Watching TV With My Westies

We have two feisty and super-smart West Highland White Terriers who seem to love TV–each in different ways.  Television is as important to me as reading and because I write mysteries, I watch a lot of movies and crime series, domestic and foreign.  I’m always curious to see how other writers develop character, work twists into their plots, and create believable dialogue.

And I’ve been surprised that the dogs enjoy it, too, though obviously they have different interests.  Our six-year old, Rudi, is fascinated by a wide range of things, and after dinner, he sits in the kitchen waiting for us to say, “It’s time for TV.”  While we’re cleaning up, he trots into the living room and plants himself on a chair or ottoman opposite the 65-inch screen, waiting.

Rudi is happy watching nature specials and enjoys simple scenes like the wind sweeping across a planted field, rippling the wheat or corn.  He also sat there riveted by most of Babe.  At the end of that movie, he turned to us and moved his lips like the animals he’d been observing, and he does that every now and then when he’s excited about something.

He’s been no fan of the dragons in Game of Thrones or zombies in The Walking Dead.  He races to the set to bark at horses tearing across the screen as they do somewhat too often in Poldark, but he seems especially fascinated by extreme closeups of people expressing intense emotion.  At those moments, I watch his ears twitch and his head move from one speaker to another.  Sometimes his eyes go wide if characters are yelling or crying.  Both Westies are fascinated by fast-paced chases and fight scenes like the ones in the Jason Bourne movies.

Rudi’s half-brother Ravi, who’s just over two years old, is a typical little brother and often seems drawn to whatever Rudi is watching or barking at.  But emotion triggers something extra special in the little guy. We were all watching Daredevil last week and I reacted intensely to a car crash that left the driver trapped upside down near her dead passenger because I have some lingering PTSD from a car accident of my own.  I gasped during that scene in the show and Ravi raced onto the couch and started licking my face as if to reassure me.  It’s happened before, and sometimes he responds even when I’m silent but experiencing surprise or momentary distress at what’s on the screen.  He’s clearly been observing my face.

So TV nights at our home are layered: my spouse and I are watching the screen, but we’re also watching the Westies, who watch each other, the screen and us, too.

A veteran of university teaching, Lev Raphael now offers creative writing workshops online at writewithoutborders.com.  He’s the author of the health club mystery Hot Rocks and 24 other books in many genres.

Does Julian Fellowes Have a Heart?

As the HMS Downton Abbey nears the end of her final voyage, everyone has found a home or is finding one.  But does Julian Fellowes have a heart?

Carson has a Mrs. Carson. Daisy has a Daddy and a school career ahead. Edith is bound to have the newly minted Marquess rush back from Tangiers saying he can’t live without her despite her being a coward. Noblesse oblige squared.

Mrs. Patmore has saved her retirement B&B investment with some savvy PR help from His Lordship et al. (and scone power).

The Bitch-Formerly-Known-as-Lady-Mary has gotten married to someone who can deal with her attitude. It’s also a perfect match since they both look great in black and are equally stiff-backed and dull.
lady mary henry talbotShy Molesely (with the Dickensian name) is emerging from his tunnel and turning into an educator and liberator of the lower classes. Perhaps he’ll join the Communist Party in the next decade and prove another kind of mole when he goes into government service.

Anna and Bates are free, free, free and as passionate as Carson and his inamorata.

Tom is fat and sassy and belligerently full of his own insight. He should run for Parliament.

tom season 6Isobel is holding her ground and likely to get what she deserves: rank, position, and perhaps a tiny Titian (Sondheim fans will know what I mean).

Even perpetually constipated Spratt has a new career as an “agony aunt” (advice columnist) under a pen name.

But what about Barrow? He’s done and said lots of nasty things in previous seasons, but he’s been wandering through this season looking like St. Sebastian without the arrows (or the loincloth). And Fellowes had him attempt suicide. Seriously?

Isn’t it time he got a break–and some love?

I’m hoping that in the final episode, Big Ears (Andy) will reveal that he really doesn’t want to learn about pigs–that he was just trying to be a manly man (and Yorkshire Lumberjacks Ltd. weren’t hiring).

andyWhat Big Ears really really wants is to get all D.H. Lawrence with Thomas–especially now that he’s helped the others take off Barrow’s wet clothes after the suicide attempt and put him to bed. Change of clothes, change of heart, perhaps by way of a sponge bath? Or some surprisingly gentle towel action?

The love that dare not speak its name doesn’t have to. An epiphany wouldn’t be in his vocab, but why can’t Big Ears have one all the same, and why can’t Barrow have a happy ending?

Pun intended.

Lev Raphael is the author of The Edith Wharton Murders and 24 other books in genres from memoir to biography.

When Motives Miss by a Mile

I started reading crime fiction in high school: Agatha Christie, the Swedish writing team Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, John Creasey, and the comic work of Phoebe Atwood Taylor.  I wasn’t great at solving puzzles, but I was always fascinated by what would actually drive someone to murder.

phoebe atwood taylor

That fascination took a different turn when I started reviewing crime fiction for The Detroit Free Press in the 1990s and continued to do so for about a decade.  Motive now wasn’t just something to study, it had to to be convincing, it had to fit perfectly into the entire clever construction of plot–or the carefully-built edifice buckled and sometimes even collapsed.  Reading crime novels where the motive for murder or mayhem was weak made me determined to ensure that my own mysteries never fell short that way.

And because I watch a lot of crime drama on TV and crime movies, I’m often thrown when a motive just doesn’t seem believable.  Case in point.  In a recent episode of Forever, whose sleuth is a medical examiner, a ballerina’s foot was found at a theater.  She was initially presumed dead until it was forensically determined that the foot had been surgically removed so as not to kill her.  Weird, right?  The suspects narrowed down quickly to her ex-surgeon brother and all the evidence was discovered in his home.

But why?  Jealousy?  That didn’t add up.  They’d escaped Cuba together so she could have a great career and she on the point of stardom, about to be dubbed a prima ballerina (the show actually got this wrong, mistaking a prima ballerina assoluta for a prima ballerina)

prima ballerinaThere’s a good chance in crime fiction that the “least likely” suspect is the one who did it, and when she was was found alive, I couldn’t imagine why she would have had her brother do it.  But she did, and here’s the bogus motive the writers came up with: 1) she had a degenerative bone disease and 2) she had only a year to dance and so 3) she wanted to go out in glory and be remembered forever that way.

I’ve known dancers and I thought this was ludicrous.  What dancer would consent to having her foot cut off even if she wouldn’t be able to dance again?  What person would consent to such horrible mutilation and be left crippled for the rest of her life?  Nothing about the character made her seem unhinged enough to do something so radical.

Sometimes crime writers of all kinds try so hard to be original or surprising that they end up just coming off as ridiculous.  This was one of those times.  She was still able to dance and she could have danced with the title and then retired for whatever reason and remained legendary.  Now she’s a legend in a freakish way (and is missing a foot!).  Why would any dancer want to be remembered like that?

Lev Raphael’s 25th book is the Michigan bestseller Assault With a Deadly Lie.  You can read about his other mysteries at his web site.

#Empire Is Coming Back For Season Two!

For awhile it looked like the hot new show Empire wasn’t going to be renewed by Fox, but The Washington Post reported May 10th that it will. I couldn’t be happier.  I was late to become an Empire fanboy, but I’m not sorry about it, because that meant I got to binge-watch the show one weekend.  Empire grabbed me with its seductive opening scene; it was love at first sight.  I was hooked, but something else happened: I unexpectedly started to feel like the show was about me.

I’m not crazy.  Let me explain.

At one point in Episode Four, entertainment mogul Lucious Lyon orders his sullen youngest son Hakeem to get into the studio and write some hip-hop songs.  Now.

empire familyThat’s when I realized the show wasn’t just about music, and an entertainment empire and business maneuvering, and seething family dynamics, and regret, and homophobia, and second marriages, and sibling rivalry, and secrets and lies, and facing terminal illness.  It was also about the writing life.  My writing life.

On the surface, I couldn’t be more different from the Lyon brothers.  I’m the son of Holocaust survivors, I didn’t grow up with one parent in prison, I don’t sing, I’m not bipolar, and I’m not in a mixed marriage.  But adding their experiences together, like the Lyon brother I’ve felt the intense pressure to produce, produce, produce.  Like them, I’ve been on stage, and I’ve also felt stage fright and felt upstaged.

Like those guys, I’ve felt pushed to do things for publicity I didn’t ever want to do, and badly tempted to do things I thought might get me more publicity.  Like them, I’ve felt the lure of fame and stardom–and sometimes waved it all away as BS.  Like them, I’ve wanted to be true to myself and felt stymied trying to get there and stay there.  Like them, I’ve had a difficult, dramatic mother who believed fiercely in me.  And like them, I’ve had a demanding father who could be totally unreasonable and even violent.

And though I can’t write music, I’ve always had a soundtrack in my head from the first day I heard record albums on my parents’ hi-fi….

hifiThanks to Empire, right now that sound track includes the amazing “What is Love?” sung by Veronika Bozeman.  That’s the song that opens Episode One of Empire and it’s unforgettable.

The show isn’t just absorbing drama with comic highlights, like all the times Lucious’s ex-wife Cookie keeps dissing his lover Anika as “Boo Boo Kitty” or “fake-ass Halle Berry” and practically steals a scene with just a glare.  Hell, I think she can steal a scene she’s not in–all anybody has to do is say her name.  Watch the show yourself, and try it.

empire-cookie-gif

Empire is a well-written, dramatic, sexy, and sometimes hilarious show that also hooks me as a writer whenever it explores the troubles of the creative life, both internal and external.  It hits those notes deep and true every single time.  That show gives me fever.

So now’s the time to catch up on Season One and see if the show gets you hot, too.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk and 24 other books which you can find on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.