Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Great Roast Beef Heist and Other Crimes

Readers often ask where I get ideas for my mystery novels. They can come from anywhere: the newspaper, an overheard conversation, a past experience. In 1969 long before I became a mystery writer, I served on a Federal Grand Jury in Los Angeles.  We met one day a week for six months and our role was to hear evidence from the District Attorney and render indictments for federal crimes.  At the time most of the cases presented related to draft evasion, being during the Vietnam War era.  But other crimes included bank robberies, counterfeiting and smuggling.  Here were three of the best cases:

The Great Roast Beef Heist - Two men had been tracking an armored car that moved bags of money between bank locations.  They figured out the route and picked a good time to jump the guard.  As the guard exited the armored car, they attacked him and grabbed the bag he carried.

Two blocks later the police caught up to the robbers.  They opened the stolen bag and found, not money, but roast beef sandwiches.

The guard was delivering lunch to some friends at the bank.  The robbers faced one to ten for stealing roast beef.

Dress for the Occasion - A man in long greasy hair and torn clothes came to claim an expensive Italian marble-inlayed table from customs.  The customs agent got suspicious and told the man that the table had been damaged in transit, but would be ready the next day.

He had the table x-rayed and discovered a hidden compartment stuffed with bags of hashish.  All but one bag was removed, the table was sealed back up and agents followed the man the next day when he claimed it.  When he got it back to his house and opened it, the agents arrested him.

Lesson:  if he had been neat and well-dressed, the customs agent would never have been suspicious.

Never Trust a (Wo)Man - After a bank robbery, the police questioned a female teller, but had no good leads to follow.  A week later the teller came to the police and confessed.  She and her boyfriend had arranged the robbery.  She had handed her boyfriend the money and then had given a phony description to the police.  “But officer,” she said.  “I want you to catch the son-of-a-bitch.  We were supposed to share the money, but he took it and ran off to Vegas with another woman.”

Fictionalized adaptations of these crime appear in my theater mystery, Dinner of the Mystery Playhouse, and my upcoming novel, Court Trouble: A Platform Tennis Mystery being released in July, 2016.


Thursday, April 21, 2016

Playing Sports

Sports have always been an important part of my life.  As a kid, I played pickup football games in the alley where I lived.  Since it was narrow, running plays seldom worked.  So the typical play was “everyone go long.” 

I played in the outfield in Little League baseball, like my hero Duke Snyder.  I was a fair but not outstanding hitter.  The only time I really connected was when we were fooling around before a practice and I hit another kid in the head with a bat by accident.  My stomach went though my feet I felt so bad.

Over the years I have also participated in basketball, volleyball, ping pong, racquetball, running, intramural wrestling and skiing, but tennis was my sport.

In tennis there are certain plateaus reached.  I had one friend who never took a set off me. Against the top junior player in Hawaii, I took a set once, but never beat him.

All those years hitting tennis balls against a backboard, practicing serves with a bucket of balls, rallying and playing matches.  Tennis provided the vehicle for me to travel, meet people, get into a top college and stay fit.  When I no longer could run because of an arthritic hip, my sport changed to platform tennis.  On the smaller court I was competitive and put less stress on my hip. In fact, I have a mystery novel coming out in July inspired by this sport called Court Trouble: A Platform Tennis Mystery.
Now that we’ve moved to Southern California where there is no platform tennis, I’ve taken up pickleball.

How many balls have I hit over the years?  I calculate that I hit 1.5 million tennis balls during the ten years I played competitively.  Add in the next fifty or so years of playing racquet sports several times a week, it probably totals another four million strokes.  You’d think with all that practice, I’d be more consistent.  The problem is that the aging process more than offsets the improvement.  Still getting out on a court is something I look forward to.  My biggest challenge still is expectations.  I expect myself to play better than I do.  I get mad when I don’t play well and hate to lose.  When I’m in a zone, I play well and enjoy the game.  It’s a constant internal argument on whether I get upset because I’m playing badly, or play badly because I get upset.  Some days my strokes flow, the ball goes where it should, I anticipate well and I make the points.  Then there are times when the shots go wild and out of control.  Five and a half million strokes, and I still miss-hit the darn ball.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Vacations When I Was a Kid

Being a photographer’s son, vacations often involved going to scenic places in Hawaii.  For years I could open any travel book about Hawaii and find the back of my head.  My dad liked to take pictures of my mom and me silhouetted as we walked down a beautiful beach.

We often stayed at beach houses on the windward side of Oahu.  Kawela Bay was one location we frequented.  One cottage had an enclosed porch that faced the bay.  I built model airplanes and explored the beach.

Another time we stayed at the beach house near a Hawaiian burial ground so I was afraid to go out after dark.

Kona was a favorite outer island destination for us and we stayed at the Kona Inn.  I swam in the salt water pool that was fed by waves crashing over a retaining wall into the deep end of the pool.  When I was very young we watched Hawaiian cowboys driving cattle into the water in downtown Kailua, Kona. The cowboys rode horses into the water to herd the cattle to a ship anchored offshore.

The summer after I graduated from college, my dad and I went to Kauai and stayed at the Hanalei Plantation.  We drove up to the end of the road along the Napili cliffs and upon our return discovered that one of the bridges had collapsed.  Since that was the only road along that part of the island, we accepted a ride in a rowboat from a boy who was ferrying people back across the stream, hitchhiked back to the hotel and got another rental car.  I heard later that it took several months to get the road rebuilt. 

My dad rented a helicopter and we flew along the Napili cliffs and landed on a white sand beach that is only accessible by an eighteen mile hiking trail, by helicopter or by swimming in from a boat.  I still have a picture in my home office of me walking down that beach toward a cave in the overhanging cliff.  We stayed about an hour before the helicopter came back to pick us up.  Although my dad and I had conflicts during the summers of my college years, that was a trip of togetherness.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Ocean

The ocean has always been a siren’s song for me.  It beckons, but also leaves me with a sense of fear and foreboding.

I learned to swim at the Elks Club in Honolulu.  There was hardly any beach there, but an old wooden pier served as the platform for entering the water.  Inside the building was a locker room where I went with my dad to change.  It was in the basement facing the ocean so I could hear the sound of waves outside.

Never being a good swimmer, I always struggled in the water.  When I stopped stroking, I sank.  Even today when I swim laps in a pool, it’s hard work to keep my body moving, and when I try to float, my feet sink.

I love to watch the ocean, but I don’t venture out very far.  In the mountains I’ll go off by myself, but I don’t like swimming out deeper than anyone else.

Another beach we frequented when I was a child, Gray’s beach, is a small spit of sand surrounded on one side by a cement wall breakwater and on the other by reef.  Its shallow water and gentle waves were an ideal place for me to splash around.  Out in the distance was a marker imbedded in the reef that seemed as far away as China.  I could never swim that far.  When my wife and I went to Hawaii on our first trip together, we swam out to it.  She’s a good swimmer and set the pace.  I was amazed that it wasn’t very far out anymore.

I enjoy snorkeling in shallow water, where I can watch the fish below me, but put my feet down when I get tired.  I’ve never gotten into scuba diving, having tried the equipment only twice in swimming pools.

I did a lot of bodysurfing, but little board surfing.  I now enjoy small waves that will push me in but not knock me over.  Whenever I go to Kailua beach, I limp into the water to catch a few waves.  Then I feel like I’m truly back in Hawaii.

Now that we’ve moved to Southern California, I go for walks along the sand.  The crash of waves, the squawk of birds, the aroma of salt water and the sand crunching under my feet bring me alive and back to my roots.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Memorable Places from My Past

As I think back about growing up in Hawaii, certain places pop up as vivid images.

Chasing trains in the cane fields with my dad -- I accompanied my dad as he drove our Studebaker along dirt roads through the sugar cane fields on Oahu, following the trains that hauled the cut cane.  One time we hitched a ride on one of the narrow gauge engines, smoke spewing, the wind in our hair, feeling on top of the world.

The hot springs on the island of Hawaii -- On a vacation with my folks and my friend, Mike Gillespie, we stopped at a hot spring.  Mike and I floated in the crystal clear warm water and my dad took a picture of us from a cliff above.  I still have the picture, but the hot spring no longer exists.  A lava flow inundated it about ten years later.

Inventing things in my backyard -- Before school I’d go out in our backyard where I had a collection of airplane, radio and other miscellaneous parts and build contraptions, my inventions.

Being at school at night -- In the fourth grade I was a candy cane in the school Christmas pageant.  We performed at night and after getting in our costumes, we walked around campus, hiding from each other in the shadows.  School during the day was mundane, but at night it was magical.

The underwater cave on Mokulua -- Our junior year picnic took place at Lanikai beach.  One of our teachers, Mr. Paulsen, took us out to one of the Mokulua Islands by boat and led us into an underwater cave where he told Hawaiian ghost stories.  The cave can only be entered at low tide.  Sitting on the sand at the end of cave, I felt scared by the thought of the tide coming in and excited about being there. This led to a key scene in my first published novel, Retirement Homes Are Murder.

Rocky Hill -- My senior year in high school, a group of us would congregate on Saturday nights at the top of Rocky Hill on the edge of the Punahou campus to sing folk songs.  Looking out over Honolulu, being with friends and singing (I fortunately was always drowned out) gave me a sense of completeness.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Brooklyn Comes to Honolulu

As a boy growing up in Honolulu, I loved the Brooklyn Dodgers.  I cheered when they won and suffered when they lost.  Here’s what an observer would have seen on one special occasion for me:

An eleven-year-old in his Hawaiian shirt waits, the excitement and fear mixed in equal doses.  He has followed the Brooklyn Dodgers since he could remember, listening on the radio for the announcer to describe the next homer from Duke Snider, the pitch from Preacher Roe or the base stolen by Jackie Robinson.  Now these same Dodgers are arriving at his Honolulu airport as part of a 1956 tour to Japan.  As they get off the plane and receive leis, he waits in the terminal, fidgeting.  He holds a small notepad.  As the crowd approaches, he wants desperately to get autographs, but his natural shyness holds him back.  The excitement and fear battle.  Finally, he approaches a man and holds out his pad and pen.

“I ain’t no player, kid,” the man says.

The boy gulps, almost turns away, but now is committed.  He’s engulfed by the crowd of men, and ball players willingly sign his pad.

Jackie Robinson, Roy Campenella and Don Newcombe.  The boy has no recognition of their struggle.  Campenella looks like a Hawaiian to the boy, who has grown up among Hawaiians, Chinese, Japanese.  It won’t be until five years later that he first travels to the South, riding on a bus in Atlanta, curious as to why the black people gravitate to the back of the bus.

Don Drysdale.  Not a known name in 1956, but in the process of becoming.

Pee Wee Reese.  Pee Wee gets his picture taken with a group of hula girls.  The boy watches his agile movements, the sound images from the radio replaying–a dash to cut off a hard grounder, the rifle shot to first.

Bob Aspromonte.  One game and one at bat for Brooklyn in 1956.

The manager Walt Alston.

Bert Hamric.  Two games and one at bat for Brooklyn in 1955.

The boy has no clue who is famous and who is not.  They are all Brooklyn Dodgers.  Sounds and images from the radio, not real people.  The faces are a blur.  He gets as many signatures as he can from anyone he can find.  The shyness is gone.  He has a mission.

Clem Labine, Randy Jackson.  Fred Kipp, a name that is not remembered.

After it is all over and they have left, the boy looks at his notepad and sighs.  He has captured some of them, but has not got his favorite, Duke Snider.  He has no idea what Duke even looks like.

A gentle breeze fills the warm night air.  He clutches the pad to his chest.  He has seen his Dodgers.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Platform Tennis Mystery Novel

This week I received advance reader copies of my next mystery novel titled, Court Trouble, a Platform Tennis Mystery. I have played platform tennis for the last twenty years, love the sport and wanted to incorporate it into a mystery novel. The result will be published July 20, 2016.
I enjoyed setting a mystery in the world of platform tennis. It’s a racquet sport played with a paddle and specially designed ball. The court is a third the size of a tennis court and surrounded by a wire mesh fence. The rules are similar to tennis except you only have one serve and you can play the ball off the fence (like in racquetball) after the ball has hit the court (you can’t hit the fence first). It’s a great doubles game for players of all ages.
In Court Trouble when Mark Yeager’s friend is bludgeoned to death in the dark on a platform tennis court, Mark becomes an amateur sleuth to find which of the four suspects is the murderer. Avoiding attempts on his life, he must crack the case and figure out how to save the courts from being shut down by the city while waiting for doctor’s results on whether he is cancer-free after his bout with prostate cancer.