Thursday, May 31, 2012

Sneak preview of THE BOOKSELLER !

I'm finally allowed to share the cover of my novel!

The release date is October 9, 2012, but it's actually available for pre-order now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.  For those with e-readers, electronic versions (for Kindle, Nook etc.) will be available on October 9.

Also, check out my new author website.

Most importantly, the book launch party will be October 12, which is a Friday, and you are invited!

Monday, May 28, 2012

Mystery Monday

I used to have a series on here called "Thriller Thursday," and I rather miss the literary component of this blog (Albert Camus aside!).  And with summer about to burn a hole through the middle of the year, at least here in Texas, I thought it might be a good time to recommend a book or two.  Beach reading and all that.

But first, in case you haven't seen this, in a real-life mystery we finally have a case where the butler did it!

Okay, books.

The first is flying up the charts and is getting all kinds of incredible reviews, to the point where my endorsement means virtually nothing.  The book is DEFENDING JACOB by William Landay.  I loved Landay's first two novels, actually, and if possible this one is even better.  Of course, the subject matter is going to appeal to me: the main character is a prosecutor and family man, whose son Jacob is charged with murder.  It's not just a thriller, though, it's a beautifully written book about the most important things in life: love, honor, and doing the right thing.

Next up is  a book I haven't read yet.  Not my fault, it's not been published!   It's by Jennifer Hillier and is called FREAK.  It's the second novel by Hillier, her debut was CREEP which Suspense Magazine called “truly frightening” and chose as one of 2011’s best novels.  Pre-order it like I did and you won't have to wait much longer.

For something a little less hardcore, I'd point you to a really clever, funny, and compelling writer called Carol Carr.  She has two novels out in this series, and the first was just brilliant, so much fun.  As I've previously recommended it, I will suggest the follow-up called INDIA BLACK AND THE WIDOW OF WINDSOR.  I'll be honest here and say I don't love the covers of these books, because I don't think they do the contents justice.  They aren't even close to bodice-ripping romances, rather they are super clever, wonderfully-imagined mysteries.

Some other books I've read recently and loved:

AND THE SEA WILL TELL by Vincent Bugliosi (true crime)

THE SNOWMAN by Jo Nesbo (mystery/thriller)

And one I am buying today:

STORM RISING by Kenneth Hoss


Monday, May 21, 2012

Justice - you fickle beast

I saw a news story that shocked me, just a little, and I wondered whether I've because too used to harsh Texas justice.

Although in Austin, "harsh" may not be the right word. But you know what I mean. SO here's the body of the story, the first few paragraphs.

A Dutch paedophile referred to as Robert M has been sentenced to 18 years in prison for abusing more than 60 children, some just a few months old.

Robert M was arrested after a US investigation into an international paedophile ring.

The Latvian-born Dutch defendant has been dubbed "The Monster of Riga" by the national press.

This is the worst case of its kind the Netherlands has ever seen, says the BBC's Anna Holligan in the Netherlands.

There were dramatic scenes in court, our correspondent says, with the accused throwing water and directing obscene gestures at the judge.

The presiding judge said he had imposed a long sentence in view of the "nature of the facts, the refined way they were planned and their duration".

The entire story is here, courtesy of the BBC.

So let me understand. This guy molested 67 kids, some a few months old, and actually confessed to even more. He planned the abuse systematically, shows no remorse, and it's the worst case Holland has ever seen.

And for that he gets 18 years in prison.

Ask anyone around this courthouse who the most lenient prosecutor is and I'll be in the top five. Ten, certainly.

And I'm horrified by this. For crying out loud, he managed to earn the nickname the "Monster of Riga." Around here, monsters get a lot more time than that. And so they should. He's getting 3.2 months per victim.

Sometimes I think Texas can be an unforgiving place.

And sometimes I think other jurisdictions should be.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

The power of words: mom, mommy, mama?

Time for a dose of my favorite mixture, those two fine ingredients: literature and murder.

One of my favorite books of all time is Albert Camus's L'Etranger. It's one of the few books I read in French, understood pretty well, and that stuck with me. A very powerful novel with some clever use of language. Maybe clever use of language that I actually managed to understand, I'm no scholar, for sure.

In fact, literary criticism doesn't sit well with me. The classes I took in high school and college irritated the hell out of me, frankly. "The bald guy is Jesus." "The pebble is the sun." "When he says, 'Bucket,' why does that make you want to cry?"

It doesn't, it makes me want to weep. With the pretentiousness of it all.

And yet I've always believed words to be powerful in that they can stimulate emotions and actions and beliefs. Which means that analysis must be valid, right?

Finally I saw some. This morning. An entire article devoted to the analysis of one short sentence, the first sentence of L'Etranger. It's a sentence that tells of a death (not murder, sorry) and I hadn't realized the great importance of how that sentence was/should be translated.

First, the sentence:

Aujourd’hui, maman est morte.”

Second, the analysis: the order and punctuation of the sentence, and its identification of the main character's mother, really matter when it comes to understanding the rest of the book.

And just that strikes me as cool: that the way you read the very first sentence can affect the entire rest of the book, in the way you relate to and view the main character. Very cool indeed.

Seriously, if you have any interest in language and literature (and the book's about murder, so I'm allowed to have it on my blog!) check out this article. It's easy to read, and not even slightly wanky (my technical term for pretentious literary criticism/analysis).

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Gay marriage: I'm serious, I still want to know.

After a rush of great comments on the original "I want to know" post, I thought I'd start a new one to continue the discussion.  I want to do so by directly addressing those comments as best I can, so I'll post the argument and then respond.

Original Anon:  in response to "it was legalized in Canada and the sky hasn't fallen in," states that people are being criminally "prosecuted for hate speech for publicly stating their objections to gay marriage and homosexuality in general." 

My Response:  If that's true, it's horrific.   But it's not the fault of gay marriage, it's the fault of intolerance of free speech.  In fact, with our First Amendment here in the US, one would have to assume that wouldn't happen here.  Which means that on two counts it fails as an argument against gay marriage.

Original Anon: the next claim is that in Europe and Canada "same-sex marriage has continued those nations' long slide to fewer marriages of any sort, fewer births in general, more out-of-wedlock births when there are any, and an approaching demographic winter than threatens their economic and social survival."

My Response:   Eloquently put, but I simply don't understand how same-sex marriage be responsible for fewer people being married?  Other than your opinion, how can that claim be substantiated?  It's not even logical: more marriages = fewer marriages?  Likewise, how can same-sex marriage cause more out-of-wedlock births?  Seriously, I don't see the connection.  These sound like conclusions restated as data and I'm not getting it.

Original Anon: "marriage as an institution has been weakened by the sexual revolution, no-fault divorce, etc.--so how does same-sex marriage improve that situation? That's like trying to fix a car with one flat tire by taking the air out of another tire to make both sides "even.""

My Response:  I'd say it improves the situation by having more people who love each other get married.  Maybe it'll lead to more divorces as an overall number, but also more marriages and maybe even a decline in the divorce rate.  We can't know that right now, so again any conclusions are based on ideology not data.

Original Anon: the remainder of the argument seems to be that " Marriage and the resulting biological nuclear family have been the basic building blocks of Western civilization for ages" and more govt intrusion (which you see as allowing gay marriage) will prevent a return to limited govt. 

My Response: First, I don't see how allowing gay marriage will prevent any sort of return to small government.  The argument as stated is so vague and conclusory I have a hard time following it.  Second, having the govt allow some marriages and not others (i.e. take an active hand in who can and can't marry) requires a bigger govt than one saying, "Okay, gay and straight people can marry."  Honestly, this appears to be the old "If gays can marry, the world will go to hell" argument.

Todd:  Welcome! You argue that we legislate morality all the time and people should do so based on their conscience.  As you put it:  "Bottom Line: I think people of faith should vote according to their faith (whatever religion and whatever faith.) If one doesn't like living in that community, he/she can either work to change it or move to a different location."

My response:  Your argument is, in my opinion, one of the most honest there is.  It's based on your religious views and has grounding in something definite: the Bible.  But here's the thing: people who believe what you do don't have to partake in gay marriage.  And, glibness aside, you are forgetting something that I'm pretty sure you believe in: the Constitution of the United States.  Specifically, the First Amendment.  That's the one allowing you to practice your religion without interference from atheists or Buddhists or Muslims or... anyone else.  But it's also the same one that allows other people to live by their moral codes and not to have to live by yours.  Why do you get to impose your religion on other people if they can't on you?  Explain that.  Bottom line for me: even if most religious people in the US are Christians, this is NOT a nation for Christians alone.  The Constitution makes that very clear.  If Hindu legislators tried to pass laws banning beef, or Jewish legislators to ban bacon, I'm pretty sure you would be one of the first to hold up the Constitution as a defense.  As you should. :)

You also say that we legislate morality all the time.  Well, yes, we do when there is a reason: we don't allow murder, theft, assault - because those things are immoral, maybe, but mostly because there are actual harms associated with them.  Relatedly, I would point out that your reasoning is somewhat conclusory: homosexuality isn't inherently harmful (still no one has shown me how gay marriage would harm other people) but it is to you because your God says so.  You are saying "we can ban it because it's immoral," and I'm trying to get someone to who me how it's immoral, other than a book I don't believe in saying so.  Put another way, a lot of people don't believe it to be immoral, so to say "We legislate morality all the time" doesn't answer the question for me.

Not securely anchored:  "Why don't these same arguments in favor of gay marriage apply to polygamy? That's an honest question."

My Response:  And a good one.  I start from the perspective that no one (despite me whining on and on about doing so) has shown any actual harm associated with gay marriage that doesn't exist with heterosexual marriage.  Divorce, family violence, excessive nagging... I have seen nothing to support a different between gay and straight marriage on these issues.
But that's not so with polygamy.  Historically, there have been many instances where polygamy has been the cause of very real harm.  I point to one example, Warren Jeffs, who last year was convicted of multiple sexual assaults and incest-related felony counts.  This case illustrates "how polygamy is inherently conducive to power imbalances, sexual subjugation, and other abuses that do not inherently exist in the case of same-sex marriage." Read this article, it's where the quotation comes from.
The bottom line for me is that there is a rational basis to keep polygamy illegal, but none whatsoever to outlaw gay marriage.  I would add, in fact, that if marriage is a civil right, by denying homosexuals the right to marry we're depriving a lot more people of their rights than by denying polygamists, who are much fewer in number.

Jason:  I'll take your position para by para.  First you say: "I'm an atheist, so religious arguments don't sway me. However, I can't help but notice that many of the same arguments were used during the debate over no-fault divorce. And that has been absolutely disastrous for marriage and society. It does affect children. It's even a good predictor of poverty. And it's inherited. Once children grow up with no model of marriage, it's hard for them to re-enter the institution successfully."

My response:  Another atheist, good. :)  I will start by saying I don't really know what you mean by "many of the same arguments were used during the debate over no-fault divorce" and so I can't accept it as a premise.  I believe gay people are being discriminated against right now and with no rational basis.  I don't get the no-fault divorce comparison.  Which arguments are the same? 

I would also take issue with the conclusion that no-fault divorce has been "disastrous for marriage and society."  My marriage hasn't been affected by it, nor anyone else's that I know.  Except a couple of people who got divorced and are now happy.  You last sentence is important:  "Once children grow up with no model of marriage, it's hard for them to re-enter the institution successfully."  That may be true, I can certainly see the logic in it.  But tell me this: how does denying people the right to marry help?  How does precluding two people who love each other from forming a loving marriage help?  Don't you want kids to see such a marriage exist?  Or is it your assumption that all gay people will just divorce?  If so, that seems like an unfair and unjustified conclusion.

Jason:  "That's part of the reason why gay marriage probably won't impact the institution much: it's already had a nuclear bomb dropped on it. Even if it is bad for the institution, there's really not much left to destroy. And since gays are a small minority, there's a limit to the influence they can have. However, given that example of unintended consequences, should we really be in a hurry to try to modify the institution yet again? Can we at least slow down and think about this"

My Response:  See, now you're saying it won't make a difference.  I agree!  And should we be in a hurry? I think so.  If we are denying people the right to get married, a right afforded others, then yes, we should get a move on and decide.  Do you really think it's not been thought about and debated a great deal already?  We both know that it has, and still I haven't seen one single non-religious reason to keep gay marriage illegal.  Seriously, what more do you want to think about?  What other information are you expecting to come to light to help us decide?

Jason:  "The relationship between sexes - how we bind them together, how we resolve their differences, how we protect their interests, and how we pass those skills on to the next generation - is one of the most important in any society and time. There is an ideal, and while by definition no ideal is ever fully realized, it would be a mistake to discard ideals entirely. Society has an interest in making parents work things out for the sake of the children, and it may have an interest in promoting male-female marriages as a better model for children to see than same-sex marriages."

My Response: This appears to me an eloquent variation of, "the best model for kids is the perfectly harmonious male-female marriage."  You may be right.  But if it's a justification for denying people the right to marry, I'm guessing the number of weddings this year would fall to zero.  There is simply no perfect marriage because people are imperfect.  Ergo, there is never going to be a "perfect" marriage.  Therefore, either you use this argument to prevent everyone from getting married (or having kids) or you accept it's not a good argument against gay marriage.  It's also not a good argument because some people don't get married to have kids.


Thanks to everyone for posting their opinions and arguments.  I hope that I've addressed them, and in a respectful way.  I continue to hope this is a discussion we can have on an intelligent and reasoned level and I'm grateful to those who took up my challenge and added to the conversation here.  I may not agree with you, but I do want to hear from you, I promise!


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Gay marriage: I'm serious, I want to know.

I never talk about political issues, especially controversial ones. But I'm breaking that rule today because I feel like a civil rights moment happened yesterday when President Obama spoke out in favor of gay marriage.

Now, I know some of my readers are opposed to gay marriage but I hope you will read on and maybe comment because the whole point of this post is to understand the arguments against. And I am very serious about that.

Now, as I see it, the reasons to oppose gay marriage take these forms:

1. The Bible says it's wrong.
2. Allowing gays to marry will redefine/harm traditional marriage.
3. It's bad for the children
4. Gay = icky

Here are my responses to each.

1. The Bible says it's wrong.

It does. And people are free to believe this if they choose. Moreover, ministers should never be required to perform weddings for gay couples if doing so would offend their beliefs.


The First Amendment says you cannot impose your beliefs on others, that you cannot legislate your Christian beliefs the same way Hindus and Muslims and Wiccans may not. To allow some people to marry and others not based purely on religious beliefs is a violation of the First Amendment.

I will reveal myself here: I think all arguments against gay marriage fail, other than this one. And I wish those opposing gay marriage would admit they do so based on religious grounds because I find the other arguments weak, if not spurious. I would have a lot more respect for those opposing if they would abandon the pretense that it's not about their religious beliefs.

And my final word on the Bible, because I'm no scholar. But it seems to me that basing our views of marriage according to the Bible is absolutely not something anyone in the modern world would endorse. Here's why:

2. Allowing gays to marry will redefine/harm traditional marriage.

It will redefine marriage, absolutely.

But so what?

I have long sought a firm and logical response explaining the harm gay marriage might cause and this is usually the answer I get. But these are conclusions, not harms.

So I agree it will redefine marriage and I say again, "So what?" Redefining isn't a harm. Will two women marrying in Vermont affect my own marriage? Unless one of those women is my wife, I can't imagine how.

People also argue that it not just redefines but waters down the institution of marriage. But if two people who love each other enough to get married "waters down" marriage, we have a problem.

I have also heard people say, "What's next, people marrying pigs, or chairs?" It's as if by widening the definition to include gay people we have to widen it to include farm animals and furniture. But the law makes distinctions all the time, we draw lines in the sand with everything we do. I can approach an acquaintance and pat him on the shoulder. I can even give him a gentle squeeze as I say "Hello." But I can't pinch or punch him. Do we outlaw friendly pats and squeezes because they somehow automatically lead to punches? Of course not, it sounds silly. Because it is. The idea that allowing adult humans to marry each other will magically open the door to babies marrying coffee cups is equally silly (and it always strikes me as rather insulting to equate a gay person with a chair).

So my question is, what is the precise harm? I just don't get it, and I want to.

3. It's bad for the children

 This argument is essentially: the best environment for kids to grow up in is one father and one mother. And, you know, with some rephrasing I could get on board:

"In theory and in a perfect world, a well-adjusted and happy home containing a mother and father appears to me likely to give more balance and perspective than any other pairing."

(I am editing this after my wife made some good points: no marriage is ever perfect, not all straight men are masculine, not all women are traditionally feminine, and even if they were, then the kid would miss out on having non-masculine/feminine perspective.  Which is to say, no one marriage will ever afford a child a look at or understanding of every single aspect of the human experience.)

The problem is, of course, we don't live in a perfect world. Heterosexual couples can be unhappy, abusive, neglectful, etc. and does anyone really disagree that a happy and loving gay couple is less damaging to their kids than an abusive and neglectful same-sex couple?

And what about single parents? I see no clamor to outlaw them.

A variant of this argument is that the purpose of marriage is primarily to have kids. It isn't of course, there's no law (natural or man-made) that says once you marry you have to have kids, or that you can't have them until you are married. That people tend to wait until they are married to have kids is a social construct, nothing more. I know that because I don't hear people fighting for ballot initiatives and constitutional prohibitions to prevent old people from getting married, or sterile people, or disabled people, or people who flat don't want to have kids. Kids are frequently a product of marriage but that doesn't make them the purpose of marriage.

This one, from where I sit, simply isn't about the children.

4. Gay = icky

As a teenager, I remember sitting on a train as it pulled into a station in Switzerland. I looked onto the platform and saw two men kissing. My visceral reaction was, "Eeewwwww, gross!" Even now, if I saw that, I'd probably be a little uncomfortable. But you know what else is icky and gross? When my kids see my wife and I kissing. A total "Eeeewww" moment. We all know and agree that's no basis for constitutional amendments.

So I want to know what I'm missing. If someone is willing to take a shot, I will not just post your comment/reply here, but I'll open my blog to a reasoned argument as to why gay marriage is harmful.

Because, as I keep saying, I really want to understand.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Birthday round-up

Somehow I'm 45. I feel like a 25 year-old and act like a teenager. But instead of being morose, or even moose, I thought it would be a good time for some random data.

Birthday presents received: 2 shirts, 1 book, 1 iPhone, 1 Amazon gift card
# of birthday wishes received on Facebook by 78:30 AM: 9
# siblings I share a birthday with: 1
Birthday wish from last year: that I get a book deal
Fulfilled?: Yes, times 4!
Birthday wish this year: well, I'm not allowed to say, am I?!

All-time # of page views of this blog: 158,914
All-time # of page views from Ukraine: 334
Most visited blog entry: What makes a good prosecutor?
Blog entry I like the most: This one.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Who is boy, who is man?

For the past two weeks I've been working with my court chief on presenting a homicide case to the juvenile judge in a certification hearing - the issue being whether she should transfer his case to the adult court for trial.

I thought it might be interesting to share a little on how that works, as this kind of hearing is not something I've done before. (There are several news stories about this particular case, here is one and here is another.)

First, the legal standard: for a juvenile to be transferred to adult court for trial, the judge must find that (to save on ink I'm going to use "he" in hypos etc.) he committed the charged offense, with the standard of proof being "probable cause" as opposed to the usual trial standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt." As you may know, the probable cause standard is a lot lower, and is the one police officers use to arrest someone they suspect of having committed a crime.

Additionally, the judge must consider the following factors:
  1. whether the crime was against persons or property;
  2. the previous history of the juvenile;
  3. the sophistication and maturity of the juvenile;
  4. prospects of rehabilitation; and
  5. the safety of the community
I could probably talk fairly freely about the hearing, at least everything that was reported, but the young man is still facing an adult trial so I hope you will forgive me if I keep my comments rather general. I don't want to prejudice any potential jurors and, frankly, it's a pretty good rule of thumb for a prosecutor not to comment too much on on-going cases.

So, how does the prosecution go about proving that a juvenile should be certified as an adult?

One invaluable tool is the testimony of a forensic psychologist. In our case, as in all, the shrink (sorry, I can't keep typing out "forensic psychologist") interviews the juvenile and digs into their background to give the court insight in to #s 3. , 4. and 5. above (rehabilitation and community safety are obviously closely related). It's important, obviously, that the shrink it not a paid lackey of either side, but is objective and thorough. That's certainly been my (limited!) experience.

One thing that surprised me about the way this psychological evaluation is carried out, though it makes perfect sense, is that the shrink does not consider as part of his analysis any facts about the offense charged. In other words, he makes his findings and recommendations based on factors outside the alleged crime.

The first and second factors are established very quickly, of course. The judge will know going in whether it's a burglary or a murder (in our case, allegations included murder and the attempted murder of another kid). And of course the formal criminal history of a juvenile is a matter of record.

One other thought on the process, because I've seen comments in the past that it seems disingenuous to have a rule saying "a child is a child unless we say otherwise." And that sounds like an eminently fair criticism at first blush. But going through the process made me see that, in a perfect world, we'd abandon the hard-and-fast rule that says you're an adult at age 17 and instead thrash out this issue for every child, especially those charged with serious crimes. The slow, often painstaking analysis of a kid's attitude, mentality, remorse, maturity, etc. via probation officers and forensic psychologists seems like a much better (fairer even?) way than a fairly abstract date.

But wow, that would be impossible unless you all want to become forensic psychologists. Although I'm sure they get paid pretty well. . .