Thursday, August 18, 2016

Roger Stone and the Gaming of Amazon

In this post, I'll present some of my research into the works of Roger Stone.

Who is Roger Stone? He is a conspiracy theorist who has written several books about how various presidents and their families have committed all sorts of evil: murder, serial rape and theft of public funds. The objects of his attacks include the Bush family, the Clintons, and Lyndon B. Johnson. In a coup, unparalleled in historical journalism, Stone pegged LBJ as John F. Kennedy's assassin. He also wrote a book aimed at redeeming the reputation of his friend, Richard Nixon.

Nixon Adviser, from Stone's website.
Roger Stone is also a top advisor to Donald J. Trump.

Stone is the moral heir of Roy Cohn, a mentor of Donald Trump. He is an ex-dirty tricks operator from the Watergate era. He has no qualms about his background. From his own website:

Stone was the youngest member of the staff in President Richard Nixon's re-election camping in 1972, the notorious CREEP - Committee for the Re-Election of the President. At CREEP Stone would fall under the tutelage of the legendary Murray Chotiner, Nixon's early campaign manager and the inventor of negative campaign advertising and tactics.

Again from his website, Stone gleefully cites quotes about his reputation.

  • "Professional lord of mischief" - Weekly Standard
  • "Skilled in the dark arts of politics" - The Atlantic
  • "Master of right-wing political hit jobs... -

Roger Stone is a columnist for Breitbart (among others). He is a principal in the lobbying firm, Black, Manafort (Trump election chairman), Stone, and Kelly. He writes a fashion column and, with his wife, is a self-confessed swinger.

Stone has appeared as a hit man again and again in Trump's presidential campaign. If you want to understand Trump's world view, look to Stone.

Roger Stone and the War on Women.

Early in 2016, Donald Trump accused Hillary Clinton of sexism, saying she attacked and helped destroy those women who accused her husband of infidelity. This is reflected in Stone's 2015 book: The Clintons' War on Women, Skyhorse Publishing.

From the introduction: "This book. . . is about the many, many ways in which the Clintons have been tied to sexual abuse, cover-ups, strong-arm tactics, drugs, lies, and the intimidation of victims."

One of the promotional quotes under "Editorial Reviews:" "This book on Hillary - really tough." —Donald Trump (Trump doesn't waste time with verbs.)

The War on Women book is co-authored with Robert Morrow.

As related in this Washington Post article: Elected as the Travis County (San Antonio, TX) chair of the Republican party, Morrow made a name for himself for photos of big-chested women and promoting conspiracy theories.

Interestingly, in terms of Donald Trump support, Morrow has gone off the reservation. The tagline under his Twitter account: "Lying, Raping Donald Trump is a violent, child-rapist and he raped, slapped & threatened a 13 year old girl in 1994 @ Jeffrey Epstein party. Man is sick & evil."

Among those to whom Roger Stone dedicated his Clinton book to was Victor Thorn. Thorn is a conspiracy theorist in his own right, having written books claiming that Jews bombed the World Trade Center and that the Holocaust never happened.

Jeb! and the Bush Crime Family: The Inside Story of an American Dynasty

When it suits Stone, he will attack Republicans, and being in Trump's camp he has gone after Jeb Bush and Ted Cruz with particular fervor. Stone's anti-Bush book came out in early 2016 when Jeb! was still battling Trump!! for the Republican nomination. It was co-authored with Saint John Hunt, son of Watergate burglar, E. Howard Hunt.

In the book we are told of generations of evil Bush family members who have a special penchant for bumping off anyone who can provide evidence of them bumping off anyone.

In researching this post, I read the (freely available) openings of these books. The prose is sluggish and the thinking muddled. It reads like a breathless blog post.

Jeb!, Stone notes, has done well for himself since he finished being governor of Florida. His yearly incomes are provided. Okay. Doing well for yourself is bad? Jeb! ". . .is a fan of higher taxes, too." The evidence is that his father rose taxes.

The book seems incapable of making a coherent argument but if you enjoy the National Enquirer and muddle-headed conspiracy books, then these are definitely two-star journalism. This segues into what I find fascinating about Roger Stone's books.

Roger Stone and Amazon Reviews.

Unless you believe LBJ was behind JFK's assassination, Roger Stone is a writer of mystery fictions. To support his typing habit, he has learned how to game the Amazon Review process.

Jeb! and the Bush Crime Family: The Inside Story of an American Dynasty

With 152 reviews, the book averages 4.4 stars out of 5.

In contrast, The Great Gatsby, averages out at 4.3 stars.

For The Bush Crime Family, 72% of reviews gave five stars, 14% gave four stars. The "Top Customer" review comes from someone using the handle, Z8 who gave it five stars. Looking through Z8's many reviews, (technology, cans of Beefaroni) I found only other book: he gave five stars to "One Small Step? The Great Moon Hoax." Finding Nemo rated three stars, noting "this movie is needlessly intense and violent." 209 individuals found his Bush book review helpful.

The second top review also gave five stars. This reviewer does review other books and notes how charming Stone is.

The third top review noted that he/she "just ordered the book" but still gave it four stars. The reviewer notes: "[George] HW [Bush] was photographed in Dallas at the Book Depository as a CIA operative during the JFK assassination and recruited several of the shooters and team members. . ." George HW Bush, Ted Cruz's father! That was a crowded place. A total of 129 found this review helpful.

The top three reviewers all posted before the book's release date. It is possible that, other than the review who just ordered, the other two had advance copies. The next three top reviewer posted the week of the publication. All five stars. In fact out of the first 15 top reviews, 14 were five stars and the one who admitted to just ordering the book gave it four stars.

The Clintons' War on Women also averaged out 4.4 stars, this time with 691 reviews. 76% of the reviews are five stars, 8% are four stars. Ten percent gave one star reviews. A conspiracy is suggested in several of the five star reviews that the one star reviews all came from Clinton headquarters on the same date. The 69 one star reviews were spread over 37 days.

From the reviews:

Who knew that Bill Clinton had gone to rehab multiple times for cocaine addiction?

Hillary is a lesbian.

The top reviewer gave it four stars. Her other reviews include a large number of books. This person, unlike those that follow, appears to be a genuine reviewer.

The review which had the most individuals cite as being helpful (the second top reviewer) was written on the date of release and gave the book five stars. The same reviewer has given five stars to each of Stone's most recent books.

A total of 75 reviews came out in the first week, 66 of which were five stars, 2 with four stars, 1 with three stars, and six with 1 star.

Roger Stone has clearly figured out how to game the review system.

In recent months, Stone was quoted in a National Enquirer article alleging Ted Cruz had five lovers. Later when asked by Joe Piscopo on his radio show whether Stone was behind the National Enquirer's article that Ted Cruz's father helped assassinate John F. Kennedy, he answered that he was not. He went on to add that he had spoken to the woman who claims to be Lee Harvey Oswald's lover and that she "confirmed that [Raphael Cruz] was in New Orleans, [and] knew he was an associate of Lee Harvey Oswald."

The National Enquirer Mindset.

The following quote sums up how Donald Trump has a Roger Stone's mindset. Trump: "I've always said, why didn't the National Enquirer get the Pulitzer Prize [for their reporting on Edwards]?"

I'll give the final words to Rob Morrow describing the Clintons' War on Women:

This book is Kryptonite to the Clintons! Use it like holy water on vampires!

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 

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A Mystery Writer's Guide to Drugs and Poisons. Part Two.

Poisons Versus Drugs.

"All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Leo Tolstoy.

In order to achieve a therapeutic effect without toxicity, a drug has to work perfectly: not too much effect, not too little. It has to be directed to the cause of the ailment and not act elsewhere. It is hard to get things right.

In contrast, there are many ways to get things wrong.

The Mechanisms by Which Toxins Work.

These are the major ways in which toxins achieve their actions.

  • For a drug having a poisoning effect, that effect is an extension of the beneficial effect.
For example, a high blood pressure medicine lowers the blood pressure by too much. A stimulant overstimulates. This can also happen indirectly. As a drug concentration goes up, even an otherwise safe drug begins to activate or deactivate other physiological processes.

  • The poison interferes with essential physiological processes.
It prevents red blood cells from carrying oxygen. (Cyanide).
It interferes with cells using oxygen (Arsenic.)
It disrupts the automatic beat of the heart. (Digoxin in higher doses, oleander, which works through the same mechanism as digoxin).
It disrupts nerve transmission (Curare and some snake poisons. Botulinum. Similarly black widow venom overloads nerve transmission).

  • The poison is caustic. 
It will damage or kill the exposed tissue. (Many snake venoms, often by constricting blood vessels and cutting off blood supply. Tissue death can lead to gangrene.)

  • The compound is made toxic by the body.
Acetaminophen (brand name: Tylenol) is one of the main culprits in drug overdose. The liver transforms it into a toxic compound which, in high concentrations, can destroy the liver.

  • The poison causes DNA damage. 
This can result in a very delayed response (as in years or decades) of causing cancer.

  • There are drug-drug or drug-toxin interactions. 
There are two main ways by which one drug plus a second chemical can be toxic or fatal.

The first is through their mechanism of action: you add together two chemicals that work hand in hand to increase an effect. A well-known example is barbiturates plus alcohol. Both are CNS depressants: that is, they lower consciousness. Together they can put a victim into a stupor, a coma, or death. Sometimes drugs from different categories have overlapping mechanisms. Many drugs used for migraine headaches act through the neurotransmitter serotonin. Many antidepressants also increase serotonin. Sero (blood) tonin (tone, tension), when it is bumped up in concentration, can cause a spike in blood pressure which can be fatal.

The second major mechanism of toxic interactions is when drug A interferes with the elimination of drug B. In this case the concentration of drug B accumulates in blood to toxic levels.

  • Allergies. 

Every drug will have someone allergic to it. Most allergies are not severe. Some drugs (such as penicillin) can trigger potentially fatal reactions in those who are sensitized.

Oleander - a favorite among mystery authors

Things that Authors Get Wrong About Poisons.

1. Death is not instantaneous.

Fast-acting toxins like cyanide or curare are somewhat similar to the victim drowning. In this case, oxygen is cut off. The victim will die over time. Imagine holding your breath until you pass out (three minutes?). Add on to this an additional time in which the irreparable brain damage takes place. Another two to three minutes.

Cyanide was used for gas chamber execution and the victims typically took several minutes before becoming unconscious. Similarly, if the heart stops beating, a patient will continue to live for several minutes. If you want a character to be poisoned and not be able to complete the sentence, "The murderer is. . . ," then you probably need to give a compound that will cause unconsciousness (which can be rapid, several seconds) before death, which will take minutes. 

2. Death is often not certain.

This is a pet peeve of mine. A murderer pushes the victim down the stairs, certain the victim will die. Such an act may cause death, but chances are the victim will come out bruised. Similarly, with poisons, except in cases of overkill (very high doses), death is not assured. Some people (Rasputin) will survive the attempt. Along these lines:

3. The measures of lethality are not exact.

You will find terms related to drug toxicity like "therapeutic index." Therapeutic index is the ratio of the dose that causes lethality in fifty per cent of the population (lethal dose 50, LD50) divided by the dose that provides a positive effect in fifty per cent of the population (effective dose 50). If it takes ten times as much drug to kill fifty percent of people than it does to treat 50 per cent, then the therapeutic index is 10.

To illustrate the uncertainties of the therapeutic index and show how the concept is misused, I provide my students with the following example from the book "Who Killed Kurt Cobain?" Ian Halperin, Max Wallace, 1999, Carroll Publishing Group.

The background: Kurt Cobain, lead singer of the music group Nirvana, died on April 8, 1994. He had a high dose of heroin in his blood and a shotgun wound to his head. His death was ruled a suicide. In "Who Killed Kurt Cobain?" the authors stated it could only be murder. Cobain's blood contained 1.52 ug/mL heroin/morphine. The LD50 is 0.5 ug/mL.

The authors said, "This level [1.52 ug/mL] is widely known to represent three times the lethal dose of heroin. . ." and "a blood morphine level of 0.5ug/mL is . . . the established maximum lethal dose, even for severe addicts." The authors argue that the high dose of heroin would have been nearly instantly fatal or incapacitating and would not have permitted Cobain time to employ a shotgun to kill himself.

What’s wrong with this argument? Well, several things.

  a. What the hell is "maximum lethal dose?" You double the maximum lethal dose and you still have a lethal dose.

  b. LD50 says nothing about "instantly fatal or incapacitating" and it wouldn't have been. Fatality through heroin overdose is through suppression of breathing which does not cause instantaneous death. A high dose of heroin may have had Cobain fall asleep in a few seconds.

  c. LD50 says nothing about "even for severe addicts." Severe addicts tend to have tolerance to drug effects.

  d. There is no guarantee that three times LD50 is going to kill 90% of subjects, much less 100%. That's not how the calculations work.

  e. Lethal dose calculations come from animal experiments (they don't run lethality experiments in humans) and the findings may not directly extrapolate.

4. Analyses for Toxins Tend to Look for the Usual Suspects.

Unless the drug or toxin to be found is mentioned in advance, the typical post-mortem forensic analysis is going to miss compounds that are active in small concentrations. It will find toxins that are present at high concentrations and will screen for the most likely poisons.

You can find traces of a poison in blood or in hair using ultra-sensitive techniques: particularly if you know what to look for. Translating this to another use: yes, an ultra-sensitive drug test could find trace THC levels from the marijuana joint you smoked two weeks but that's not the test that people usually run.

5. Getting the Poison There is as Important as Choosing a Poison that Works.

Typically, for a poison to be fatal, it has to achieve a lethal concentration in blood. In other words, it has to get into your system. This detail is overlooked in a lot of thriller/international terrorism poison-the-masses novels. The author imagines that by poisoning a water supply, you will be able to kill off a city.

This scenario doesn't work. First, you go to the city reservoir. Then you have to have enough poison to pour in that would make each glassful lethal. Then, the toxin had better be equally suspended throughout the water volume: it had better not be oily and rise to the surface or else precipitate or else bind to minerals. And it had better be odorless and tasteless. And, if it gets to the person who drinks tap water, it had better not break down in stomach acid or digestive juices.

With gases, there is a huge amount of air in which the compound can dilute. The historical lethal attacks with gas are usually limited to small or enclosed areas. Not a good thing, but not wiping out whole cities.

5a. Getting the Poison Inside the Victim.

On an individual level, the compound must get into the bloodstream. Not many compounds are absorbed through the skin and therefore there are only a few drugs and toxins that could be delivered by skin contact.

The oral route is more likely to be effective. The GI tract is made for absorbing chemicals: nutrients. This absorptive process makes it good for absorbing many, although not all, types of toxins. Large molecules can't be absorbed through the GI tract and if a compound is a protein (as many toxins are), it will be broken down by digestive juices and absorbed as nutrition.

The lung is good for absorbing, but the drug has to be a gas, vaporized (smoke) or else suspended in droplets (spray).  Not much of what you breathe in gets into the blood, but for a toxin that is active in small amounts, that may be enough. The mustard gases (famous from World War I) did not need to get into the blood. They chemically attacked the tissues where they made contact, including the eyes, the throat and the airways.

If you want to be sure a poison gets into the blood, injection is the surest bet. Whether it is subcutaneous (making a blister), IV drip, blow dart, or a full bolus injected into the veins, most any compound, including those that won't be absorbed anywhere else will get into the blood system.

End Note.

With such a large subject to cover this pair of posts may have been too general / or the examples too limited. If someone has a particular question about a toxin feel free to write me.

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 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

A Mystery Writer's Guide to Drugs and Poisons. Part One.

I have a doctorate in Pharmacology--the science behind drugs--and have taught the subject to medical students for twenty years. I have also taught Toxicology, the science of poisons. The two subjects overlap. As any pharmacologist can tell you, every drug can be a toxin, it just depends on the dose.

Drugs and Poisons.

Drugs and/or poisons take their place in mystery literature as murder weapons, as addictive substances related to character flaws or criminal ventures and, in thrillers, as potential terrorist threats which can wipe out whole cities.

On a less dramatic note, characters use drugs for their various ailments and may suffer from their side effects and it is important to get the details right.

Pharmacology and Toxicology are vast subjects with issues related to the thousands of drugs and poisons. In this series I will try to deal with some of the most common situations the mystery writer may encounter. First, however, some basics on how drugs and toxins work.

What Makes Drugs and Toxins Work.

The human body is run by chemicals that it produces. These can be hormones that are released by glands which act elsewhere in the body on organs and tissues or else they can be locally acting substances such as neurotransmitters. What's a neurotransmitter? Nerves, both those that run like wires around the body, and those that comprise the brain, act by releasing stimulants and depressants which affect tissues or act at another nerve. These chemicals are neurotransmitters and run the communication system of the body, giving orders to both the automatic systems that govern functions such as breathing and digestion and the voluntary system that controls movement and willful actions. Neurotransmitters also control the brain functions: consciousness, memory, wakefulness, euphoria, etc.

So, what does a drug do? In most cases* it either acts like the natural chemical or blocks the effect of the natural chemical at its site of action.

Let's have a couple of examples. You are probably familiar with adrenaline (also called epinephrine). It is a chemical released by the body in response to stress or danger. Among other actions, it opens up the lungs for breathing, it makes the heart beat faster, it raises the blood pressure and it directs blood flow to the skeletal muscles. The set of effects from adrenaline are often described as preparing you for "fight or flight."

Adrenaline can be given as a drug. Shock involves a precipitous drop in blood pressure. A doctor may want to raise blood pressure using adrenaline in the case of anaphylactic shock (the type of shock that occurs with a severe allergic reaction such as bee-sting allergies).

Adrenaline was formerly given for asthmatic attacks: it relaxes the bronchiole muscles of the lungs to make breathing easier. In this case, we get to a toxicity: adrenaline not only opens up the bronchioles, it causes the heart to race. It can cause death in those prone to heart attacks. As a general principle of toxicity, some people are more susceptible than others. There are other drugs which can be used for asthma that do not have this effect.

To get back to what I noted above, some drugs mimic while other block the effects of natural compounds. Instead of raising the blood pressure with adrenaline, you might want to lower the blood pressure by providing a drug that blocks the action of circulating adrenaline (and its companion which is released by nerve endings, noradrenaline). Such drugs are often called blockers or inhibitors or else by the more technical term, antagonists.

How Do Drugs Achieve Their Effect?

Drugs, and their natural chemical counterparts, work by binding to receptors which turn on or off cell processes. What is a receptor? The following analogy is over a century old. A drug is the key, the receptor is the lock (or ignition switch). The receptor is typically on the outside of a cell. The drug is carried by blood to the outside of the cells where the drug turns on the cells causing a tissue effect. Why a particular tissue? That's where the receptors are which fit the keys: adrenaline on the heart tissue (and blood vessels and elsewhere where it has its actions).

Let's look at another example. Acetylcholine is a neurotransmitter with many effects throughout the body. Nerves which go to the skin release acetylcholine causing a person to sweat. Nerves which go the salivary glands release acetylcholine causing a person to salivate.

Acetylcholine is also released at the nerves which connect the brain to the skeletal muscles. The skeletal muscles are those that control voluntary movement. Drugs that act like acetylcholine are given to patient with myasthenia gravis. Why? Myasthenia gravis is a disease in which a person's immune system attacks the acetylcholine receptors on the outside of skeletal muscles. The person thereby loses muscle strength. By acting like acetylcholine, a drug can activate some of the remaining receptors.

However, in other circumstances you might want to give a drug that blocks acetylcholine at the skeletal muscles. Why would you want to do that? These drugs (skeletal muscle blockers) are given prior to surgery to prevent the patient from flinching. (General anesthesia does not paralyze the patient, anymore than sleep does not paralyze us.) A good plot device: a murderer substitutes or cuts off the skeletal muscle blocker being infused during a delicate life-or-death surgical procedure.

Let's look at the skeletal muscle blockers from the point of view of poisons. Tubocurarine (Curare) paralyzes the muscles and was discovered by a researcher who noted South American tribes using poison-tipped blow darts to capture animals. It can be fatal in animals or humans because one set of skeletal muscles helps us to breathe. (During surgery, the patient is placed on mechanical ventilation.)

After curare was discovered, but well before it was purified well enough from its plant source to be used as a drug, it made for a popular poison in mystery stories. No one interested in murder cares whether a poison is pure enough to avoid additional toxic effects.

Another set of toxins work through the acetylcholine system. Popular as the villainous weapons in thrillers and popular with villains in real life (Saddam Hussein, the Tokyo attacks), the nerve gases first overload and then knock out the acetylcholine receptors. The effects are several fold. First you have the twitching and spasms from having the skeletal muscles activated. You have the sweat glands and salivary glands turned on. Then you have the skeletal muscles shut down, including those that help you breathe. The nerve gases make for the more terrifying sort of poisons in part because they are active in small concentrations, they can be absorbed by breathing and through the skin (not many toxins can), and they can be spread in a suspended gaseous form. They also make for great plot devices because they have specific antidotes—and not many poisons do.

The Differences Between Drugs and the Natural Body Chemicals.

Although human-made compounds such as adrenaline can be used as drugs, a general rule is that the body exquisitely regulates its own compounds, producing them as needed and then quickly stopping the effect. One of the main ways in which the body stops the action is by breaking down the chemical into ineffective parts (metabolites). Adrenaline has a half-life of about 2 to 3 minutes. Acetylcholine, at the nerve ending, has a half-life of seconds. One major difference between synthesized drugs and the natural compounds is that the synthesized drugs act for a longer time. For example, an asthmatic patient might be taking a drug that acts like adrenaline in the lungs but has a half-life of hours.

So what is half-life? Unless the drug (or toxin) overwhelms the body's system of elimination, the body will eliminate half of the drug dose in a given period of time. A simple illustration is this:

Digoxin (for heart failure or arrhythmias). Half-life: 40 hours.

  • Concentration in blood. (micrograms per milliliter)
  • Zero hour. First measure: 8 ug/mL
  • 40 hours later: 4 ug/mL
  • 40 more hours later: 2 ug/mL
  • 40 more hours later: 1 ug/mL

The drug is disappearing by halves, moving like the traveler on Zeno's bridge.

I provide this table to overcome a misconception. Half-life is not how long a drug acts. It may still be acting the level of 1 ug/mL. -- Or else it may not, it may be at a concentration that is no longer causing an effect. Half-life describes the elimination of the drug. The elimination of its effect is determined by the lower threshold of its effective concentration.

Extending This To Other Drugs.

There are thousands of drugs belonging to hundreds of systems. The differences between them is what receptors they act on, individual toxicities, half-lives, and routes of administration. 

For example, morphine-related drugs act through receptors which are naturally activated by the endorphins. These receptors are located in places which cause pain relief, euphoria, depressed breathing (the main fatal effect with an overdose), and constipation (the common problematic side effect). These receptors are present in other places to provide minor effects such as pinpoint pupils.

Morphine-blockers such as naloxone (Narcan) block the receptors. This won't make much of a difference (they are blocking pain-relief rather than causing pain) unless someone has a dose of morphine-related drugs or endorphins present. In such a case the drug wipes out the euphoria, pain-relief, etc. and restores the breathing.

*A final note on this part. Does every drug either mimic or block the action of a natural human substance? No. One alternative mechanism of action comes with the antibiotics which interfere with the chemistry of microorganisms.

Next. Some Differences Between Drugs and Toxins.

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  

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Black Female Detective in Mystery Literature

When comparing the impact of racial prejudice to that of misogyny, it is worth noting that the United States allowed black males the right to vote 50 years before they gave females full suffrage (black or white). Correspondingly, the acceptance of black male detectives in mystery literature was slow in coming but preceded that of black female detectives.

Suffrage in the United States.
  • White male: 1789.
  • Black male: 1870.
  • Female: 1920.

The Relative Rarity of the Black Female Protagonist in Mysteries.

The initial pioneer was all but forgotten, her efforts not repeated for decades. The editor of Colored American magazine, Pauline Hopkins, wrote a mystery novel in serial format in 1901-02 called Hagar's Daughter. Here, a black maid, who goes by the name Venus, is treated as an equal partner in solving the crime alongside a black male detective.

Being in public domain, the book is available for free on-line.

The next occasion? Over the decades to follow, male black detectives (although not many) appeared in book form, notably the works of Chester Himes and a peak coming after the popularity of "In the Heat of the Night."

On television a remarkable early entry into the female black detective field came in the form of Get Christie Love, a made-for-television movie followed by a one-year series that first aired in 1974. The next example of a female black detective getting the title role in a television series? Rashida Jones in Angie Tribeca (2016).

During the blaxploitation era of the seventies, Angela Harpe (The Dark Angel) made her way into four pot-boiled novels, all written in 1975 by James D. Lawrence. Promoted as being the female Shaft, she was an ex-police officer who worked on the side as a high-price call girl and ex-fashion model who then became a high-priced private eye. I have not read the books, but several critics have described them as soft-porn, racist and misogynist.

In 1984, Susan Moody, now the author of over twenty novels, began a series of mysteries featuring Penny Wanawake, a photographer and amateur sleuth. The first of these was the novel, Penny Black. The book was ranked #56 in the 1990 Crime Writers' Association's list of all-time-best mystery novels.

On the plus side, the character is a strong heroine, the mystery is compelling and much of the dialogue is smart and sassy. Still, international, globe-trotting near-perfect Wanawake was more of a fantasy figure than a character.

The late 1980s also hosted the appearance of a single volume of Clio Browne: Private Investigator. An internet rumor says that the author Delores Komo was actually a pen name of the horror author, Dean Koontz. The Bibliography of Crime Fiction states that she was Dolores Komoroski who died a couple of years after the book came out.

The 1990s brought us several black female detectives and finally their presence was more than a rarity. Black female writers led the way.
Bland's Detective Marti McAllister graced some cool book covers.

The Black Female Detective Written by the Black Female Author.

One breakthrough came in the form of Blanche White, first appearing in Blanche on the Lam, in 1992. The author, Barbara Neely, described herself as being schooled by the novels of Toni Morrison and although the main character is a maid, the choice of occupation is a commentary on race and roles. Blanche's character is strong-willed and defiant. Her ties to her family and community are important in solving the mystery, which plays out in classic Southern gothic form among the genteel and mentally unbalanced rich. Neeley knows how to wield both comedy and cutting social criticism. The novel received several awards including the Agatha Award for best first novel. Neely went on to write three sequels.

About the same time, Nora DeLoach came out with the character, Grace "Candi" Covington who appeared in Mama Solves A Murder, 1994, along with seven more entries in this cozy series.

Nora DeLoach spent much of her life as a social worker venturing into writing in her fifties. Among all of my job experiences, social work provided me with the best understanding of character from the unalloyed humanness of the desperate to the pomposity of bureaucrats.

In the hands of less diligent authors, the maid and the mother figure could have played out as stock characters. In both of the above cases, they were given a fierce humanity.

The author Eleanor Taylor Bland first presented the world with the female police detective, Marti MacAlister in Dead Time, 1992. MacAlister is a strong woman who must balance career and family while solving crimes. For Bland, racial commentary often appeared in the subject matter of the plot. In the 2003 novel, Fatal Remains, MacAlister and her partner deal with murder at the excavation of a site that was said to have been part of the Underground Railway for slaves, but may have had more sinister uses.

The late 1990s brought the arrival of LAPD Detective Charlotte Justice in Inner City Blues, by Paula L. Woods. Misogyny and racial tension are up-front and center as Det. Justice is plunged into the midst of the "Rodney King" riots and becomes involved in solving the mystery of who killed the man who killed her husband and child. The internal politics and prejudices of the LAPD make a formidable, albeit uncomfortable, backdrop to the novel which went on to win the Macavity Award and spawned three sequels.

The voices of black female authors offered an authenticity to the above novels. No longer were prejudice and racial issues defined solely in the "black and white" stories familiar to middle-class white consciousness. As much as anything, racism comes out in a thousand small ways. The protagonists fight both an external and internalized struggle.

The most successful mystery series featuring a black female detective began in the 1990s with Alexander McCall Smith's The Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency, 1998. Set in Botswana, the private detective Precious Ramotswe takes a mostly gentle and intuitive approach to solving crimes. It is always a delicate balance for someone who could be described as being from the colonial class to undertake writing about another culture. Smith mostly avoids falling into traps by exuding love for his characters and for their nation. In doing so, he consciously seeks to define Botswana on its terms rather than something that is foreign. Is this love enough? Love without condescension is better than the alternatives.

I am half-Latino. Although none of this heritage appears in my features, I grew up raised by my mother, who was what was then called a Chicano activist. Perhaps it is this undercover persona that has provided me with a sense of otherness as I approached writing. I grew up on a farm and in the urban city, the smallish isolated town and the medium-sized town, in the cold and in the heat. For me, every culture, even my own (whatever that is) is foreign to me.

My novel, Never Kill A Friend, (Ransom Note Press, 2015) features a black female detective. This choice seemed inevitable. I had decided to set the novel in Washington, DC, and the Washington of which I am familiar is the urban city with the national politics just being background noise. As I have said before: urban DC is Duke Ellington; political DC is John Phillips Souza on a tuba. I was immersed in urban DC and had only occasional glimmers of the weirdness of the political side. As a second reason for choosing a black protagonist, I had just finished researching a lot of African-American history for a different project.

I am proud to have contributed to the increased presence of black female detectives. As to how successfully I have honored the genre, I will leave that to others to judge.

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  

Monday, June 13, 2016

When Hollywood Comes Knocking (Don't Answer the Door)

This post is about Paula Gosling's first novel, A Running Duck, 1978, MacMillan. This book has several claims to fame:

  1. It won the John Creasey Award for best first novel.
  2. It ranks 63rd on the Crime Writers' Association's list of all-time great mystery novels.
  3. It was adapted by Hollywood twice, in both instances as howlingly bad movies that had little to do with the material.

If you have seen the movies you might be shocked to learn that they had been adapted from the same source.

Cobra (1986) Sylvester Stallone and Brigitte Nielsen.
Fair Game (1995) William Baldwin and Cindy Crawford.
A Running Duck

The Hollywood Monster.

What would you do if Hollywood ruined your book?

  • I would laugh all the way to the bank.
  • I would cry all the way to the bank.
  • I would be found, sitting on the curb, laughing and crying, unable to get to the bank.

In the nineties, I went to an Edna Buchanan book signing. She spoke a bit about the film adaptation of "The Corpse Had a Familiar Face," saying that the producers brought her to the film site to act as a consultant. During her time there, the only person whom she encountered who had actually read her book was a clerk at her hotel.

Sadly, all of Paula Gosling's books are out-of-print and currently unavailable as ebooks. I bought a copy of A Running Duck from an online bookseller (early edition, I didn't want the movie tie-in out of fear something had changed). She is an excellent writer. Her prose is crisp and lucid. She has an enviable way of phrasing a very short sentence that makes a vivid, surprising, and yet apt observation. Her dialogue is fantastic: sharp and witty.

The story plays out like a Hollywood-ready script. Clare Rendell is a young, independent-minded woman who works as a copywriter at an advertising agency. One day in the park, while agonizing over her response to her boyfriend's proposal, she sees a tall man drop a piece of paper. She calls out to him and gets a good look at his face. This small incident sends her life into a tailspin. She had witnessed a dangerous hitman walking away from a nearby murder.

From this moment on, the story gains pace as the killer, known as Edison, tries to kill Clare, while San Francisco Police Lieutenant Mike Malchek, an ex-Vietnam sniper, tries to keep her safe and capture Edison.

This was one the most "muscular" books I've read, calling to mind "Rogue Male" by Geoffrey Householder. If there is any fault to the book, it is that I wanted to know more about Clare, while the book shifts its focus to Malchek, his personal demons and his redemption.

Sylvester Stallone took on the book "adaptation" after helping to write Beverly Hills Cop, then abandoning that project to Eddie Murphy, because Stallone wanted something more serious and action-oriented. What he made was . . . I'm the kind who has little tolerance for films that are so over-the-top that fans argue the films are acting as some sort of meta-commentary on violence and . . . I can't finish these sentences.

Cobra, written by Stallone, starred Stallone and his concrete-statuesque wife, Brigitte Nielsen. It originally received an X-rating for its violence. The more sadistic scenes were cut, along with most every scene that didn't have Stallone sneering and snarling (and sometime sneerling) while acting as judge, jury and executioner, dispatching one by one a band of super-Manson Family fiends. Stallone played Lt. Marion Cobretti, code-named Cobra, because that is the sort of code that no one in the movie would be smart enough to crack. In his role, he displayed the full range of emotions from revenge to vengeance, along the way inventing a new emotion: "revengeance." Nielsen plays a businesswoman/model (because aren't all businesswomen models?). Actual dialogue:

  Supermarket Killer: Get back! I got a bomb here! I'll blow this whole place up!
  Marion Cobretti: Go ahead. I don't shop here.

  Cobretti: Hey dirtbag, you're a lousy shot. I don't like lousy shots. You wasted a kid... for nothing. Now I think it's time to waste you!

People Magazine interviewed Paula Gosling shortly before Cobra debuted. She had such hope.

Her first novel, 1978's A Running Duck, which she had optioned to Warner Bros, for a "mid-five-figure" sum and seemingly forgotten about, is the basis for Stallone's Cobra. Whatever the movie rakes in at the box office, Gosling will get "a small percentage" of the take, and given Stallone's track record, that's certain to be a tidy bundle. "I haven't really taken it in yet," says Gosling, 44, a transplanted American. "It's all very exciting." (Writer Paula Gosling Hits a Bull's-Eye, Thanks to Sly Stallone's Latest Blockbluster, Cobra, People Magazine, June 30, 1986.)

First presented in 1981, the anti-Oscars, the Razzies, recognize the worst Hollywood has to offer. Cobra received six nominations, including two for Stallone (actor and writer), one for Nielsen (actress) and one for worst picture. The only items remotely related to the source material were that the film retained the name of one of the characters from the book, Sergeant Gonzales, and its title maintained the animal theme, duck being replaced by cobra.

Fair Game (1995), the second adaptation of the book, moved the setting to Miami and starred Cindy Crawford and that Baldwin from Backdraft. Crawford plays a high-powered lawyer who uncovers an undisclosed asset: a rusty boat with computer super-hackers run by the Russian mafia.

There are a lot of wonderful human beings who can't act. In fact, there are enough great actors who are assholes that I can say, without fear of being correct, that there must be a correlation between bad acting and saintliness. By these standards, Cindy Crawford should be beatified. She punctuates her every line with "and I memorized them words." They should have given Baldwin's role to a gay man, because when he is in a scene with Crawford, her beauty powers seem to leave him completely confuzzled.

The dialogue attempts to be snappy in the face of death.

  Max: Who's ever after you are real pros.
  Kate: I guess I should be proud, it would be embarrassing to be killed by an amateur.

  Kate: No one tried to kill me! This is Miami. I'm local. We only shoot the tourists.

Crawford received Razzie nominations for Worst Actress, Worst New Actress and, with Baldwin, Worst Screen Couple. They lost. It was the year of Showgirls.

It's not just the fact that these are terrible movies. They're terrible in that Hollywood hyper-evil way of too much violence, stylized leering sexuality, catchphrases passing for dialogue, and non-actors stealing jobs from robots.

Did Hollywood kill her spirit? Paula Gosling appears to have retired from writing. She is probably sitting on top of a pile of cash, somewhere in England, knitting socks in the Village of the Darned.


Nikola Tesla, Arthur Conan Doyle and Dr. Henry H. Holmes are all characters in my thriller, A Predator's Game.

A Predator's Game is available in soft-cover and ebook through Amazon and other online retailers.

A Predator's Game, now available, Rook's Page Publishing.


Back page blurb.

Manhattan, 1896.

When the author Arthur Conan Doyle meets Nikola Tesla he finds a tall, thin genius with a photographic memory and a keen eye, and recognizes in the eccentric inventor the embodiment of his creation, Sherlock. Together, they team up to take on an "evil Holmes." Multi-murderer Dr. Henry H. Holmes has escaped execution and is unleashing a reign of terror upon the metropolis. Set in the late nineteenth century in a world of modern marvels, danger and invention, Conan Doyle and Tesla engage the madman in a deadly game of wits.

Martin Hill Ortiz, also writing under the name, Martin Hill, is the author of A Predatory Mind. Its sequel, set in 1890s Manhattan and titled A Predator's Game, features Nikola Tesla as detective.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The Modern Wonders of the World, Circa 1912-1914

I've always been fascinated by old surveys. They were neither rigorous in their sampling techniques nor authoritative in their findings, but they do provide a window into the mind-set of a specific period of time.

August 1912, Popular Mechanics

In their August 1912 issue, Popular Mechanics presented a poll of 1000 scientists as to the seven greatest achievements of the modern world. Fifty-six options were presented. Those that scored the highest:

1. Wireless telegraphy.
2. Telephone.
3. Aeroplane.
4. Radium.
5. Antiseptics and antitoxins.
6. Spectrum analysis.
7. X-ray.

The runners-up were also noted.
8. Panama Canal. (incomplete at that time).
9. Anesthesia.
10. Synthetic chemistry.

Comments: Radium showed up in all the polls presented here. At the time, the element was considered to have almost magical powers. Beyond being a substance which exuded warmth and light, radiation was shown to be legitimately useful in treating several diseases. Its curing powers proved to be greatly exaggerated and its dangers underestimated. The value of spectrum analysis was far-sighted, an important discovery for several fields. The aeroplane which showed up in all these polls, must have come across as a marvel, although it was hardly practical at the time. Among these, Tesla made important contributions to "the wireless" and to X-rays.

The promise of radium

In February, 1914 (well before the drumbeats of war), the Berlin newspaper Local Anzeiger ran a readership poll of the top seven wonders of the modern world.

They received 150,000 votes. They chose:

1. Wireless.
2. Panama Canal.
3. Dirigible.
4. Aeroplane.
5. Radium.
6. Motion pictures.
7. The passenger ship, Imperator.

A couple of notes. German pride shows up in the dirigible and the Imperator. The latter had been launched in June, 1913 and was for a brief period the longest ship in the world.

One month later, in March, 1914, the Paris newspaper, Le Martin, had a similar poll. The results, as reported in The New York Times:

1. Aeroplane.
2. Wireless.
3. Radium.
4. Locomotive.
5. Grafts of human bones and organs.
6. Diphtheria serum.
7. Electric dynamo.

Runners up, in order:
8. Telephone.
9. Cinematograph.
10. X-rays.
11. Telegraph.
12. Eiffel Tower.
13. Cold storage.
14. Antiseptic surgery.
15. Reaching the North and South Pole.

Notes: Due to organ rejection, the grafting of human bones and organs was not successful until the 1950s. One prominent doctor who worked in this field, Alexis Carrel, won a Nobel Prize in Medicine in 1912 mostly for his work in developing techniques to suture blood vessels. Many of the other choices were insightful and easily underappreciated, such as cold storage and antiseptic surgery. Beyond contributions to other fields, Tesla is represented in this list for the electric dynamo. (from: Modern World Wonders. March 15, 1914, New York Times, p. C2)

In November 1913, Scientific American presented the results of a contest soliciting the best essay which described the ten most important inventions. Although limited to devices and patentable discoveries of last 25 years, these rules were broken, some are more than 25 years old and some were not patentable. Along with the winning essays, the selections from all entries were ranked by the percent of lists in which they were included.

1. Wireless telegraphy 97%
2. Aeroplane 75%
3. X-ray machine 74%
4. Automobile 66%
5. Motion pictures 63%
6. Reinforced concrete 37%
6. Phonograph 37%
8. Incandescent electric lamp 35%
9. Steam turbine 34%
10. Electric car 34%
11. Calculating machine 33%
12. Internal combustion machine 33%
13. Radium 27%
14. Submarine boats 24%
14. Picture telegraphy 24%
16. Electric furnace 21%
17. Diesel engine 18%
18. Color photography 17%
19. Dictograph 16%
20. Composing machine 15%
20. Transmission and transforming of alternating current 15%
20. Pneumatic tire 15%
23. Dirigible 13%
23. Photo-engraving 13%
24. Tungsten lightbulb 11%
25. Electric welding 10%
25. High speed steel 10%

The first-place essay listed the Tesla induction motor as being eighth among ten choices, saying, "This epoch-making invention is mainly responsible for the present large and increasing use of electricity in the industries."

The complete list in the winning essay.

1. The electric furnace (1889).
2. The steam turbine (1884) Charles Parsons.
3. The gasoline-powered automobile (1889) Gottlieb Daimler.
4. The moving picture, attributed to Edison.
5. The airplane.
6. Wireless telegraphy.
7. The cyanide process for extracting gold.
8. The Tesla induction motor.
9. The Linotype machine, Ottmar Mergenthaler.
10. The electric welder, attributed to Elihu Thomson.

(This list was derived from the 2013 revisiting of the original article as presented by The Scientific American.)

Note: Although not the Scientific American, some of these lists asked for the wonders of the modern world. By that standard I would choose the Linotype machine. It was monstrous, crazy in its complexity, and changed printing more than any other invention since Gutenberg. It was a typewriter which boiled its own lead to cast printed text into lines to make printing plates. It allowed newspapers to expand beyond eight pages.

These lists are fascinating in that they give context to Tesla's work. The electric furnace needed lots of cheap energy to be generally useful. That energy was provide by the Tesla A/C generator, quite often in combination with the Parsons steam turbine. The availability of electric energy contributed to the success of electric welding, the Linotype machine and, of course, the induction motor.

Linotype Machine


Nikola Tesla, Arthur Conan Doyle and Dr. Henry H. Holmes are all characters in my thriller, A Predator's Game.

A Predator's Game is available in soft-cover and ebook through Amazon and other online retailers.

A Predator's Game, now available, Rook's Page Publishing.


Back page blurb.

Manhattan, 1896.

When the author Arthur Conan Doyle meets Nikola Tesla he finds a tall, thin genius with a photographic memory and a keen eye, and recognizes in the eccentric inventor the embodiment of his creation, Sherlock. Together, they team up to take on an "evil Holmes." Multi-murderer Dr. Henry H. Holmes has escaped execution and is unleashing a reign of terror upon the metropolis. Set in the late nineteenth century in a world of modern marvels, danger and invention, Conan Doyle and Tesla engage the madman in a deadly game of wits.

Martin Hill Ortiz, also writing under the name, Martin Hill, is the author of A Predatory Mind. Its sequel, set in 1890s Manhattan and titled A Predator's Game, features Nikola Tesla as detective.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Tesla Versus Hitler

Tesla could be imperious and condescending. In his later years he spoke favorably of eugenics. Although he regularly spoke favorably of all mankind, he made occasional anti-Semitic remarks.  He was, however, consistently anti-Nazi, supporting the anti-Nazi leaders of his homeland.

Tesla was born in what was then a part of Austrian-Hungarian empire. Like many Serbians, he did not have a fondness for the emperor. When he was drafted, he skipped out, hiding in the hills. He would later state his father had taught him a hatred toward war.

The Austrian-Hungarian empire dissolved during World War I. After the war, in 1918, the treaty of Versailles created the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. In 1929, King Alexander I assumed power and renamed the country, Yugoslavia. Alexander opposed the actions of the rising powers of Italy, Germany and the Soviet Union. He was killed by Croatian fascists in 1934. At the time of this assassination, Tesla wrote to the New York Times describing King Alexander as “both the Washington and Lincoln of the Yugoslavs." His son, King Peter II, was the official heir to the throne but only eleven years old so in the interim Prince Paul, head of the regency council, held sway. This continued until March 25, 1941 when Prince Paul signed a treaty supporting Hitler and offering his countrymen as soldiers for military service. Two days later, Prince Paul was thrown out in a coup and replaced by the then 17-year-old, King Peter II.

Tesla's homeland paid dearly for standing up to the fascists. Beginning April 6th, the Luftwaffe attacked Belgrade killing 25,000 civilians. After eleven days, Yugoslavia fell and 300,000 soldiers were taken prisoner. In attacking Yugoslavia, Hitler postponed Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of Russia. This delay may have helped prevent Germany from achieving victory before the onset of the Russian winter. Yugoslavia acted as a sacrificial lamb.

In July 1942, a sickly Tesla met with King Peter II, the latter in exile.

King Peter, of Jugoslavia, 19 [sic, 18], and Nikola Tesla, 86 [sic, 84, turning 85], a fellow-countryman and world-famous scientist credited with 700 inventions, wept over the fate of their country when they met yesterday. (King, Scientist Weep Over Jugoslavia. July 9, 1942, Richmond Times Dispatch, p. 2)

The Down-Side of Tesla

Tesla's anti-Semitic remarks.

One quote attributed to Tesla is: "Never trust a Jew." This comes from Margaret Cheney's Man Out of Time. It is said to have been whispered to a secretary. Cheney comments, "Tesla's anti-Semitism appears sporadic and was unusual among gentiles of his time," perhaps meaning, unusual in only being sporadic. (Man Out of Time, Margaret Cheney, Touchstone, 2001, p. 165)

George Sylvester Viereck

In 1915, one year after the beginning of World War I, a newspaper interviewed fourteen individuals including military experts, experts in international affairs, editors, and inventors as to when they believed the war would end. (Salt Lake Telegram, July 29, 1915, p. 10) Among these, Nikola Tesla made the closest estimation, saying four years. The war would last another three years and three months.

Among the others interviewed was George S. Viereck, described as "Editor of 'The Fatherland' and ardent promoter of the German-American point of view." At this time, America was not at war, so his propaganda was not illegal. He predicted three more months for the conflict.

George Sylvester Viereck could be been described as a playboy, gadabout, poet, journalist, and editor. He was the author of a popular vampire novel. He was most famous, however, for two things: German propaganda and latching on to the famous.

From the 1920s on through the 1930s Viereck interviewed a number of the best-known individuals of the time, including Hitler, Mussolini, Ford, Freud and Einstein. If that seems like an incongruous group, it is even more remarkable that Viereck promoted these individuals with equal enthusiasm.

Viereck's interactions went beyond journalism. So, while he did interview Einstein both for a book (Glimpses of the Great, Macauley, April 1930) and a newspaper story (Einstein Explains the Fourth Dimension, Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 21, 1930, p. 30), he also accompanied Einstein to the opera during Einstein's 1930 visit to New York (Einstein Praised from Half Dozen New York Pulpits, Tampa Tribune, December 15, 1930. p. 7). Viereck stated that he had an ongoing correspondence with Einstein. While it is most likely that Einstein did not know of Viereck's history or predilections, Viereck clearly did.

Was Viereck a shape-shifting groupie? He certainly seemed to be the ultimate name-dropper. In an interview with Arthur Conan Doyle, he mentions his conversations with Einstein, George Bernard Shaw, (Nobel Prize-winning poet) Gerhart Hauptmann, and Henry Ford. In the interview with Hitler:

Hitler: "Moral and physical health are synonymous."
"Mussolini," I [Viereck] interjected, "said the same to me." Hitler beamed.

As to where Viereck's sympathies lay, a story from 1934 removed any doubt:

"George Sylvester Viereck noted journalist and friend of former German Kaiser, is sworn in as witness at congressional committee hearing in New York into Nazi activities in U.S. Viereck admitted payments for propaganda advice and expressed great admiration for Chancellor Hitler." (Admires Hitler. The Evening Tribune, San Diego, July 18, 1934, p. 10).

In his late seventies Nikola Tesla gave an interview with Viereck. In it, Tesla expressed support for eugenics. He recommended that the "unfit" not be allowed to marry or breed, but did not detail who the unfit were. "Certainly no one who is not a desirable parent should be permitted to produce progeny." (February 9, 1935, Liberty Magazine)

The anti-Semitic remarks and the eugenic remarks sadden me. Tesla through his life in 99% of opportunities made declarations expressing a love for humanity, indeed, of dedicating his life's work to humankind. In the Liberty Magazine interview, I would like to think he was an old man manipulated by Viereck, a master manipulator, but maybe I'm bending too far in wishful esteem for Tesla.

During World War II, Viereck was tried and convicted for his ongoing efforts at Nazi propaganda. In one of his schemes, he used $250,000 in Congressional franking privileges (free mailing allowed to members of Congress) to send out German propaganda. The Congressmen, including the isolationist Hamilton Fish, said that they did not know of his efforts and he had put words into their mouths, placing Senator Lundeen's (MN) name on his Viereck's writing. (Viereck, Nazi Agent, Guilty, March 6, 1942, Boston Herald)

George S. Viereck

And, Of Course, a Dig at Edison.

It does not excuse Tesla, but as part of the great Edison-Tesla debate, Edison spoke favorably and at much greater length about eugenics and, in his later years, expressed an admiration for Mussolini.

 "I [Edison] understand that a chair of eugenics has been established in one of the Eastern schools, and I think this is a wise move. The people should know more on that subject. Society must certainly protect itself. Science is doing much to this end." (The American to Be the Perfect World Type September 8, 1911 Seattle Daily Times, p. 19)

"There are three means which lie ready at hand; three sciences which lend themselves to our task; three tools with which we shape the Super Race. They are: 1. Eugenics -- the science of race culture. 2. Social adjustment -- the science of molding institutions. 3. Education -- the science of human development." (Americans of the Future to be the "Super Race," March 31, 1912. Portland Oregonian, p. 3)

And, from 1931, in the midst of the Depression, "Mr. Edison declared Prohibition was succeeding and asserted that the administration of President Hoover was a success. . . . "Mussolini is a man of great executive ability and probably a great man for the Italians." (Edison Sees Better Times. Boston Herald, February 12, 1931, p. 17)


Nikola Tesla, Arthur Conan Doyle and Dr. Henry H. Holmes are all characters in my thriller, A Predator's Game.

A Predator's Game is available in soft-cover and ebook through Amazon and other online retailers.

A Predator's Game, now available, Rook's Page Publishing.


Back page blurb.

Manhattan, 1896.

When the author Arthur Conan Doyle meets Nikola Tesla he finds a tall, thin genius with a photographic memory and a keen eye, and recognizes in the eccentric inventor the embodiment of his creation, Sherlock. Together, they team up to take on an "evil Holmes." Multi-murderer Dr. Henry H. Holmes has escaped execution and is unleashing a reign of terror upon the metropolis. Set in the late nineteenth century in a world of modern marvels, danger and invention, Conan Doyle and Tesla engage the madman in a deadly game of wits.

Martin Hill Ortiz, also writing under the name, Martin Hill, is the author of A Predatory Mind. Its sequel, set in 1890s Manhattan and titled A Predator's Game, features Nikola Tesla as detective.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Tesla Versus Edison

In the past months, I have written a series of Tesla Versus . . . posts. And now for the biggie:

Tesla Versus Edison.


I have avoided Tesla versus Edison, in part because the subject matter is huge. A hefty book could be written and several medium-sized books have been written about "The Current Wars" of the late 1880s and early 1890s.

In this entry, I will attempt to provide the major events in the history of the rivalry between Tesla and Edison, toss in a few well-known and some less-commonly cited anecdotes and offer my opinion on the subject.


Thomas Alva Edison was born on February 11, 1847 in Milan, Ohio. He began inventing while working as a telegraph operator, creating automated telegraph devices. He later said that he had begun 18 hour work days from the age of twenty. In an interview at age 46, he described himself as 84 years old, having worked double the hours of others from the past 26 years. (Future Work of Edison. February 5, 1893 Omaha World-Herald, p. 5 - interestingly, he would die at 84.) Long hours were a key to his success, relentlessly tackling his creations with a blunt force and a well-staffed laboratory.

He considered his greatest creation to be the phonograph and he was probably correct in this. His patents for electric light-bulbs and many other inventions were incremental or moderate leaps forward. The phonograph was wholly original.

Nikola Tesla was born July 10, 1857 in what is now Croatia. He shared Edison's philosophy of long hours and little sleep. In nearly all other matters they were opposites. While Tesla dressed elegantly, spoke appreciatively of poetry and arts and became a toast of society, Edison slept in his clothes on a bench nearby his work, seeing no need for the pleasantries of life. Tesla imagined his inventions and strove to first perfect them in his mind. Edison had no patience for that, instead tinkering with them until something worked.

Tesla was an idealist. Edison was the ultimate pragmatist. Tesla made a poor businessman; Edison helped found General Electric (originally Edison General Electric) and one of the first motion picture companies (among many other endeavors).

The 1880s: Collaboration and Rivalry.

Nikola Tesla began working at the Société Electric Edison while in Paris in 1882, designing dynamos for Edison lighting systems (Tesla: Inventor of the Electrical Age, W. Bernard Carlson, 2013, p. 64). Tesla's work there was appreciated but he could not gain support for creating his own dynamo.

Tesla received a letter of introduction to Edison from Tivadar Puskás, the man entrusted to introduce Edison's patents to Europe. He wrote: "I know two great men and you are one of them; the other is this young man." (Carlson, p. 61)

Having been robbed on his way over, on June 6, 1884, Tesla arrived in New York penniless. When he passed immigration, a clerk told him: "Kiss the Bible. Twenty cents!" (Carlson p. 69)

Tesla began his American career at Edison Machine Works. Within the month, Edison had patented an arc lighting system based mainly on Tesla's work. Tesla described his time there in his autobiography:

For nearly a year my regular hours were from 10:30 A.M. until 5 o'clock the next morning without a day's exception. Edison said to me, "I have had many hard working assistants, but you take the cake." During this period I designed twenty-four different types of standard machines with short cores and uniform pattern, which replaced the old ones. The Manager had promised me fifty thousand dollars on the completion of this task, but it turned out to be a practical joke. This gave me a painful shock and I resigned my position. (My Inventions: The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla. Nikola Tesla and Ben Johnston. 1919)

After Tesla quit, he spent 1885 working for a company redesigning arc light systems. For his efforts, he was left with worthless stock. In the coming winter of 1885/1886, he dug ditches.

In 1886, the foreman of the ditch diggers introduced him to two men who would become sponsors for his ideas to create alternating current generators: Alfred S. Brown and Charles F. Peck. In 1887, the Tesla Electric Company was formed and over the coming year two of his greatest patents were completed: the A/C generator and the A/C motor.

While both were revolutionary, this contemporary description of the A/C motor describes the wonderment:

D.J. Cable, a well-known electrician of this city, examine the completed motor. He was very much pleased, and in speaking of it to a reporter, said: "Mr. Tesla deserves credit for all he has accomplished. He has worked out what no other man has before him, and has produced in fact a motor which some eminent electricians claimed was impractical and beyond reason. ...

"Its simplicity and cheapness are remarkable. Any number of them with great capacity to do work can be attached to an electric light line, if the dynamos are large enough. With two simple wires connecting the motor with the wire that supplies a common electric light, a manufacturer will have power enough to run his machinery, and the steam engine he uses now can be relegated to back to obscurity. It is a great saving of time, labor and money." (A New Motor. San Francisco Chronicle, August 23, 1888)

Tesla's A/C system was better than the system of DC generators and batteries Edison's company put forward. George Westinghouse took note. Westinghouse bought out Tesla and his inventions at a high price. A contemporary report summed up the consolidations and oncoming rivalry:

The Westinghouse company was incorporated in 1886 and absorbed the Tesla Motor company, the Waterhouse Electric Company and leased the Sawyer & Man company, which owned the fundamental patents on incandescent lights.

"As matters now stand," continued Mr. Curtis [lawyer for Westinghouse], "there are only two great companies face to face in this country now. These are the Westinghouse and the Edison." (Absorbed by Westinghouse. February 12, 1889. New York Herald, p. 11)

Edison saw Tesla's system as dangerous and impractical and "not worth the attention of practical men." (Carlson p. 90)

On April 24, 1889, Edison's several companies merged through the financing of Anthony J. Drexel and J.P. Morgan to form Edison General Electric.

Even as the mergers were finalized, the electric current wars were underway.

The Electric Current Wars.

In retrospect, powering a major city by batteries seems ludicrous. Even then, it was impractical, but Edison had invested a lot of money in this scheme.

Edison undertook a variety of underhanded means to persuade the public that direct current was the only reasonable and safe way to go. He lobbied state legislators and regulatory agencies asking to ban or limit A/C. He sponsored public electrocutions of animals. He helped promote the electric chair as a means of executing criminals emphasizing its lethality while claiming that it was pain-free.

On June 5, 1888, Harold J. Brown, a freelance electrical engineer of no great renown, wrote a letter to the editor of the New York Evening Post warning of the great dangers of alternating current. He quickly became Edison's surrogate electrocutionist. Although Brown claimed his crusade "represented no company and no financial interest," Edison made available to Brown a work-space in his laboratory and provided the services of Arthur Kennelly, Edison's chief electrician, for Brown's demonstrations. (the quotes and story in this section are from Empires of Light: Edison, Tesla, Westinghouse and the Race to Electrify the World. Jill Jonnes, 2003.)

Brown declared he would prove the dangers of alternating current and sent out engraved invitations to a presentation at the Columbia College, School of Mines, for the evening of July 30, 1888. This "proof" came in the form of electrocuting a dog, first with several levels of DC in which the dog writhed in agony, then by AC which killed off the dog. The audience was horrified: not by the fearsome power of AC, but by the cruelty of the demonstrator. Some walked out. A reporter stood up and called out his objection to the torture. Brown declared the demonstration a success and said "the only places where an alternating current ought to be used were the dog pound, the slaughter house, and the state prison."

Four days later, Brown repeated the demonstration, this time with three dogs. One of them took four minutes of electric shock to die.

Then Edison and Brown upped the ante. They decided to execute large animals to establish that alternating current was the most efficient means of electrocuting humans to carry out executions.

On December 5, 1888, Brown rigged an electrocution pen at the Edison research complex in West Orange, New Jersey. Along with representatives of the New York State Death Commission and American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Edison himself attended. They executed two calves and a full-grown horse. Brown was soon hired to construct an electric chair.
A Victim of the Current Wars

The first criminal set to be executed by electricity was the murderer Harry Kemmler. The novel means of his execution became a basis for appeals and Edison testified in court as to the instantaneous and painless nature of electrocution, while also providing lurid descriptions of what alternating current could do to a human (and at the same time making it clear he didn't know what he was talking about). He said that several thousand horsepower would be sufficient to carbonize a man. "His temperature would rise 3 or 4 degrees above the normal and after a while he'd be mummified. . . . The heat would evaporate all the fluids in his body and he'd be mummyized."

On August 6, 1890, Kemmler was executed in what proved to be a horrifying mess, with the victim being pronounced dead then found alive. The current was turned on a second time trying to instill death. All in all, it took eight minutes. Westinghouse commented. "They could have done it better with an axe."

What ultimately doomed the Edison side is that their system was more prone to fires, it was more expensive and less generally useful. It could not transport electricity for anything but short distances.

In February of 1892, the Edison General Electric company merged with Thomson-Houston Electric and the Thomson-Houston management took over. Edison's name was dropped from the company, now becoming General Electric. J.P. Morgan financed this takeover, not bothering to notify Edison that he was about to be removed. Morgan had screwed Edison the way he would later become a nemesis of Tesla.

Edison spent much of the rest of the 1890s working on his most futile long-term venture: mining iron ore in New Jersey.

The New Edison.

By the mid-1890s the current wars had ended. Tesla who had spent the winter of 1886 digging ditches had defeated the most prominent inventor of his generation (and perhaps the most prominent American). Tesla was the toast of the town, indeed, the toast of the nation.

A new Edison has appeared in the person Nikola Tesla, who has come to the United States from Servia to work still greater revolutions in the wonderful application of electricity. (A New Edison. March 21, 1894 Tacoma Daily News, p. 2)

Beyond the Current Wars.

Although Edison did not write an autobiography, his official biography came at age 60. In it, Tesla was only mentioned in passing, first in a pair of anecdotes, one mentioning how hard Tesla worked and one mentioning how much Tesla ate at a meal. Tesla was also mentioned  in the recounting of play that parodied Edison and Tesla and how they might approach the Spanish-American war.

 From: Clank—Clank, the Cranks are Clanking.

"Mr. Edison (proudly): 'It is done! I have filled these lobsters so full of electricity that they buzz when they move. When the Spanish warships come in sight I will turn 'em loose in the bay, and then you'll see what you will see. These lobsters will establish a current with a line of electric eels that I have stationed at Sandy Hook, and the haughty hidalgos will get a shock that will make 'em look like twenty-nine cents marked down from forty.'

"The Crowd: 'Hooray! Cuba libre!'

"Mr. Tesla (interrupting the demonstration): 'That scheme won't do at all. Now, I have a fan here that is charged with four billion volts of Franklin's best brand of bottled lightning, and when this fan gets fanning the results are astounding. Not ten minutes ago I fanned a fly from off Emperor William's nose, and fluted the whiskers of the King of Siam. Now, when the Spaniards come up the bay I'll just climb a tree and pour a broadside of vibrations at 'em. Say, I'll fan 'em off the earth in not more than a minute and a half.' (As related in: Thomas Alva Edison: Sixty years of an inventor's life. By Francis Arthur Jones, 1907. p; 366-7.)

As has been noted in another post, a false report came out that Tesla and Edison were to share the 1915 Nobel Prize in Physics;

In 1916, Tesla became the seventh recipient of the Edison Medal, given out by the American Institute of Electrical Engineers. Cognizant of their long-term rivalry, at first Tesla was reluctant to accept the award. He acceded.

In his speech he contrasted his method of inventing with that of Edison and praised Edison for his single-mindedness.

I could do it all in my mind, and I did.  In this way I have unconsciously evolved what I consider a new method of materializing inventive concepts and ideas, which is exactly opposite to the purely experimental of which undoubtedly Edison is the greatest and most successful exponent. ...

[Of their first meeting:] I met Edison, and the effect he produced upon me was extraordinary.  When I saw this wonderful man, who had had no theoretical training at all, no advantages, who did all himself, getting great results by virtue of his industry and application, I felt mortified that I had squandered my life.  I had studied a dozen languages, delved in literature and art and had spent my best years in ruminating through libraries and reading all sorts of stuff that fell into my hands.  I thought to myself, what a terrible thing it was to have wasted my life in those useless efforts. (Excerpted from Nikola Tesla acceptance speech at the ceremony for the 1916 Edison award, May 18, 1917 as presented on the website, Twenty-First Century books)

Edison did not attend the ceremony.

In the 20s and 30s, having lived through the time of the devastation of the First World War, Edison and Tesla both considered what must be done to prevent another.

 "We should experiment with the most deadly gases and the biggest guns," he [Edison] said. "Not that we will ever make use of them, but so that we may be prepared in case some other nation, through rascality, should attack us. I want all nations to be prepared so that it will be so terrible that game is up."

(Edison, at 75, Says 15 More Birthdays Are Coming to Him. February 12, 1922. Philadelphia Inquirer, p. 12.)

Keep the nations of the world from obtaining money to prepare for "the next war." If this is done–and America has the power to do it–President Harding will succeed in the conference he has called for limitation of armament.

In that manner the situation was summed up today by Thomas A. Edison, Henry Ford and H.S. Firestone as they sat on the shady bank of a rippling West Virginia mountain brook, munched sandwiches, frizzled bacon and talked about disarmament, prosperity and golf.  (Advise Poverty As Only War Remedy. August 2, 1921. Salt Lake Telegram, p 20)

Tesla, in contrast, came to believe that defensive means were the only way to end war.

I inherited from my father, an erudite man who labored hard for peace, an ineradicable hatred of war. Like other inventors, I believed at one time that war could he stopped by making it more destructive. But I found that I was mistaken. I underestimated man's combative instinct, which it will take more than a century to breed out. We cannot abolish war by outlawing it. We cannot end it by disarming the strong. War can be stopped, not by making the strong weak but by making every nation, weak or strong, able to defend itself. (A Machine to End War. Liberty, February 1937 by Nikola Tesla as told to George Sylvester Viereck.)

End Note.

As I said at the beginning, this conflict could make up a very long book and some good ones have been written with parts of the tale. Many take Tesla's side as the battered idealist. Many see Edison as the evil opposite of Tesla.

I believe such a point of view is simplistic: Tesla was not a saint. Edison, however, did show himself in their battles to be petty. Between the two and considering their contributions to the modern age, I favor Tesla.

Other popular links which take Tesla or Edison's side:

Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek ever.
The response in Forbes:
Nikola Tesla wasn't God and Thomas Edison wasn't the devil.
and, for those interested:
The Tesla Vs. Edison Board Game.

Nikola Tesla, Arthur Conan Doyle and Dr. Henry H. Holmes are all characters in my thriller, A Predator's Game.

A Predator's Game is available in soft-cover and ebook through Amazon and other online retailers.

A Predator's Game, now available, Rook's Page Publishing.


Back page blurb.

Manhattan, 1896.

When the author Arthur Conan Doyle meets Nikola Tesla he finds a tall, thin genius with a photographic memory and a keen eye, and recognizes in the eccentric inventor the embodiment of his creation, Sherlock. Together, they team up to take on an "evil Holmes." Multi-murderer Dr. Henry H. Holmes has escaped execution and is unleashing a reign of terror upon the metropolis. Set in the late nineteenth century in a world of modern marvels, danger and invention, Conan Doyle and Tesla engage the madman in a deadly game of wits.

Martin Hill Ortiz, also writing under the name, Martin Hill, is the author of A Predatory Mind. Its sequel, set in 1890s Manhattan and titled A Predator's Game, features Nikola Tesla as detective.