A lethal humanitarian

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When we assess historical people, we usually ask “Was he a good guy or a bad guy?” Sometimes the answer is clear. Stalin was a bad guy and George Washington was a good guy. That doesn’t mean that everything anyone does is completely bad or good, but with most historical figures, one side is pretty clearly predominant.
So how do we classify Fritz Haber?

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You’ve probably never heard of Fritz Haber, but few people had such a profound influence on the 20th century. Still doesn’t ring a bell? Well, here’s the story.

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Fritz Haber was a German Jew who had converted to being a Lutheran. He was also a brilliant chemist. Around 1900, Haber was able to find a way to combine Nitrogen into a compound that became the world’s first chemical fertilizer. If you think wasn’t a big deal, consider the fact that up until this discovery, farmers used manure and compost. Haber’s discovery led to a huge leap in farm productivity and saved countless people from starvation. It was a great boon to humanity. So Fritz Haber is a good guy…right?
Not so fast.

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When the first world war came along, Haber, ever the good German, went to work developing poison gas for trench warfare, including the horrible Mustard Gas and the hellish Chlorine gas that left thousands dead, blinded, or coughing up chunks of their lungs. His wife begged him to stop his poison gas research, and when he didn’t, she killed herself. So is Haber a good guy or a bad guy? Well, maybe here’s a tiebreaker.

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After the war, Haber received a Nobel prize for his fertilized discovery, but was called a war criminal for his poison gas work a year later. He continued working in chemical research. One of the products he developed was an insecticide called Zyklon A. But by this time, the Nazis were in power and started to look suspiciously at Haber because of his Jewish background. Haber fled the country, leaving Zyklon A behind. Others refined Zyklon A and called it Zyklon B, which the Nazis used to kill concentration camp inmates, including some who were no doubt related to Fritz Haber.

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So was Fritz Haber a good guy or a bad guy? Sometimes a person is a bit of both.

Secrets behind the structures

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If you have ever taken a leisurely drive around the countryside, or even in a town or city, you’ve probably noticed the occasional mysterious building. You know; a brooding presence that seems to be out of place, perhaps left over from another age.

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It might be an old mansion, looking haughty and dignified while slowly deteriorating in a modern world that has passed it by. It could be a farmhouse with its steps worn and scuffed by the tread of innumerable families that once called it home. Perhaps it’s an old commercial building downtown with a cornerstone from the 1800s and a proud company that no longer exists. Maybe it’s a group of rotting barracks buildings in a desolate place that once served as an army base or a prisoner of war camp long ago.
Such places often look haunted, and in a sense, they are; haunted by the spirits of people who once lived and worked in them. Most of these people are long gone, remembered only by a few descendants and living only in dusty old photographs in forgotten attics.
These buildings once echoed with the voices of these long-gone people and once hosted events of human drama. A dignified Victorian Mansion that once sheltered the town’s leading banker and his family is now a funeral home, or perhaps a bed and breakfast.

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Of course, buildings are not the only structures built and used by people all over the world. Bridges, dams, towers and canals all stand in the silent shadow of their own history. How many people know that the top of the Empire State Building was designed to be a mooring place for transatlantic passenger dirigibles? How man realize that the Eiffel Tower was once condemned and reviled by the leading citizens of Paris; or that the Great Wall of China was the subject of a hoax by American newspaper men in search of a story on a slow news day?

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A few years ago, I started doing a talk about some of these largely unknown stories. I even included Cinderella’s castle at Disney World and Harry Potter Land at Universal Studios. They have something in common. I am now working on a book on the subject and I am digging up all sorts of weird facts about famous (and not so famous) buildings, bridges, dams, etc. So if any reader knows about a local building with a fascinating past, please let me know. If I use it, I’ll mention your name in the book.

Tempus Fugits

Wax Museum

There was a famous inscription on an ancient sundial that read “I mark the passage of time: do you?”. I got a reminder of passage of time one day last week when we were in St Augustine, Florida. We had stopped by to thank several people who had helped with the background information for my new book, Death in Unlikely Places, (See a couple of blog posts back.) and we were walking through the main square by the cathedral in the center of town and noticed the wax museum on the other side of the street. The wax museum had been a fixture ever since we have been coming to St Augustine and we always enjoyed seeing what figures they had displayed in their show windows. The last time they had the Beatles and the time before that it was the cast from Seinfeld (Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) We could make out this year’s figures, but from the distance, could not tell who they were, so we crossed over to get a better look.

As we got closer, the figures we could see in the window became more distinct, but we still couldn’t recognize any of them. They didn’t seem to resemble anyone famous.

“Who is that one supposed to be?” I asked.

“I have no idea,” said my wife Barbara, “and why are they all sitting at tables?”

“That one looks a little like Krushchev,” I said. “Hey, he moved!”

It was then we realized that the figures we were staring at were not wax dummies at all, but real people sitting at tables.

The wax museum had been converted into a restaurant.

“I mark the passage of time; do you?”

At least we realized it before we went inside and started pinching them.

What are they thinking?

First off, I don’t claim to be an expert in retailing. I have never owned or managed a retail business, although I have worked in a business where you interacted directly with sales to walk in customers. But I have been a customer and I know what hits me as a dumb move that makes we want to go somewhere else.

We were recently at a small southern oceanfront resort and stopped into a small local grocery store. Although it was clean and well stocked, almost none of the items were marked with a price. There were  yellow labels on the edges of the shelves corresponding with the items, but the labels only had the name of the item with a bar code and a seven digit code number. A few sale items were marked, but close to 90% of the stock wasn’t.

Now here is where the “What are they thinking?” comes in. Exactly how do they expect the customers to react? Is the customer expected to rush to the check out clerk for a price check each time he looks at an item, or do they expect the customer to simply fill his cart with a shrug and pay whatever is asked at check out? We simply turned around and walked out. It wasn’t worth the hassle. Do they have any idea how much business they are losing?

What are they thinking?

What do you get when you cross a serial killer with a locked room?

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There are lots of mysteries that revolve around tracking down serial killers, although such people are thankfully rare in real life. There is also a sub genre of mysteries devoted to “impossible crimes”, such as a killing in a locked room, something else that is uncommon. Probably the best known serial killer story is The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, while The Three Coffins by John Dickson Carr is probably the best known locked room mystery. The only instance I know where the two genres have been combined is a movie, Law Abiding Citizen. Although gripping and clever, I thought the crimes and the methods they were carried out were extremely far-fetched in LAC.
With my newest Max Hurlock mystery, I wanted to do a story based on the mysterious death of Florida real estate developer D.P. Davis in 1926 during the great Florida real estate boom. Since he went overboard from an ocean liner at a time when many buyers of Florida land were unhappy about losing money, I entertained the possibility that he was murdered by a disgruntled property buyer. From there it was a short jump to a serial killer who was taking revenge on all Florida real estate developers one by one, and was doing it in a series of sensational “impossible” crimes for maximum publicity. Aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss, the father of Naval aviation, was living in Miami Springs at the time and developing property himself, so he contacts Max Hurlock to investigate, and off we go.

One of the murders takes place in a small locked office with the victim armed and shooting at the killer, another victim dies alone in a boat on a lake, another is shot in an elevator between floors, another is discovered up in a tree, and another is shot in a private art gallery whose only door is locked and under constant observation by dozens of people. The crimes, while impossible at first glance, all have plausible explanations. I’m sure there are other mysteries featuring serial killers committing impossible crimes, but Death in Unlikely Places was a challenge and was a lot of fun to write. The book should be available on Amazon in a few days, but meanwhile, here is a video trailer  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lg_AopiWuVw

I am grateful to the folks at the St Augustine Historical Society, who first told me about the mysterious death of D.P. Davis.

A Sellout!

The Bay to Ocean Writers Conference scheduled for this Saturday at Chesapeake College on Maryland’s Eastern Shore is sold out! Two hundred and fifty people are signed up and there is a standby list of more. It should be a great day for writers and those who would like to be. Here is the site if you want to see what it’s all about. http://www.baytoocean.com/. As I mentioned, I am teaching the segment on non-fiction writing and looking forward to a great conference.

See you there or see you next year, maybe.

Mixing the real and the fictional

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One of the fun things about writing fiction based on real people and events is getting the fictional characters to interact with the real-life ones. In Death and the Blind Tiger, Max and Allison Hurlock travel to New York City to investigate the death of New York’s wealthiest and moist notorious playboy. The story is based on the still-unsolved murder of Joseph Elwell in 1920.
Of course one of the many things that make New York in the 1920s interesting is the real-life people who lived there, so Max runs into Duke Ellington and Allison goes to lunch at the Algonquin round table with Dorothy Parker. Getting historical people right is a matter of research. The first thing is to make sure they were actually alive at the time and that they were not off somewhere else. (I had this problem when I tried to drag aviation pioneer Jimmy Dolittle into my next book and found he was in South America at the time.)
If a person left a rich record of witty quotes behind, as Dorothy Parker did, you can work some of them in, but getting the character down based on the historical record of the person is critical. In Death and the Blind Tiger, I have a slightly drunk Parker making cutting remarks to Allison when they first meet, but laughing and inviting her to lunch when Allison comes back at her with some witty retorts of her own. As for Duke Ellington, Max meets him when his band is taking a break behind a speakeasy called the Kentucky Club where they are playing. When Max complements Ellington on his music, Ellington replies that “It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that swing.”
Just how much research is necessary is a function of whether the character is a central part of the story, or just has a cameo appearance. Either way, the presence of historical characters give a story a level of richness and authenticity.
Oh, and in case you are wondering, Parker is not the murderer; neither is Ellington. Artistic license is one thing; getting carried away is another.

Here is the book: http://www.amazon.com/Death-Blind-Hurlock-Roaring-Mysteries-ebook/dp/B00EUNKY72/ref=sr_1_6?ie=UTF8&qid=1391040379&sr=8-6&keywords=death+and+the+blind