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Everything Old Is New Again

 Empty Store Front (Dixon, IL)Decades ago, the mafia had a scam called the “bust-out.” They’d target a small business — the corner store, a machine shop, a soda distributor. After intimidating the owner into handing it over for a pittance, they’d order as much inventory as the suppliers would put on credit. They’d stop paying lenders, max out bank lines, demand customer pre-payments: in short, they’d extract as much cash as possible, as quickly as they could. Then one weekend they’d strip the premises of every last item that might be sold elsewhere — stock, fixtures, furniture, anything — and disappear.

The business was ruined, the owner penniless or bankrupt or worse, and the gang? They’d swept up all the cash … and were ready to do it again.
The comparison is not far-fetched. A private-equity group borrows a vast sum of money, buys a struggling company and squeezes operations as hard as they can. “Rationalizing” can involve layoffs, steep pension cuts, loan defaults, supplier hardball — anything to free up a dollar. When they’re done, the PE investors pay themselves a huge dividend, often financed by more borrowing. Then, like the mafiya, they sell off what’s left and disappear.Now that seems almost quaint. Today, it’s called a workout, not a bust-out, and the operators are private equity firms, not the Cosa Nostra. The amounts involved are hundreds of millions of dollars. And best of all, it’s completely legal.

Continue reading “Everything Old Is New Again”

When the Law Falls Short

UnjustFrancis Bacon said that “revenge is a kind of wild justice, which the more man’s nature runs to, the more ought law to weed out . . . . In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy; but in passing it over, he is superior; for it is a prince’s part to pardon.”1

Fast forward two and a half centuries, to Abraham Lincoln. He thought vengeance had a time and place. During the American Revolution, he noted “the deep rooted principles of hate, and the powerful motive of revenge . . . were directed exclusively against the British nation. And thus, from the force of circumstances, the basest principles of our nature . . . [became] the active agents in the advancement of the noblest cause—that of establishing and maintaining civil and religious liberty. . . . But this state of feeling must fade, is fading, has faded, with the circumstances that produced it.”2 Lincoln gave this speech in response, in part, to a mob killing of a black man accused of murder. In Abe’s view, it was okay to take vengeance on the British but not anyone else.

Fifty years later, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., admits the importance of vengeance within the legal system, going so far as to say, “the law does [and] ought to, make the gratification of revenge an object . . . correspond[ing] with the actual feelings and demands of the community, whether right or wrong.”3 Holmes saw this as a lesser evil to people perceiving the legal system as failing to satisfy and thus taking matters into their own hands. “If people would gratify the passion of revenge outside of the law, if the law did not help them, the law has no choice but to satisfy the craving itself, and thus avoid the greater evil of private retribution.” Id.4

As a trial lawyer I saw many examples of law and justice diverging, with the law “not helping” the wronged party. Writing the “The Fourteenth Juror” allowed me to inflict private retribution (even if only on the page) on one aspect of the legal system that often fell short in this regard. Gratifying indeed.

Check out “The Fourteenth Juror” in Mystery Writers of America Presents Vengeance, now available in bookstores everywhere.

A Stanford graduate and former (vengeful) plaintiff’s trial lawyer, Twist Phelan writes the critically acclaimed legal-themed Pinnacle Peak mystery series published by Poised Pen Press. Her short stories appear in anthologies and mystery magazines and have won or been nominated for the Thriller, Ellis, and Derringer awards. Twist’s current project is a suspense novel set in Santa Fe featuring a corporate spy. Visit her at www.twistphelan.com.

1 Sir Francis Bacon, Essays, Civil and Moral (1625). Yes, this is a footnote. As a former law review editor, I can’t resist.

2 Abraham Lincoln, Lyceum Address, Volume I, p. 108-115 (January 27, 1838). Uh oh; another one.

3 Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., The Common Law 46 (1881). I’m out of control.

4 “Id.” is the abbreviation for the Latin word “idem,” which means same. Lawyers and academics use it to reference the previously cited source. Everyone else just says “same as before.”

 

On VENGEANCE and The General

Revenge has always been a human passion – as well as a problem for any civilized society. Early on, Jehovah reminded the Israelites that ‘vengeance is mine,’ while Aeschylus immortalized the blood feuds of the House of Atreus, which took a goddess to end, thus establishing the rule of law.

Dramas of revenge were popular enough in Renaissance England to spawn a distinct genre, the Revenge Tragedy, ironically most famous for that reluctant avenger, Hamlet, whose dithering raised the body count without ultimately sparing the king. Of course, Shakespeare knew a good thing when he saw it: revenge not only calls upon a variety of visceral and ancient emotions, it also offers excellent plot possibilities.

I’ve been rather fond of these, myself. Looking back over my short stories, I find revenge plots constructed around a variety of characters, ranging from a middle aged archeologist (male) to a restauranteur (female) with stops along they way for several wronged wives and husbands, an angry daughter, plus a disgruntled academic dean and a traumatized student. Most of these stories are told from the avenger’s point of view. Continue reading “On VENGEANCE and The General”

Deserving: On VENGEANCE and the writing of Lost and Found

Day 272 - The view from across the roadThe desire for retribution is a theme familiar to all crime and thriller authors, and it has to be one of the strongest. Never is a character’s motivation more compelling than when they determine to go after somebody who deserves to die―no matter what―and it’s personal.

I’ve touched on vengeance many times in my writing. My ex-army-turned-bodyguard heroine Charlie Fox has a lot in her past to be vengeful about, and while she may be wary about crossing the line, that doesn’t mean she won’t do it if she has to.

But not this time.

When Lee Child first contacted me about contributing to a then-unnamed MWA anthology, I agreed (bit his arm off at the elbow is probably a better description) and asked him if there was a theme. “Good people doing bad things for the right reasons,” came his typically succinct response. “Dark justice.”

Dark justice.

That sounded damn cool to me. But although Charlie is a troubled girl, she’s never really embraced her dark side. And I wanted this tale to be dark. I don’t really write noir in the true ‘everybody dies without redemption’ sense of the word, but I love the hardboiled edge.

Here was an opportunity to take that edge and push it just a little further. Continue reading “Deserving: On VENGEANCE and the writing of Lost and Found”

Mystery Writers of America Presents Vengeance: An Introduction

Editing this anthology was a lot of fun—not least because Mystery Writers of America’s invaluable and irreplaceable publications guy, Barry Zeman, did all the hard work. All I had to do was pick ten invitees. And write a story. And then later on read the ten winning stories chosen by MWA’s blind-submission process. Piece of cake. Apart from writing my own story, that is, which I always find hard, but that’s why picking the invitees was so much fun—I love watching something difficult being done really well, by experts.

It was like playing fantasy baseball—who did I want on the field? And just as Major League Baseball has rich seams of talent to choose from, so does Mystery Writers of America. I could have filled ten anthologies. Or twenty. But I had to start somewhere—and it turned out that I already had, years ago, actually, when I taught a class at a mystery writers’ conference in California. One of the after-hours activities was a group reading around a fireplace in the motel. A bit too kumbaya for me, frankly, but I went anyway, and the first story was by a young woman called Michelle Gagnon. It was superb, and it stayed with me through the intervening years. So I e-mailed her about using it for this anthology—more in hope than in expectation, because it was such a great story, I was sure it had been snapped up long ago. But no—it was still available. Never published, amazingly. It is now.

One down.

Then I had to have Brendan DuBois. He’s a fine novelist but easily the best short-story writer of his generation. He just cranks them out, one after the other, like he’s casting gold ingots. Very annoying. He said yes.

Two down.

And I had Twist Phelan on my radar. She’s a real woman of mystery—sometimes lives on a yacht, sometimes lives in Switzerland, knows about oil and banks and money—and she had just won the International Thriller Writers’ award for best short story. I thought, I’ll have a bit of that. She said okay.

Three down. Continue reading “Mystery Writers of America Presents Vengeance: An Introduction”