The Tragedy of Y, and The Tragedy of Z, three Ellery Queen novels* each featuring the great, great Shakespearean actor, Drury Lane, as detective. Having retired from the stage after going deaf, Lane leads a monk-like existence, living in a castle where he is aided by his hunchback assistant, Quasey. Similar retirements await most all ex-actors. Lane lip-reads with perfect precision.

*Ellery Queen released the Drury Lane series (1932-1933) under the pen-name of Barnaby Ross, possibly because Queen already had four books coming out those two years.

Lane, with his magnificent voice shaking the timbers and fluttering the limelights, seems styled after the great, great Shakespearean actors famously lampooned by Jack Benny in Ernst Lubitsch's To Be Or Not To Be.

Still, like most well-seasoned hams, Lane makes for a satisfying, albeit not kosher, meal. I found The Tragedy of X  to be the weakest of the three in the tragedy series. Being a pharmacologist, I didn't buy the poisoning method. Okay, that's just me. The constant willingness of Inspector Thumm to cede the direction of the investigation to the amateur Lane seemed strained as did the who in whodunnit, the revelation of which takes the bulk of an hour's reading for the detective to convey. (Queen's explanations usually only take thirty minutes.)

I found The Tragedy of Y  to be the strongest and most worthy of a modern reading. You don't need to read the first to jump into the second. In this case, Lane investigates the murders of members of the vividly dysfunctional millionaire family, the Hatters. Their name conveniently allows for the pun, the Mad Hatters. In this case, the solution is still overly-complex, but only by half. Furthermore, the pathos of the family feels real and the finale is disturbing.

The Tragedy of Z fits on my list between the other two. In this case, the series is given a curveball. The narration is told in the voice of Patience Thumm, a new character, the daughter of Inspector Thumm. For the first two-thirds of the book, she does the job of detecting and Lane is relegated to the slow lane. She is an independent-minded, forward-thinking female who, sigh, occasionally faints. After she is stumped, Lane takes over the investigating. The solution isn't so-much contrived as the need to present it in the penitentiary's death chamber with the prisoner strapped in the electric chair and all the major suspects gathered round. Or maybe, I should say the setting for the solution is charmingly hokey. I enjoyed it. It had that William Powell (The Thin Man) level of pontification.

Why did I choose to read some classic Queen? I've recently finished reading the top 100 mysteries from lists composed by the Crime Writer's Association (Britain) and the Mystery Writer's of America. This left me with a void. No more checking books off a list, coming ever closer to my goal. So, I turned to the Mystery Writers of Japan who made their own lists of Best "Western" Mystery Story lists in 1985 and 2012. Ellery Queen is their top author, with seven and six entries in the two lists, respectively. Four of Queen's entries were written in the year 1932. The Tragedy of Y is their top novel on one list and second place on the other. The Tragedy of X places fourteenth and twenty-seventh.

The Tragedy of X, Japanese edition.

Now on to Drury Lane's Last Case, the fourth and final entry in the series. It takes discipline to create a memorable detective and then let him go so early.

Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 

Martin Hill Ortiz is also the author of A Predator's Game. His epic poem, Two Mistakes, recently won second place in the Margaret Reid/Tom Howard Poetry Competition. He can be contacted at mdhillortiz@gmail.com.

Friday, October 5, 2018

War and Peace by Lee O'Tolstoy

I now understand why Russia is such a large country: the Russians need a lot of room to store their novels. Being a practical people, they also use their novels as furniture, stack them up as steps to make staircases, and employ them as barricades for whenever Cossack pirates attack.

When I was young I remember people talking about the scarcity of energy supplies. What will happen when we run out of oil to make electricity? Me, I was worried about what would happen when we ran out of electrons.

Upon downloading War and Peace onto my Kindle, I am certain I stripped an entire forest of its electrons. Maybe it was an Amazon forest, which would be ironic (Take that Amazon!). My Kindle weighed three pounds more.

War and Peace belongs to that class of classics that is fun to read, i.e., any book which you were not assigned in English class. (Silas Marner, I'm looking at you.)

The first half of the novel introduces us to hundreds of characters. The main ones are:

Count Pierre Bezhukov, bastard son, broods and searches for the meaning of life. He loves not wisely but too well—or, maybe well-enough: in the end, he gets the girl.

Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, cynical, he renounces his royal right to avoid action in battle, joins the army and becomes the Tsarist formerly known as Prince. He undergoes several reversals of fortune, or, as they say in Russian: enutяof. He learns that life is worth living, then dies.

Natasha Rostova. Impetuous, impulsive, and several other imps. After misadventures of the heart, she lives happily-enough ever after.

Princess Hélène Kuragina. Like Catherine the Great, she hungers for big C---asians. Rumor has it that she transformed Petersburg into the city of brotherly love. Pierre fights a duel for her honor which sends him into an existential crisis.

Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon is a petit-four (a petit five-foot-four), but no creme puff. Napoleon possesses one tragic flaw: he thinks he is Napoleon. This would get anyone else locked up in a loony bin, but somehow it works in his favor. He invades Russia with 600 million troops and leaves with two counts wearing perukes and a t-shirt saying, "I conquered Moscow and all I got was this lousy head cold." Vizzini mocks him. Tchaikovsky bombards him with cannon fire.

Other characters include the Kissoffs and their American cousins, the Kickoffs.

Altogether, War and Peace is a great, transformative read. Even now I am looking at a nectarine and asking, "What is this fruit thinking? Why is it here? Do I dare to eat a peach? Are you going to finish those fries?" I eat the nectarine, whether an act of free will or else necessity, I know not.


1. In Russia, steps are called steppes.
2. The Tsarist formerly known as Prince. He was still known as prince, but I couldn't resist the joke.
3. In England, fries are called chips. In Russia, they are called chippes.
4. Free will for humans. Free Willy for orcas.
Image result for vizzini
Vizzini: Never get involved in a land war in Asia.
Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 

Martin Hill Ortiz is also the author of A Predator's Game. His epic poem, Two Mistakes, recently won second place in the Margaret Reid/Tom Howard Poetry Competition. He can be contacted at mdhillortiz@gmail.com.

Friday, September 28, 2018

The War of the Sexes and the Blindness to Sexual Violence.

Image result for dr. ford

The recent appearance of Dr. Ford before the U.S. Senate inspired this mix of thoughts which I've been churning in the cement barrel of my brain.

Part One. General Psychological Mutterings.

#1. Individuals tend to see themselves and their actions as reasonable. This is due to the fact that they know what thoughts went into their decisions.

#2. People tend to see the actions of others as mysterious or wrong. They don't know what went into the decisions.

#2a. The exception to rule two is when the actions of others are similar to those we would make. Because of this, cultures tend to view their way of doing things as the reasonable one.

#3. Rule 2a extends to people who share similar looks or share the same background. Part of the reason for this is perspective: aspects of race, gender and background extend to culture, i.e., this is how we do things. Part of this is due to an ease and willingness to accept the viewpoints of ourselves and to separate out a group of "others."

Part Two: Applying this to Politics.

#1. The British Empire saw themselves as reasonable. They were a beacon unto the world and a civilizing force.

#2. The British Empire saw the Irish as ireful, war-like, belligerent, etc.

#3. During the 19th century the British Empire engaged in wars of acquisition and repression, including such crimes against humanity as the two Opium Wars and the invention of concentration camps in the second Boer War (1900).

#3a. In the meantime, the Irish had no foreign wars, only internal squabbles and were starved out of their homes by their absentee landlords, i.e., the British.

The point is not so much that the ruling class writes history, it's that the ruling class is blind to its own history. I suppose I should add a disclaimer that I am not suggesting the British Empire was all villain and that Ireland was all hero.

Part Three: Applying this to Male and Female Perspectives.

#1. In the United States, in cases where the culprit was identified, 90.3% of murderers are men. Not surprisingly, nearly 99% of the perpetrators of rape are men. For aggravated assault, the figure is 83%.

#2. In spite of this, men see themselves as the rational sex.

#3. Men hold most positions of power. Men dominate the national discourse.

#4. Ergo, men excuse their irrationality and even their violence. Even more than that, they are unwilling to see the consequences of their actions.

#4a. Although on a less grave note, I think a good example of this is in the film "Broadcast News." When the news ran an exposé on date rape, the otherwise sympathetic character Albert Altman (played by Albert Brooks) said, "You really blew the lid off of nookie." The women, in union, hissed at him: he didn't get it.

#5. As a general rule, men overlook and excuse their culture of violence toward women. This occurs for both large and small offenses.

#5a. Some men see it as a biological imperative. We as a species are hard-wired for war.

#5b. Some reflect back on their own actions and their own justifications.

For all the above reasons, men just don't get it.

It isn't merely hard-wired. It is also cultural. The United States has a homicide rate four times that of the United Kingdom. (5.35 versus 1.20 per 100,000).

We can change our culture, in fact, culture is always in flux. Homicides in the United States have dropped by 50% in the last twenty-five years. We can edit ourselves, to think beyond the prejudices of our narrow outlooks. Harm is not defined by the perpetrator; it is defined by the victim. We must use other eyes to see.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Dial M for Murder, Wait Until Dark, and. . .

Frederick Knott wrote three plays during his career. These were clever mysteries, carefully plotted, with whiplash twists. Two, his first and his last, became all-time classic films: Dial M for Murder and Wait Until Dark. This left me with the question: what about the one in the middle?

Write Me a Murder began its life with great promise. It ran for a decent 196 performances on Broadway, starring James Donald, Denholm Elliot and Kim Hunter. It won the 1962 Edgar for Best Mystery Play.

Dial M for Murder
was filmed by Hitchcock and stands at the lower end of his top tier films. It has been filmed repeated times in slightly variant forms.

Wait Until Dark was filmed by Terrence Young, a veteran director, best know for this film and three of the four original Bond movies, providing Audrey Hepburn with one of her classic roles.

Write Me a Murder never made it beyond television productions, the first for BBC's Thursday Theater in 1964, and a second by the Australian Broadcasting Company in 1965. Neither have gained the minimum five votes to be rated on IMDB.

From time to time it gets revived in small and moderate-sized theaters, and, coincidentally, there is a current staging going on at Person Playhouse in Pacific Palisades. (Probably produced by Peter Piper.)

And that's it. It has never returned to Broadway or off-Broadway as far as I can find. This intrigued me. I had to investigate, so I ordered a copy of the acting edition.

The story plays out as follows (no major spoilers).

Although the Rodingham estate has been in family hands for 500 years, financial pressures force the heir, Clive Rodingham, to sell. The buyer is a crass businessman, Charles Sturrock, who has secret plans to chop-up the estate and convert the acreage into suburban housing.

Clive's brother, David, writes mysteries. David discovers that Sturrock's wife, Julia shares this and–soon enough–other passions. Together David and Julia write a story about the perfect murder. When they decide to use the plot to kill her husband, they burn the drafts.

Of course there are some twists between the murder plans and the murderers living happily ever after.

So, what's the verdict? Is this play the poor relation of its famous siblings or is it equal in quality?

Write Me a Murder is only available for reading as a stage play. This relegates the action to stage directions. Being a clockwork mystery I found myself struggling to visualize "cross to chair A," while wondering if this direction was significant to the murder. It wasn't.

That aside, Knott has a distinct and economical way of drawing characters. Consider the line "world's champion blind lady" from Wait Until Dark and you know deep down she is tougher than the killers. When Julia tells David she has written twenty stories over seven years and not one was published, David remarks that she must be a real writer: anyone else would have given up.

The story is compelling, richly plotted. There was one major coincidence/twist that drove the plot that I felt was deux ex machina and a couple of minor plot holes which could easily be fixed in an adaptation. I haven't read the play treatments of Dial M for Murder or Wait Until Dark. Maybe minor glitches were repaired in the screenplays. 

Those are quibbles. My final verdict is that Write Me a Murder is worthy of a major revival or a screen treatment. For those who love clever mysteries it is an unjustly neglected masterpiece.

Kim Hunter and Denholm Elliot, original Broadway production.

Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 

Martin Hill Ortiz is also the author of A Predator's Game. His epic poem, Two Mistakes, recently won second place in the Margaret Reid/Tom Howard Poetry Competition. He can be contacted at mdhillortiz@gmail.com.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

A Hanger Nade

To celebrate the end of National Short Story Month, here is a comic mystery piece, A Hanger Nade, (2004) which first appeared in Miami Accent Magazine.

A Hanger Nade

Martin Hill Ortiz

    "We got a hanger nade," Tommy told me.

    "Ain't them hand grenades?" I told Tommy.

    "No," Tommy told me. "The proper way to call 'em is hanger nades. They comes from hangers. Them's the place where the army keeps exploding stuff."

    I woulda thought that hangers was for planes, but then I guess the army puts exploding stuff to drop from planes and besides Tommy was the one who'd a been in the Foreign Legion, not me, though that is something of a secret, so don't tell. For near a month, I worked to get Tommy to open up on his military time. He had told me he was a soldier only when I asked what branch, he told me it was so secret that they never told him. I kinda doubted that, figuring he was just trying to hush me up, me being a feller that never did serve my country in such a dangerous and officious capacity. When I pressed him a bit more, he told me he was in the marines. Later he changed that, saying it was the ultramarines. When I finally pinned him on why he didn't just get government help for his syndrome that was bothering him, him being a veteran and all, he told me he was in the Foreign Legion.  He joined the USA Marines, then betrayed by our country he was traded away on the foreign exchange program. Then he got punted out two months short of turning "le general." He got punted out on account of getting sick without permission when he come down with legioner's disease, which should a been the official disease for him to have and which he still does have in his knees. Instead of them court marching him, he first runned off and moved in with me, even though I hadn' hardly seen him since we was fifteen.

    All this he told me excep for the part of moving in with me, which I kinda told you on my own.

    Well, it was a bad time for me and him to hook up, on account of I'd lost my job rounding up shopping carts. They got a motorized collection assister at the WalMart that helps one do the work of two and I was the other one.

    Now my landlord, Mr. Harlan, had always been nice about the rent on my shack when it was one of me living there, but he didn' care too much for the other one of us who was Tommy. So I was going to actually have to pay something and not just for Tommy but for all the months I didn' pay something.

    What we needed was an idea for money. Me, I wasn' built for smarts and for that matter, not much for action. Tommy, however, was built like that bully that kicked sand in the other guy's face while I, you see, I was built like that other guy. Tommy was so pumped up they throwed him out from the gym on account of jealousy and on account of his way of working out by tossing round barbells. Truth is, Tommy's got both muscles and brains in his head.

    "We steal some place," his idea was. "We steal some place like a bank." He tells me the important part to stealing a bank is to have an edge that puts you in front of dumber criminals. And he tells me an edge is what we's got. We's got a hanger nade. A hanger nade is better than a gun, he told me. This was on account of they add time to your ticket if you hold up with a gun, even a phony gun. But there's no special rule on hanger nades, Tommy said. Tommy was an expert on the law.

    "So what's our plan?" I said, asking. "A hanger nade needs a plan."

    "The hanger nade practically plans for itself!" he said. In a little bit though he gone quiet. He never could confess when I was right. He mulled and mulled until his brain turned to pudding. Then he got the other part of his idea.

    "First," he said. "We kidnap a bank owner. Then we would make the owner guy steal his own money under the profound influence of the hanger nade. So on account of him is the one doing the stealing, we is innocent. Then at the end, we let him go, so we undo the kidnapping. They can't arrest us and if they do we will be somewhere else where we picked up and run to." We kicked around this plan for hours, going through a half dozen six packs while trying to find a hole. We couldn'. It was fool proofed.

    To get more time for our getaway, we needed someone who was going on vacation. So when they was gone we could go put up a sign up on the front door of the bank, saying, "Closed for Inventory." Then, because the owner wouldn' be around to tell folks it wasn' true, on account of him still being kidnapped, no one would go in there for a week cause they would be waiting for the guy to come back from the vacation cause that was where he was supposed to be. And the workers would read the sign and practically give us a medal for the free week off. And for we ourself, a week would be like dog years when it come for time for escape.

    Now Suzy, a former ladyfriend of Tommy, worked making vacations for people on planes and travel and stuff. Only she couldn' a been too former on account of her doing him a favor. He asked Suzy if maybe she had the inside story on somebody who owned someplace like a store who was going someplace like somewhere else. Like a business or a bank going on a camping trip. Now Suzy said, as matter of fact, she did. The manager of a credit union was flying out on a plane ticket on Sunday. Now Tommy and me was both disappointed it was a credit union and not a bank, but we couldn' be so exactly choosy.

    The plan was even deeper than what I just told, I suppose on account that there was parts Tommy hadn' had even prior told me. We started the day, not in a kidnapping but with going to the hospital where we stealed an ambulance. Tommy said with an ambulance we could turn on our emergency light and no one could stop our escape. Cause we didn' need our car no more, we just parked it in front of the emergency room. It was kind of junky anyhow. It was missing its back seat doors cause we pulled em off to tie to the front seat part cause them doors was missing too. So we taked the ambulance to the house of the credit union guy.

    We rang on his doorbell only no one answered. We hadn' a counted on that. A neighbor, however, saw the ambulance and come over to us and asked us is there a problem. Tommy thinks faster than me. He said, no.

    The neighbor told us that the manager had headed off for work and we could probably find him at the credit union. We thanked the neighbor and drove off. On the one hand, we felt sorry for the manager working so much that he had to work on Sundays. On the other hand, it was dang convenient that he was at the place we was going to steal.

    Only along the way we ran across a police car blinking its light and one of them officers was waving at us. "We pass by real slow and don' make eye contact," Tommy told me. Only the officer stepped in front of us.

    It seemed there was this bum who was lying on the sidewalk not moving who had a nasty bump on his forehead. They asked couldn' we take him to the hospital?

    Tommy looked at me and me, I looked at Tommy. I suppose, we said.

    Don't you need to put his neck in a brace? the policeman asked and Tommy said, "No, that's just in the movies."

    Tommy grabbed one arm and I grabbed one leg and we swung the bum up and tossed him into the back of the ambulance. We taked off and no one was the smarter.

    Only now we had someone extra to consider. "Maybe we ought a prop him up in front of the hospital," I said.

    "We got a bank to steal, I mean credit union," Tommy said. "We take him to the hospital after, when we got time."

    "But he could be dying," I said. "Maybe he needs a zap from a couple of them electrical flippers." They had some in the back.

    "They's called pong paddles," Tommy said. "Go ahead, give him a spark."

    "Oh, no you don't," Mike said on account of Mike being the name of the bum. Mike explained how he rigged the bump on his head and pretended to be knocked out only so he could get checked into the hospital for a day or two of observation. If he didn' have the bump, they woulda figured he was sleeping one off. But this way he got a place to stay and they might even set him up a drip of morphine.

    "Well, we can't go and take you to the hospital right now," Tommy said. "We is stealing a credit union. If you wait a bit, we'll drop you off on our way out of town."

    "I don' know about that," Mike said.

    "Better still," Tommy said. "You could join us as our lookout. Only a lookout don' make as much as a mastermind. Still, we'd be willing to start you out at ten dollars an hour with a chance at promotion."

    So we leaved Mike in the ambulance as we taked our duck tape and hanger nade and knocked on the front door of the credit union. The bank manager was a skinny dude, musta been fifty. I'd swear he used black shoe polish on his hair. He waved at us from behind the door, saying, "What?"

     Tommy said that we got a call for an ambulance. (Now, the ambulance was parked in front where the manager could see it.)

    The manager guy said he didn' call for an ambulance only Tommy pretended he couldn' hear. So the manager guy unlocked the door to tell us and that's when Tommy said, "We got a hanger nade," and showed him. The guy taked us like we was serious.

    Next thing you know we got him to open the safe. Then we wrapped him up with duck tape in his chair and taked the money, which was already in bags. Musta been a dozen of them.

    Tommy asked the manager guy how much was his watch worth and the guy must not have been as smart as me, cause I would have said a couple of bucks, only the guy said, a lot. So Tommy taked the watch. Then Tommy tells him not to try to escape cause we'll be back in five minutes to kidnap you.

    So Tommy and me take the money out to the ambulance only to find there was no ambulance. Mike had stealed our getaway vehicle and our only transportation.

    "That does it!" Tommy said. "He's not getting paid, not even for part of an hour."

    We had to figure out what to do. It taked Tommy only a short bit of figuring to decide we needed to take the car of the manager guy and go get the ambulance back.

    So we go to the manager to get his keys only we find he's done with unwrapping himself and he's about to make a phone call. "Stop right there," said Tommy. "We got a hanger nade." Now Tommy was real mad. He had already done told the manager to not to try and escape. "All I asked for was five minutes."

    The manager at first was quiet. Then he pointed out that we taked his watch, which was true, and kind of humbled Tommy and me. So Tommy got the guy's keys, put the watch back on him, and wrapped him up again in duck tape, but this time good.

    "We'll be back in thirty minutes to kidnap you," Tommy told him tapping on the guy's watch to make the point clear. "Do not try and escape. We got a hanger nade."

    Well the manager's car was nothing but a dinky two-seat sports job and there was barely room for Tommy and me, Tommy being built like King Kong and me being built like the other guy. And there definitely was no room for the loot. So to be safe, we put it back in the safe.

    Tommy did some terrible things to them gears, but we made it to the hospital. There we found a half a dozen people around the ambulance with Mike being taken out in one of them wheelie beds. We figure Mike drove up and then put himself in the wheelie bed and pretended to be out cold. The security guys musta showed up and figured this was their missing ambulance.

    Alright, we was in a hurry and couldn' wait for the ambulance to be clear and so we decided to steal our own car. Only there was some dude attaching it to a tow truck sling. Tommy told me to drive the sports car back to the credit union and then danged if he didn' sneak up and steal the tow truck, dragging our car right behind.

    I did some even worse damage to them gears but I made it back to the credit union, and by this time we had three cars, or rather two cars and a truck. Only when we got inside, there was the manager guy on the telephone. Seeing us, he hung up quick.

    Tommy was angry all over again. "Didn' you listen to us? We told you not to escape. We got a hanger nade."

    The manager said, "You told me you'd be back in 30 minutes. It's been 35." He had a point.

    Tommy said, "Well, have a sit down cause we'll have to tape you up all over again." And we did. Only we couldn't do it very well on account of using up the last of the tape. We just got one arm and two of his legs. We figured this wouldn' even hold him for five minutes.

    Tommy told me to take the money out to the tow truck, cause Tommy had to watch this guy. So I did. Only when I was done, I could hear sirens coming. Tommy, he come running out, telling me it was time to give up on the kidnapping part of the plan. We taked off in the tow truck with the money carefully hid atop the spare tire in the trunk of our car, our car in the back of the tow truck.

    We camped out at my place. Tommy called it our back up plan number B, saying they would be expecting us to run.

    Night came and we didn' even turn on the lights cause we didn' want no one to know we was there. We only turned on the television. The news was revealing. The credit union guy was arrested. Someone for the police explained the whole story and then some.

    Seemed first, the manager guy tried telling the police that two crooks had stealed $200,000, which was a lie cause we had only about twenty thousand in our bags. The police was right away suspicious. How come he had $200,000 on hand in such a dinky outfit? How come he made a phone call to the police and then got to be taped up again? And how come he had a one way plane ticket for somewhere, somewhere else? Turned out, he had been stealing for some time. He had come to work that Sunday to pack up what was in the vault and hightail it for good. He got caught seen on tape unplugging the security cams. When we showed up and taked the money, he decided to try and blame us for all the missing loot, only now the police didn' believe in an "us."

    He mighta gotten the police to believe him, only he told them that we stealed his car and if they just found his car then they would find us. Well, the police taked him outside where there was his car with the keys still in it. "They did steal it," he told them. "Only they must have returned it. The way they stole my watch." He showed them his watch. Then he got panicky and jumped into his car to try to get away. Only his transmission wasn' working so good.

    For us, everything had worked out perfect fine, I guess on account of smart planning. We helped snag a crook, we got the money and nobody was looking for us. The ambulance was back at the hospital and I imagine that Mike was enjoying his morphine drip.

    All we had to do was return the tow truck, only we couldn' figure how to disattach its sling from the bumper of our car. Fortunate for us, we got a hanger nade.


Image result for "hand grenade"
A Hanger Nade. Mardis Gras. Google describes the image as free usage.

Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 

Martin Hill Ortiz is also the author of A Predator's Game. His epic poem, Two Mistakes, recently won second place in the Margaret Reid/Tom Howard Poetry Competition. He can be contacted at mdhillortiz@gmail.com.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

The Low Degree of Violence in U.S. - Mexican Border Cities

U.S.-Mexican border cities have been experiencing a historically low rate of violent crimes, at least through 2016, the most recent year with statistics available from the FBI's Uniform Crime Reports.

In my previous analyses, I looked at the recent rate of violent crimes versus the peak year. In that study I used statistics through 2014 which were the most recent numbers compiled into the city tables. Since then I discovered that the 2015 and 2016 annual reports included information for major cities.

So: this post includes the years 2015 and 2016 and rather than look at single year peaks, I compared the peak five consecutive years to the most recent five consecutive years. Being a different analysis, and less reliant on single year peaks, the numbers come out a bit differently, and are less prone to error.

To be clear: these data, the most recent available, represent crime through the end of the Obama administration and this is not a commentary on subsequent changes.

The five cities chosen were those U.S. cities that had over 100,000 in population and which border Mexico: Brownsville, McAllen, Laredo, El Paso, all in Texas, and San Diego, in California. The statistics used were total violent crime rates, murder rates and the rate of rapes, available in the FBI city tables beginning with the year 1985.

Of the cities/measurements, all 15 show lower crime rates in recent years: in most cases, dramatically lower.

Brownsville Violent Crimes. Down by 76.5%
" " Murders. Down by 88.3%
" " Rape. Down by 49.1%

McAllen Violent Crimes. Down by 83.2%
" " Murders. Down by 67.6%
" " Rape. Down by 68.8%
Laredo Violent Crimes. Down by 37.7%
" " Murders. Down by 75.7%
" " Rape. Down by 6.1%

While all other city statistics show a 30% drop or more, rapes in Laredo had a negligible drop.

El Paso Violent Crimes. Down by 64.0%
" " Murders. Down by 68.1%
" " Rape. Down by 33.7%

San Diego Violent Crimes. Down by 66.7%
" " Murders. Down by 76.9%
" " Rape. Down by 32.8%

United States. Violent Crimes. Down by 49.3%
" " Murders. Down by 48.6%
" " Rape. Down by 33.7%

Four out of five of the border cities had violent crimes drop at a greater rate than the U.S. as a whole. Five out of five had murder drop at a greater (much greater) rate than the U.S. as a whole. Three out of five of the cities did equal or better in improving their rape statistics. (El Paso tied, San Diego less than one percent behind, and Laredo not doing well.) In total, according to the metrics, the border cities outperformed the U.S. as a whole in 11 out of 15 measures, with one tie.

So, here are the graphs.


Brownsville, Violent Crimes per 100,000 population. The pink bar represents the average crime rate in the city's peak years of violent crime, which are shown individually in the leftmost bars. The green bar is the average for the five most recent years. FBI UCR statistics are compiled back to 1985.
Brownsville Murder Rates. The legend corresponds to the one described above.
Brownsville, Rate of Rape.

McAllen, Violent Crime Rate.
McAllen, Murder Rate.

McAllen, Rate of Rape. The 2012 statistic of 2.2 per 100,000 seems an anomaly. The 2016 numbers are disturbingly high.
Laredo, Violent Crime Rate.
Laredo, Murder Rate.
Laredo, Rate of Rape. Among the 15 sets of city statistics this one has shown marginal improvement and would even be higher if only the last two years were considered.


El Paso, Violent Crime Rate.

El Paso, Murder Rate.
El Paso, Rate of Rape.

San Diego, Rate of Violent Crimes.

San Diego, Murder Rate.

San Diego, Rate of Rape.

Martin Hill Ortiz is the author of Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press.

Never Kill A Friend, Ransom Note Press

Never Kill A Friend is available for purchase in hard cover format and as an ebook.
The story follows Shelley Krieg, an African-American detective for the Washington DC Metro PD as she tries to undo a wrong which sent an innocent teenager to prison.

Hard cover: Amazon US
Kindle: Amazon US
Hard cover: Amazon UK
Kindle: Amazon UK
Barnes and Noble 

Martin Hill Ortiz is also the author of A Predator's Game. His epic poem, Two Mistakes, recently won second place in the Margaret Reid/Tom Howard Poetry Competition. He can be contacted at mdhillortiz@gmail.com.