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Letter from Laura
January 2004


In the summer of 1999, then-City Councilman Martin O'Malley promised to reduce the annual homicide total in Baltimore to less than 175 if he were elected mayor. At that point, the numbers had been above 300 for almost a decade and the city was perennially in the top five for per-capita homicide rates. Less than 18 months later, the city rang out 2000 -- the first year of the O'Malley administration -- with a body count of 262. It was a stunning improvement, one that seemed to augur well for hitting the 175-mark by 2004. " 'If you can do it sooner, that's fine,'" Mr. O'Malley told Commissioner [Edward] Norris with a smile," according to a New York Times article posted on the city's police department's web site.

As I write this, about a week before the end of 2003, there have been at least 260 homicides in the city this year. Meanwhile, O'Malley long ago stopped smiling at Norris -- Norris left the city job in 2002 to take over the State Police, which irritated the mayor. Last month, Norris was indicted by the federal government for alleged misuse of a slush fund. (For more information on Norris's legal problems, read the indictment here. ) And O'Malley, asked if the Holy Grail of 175, was too ambitious, was quoted as saying: "No. I think we should have set the goal at zero. Our new goal is zero."

This peevish bit of spin, at once clever and soulless, provides a nice corollary to this Michael Kinsley column, which I found via About Last Night. (Although, unlike Terry, I think Kinsley has one of the highest batting averages among today's political columnists.) Good news, bad news -- politicians seem incapable of speaking frankly about some things. But O'Malley's refusal to address the failure of his campaign promise also has led me to think about the issue of resolutions, achievable and not. My own record on that score is probably as spotty as any politician's, and I have a constituency of one. Last year, I went public with a resolution about reading, only to break it within six months. (The resolution I didn't publicize in advance, however, is going strong.)

Sara Nelson did much better by her reading resolutions. Check out So Many Books, So Little Time, a chronicle of Nelson's reading choices in 2002. In interest of full disclosure, I met Nelson at a wedding this summer, and she's clearly a kindred spirit; her re-reading list in 2002 included Marjorie Morningstar and Heartburn. I also find it amusing that Time magazine described Nelson's book-a-week pace -- which she ended up surpassing -- as a "marathon." Time needs to get out more, meet the kind of readers who attend the crime cons. Still, Nelson's book is the perfect tonic for anyone who has experienced any reading-related guilt -- from not doing enough, to reading less-than-classic books, or putting down books that others love. Bonus points for hating Tuesdays with Morrie.

At any rate, I'm keeping my reading resolutions for 2003 private. (Rest assured, they are gloriously anal retentive and even less achievable than last year's.) But I am going public with a rather impromptu decision I made two months ago: I've stopped looking for trouble. More specifically, I've given up using Google to find reviews and other media mentions of my books. The fact is, good news will out -- and bad news will, too. Since I made that resolution, I've heard lots of lovely things from friends, readers and journalists, even stumbled over a cheering fact or two in a favorite blog. I am grateful to everyone who writes, whether it's to pass along a cheerful link, or to commiserate over a vicious review. And I have to include a shout-out to the RAMmers, who have provided a nice chunk of holiday cheer with their best-of-2003 lists. (Lurking in places I always lurked isn't the same as using a search engine to find web sites I'd never otherwise read.) Easy enough now, in the quiet time, but let's see if I can keep this pledge when A Spider's Thread comes out . . . well, sooner than you might think. More on that later, but it's very, very good news, IMHO. Meanwhile, let me know what you think of the title, which comes from a Talmudic proverb.

Finally, a note of gratitude to Judy Bobalik, who accurately describes herself as frighteningly well-read. Less than 24 hours after I yearned here for the opening lines of a Dan Jenkins novel, Judy sent them to me. Please remember -- the following applies to a magazine editor, not a book editor. I adore my editor at Morrow.

"Here's how I want the phony little conniving, no-talent, preppiewad asshole of an editor to die: I lace his decaf with Seconal and strap him down in such a way that his head is fastened to my desk and I thump him at cheery intervals with the carriage on my Laura's signature

Olympia standard. I'm a stubborn guy who still works on a geezer-codger manual anyhow, so I write a paragraph I admire, the kind he likes to dick around with, especially if it's my lead, then I slip the carriage at him, and whack -- he gets it in the temple, sometimes the ear. Yeah, it would be slow, but death by typewriter is what the fuckhead deserves."