Being tall at Guadalcanal, a notorious pirate, rural noir, and the serial killer: newsletter, August 14, 2020

August 17, 2020 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, fiction, history, newsletter, podcasting, reporters, reporting, writers, writing.

This newsletter was sent to everyone on Jim’s email list (2,5xx) on Friday, August 14, 2020.


One of the things on my mind this week is the concept of respect. The thinking on that was kicked off by an NYT column by Bret Stephens on the 18th-century politician and philosopher Edmund Burke (Why Edmund Burke Still Matters). Political systems would not work very well, Burke said, unless people had good manners and acted respectfully toward one another. This means more than just being polite; it means listening and learning.
John Wesley took it further (thanks for this quote to my friend Ed W.):
Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without all doubt, we may. Herein all the children of God may unite, notwithstanding these smaller differences.
Life during the pandemic marches happily on. Our large chunk of happiness occurred this week with the birth of our first grandson, Leon McMillan Stovall. We are ecstatic.
I hope that something makes you happy or even ecstatic this weekend.

Under the newsletter’s hood: Last week’s newsletter was sent to 2,551 subscribers and had a 25.4 percent open rate; 8 persons unsubscribed.

Important: Remember to open the images or click on one of the links so that my email service will record your engagement, and you will stay active on the list. Thanks.

Richard Tregaskis, the tall guy on Guadalcanal

The Marines that he wrote about on Guadalcanal would tell Richard Tregaskis that if the Japanese captured him, they would probably use him as an “observation post.”

They weren’t far from wrong. Tregaskis, a reporter during World War II for the International News Service, was six-feet, seven-inches tall — tall enough to be an observation post or just about anything else that needed height. What he was, however, was an outstanding war reporter and writer.

Tregaskis was assigned by the INS to cover the U.S. campaign in the Solomon Islands in August 1942, and he landed with the first wave of Marines on what many would eventually describe as the closest thing to hell on earth as you could get. It was a campaign that would reverse the momentum the Japanese were riding with the bombing of Pearl Harbor ten months earlier. Tregaskis was one of two reporters to witness what happened there.

He wrote what he saw, heard, and felt. He was on the front lines, close to the fighting, and that was where he stayed for a month and a half. When he left in late September, he put his writings together in a book titled Guadalcanal Diary, in which the introduction said, ” . . . he ate, slept, and sweated with our front-line units. His story is the straight day-by-day account of what he himself saw or learned from eyewitnesses during those seven weeks.”

The manuscript was finished just a few weeks after he exited the islands, and it was quickly accepted by Random House and picked as a Book of the Month selection. The reading public loved it, and Guadalcanal Diary is still considered one of the classics of World War II reporting and is required reading for many military personnel today. Later in 1943, the book was made into a movie — a film that has continued in popularity to this day.

Tregaskis was born in New Jersey and was a championship swimmer at Harvard. After college, he worked for the Boston American, and when America entered the war, he volunteered to be a correspondent for the INS. After his time in the Pacific, he went to Italy to cover the Allied invasion there, and he was severely wounded — so badly that he was partially paralyzed and lost his power of speech. He regained it by picking up a book of poetry and painstakingly reading it aloud every day until his speech returned.

His book about the campaigns in Sicily and Italy was Invasion Diary, and he continued covering the war until its end.

He continued to cover various conflicts for the next two decades, and in 1963 he published a book about Vietnam, Vietnam Diary, that predated America’s heavy involvement in Southeast Asia.

In 1973, Tregaskis was living in Hawaii when he drowned in his swimming pool after suffering a heart attack. The helmet, gouged by shrapnel, that he wore in Italy when he was wounded in on display in the National Museum of the Marine Corps.

And then there’s rural noir

In describing the genré of noir in last week’s newsletter, I made the comment that it is usually “played out in an urban setting.” My friend Brennan L. reminds me that there is plenty of noir that happens in the countryside, and she gave me a list. I pass it on to you for your continued edification:……

The last link is an interesting list that includes The Postman Always Rings Twice by James Cain. It also has this entry:

8. The World Made Straight (2006) by Ron Rash
An acknowledged master of Appalachian fiction, Rash’s work is imbued with history and engaged with the natural world. This novel’s hero, Travis Shelton, comes of age among North Carolina tobacco and marijuana farmers in 1978. Nothing in this novel is out of place, least of all the rusty bear trap that sets the story in motion.

Take a look.

Podcast recommendation: Time to Eat the Days

Michael Robinson delves into science, history, and exploration in this interestingly named podcast, Time to Eat the Dogs, which is included under the umbrella. The latest episode is about Henry Every (pronounced Avery), the world’s most notorious pirate, and a book at which he is the center titled Enemy of All Mankind by Steven Johnson. The podcast is a 30-minute interview with Johnson about Every, the East India Company, piracy, and the way in which Johnson came to write the book. It’s all extremely interesting and well worth listening to.

Previous podcast episodes have dealt with colonialism, shipwrecks, and the physicists who played a key role in World War II. These are podcasts that will feed a hungry intellect.

The Prolific Reader. Kill the Quarterback is listed there along with some other great mysteries.”

The serial killer mastermind? Hardly

The Dark Magician. The Criminal Mastermind. The Evil Genius.

Crime novels and television portray serial killers as all of these and more. These killers understand police procedures and practices well enough to anticipate and outwit them. They cleverly select their victims using specific criteria and in a way that helps them avoid detection.

These are people, so the stories go, that had they not taken a wrong turn down an immoral path, they could have been great innovators, business tycoons, or even (ahem!) college professors.

Yet, in real life, author Catherine Ryan Howard tells us, none of that is true.

In fact, quite the opposite. Take the slick, clever, handsome Ted Bundy, for instance. Bundy murdered at least 30 young women that we know of before he was captured, tried, and executed by the state of Florida. He was consistently described in the mass media as cold, calculating, and clever beyond the normal.

The reality is very different:

His (Bundy’s) college grades were mediocre. He applied to six law schools and was only accepted into his last choice, which he would ultimately drop out of. He was a habitual shoplifter, despite his planning to become an attorney. He was always broke; (Elizabeth) Kendall (his girlfriend and companion at one point) paid for everything. He wasn’t a very good criminal either. When he travelled to kill, he left credit card receipts at gas stations like a trail of incriminating breadcrumbs. He got himself pulled over with a standard Serial Killer Kit in the car. His escape from a Colorado jail was hailed as “Houdini-like” by the press when, in reality, his jailers had been asleep at the wheel. Source: It’s Time to Demystify the Serial Killer. | CrimeReads

Ryan, the author of the recently published novel, The Nothing Man, attacks the “real-life Hannibal Lecter” syndrome head-on, making the point that serial killers such as Ted Bundy and the more recently captured Golden State Killer were able to take advantage of conditions that do not exist today.

Those of us who consume true crime must do so knowing that we are feasting on the very worst day of other people’s lives. Let’s not make it worse by mythologizing the men responsible. 

Police departments are more likely to share information, DNA is available, cell phones can track anyone who has one, and the internet aids in a variety of ways.

Serial killings may continue today, but it won’t be because they’re smart people who are able to outwit investigators. It will be because they are extraordinarily lucky.

Tennessee Vietnam War Roundtable

Regular readers of this newsletter know that for about a year and a half, I have been involved with the Blount County Public Library in a project we call Vietnam Voices. We are trying to interview all of the Vietnam veterans that we can find and build an audio archive of their stories. So far, we have interviewed more than 30 veterans and are looking for more.

A second part of that project is a transcription of some of those interviews and the publication of a book titled Vietnam Voices: Stories of Tennesseans Who Served in Vietnam, 1965-1975We published the first volume of that book last fall and are currently working on a second volume, which we hope will be out before the end of the summer.

A third part of the project is the Tennessee Vietnam War Roundtable, a monthly online meeting of those interested in what happened in Vietnam. Each month we hear from someone who served in Vietnam and through the good offices of Zoom we are able to ask questions and talk with each other about it. We just held our third roundtable this week (it’s always on the second Monday of each month), and we have been recording those meetings and putting them on YouTube.

Here’s a list of featured speakers and YouTube videos that we have produced so far:

Billy Minser, an artillery officer who was a forward observer for a combat unit in Vietnam and Cambodia: and

Bill Beaty, an attack pilot for the U.S. Navy who flew more than 150 missions in Vietnam: and

Aubrey Moncrief, a medic attached to a Green Beret unit during the Tet offensive in 1968:

I hope that you can take the time to watch one of these videos, give it a thumbs-up, and make a comment. That helps our visibility on YouTube.

It’s not about you

Via Shane Parrish, Farnham Street blog:

“Life is not about you. It’s about what you do for others. The faster you are able to get over yourself, the more you can do for the people who matter most. Yet external forces keep pulling you toward self-centered pursuits. From books pushing “happiness” to advertisements convincing you that consumption leads to adoration, these messages tempt you to focus inward. That is all a trap (and a load of crap).” Tom Rath, It’s Not About You: A Brief Guide

Dan C.: “Hammett himself had been an operative for the Pinkerton Detective Agency and had encountered his share of low-lives.” Yes, I am sure. Many of them in the Agency itself. The Pinkertons had a controversial history. They were founded in the 1850s because railroad companies felt they needed greater control over their workers. They were the model for the first Secret Service Agents (Abraham Lincoln’s private guards during the Civil War) though they fell from favor due to some of their activities and saw the passage of the Anti-Pinkerton Act in 1893.

While breaking the mold for their time by hiring minorities and women from their inception, they were also often hired as strong enforcers of Jim Crow laws in the South. In their heyday, they were the largest and most effective Private Detective agency in the country, emulated by police departments worldwide, while also not above armed conflict when it came to breaking strikes, several battles resulted in the death of agents and workers alike. To paraphrase (or is it bastardize) Charles Dickens, they were the best of people and they were the worst of people, often at the same time. They still exist as a subsidiary of AB Securitas, a Swedish firm.

Tod W.: Thanks for the segment about Double Indemnity. I’ve seen it a few times over the years and have always enjoyed it. While it might have defined “noir,” there were a few French films that were edgier since they didn’t have to adhere to the Hays Code, and were shown in “art film” theaters.

My favorite part in Indemnity was this dialog between Stanwyck and MacMurray, which previewed MacMurray’s talent for snappy repartè:
Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don’t you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty. He’ll be in then.
Walter Neff: Who?
Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him weren’t you?
Walter Neff: Yeah, I was, but l’m sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
Walter Neff: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I’d say around ninety.
Walter Neff: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Walter Neff: Suppose it doesn’t take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Walter Neff: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder.
Walter Neff: That tears it.

Eric S.: Your portrait of Girl on a Park Bench is wonderful. I especially like the subtle tones of your colors. Very nice.

Finally . . .

This week’s watercolor: Girl reading

Best quote of the week:

Patriotism is a kind of religion; it is the egg from which wars are hatched. Guy de Maupassant, short story writer and novelist (1850-1893)

Helping those in need

Fires in California, hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast, tornados in Tennessee, and now coronavirus — disasters occur everywhere. They have spread untold misery and disruption. The people affected by them need our help.

It’s not complicated. Things happen to people, and we should be ready to do all the good we can in all of the ways we can. (Some will recognize that I am paraphrasing John Wesley here).

When is the last time you gave to your favorite charity? The United Methodist Committee on Relief ( is my favorite charity. Please make a contribution to this one or to yours.

Keep reading, keep writing (especially to me), and have a great weekend.


Jim Stovall

You can connect with Jim on FacebookTwitterLinkedin, and BookBub.

His Amazon author page is where you can find more information about his books.

Last week’s newsletter: Baseball finally, the massive output of Georges Simenon, and the need for some creative thinking: newsletter, July 24, 2020


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