Hamlet Scene by Scene

My post on the “coroner’s” verdict in Shakespeare’s Hamlet has attracted so many visitors that I’ve decided to create a Facebook group on the interpretation of the play. I invite you to join me at Hamlet, scene by scene.

I hope Shakespeare lovers, students struggling with Shakespeare, actors seeking to understand the play deeply, producers and directors, and others to join the group and join in the discussion.

I have a Ph.D. in English Renaissance literature, but it wasn’t until I gave up academe and turned to pulp fiction that I finally understood what Shakespeare was doing when he wrote the play.

Yes, I’ve read the scholarly criticism and pondered the arguments about the play’s “meaning.”

Even so I guess it takes a writer struggling with writing problems to see the very clear and simple meaning of Hamlet.

Hamlet’s meaning is found in the plot as surely as my mysteries’ meaning lies in the plot—and the characters, of course. But if you don’t understand the plot of Hamlet, you can’t understand the character, Hamlet, either.

The play is a murder mystery. I write murder mysteries. I invite you to hear what this mystery writer has to say about the greatest mystery writer of all time, William Shakespeare.

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First Female Detective: Kate Warne

Nothing is known about Kate Warne’s origins, other than what Allan Pinkerton of Chicago’s Pinkerton Detective Agency wrote about her. According to Pinkerton, in 1856 Kate Warne showed up on the agency’s doorstep and asked Pinkerton for a job as a detective. She offered no qualifications, gave him no references, and told him nothing about herself except that she was from New York and wished to be addressed as “Mrs.”

I’ve always wondered what secrets Kate had locked in her heart on that day in 1856, and I always wanted to write about her. Last year, Mystery Writers of America gave me an opportunity to achieve my dream: I wrote a short story about her, “The Very Private Detective,” which was selected for inclusion in the MWA 2013 anthology, THE MYSTERY BOX.

The Pinkerton Detective Agency in Chicago is the reason private detectives are called “Private Eyes” now. Pinkerton’s logo was “The Eye that Never Sleeps.” Frank Morn’s The Eye that Never Sleeps is an authoritative history of the agency, a book I reviewed in 1982 for Chicago History Magazine, because of my interest in Kate Warne.


If it wasn’t an Elvis impersonator, it had to be a Republican

Yes, I am a conspiracy theorist, and why not? Most of the evil in the world is the result of groups of people banding together to do a lot of harm to everybody else. When it’s a party (like the Communist Party) or an evil nation (name your favorite), no one calls it a conspiracy, but it is.

On the other hand, the Justice Department seems to think evil is done only by lone lunatics. For instance, the feds insist the Tsarnaev brothers acted entirely in isolation, and they insist the ricin-laced letters were the work of a lone lunatic from Mississippi. Of course, they may be right this time, but I find it very odd that first they arrested an Elvis impersonator (as if his profession were indictment enough) and now, according to Reuters, they suspect a former Republican candidate for the Mississippi state legislature.

I can’t help but recall that in 2001 the FBI was also certain the anthrax letters were the work of a lone lunatic, too—a lunatic they never managed to track down.

A few days after 9/11, the National Enquirer’s headquarters in Florida received the first of the anthrax-tainted letters. Media and investigators at first speculated the letter-writer had acquired the anthrax powder they contained from anthrax-infected soil. Later it was proven that the strain of anthrax had come from a lab in Ames, Iowa (known as the “Ames strain”). No connection was made to terrorism until contaminated threatening letters were sent to politicians in D.C. and news media in New York. Even though the letters included references to the 9/11 attack, authorities believed the letters to be the work of a lone, domestic terrorist.

During this period I subscribed to a forensic linguistics mailing list, among whose members was the FBI profiler in the case of the Unabomber, James R. Fitzgerald. Academics on the mailing list pointed out to him many clues to the authorship of the letters, including evidence the letters were authored by one person but handwritten by another.

The FBI never accepted the theory that the letters were the work of more than one person, nor did they ever take seriously the idea that there was foreign involvement in the incident. Once the strain was identified as the Ames strain, the investigation focused exclusively on individuals (not a group) who could have had access to Ames-strain anthrax.

At first, the FBI suspected a bio-weapons expert named Steven Hatfill (later exonerated). In 2005 a Maryland bio-weapons researcher for the Army, Bruce Ivins, came under suspicion. Ivins committed suicide in 2008. To this day no real proof of his guilt has been found.

The linguistic evidence of a conspiracy that I learned from the forensic linguistics mailing list still intrigues me. The linguists were divided on the issue of whether the author was a native speaker of English or of Arabic. Some suggested it might be a native Arabic speaker from Great Britain. However, one aspect of the letters contravened the idea of an Arabic speaker: the “signature line.” Each letter ended with “Allah is Great.” (All the letters were printed in caps and small caps.) An Arab would have used the phrase as a salutation.

The one thing on which all the linguists agreed was that the handwriting suggested the writer had copied from a text written by someone else. In other words, they found indications that the author of the text and the preparer of the envelopes and letters were different people. In addition, the moderator of the list, Dr. Margaret van Naerssen, proposed that the letters could have been traced from a dark original onto an overlying sheet of paper. The envelopes, however, showed signs of simply having been “eyeballed.”

Two additional aspects of the handwriting jumped out at me, as a textual critic (my Ph.D. is in textual criticism, literature’s version of forensic linguistics): the use of printed caps and small caps instead of caps and lowercase characters and the date at the top of each letter: 09-11-01. First, highly educated people, such as suspects Stephen Hatfill and Bruce Ivin,s would have printed like a child (caps and lowercase) in order to suggest a semiliterate writer. Second, the dates were a dead giveaway that in fact the author was literate: the six-numeral format with dashes rather than slashes is a digital format, suggesting the author was computer-literate, possibly a programmer who was used to typing dates in that format. If Dr. van Naerssen was right about the copyist, then perhaps the letters’ originals were printouts of caps and lowercase letters from a mechanical device.

I decided to emerge from my lurker status on the mailing list to contact Dr. van Nearssen with my ideas. She gave me James Fitzgerald’s email address at the FBI Academy, and I wrote to him. I told him I thought the letters’ originals might have been communicated from overseas to the U.S. via a handheld teletype device. In 2001 such mobile devices were widely available. The military used TTY devices, and the public could buy them at army surplus stores. Here’s how they worked: a walkie-talkie-sized device was attached to a telephone handset with an acoustical coupler that transmitted audible signals, rather like a telegraph. The recipient device produced a printout of caps and lowercase letters on adding-machine-like strips of paper. If the text of the letters had been input into such a device line-by-line, the first line would have been “Allah is Great.” But like tickertape, the last line input would have printed out first: the date, 09-11-01. That would explain both the use of caps and lowercase and the misplaced salutation.

FBI agent Fitzgerald was very kind; he didn’t call me a kook. But, then, neither did he rush off to follow the clue I gave him. As time passes, though, I become more convinced I’m right: an overseas mastermind used TTY technology to send the text of the anthrax letters to someone here, who then traced the printouts and copied the addresses onto the envelopes. That foreign someone could have been an Iraqi.

There’s no foundation for the FBI’s claim that the “Amerithrax” letters were the work of a lone, American terrorist. The letters themselves point to more than one person, and the anthrax could have come from almost anywhere. In the 1980s the non-profit American Type Culture Collection and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control sent biological samples of American anthrax to Iraq, among other countries, for medical research. (In retrospect, this was incredibly stupid, wasn’t it?) Frankly, I think this was a case of the FBI looking for its keys under a random streetlight, because it’s easier to see at that spot than in the dark parking lot where the keys were lost.

Russia warned the U.S. about the Boston bombers.

The press is calling the Tsarnaevs “Russians from an area near Chechnya.” This is incorrect. The Tsarnaevs are from Dagestan, a country in the Caucasus Mountains near Chechnya with which Russia went to war in 1999.

The AP in Russia reports that a series of violent incidents occurred while Tamerlan Tsarnaev was there in 2012: According to AP, in “February, 2012, shortly after Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s arrival in Dagestan, a four-day operation to wipe out several militant bands in Chechnya and Dagestan left 17 police and at least 20 militants dead. In May, two car bombs shook Makhachkala, killing at least 13 people and wounding about 130 more. Other bombings and shootings targeting police and other officials took place nearly daily [while Tamerlan was there]” The only part of Russia that Tamerlan actually visited was Moscow.

I guess his father is lying about what Tamerlan was doing while visiting him. He claimed Tamerlan slept a lot, ate, and visited relatives.

If the AP report is correct, then it looks as if Tamerlan went to “Russia” not for training but to participate in terrorist activity. Clearly, he didn’t need training. In fact, you might speculate that he went there to train others and not vice versa.

Russian authorities warned U. S. officials that Tamerlan was a dangerous terrorist last year after the violence in Makhachkala when he left to return to Boston. News reports are conflicting about what the FBI did as a result of the Russian information, but one thing they obviously did not do was discover that Tamerlan Tsarneav was as vicious as other Caucasian Islamic terrorists. (I have intentionally not used the term jihadist, because Caucasian terrorists are a complex mix of nationalists, fascists, and Moslems, among the most violent Moslems in the world—even more violent than the Taliban.)

This is insane. How could the FBI have let Tamerlan return to Boston? What kind of “intelligence” is the FBI using? All I had to do to find this out was to search Wikipedia and Goggle for “Chechen terrorist attacks.”

For that matter, how could the INS have let Anzor and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev immigrate in 2003? By that time they should have understood that Dagestan is a terrorist country. Terrorists from the Caucasus have committed some of the most heinous attacks on vulnerable civilians of all time. Only four years before the father and son came to the U.S., in 1999 Caucasian terrorists bombed several Russian apartment buildings, killing nearly 300 people. Immediately afterward, terrorist groups and sympathizers claimed the apartment bombings were “staged” by the Russian government in order to justify an invasion of Dagestan and Chechnya—exactly as the Tsarnaev parents now claim their sons were framed and that the Boston bombings were actually “staged” by the police.

One year before Anzor and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev came to the U. S., in October 2002 Caucasian terrorists invaded a crowded Moscow theatre and took 850 hostages. The Russians gassed them all. Again terrorist groups and sympathizers claimed the whole thing was staged by the Russians.

In 2004 Caucasian terrorists invaded a school in Beslan, Ossetia, taking 1,100 hostages, including 777 children. In the aftermath, as usual, there were charges of Russian involvement in the plot: defector Alexander Litvinenko (later poisoned with plutonium in his sushi) claimed that many of the terrorists had previously been imprisoned by the Russians, but were released so they could be used to stage the horrific event and thereby turn Russian public opinion against Chechens.

Isn’t it interesting that Anzor Tsarnaev and his wife now claim the brothers were framed by the Boston police?

There is something seriously wrong here. In 2003 the INS should have prevented Anzor Tsarnaev from immigrating here from terrorist Dagestan. Apparently, he asked for political asylum, claiming to have been persecuted in Russia because of ties to Chechnya. He may even have claimed to have been imprisoned and tortured in Russia. All of this should have been a dead giveaway to the feds that Anzor Tsarnaev was at minimum suspected by the Russians of terrorist ties. The truth is, it is possible that Anzor came here to establish terrorist cells. It would explain why he’s back in Dagestan now. The only explanation for his being permitted to enter this country is that the INS is staffed by incompetents who don’t know anything about history or geography. If they did they would have understood that Anzor was from Dagestan, not “an area in Russia near Chechnya.”

How could the FBI, the lead government agency in terrorism prevention, been unable to figure out that Tamerlan Tsarnaev was a terrorist who had gone to Russian to take part in a terrorist plot?

And how can so many politicians now claim with confidence that the Tsarnaevs aren’t part of a larger conspiracy? How can they claim they planned additional attacks, but only on their own? If I wanted to be reelected in 2014, I would keep my mouth shut until the whole truth comes out.

This is not America . . .

President Obama is an eloquent speaker. On Tuesday, he uplifted our spirits with these words:

We also know this — the American people refuse to be terrorized.  Because what the world saw yesterday in the aftermath of the explosions were stories of heroism and kindness, and generosity and love:  Exhausted runners who kept running to the nearest hospital to give blood, and those who stayed to tend to the wounded, some tearing off their own clothes to make tourniquets.  The first responders who ran into the chaos to save lives.  The men and women who are still treating the wounded at some of the best hospitals in the world, and the medical students who hurried to help, saying “When we heard, we all came in.”  The priests who opened their churches and ministered to the hurt and the fearful.  And the good people of Boston who opened their homes to the victims of this attack and those shaken by it.

So if you want to know who we are, what America is, how we respond to evil — that’s it. Selflessly. Compassionately.  Unafraid.

Sadly, though, I no longer believe we are unafraid. America has caved in to terror, and we did it back in 2001. We panicked. We didn’t stop and do the job in Afghanistan, which included not only destroying Al Qaeda then and there, but also the Taliban, evil incarnate. Instead we adventured into Iraq, convinced that they had weapons of mass destruction (and I still think they may have had and distributed them around the world to other irresponsible regimes before we had a chance to find them).

But seven years later, we changed our minds about both Afghanistan and Iraq and announced our withdrawal—without having accomplished any of our goals.

This is not America anymore.

It isn’t just our foreign policy that’s un-American now. We’ve trashed the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We’re afraid of freedom. My proof is the popularity of the following popular witticism:

“The Constitution isn’t a suicide pact.”

If that remark doesn’t send a chill down your spine, you are too far gone to understand what I’m saying.

Freedom is a state in which fear must be constantly conquered, because freedom is based on uncertainty. Free people must be brave people. Free people are people who have emerged from their cocoons, because they are eager to take flight—into the wild, blue yonder. The wild is where freedom lies.

After the bombing on Monday, I turned off the TV and listened to a Pandora channel of Sixties songs. While I was dancing in the living room, I realized how different a time the Sixties were. It was a time when lyrics included lines like these from Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Free”:

Set your motor runnin’

Head out on the highway

Lookin’ for adventure

And whatever comes our way

Yeah, baby, gonna make it happen

Take the world in a love embrace

Fire all of your guns at once

And head into space

How naïve that sounds now. I can’t imagine any young person today who would even understand those lyrics. In 1967 everybody under 30 years old wanted to get away from the routine, try something new, see what they could discover, and “take the world in a love embrace.” The whole world. Its good and its bad. Its pleasure and its pain.

In 1967 we knew what freedom was: “nothing left to lose.”

Now America doesn’t care what freedom is. We’re afraid, so afraid we believe freedom is a suicide pact.


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Quiz: Are you a “highly sensitive person”?

If you answer “yes” to 8 or more of the following questions, then you are a “highly sensitive person,” as described in Elaine Aron’s book, The Highly Sensitive Person. If you answer “yes” to at least one of the questions, the odds are you have that affliction but have adapted pretty well:

1. Does the power indicator light on the TV at the foot of your bed keep you awake?

2. Do you always hear strange noises in a car when you’re driving or riding in it, even when the radio is on? Motor noises? Wheel and tire noises? Chassis creaks?

3. Do you smell things nobody else can smell? Smoke? Gas? Cinnamon? Hominy?

4. Do perfume and cologne irritate your nose? Even the scent of shampoo in your own hair?

5. Do you see things on the periphery of your vision that no one else can see? Lights? Shadows?

6. Are you unable to sleep in an airplane seat even in Business Class?

7. Is it always too hot for you in the upper balcony at the Chicago Civic Opera House or Chicago’s O’Hare Airport? (Chicago is often freezing cold, but neither of those establishments ever is.)

8. Does an Ikea store give you a panic attack?

9. Do you prefer ATMs to live bank tellers, because they don’t ask you for personal information (such as an ID picture) to cash a check?

10. Is one Godiva chocolate too many?

My condolences, if you answered “yes” to 8 or more of these very serious questions. On second thought, my condolences if you answered “yes” to 2 or more. Gagging at the smell of cinnamon is no laughing matter.

My congratulations if you did not.

And, if you’re highly sensitive, you should avoid jury duty!