The Devil's Odds

The Devil's Odds
St. Martin's Press. To Be Released Feb. 28, 2012

Monday, December 5, 2011

Milton T. Burton July 23, 1947 - December 1, 2011

This is Milton's eldest son Seth. I regret to have to post on dad's blog that he passed away Thursday morning. I know that each and every person whose life he touched will miss him terribly. He so enjoyed writing his books and posting on his blog as well. Underneath his curmudgeonly exterior he was in actuality a very social person. He loved to call people to chat even if only for a minute and then he would be launching off to the next call. Keeping in touch with his friends was one of his greatest joys and I would like to express my gratitude to everyone that touched his life. The service will be Sat. Dec. 10th, 3:30 at the Tyler Primitive Baptist Church.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Back in 1988 televangelist Pat Robertson ran for president. One of the networks hired Harvard professor/former Kennedy advisor Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. as a commentator on the primaries. Robertson came to my home town, and Schlesinger tagged along in his wake. It is my belief that if anyone in the country could transcend Robertson in sheer jackassery, it is Schlesinger. Here is my take on the matter:

There were others making travel plans that day with Tyler as their ultimate destination. Two major networks were sending crews to town to augment the efforts of local affiliates, and American Broadcasting Company was sending its elite commentator, Professor Arthur M. Schlesinger to comment on the socio-historic significance of Pat Robertson’s visit. Professor Schlesinger was on the retainer of ABC News as a roving and occasional commentator on national, international and perhaps even interplanetary affairs for the New York based network.

Schlesinger, dean of the East Coast establishment liberals and Historian Extraodinair, had established his academic reputation with a series of books which proved beyond the doubt of any reasonable person that Liberalism was a divinely ordained blessing on the human race and that all Democratic Presidents (with the exception of course, being the earthy Lyndon Johnson) were noble apostles of progress, while all Republican presidents (with the exception of course, being the great Abraham Lincoln) had been little more than moronic tools for the forces-of reaction.

Professor Schlesinger taught for many years at a famous Ivy League university and had achieved the status of Exalted Adept in that ad hoc but nonetheless real fraternity of those who function in that grey wonderland, the government/higher education complex. This coagulation had been christened by one irreverent pundit "The Legion of Stratospherically, Situated Academic Honchos," and Schlesinger had well earned his membership. He had been an advisor to presidents and chairman of numerous prestigious commissions; he had headed task forces beyond the numbering of mere mortals; and he had advised congress on vast reams of crucial legislation. At one time of another he had been an unofficial governmental representative to everyone everywhere on the face of the globe, and at any given moment of time he knew absolutely everything worth knowing. He had served as Ambassador Plenipotentiary (with and without portfolio) to a plenitude of potentates both potent and impotent; he had organized international conferences and defused student rebellions; he had jetted off aboard Presidential aircraft pursuing missions of monumental import that were designed to save whole continents through the benevolence of the American tax dollar; and he had completely redefined the nature and purpose of representative government by advising congressmen that they must ignore their constituents "provincial concerns" and learn to "think globally."

In his long and productive life, Professor Schlesinger had enjoyed the unique privilege of never having committed a single intellectual error. Anyone wishing to prove this assertion needed to consult no lesser luminary than Schlesinger himself, though he would admit to having been misunderstand on number of occasions when same critic had become annoyingly convinced that something he had either written or said that seemed to mean something other than what he currently claimed that it meant.

The good Professor had been employed by the network because he was able to discourse fluently upon the political and historical significance of any event which had occurred during the entire history of human society from the very first moment of the Neolithic Revolution in 50,000 BC right on down to 3:23 P. M. Wednesday the last. He was particularly important to his employers because could discourse fluently regardless of whether or not he knew anything at all about the subject at hand. Indeed, he was at his most erudite and authoritative concerning those things about which he knew the least, and he rose to Olympian heights of certitude when pontificating upon matters of which he was totally ignorant. At age seventy and perpetually bow-tied, Professor Schlesinger was short, chubby, voluble, and prone to flatulence, but a fierce dedication to his high ideals had kept him faster than a speeding entitlement and he was still able to leap tall footnotes with a single bound. And he was coming, in all his Celestial Excellence, to Tyler, Texas, in order to philosophize upon the Pat Robertson rally for the edification and enlightenment of the American citizenry. As might be expected, he considered the famous televangelist to be a muddleheaded fascist, a fraud, and a pompous ass. Robertson in turn considered Professor Schlesinger to be a muddleheaded socialist, a fraud and a pompous ass. There is a high degree of probability that each was absolutely correct in his estimation of the other.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

A Plague On Both Their Houses

As far as politics goes, I am an equal opportunity hater. I have become sick of left and right and loathe them both. Here in Texas, right wing males are invariably football-obsessed, crotch-massaging cretins who say "bidness" for "business." While watching football they like to drink Cuervo Gold for the Southwestern, tough guy image they think it projects. Once the game is over, they go out and “chase some nookie,” a commodity none of them have had more than a passing acquaintance with since about 1981.

On the left, we have an abundance of Austin liberal types who venerate the now-dead Molly Ivins, slobber over Coen brothers movies (even the bad ones), and go into a state of nirvana when describing any barbecue joint that serves food on butcher paper instead of plates (butcher paper is so-down-to-earth and egalitarian, you know). Their only real connection to Texas comes once a year when they pull on a pair of cowboy boots and go slopping out to the Willie Nelson picnic with a six-pack of Shiner slung over one shoulder and a sanctimonious aura of "progressivism" wafting about their pointed little heads. Both groups have done for this state what pantyhose did for romance.

Austin liberals also love barbecue joints run by blacks, and if the black running the place happens to be rude and grumpy, so much the better. This marks him as a true culinary artist. Occasionally, one of these individuals will discover an out-of-the-way barbecue joint run by a rude, grumpy black who also serves his wares on butcher paper. When this happens, the Austin person goes into such raptures that he dies of a syndrome know as ESO or "Endless Spontaneous Orgasm." He is then cremated and his friends hold a “non-religious-yet-very-spiritual” memorial service to "celebrate his life" at which his ashes are prominently displayed in an organic gourd. As three right wing cretins drive past, one of them says, "What's going on over there, Otis?"

Otis answers, "Aw, it ain't nothin' but a bunch of left wing faggits holdin' a funeral. Let's go do some bidness."


Friday, November 5, 2010

An Old Egg Cooked

There has been a lot of attention given to T.S. (Thomas Stearns) Eliot (1888-1965) here lately. Both The American Conservative and Commentary have recently published lengthy articles about the man, and the long-awaited "official" biography seems to loom once again upon the literary horizon.

The facts of his life are too easily available online to hash them over here. Suffice to say that he was born in Missouri and then attended Harvard after a three-year sojourn in a private prep school. He soon thereafter skedaddled off to England and never again left except for speaking engagements. Hemingway once said that novelist Henry James could have profited from a "whiff of the Chicago stockyards." Apparently Eliot did did get that whiff and quit these shores as quickly as he could soon thereafter.

In the teens and twenties he wrote a number of unrhymed and unmetered poems such as "The Waste Land" and "The Hollow Men" whose titles are self-explanatory and reveal a great deal about Mr. Eliot's sensibilities. The following from "The Hollow Men" are among his most famous and most often quoted lines.

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Whether or not he was correct remains to be seen. At any rate, his poetry attracted a great deal of critical attention and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948.

Eliot had long since taken British citizenship and come to describe himself as, "An Anglo-Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature, and a royalist in politics."

One of the great ironies of literature in this age is that Eliot, who is often considered the quintessential conservative, is also cited as the apex of literary modernism.

Eliot also wrote some light verse, the most famous of which was Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, "Old Possum" being Ezra Pound's nickname for him. After Eliot's death, it became the basis of the musical, Cats, by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

In recent years much has been made of his Anti-Semitism, which is undeniable and apparent in such poems as "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar" in which he says, "The rats are underneath the piles / The Jew is underneath the lot." Or in "A Cooking Egg," which contains the following: "The red-eyed scavengers are creeping in / From Kentish Town and Golder's Green," Golders Green being a largely Jewish suburb of London. Little can be said in his defense on this score other than to point out that during the decades in which he wrote such sentiments were far more socially acceptable, especially in the rarefied circles in which moved, than they are today in our post-Holocaust world. Personally, my take on the subject is this: Jews are, by and large, a passionate, energetic people, and Eliot, who operated exclusively in the testosterone-free zone, seems to have been repelled by anyone with a pulse that ran over thirty beats per minute. As a consequence, Jews seem to have come to personify for him anyone with any zest for life.

If one considers such poems as "A Cooking Egg" and "Sweeney Among The Nightingales" (both readily available online) one soon realizes that any meaning to be found in much of Eliot's verse is so intensely personal as to be useless to the general reader. On the other hand, if one takes seriously H.L. Mencken's observation (and Mencken was a first class literary critic) that poetry should strive to be nothing more than gorgeous word music, then Eliot is indeed---in his rhymed and metered poetry at least---a first class poet. If one thinks that poetry should be more than that, then it is obvious that such poems as "A cooking Egg" are meaningful only to the seventeen people in the entire world who are both fluent in French and intimately familiar with Greek mythology, British financial history, and London urban geography in the 1930s. That makes for a rather small audience.

Yet I find myself going back to these poems several times a year simply for what Mencken called "the beauty of the word music."

I have read a lot about and by Eliot, so in conclusion I will herein give my opinion: though born and raised in St. Louis, he was descended from a long line of long-faced Puritans and kin to all the Right People, meaning all those stalwart New Englanders who pinned the Scarlet Letter on Hester for fornication and then proceeded to get rich in the slave trade. As a consequence of this Puritan background, he had a great respect for personal guilt---and especially in its value to a literary career---yet he was never able able to accumulate quite enough to satisfy himself. As the fellow who put the "P" in "persnickety," sinning did not come easily to Thomas Stearns Eliot. In fact, I am convinced that the great secret tragedy of his life was that his turds didn't come out wrapped in cellophane

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

R.I.P. David Thompson

I suppose that by now everyone who reads this blog is aware of the untimely death this past Monday of David Thompson of Murder By The Book in Houston. David's wife, McKenna Jordan, found him that evening near his computer. He was thirty-eight and had no known health problems. David had been at the store for twenty-one years, and insofar as I know it was the only job he ever held aside from being publisher and chief editor of Busted Flush Press, which he founded in 2005. Among his many other duties at MBTB, he functioned as the store's events coordinator. Over the years he had been responsible for bringing many true heavyweights of the crime fiction genre to Houston.

There was no one quite like David in the mystery field. But with David there was no mystery: what you saw was what you got, and what you saw was boundless enthusiasm and a love of fine stories. To say nothing of an endless well of help and encouragement for new writers. He was the first person to contact me about a book signing when my debut novel came out, and we were friends ever afterward. Most recently he was instrumental in my getting two fine jacket blurbs from better known writers for my current book. And I was certainly not the only person he ever helped.

We will all miss him.


Friday, July 16, 2010

Bitter Bierce

Ambrose Bierce was born in 1842, as Southern writer Florence King pointed out, "On the Ohio frontier, which he hated. Soon the family moved to the Indiana frontier, which he also hated." Born into a poor but well read family, he was apprenticed to a printer when he was fifteen. At the outset of the Civil War he enlisted in the Ninth Indiana Infantry Regiment as a private and rose to the rank of brevet major by the end of the War, during which he was seriously wounded twice and cited eleven times for valor. The war and his short participation in the Reconstruction occupation made Bierce a thoroughgoing misanthrope: "I favor war, famine, pestilence... In short, anything that will keep people frightened enough to behave halfway decently."

After resigning his commission, he made his way to San Francisco where he wrote for a number of newspapers. In 1888 he became affiliated with the Hurst papers where he rose to the position of one of the most widely-respected columnists of the day. An early pioneer of investigative journalism, he wrote a series of articles that exposed the manipulations of Colis P. Hunnington's
Southern Pacific Railroad in bilking of the federal government of vast amounts of money. He was called to testify before Congress in the matter. A highly placed attorney for the railroad accosted him on the steps of the capitol and tried to bribe him. "Name your price, Bierce," the man said. "Everyone has a price." Bierce knocked the man tumbling down the steps and bellowed out, "My price is sixty million dollars to be returned to the treasury of the United States."

He was also well known as a short story writer. His "An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge" is one of the most famous stories in the American cannon. Filmed three times, it was regarded by novelist Kurt Vonnegut as the most perfect short story in the English language. He called it "A work of flawless American genius."

Bierce, who delighted in being politically incorrect a full century before the term was invented, was fond of claiming that women were incapable of rational thought. Whether or not this reflected his true opinion or whether it was meant to annoy and inflame passions is subject to debate. Whatever his feelings toward the fair sex, they did not stop him from having one wife, numerous affairs and a bevy of female admirers. Nor did they prevent him from blatantly and publicly trying to seduce one of the most famous feminists of the era.

One of Bierce's more delightful books is his Devil's Dictionary. In his own prose the soul of brevity, he defined "once" as "enough" and "twice" as "once too often."

A few of Bierce's definitions:

POCKET, n. The cradle of motive and the grave of conscience. In woman this organ is lacking; so she acts without motive, and her conscience, denied burial, remains ever alive, confessing the sins of others.

NOSE, n. The extreme outpost of the face. From the circumstance that great conquerors have great noses, Getius, whose writings antedate the age of humor, calls the nose the organ of quell. It has been observed that one's nose is never so happy as when thrust into the affairs of others, from which some physiologists have drawn the inference that the nose is devoid of the sense of smell.

PALACE, n. A fine and costly residence, particularly that of a great official. The residence of a high dignitary of the Christian Church is called a palace; that of the Founder of his religion was known as a field, or wayside. There is progress.

PAINTING, n. The art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather and exposing them to the critic. Formerly, painting and sculpture were combined in the same work: the ancients painted their statues. The only present alliance between the two arts is that the modern painter chisels his patrons.

FAITH, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.

FOLLY, n. That "gift and faculty divine" whose creative and controlling energy inspires Man's mind, guides his actions and adorns his life.

Bierce was himself fond of saying that a cynic was merely a realist as viewed by an idealist. Regardless of whatever else might be said of the man, he was a journalist the likes of which we could use on the national scene these days. H.L. Mencken, a man not given to idle praise, said of him, "He would not lie and he could not be bought."

No one knows for sure what happened to Bierce. In 1913 he got his affairs in order and vanished into the maelstrom of the Mexican Revolution. All subsequent attempts (and there have been many) to determine his fate have proven fruitless. A few years ago a film was made of Bierce's supposed Mexican adventure called "The Old Gringo" after the novel of the same title by Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes. The movie starred Gregory Peck as Bierce and Jane Fonda as an idealistic young American teacher who fell under his sway. Because Fuentes is an optimistic socialist and because Jane Fonda is Jane Fonda, the film considerably softened Bierce's personality.

I will let Bierce himself have the last word on things via advice he wrote to his son: "Endeavor to see the world as it is and not as you would have it be. Do not trust the human race without collateral security for it will play you a scurvy trick every time. And remember: it harms no man to be considered an enemy worthy of respect until he has proven himself a friend worthy of affection."

Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Sage of Baltimore

The Fourth of July is a perfect time to read a modest proposal for the betterment of the government in this fair republic. I give you H.L. Mencken and his prescription for dealing with corrupt and unjust officials.

"The Malevolent Jobholder"

H.L. Mencken

[From the American Mercury, June, 1924.

In the immoral monarchies of the continent of Europe, now happily abolished by God’s will, there was, in the old days of sin, an intelligent and effective way of dealing with delinquent officials. Not only were they subject, when taken in downright corruption, to the ordinary processes of the criminal laws; in addition they were liable to prosecution in special courts for such offenses as were peculiar to their offices. In this business the abominable Prussian state, though founded by Satan, took the lead. It maintained a tribunal in Berlin that devoted itself wholly to the trial of officials accused of malfeasance, corruption, tyranny and incompetence, and any citizen was free to lodge a complaint with the learned judges. The trial was public and in accord with rules fixed by law. An official found guilty could be punished summarily and in a dozen different ways. He could be reprimanded, reduced in rank, suspended from office for a definite period, transferred to a less desirable job, removed from the rolls altogether, fined, or sent to jail. If he was removed from office he could be deprived of his right to a pension in addition, or fined or jailed in addition. He could be made to pay damages to any citizen he had injured, or to apologize publicly.

All this, remember, was in addition to his liability under the ordinary law, and the statutes specifically provided that he could be punished twice for the same offence, once in the ordinary courts and once in the administrative court. Thus, a Prussian official who assaulted a citizen, invaded his house without a warrant, or seized his property without process of law, could be deprived of his office and fined heavily by the administrative court, sent to jail by an ordinary court, and forced to pay damages to his victim by either or both. Had a Prussian judge in those far-off days of despotism, overcome by a brain-storm of kaiserliche passion, done any of the high-handed and irrational things that our own judges, Federal and State, do almost every day, an aggrieved citizen might have haled him before the administrative court and recovered heavy damages from him, besides enjoying the felicity of seeing him transferred to some distant swap in East Prussia, to listen all day to the unintelligible perjury of anthropoid Poles. The law specifically provided that responsible officials should be punished, not more leniently than subordinate or ordinary offenders, but more severely. If a corrupt policeman got six months a corrupt chief of police got two years. More, these statutes were enforced with Prussian barbarity, and the jails were constantly full of errant officials.

I do not propose, of course, that such medieval laws be set up in the United States. We have, indeed, gone far enough in imitating the Prussians already; if we go much further the moral and enlightened nations of the world will have to unite in a crusade to put us down. As a matter of fact, the Prussian scheme would probably prove ineffective in the Republic, if only because it involved setting up one gang of jobholders to judge and punish another gang. It worked well in Prussia before the country was civilized by force of arms because, as everyone knows, a Prussian official was trained in ferocity from infancy, and regarded every man arraigned before him, whether a fellow official or not, guilty ipso facto; in fact, any thought of a prisoners’ possible innocence was abhorrent to him as a reflection upon the Polizei, and by inference, upon the Throne, the whole monarchical idea, and God. But in America, even if they had no other sentiment in common, which would be rarely, judge and prisoner would often be fellow Democrats or fellow Republicans, and hence jointly interested in protecting their party against scandal and its members against the loss of their jobs. Moreover, the Prussian system had another plain defect: the punishments it provided were, in the main, platitudinous and banal. They lacked dramatic quality, and they lacked ingenuity and appropriateness. To punish a judge taken in judicial crim. con. by fining him or sending him to jail is a bit too facile and obvious. What is needed is a system (a) that does not depend for its execution upon the good-will of fellow jobholders, and (b) that provides swift, certain and unpedantic punishments, each fitted neatly to its crime.

I announce without further ado that such a system, after due prayer, I have devised. It is simple, it is unhackneyed, and I believe that it would work. It is divided into two halves. The first half takes the detection and punishment of the crimes of jobholders away from courts of impeachment, congressional smelling committees, and all the other existing agencies—i.e., away from other jobholders—and vests it in the whole body of free citizens, male and female. The second half provides that any member of that body, having looked into the acts of a jobholder and found him delinquent, may punish him instantly and on the spot, and in any manner that seems appropriate and convenient—and that, in case this punishment involves physical damage to the jobholder, the ensuing inquiry by a grand jury or coroner shall confine itself strictly to the question of whether the jobholder deserved what he got. In other words, I propose that it shall be no longer malum in se for a citizen to pummel, cowhide, kick, gouge, cut, wound, bruise, maim, burn, club, bastinado, flay, or even lynch a jobholder, and that it shall be malum prohibitum only to the extent that the punishment exceeds the jobholder’s deserts. The amount of this excess, if any, may be determined very conveniently by a petit jury, as other questions of guilt are now determined. The flogged judge, or Congressman, or other jobholder, on being discharged from hospital—or his chief heir, in case he has perished—goes before a grand jury and makes a complaint, and, if a true bill is found, a petit jury is empaneled and all the evidence is put before it. If it decides that the jobholder deserves the punishment inflicted upon him, the citizen who inflicted it is acquitted with honor. If, on the contrary, it decides that this punishment was excessive, then the citizen is adjudged guilty of assault, mayhem, murder, or whatever it is, in a degree apportioned to the difference between what the jobholder deserved and what he got, and punishment for that excess follows in the usual course.

The advantages of this plan, I believe, are too patent to need argument. At one stroke it removes all the legal impediments which now make the punishment of a recreant jobholder so hopeless a process, and enormously widens the range of possible penalties. They are now stiff and, in large measure, illogical; under the system I propose they could be made to fit the crime precisely. Say a citizen today becomes convinced that a certain judge is a jackass—that his legal learning is defective, his sense of justice atrophied, and his conduct of cases before him tyrannical and against decency. As things stand, it is impossible to do anything about it. A judge cannot be impeached on the mere ground that he is a jackass; the process is far too costly and cumbersome, and there are too many judges liable to the charge. Nor is anything to be gained from denouncing him publicly and urging all good citizens to vote against him when he comes up for re-election, for his term may run for ten or fifteen years, and even if it expires tomorrow and he is defeated the chances are good that his successor will be quite as bad, and maybe even worse. Moreover, if he is a Federal judge he never comes up for re-election at all, for once he has been appointed by the President of the United States, on the advice of his more influential clients and with the consent of their agents in the Senate, he is safe until he is so far gone in senility that he has to be propped up on the bench with pillows.

But now imagine any citizen free to approach him in open court and pull his nose. Or even, in aggravated cases, to cut off his ears, throw him out of the window, or knock him in the head with an axe. How vastly more attentive he would be to his duties! How diligently he would apply himself to the study of the law! How careful he would be about the rights of litigants before him! How polite and suave he would become! For judges, like all the rest of us, are vain fellows: they do not enjoy having their noses pulled. The ignominy resident in the operation would not be abated by the subsequent trial of the puller, even if he should be convicted and jailed. The fact would still be brilliantly remembered that at least one citizen had deemed the judge sufficiently a malefactor to punish him publicly, and to risk going to jail for it. A dozen such episodes, and the career of any judge would be ruined and his heart broken, even though the jails bulged with his critics. He could not maintain his air of aloof dignity on the bench; even his catchpolls would snicker at him behind their hands, especially if he showed a cauliflower ear, a black eye or a scar over his bald head. Moreover, soon or late some citizen who had at him would be acquitted by a petit jury, and then, obviously, he would have to retire. It might be provided by law, indeed, that he should be compelled to retire in that case—that an acquittal would automatically vacate the office of the offending jobholder.