Writing Lovely Moments

by James Scott Bell

Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field (1963)

I believe writers are here to “bring the light.” It’s a dark world out there and most readers, I venture to say, don’t want more of the same in their leisure hours.

By that I don’t mean we avoid the harsher edges in our fiction. Indeed, that’s what the best thrillers take us through in order to deliver us at the end.

I do mean, though, that light (e.g., hope, justice) is a powerful—even necessary—element for today’s market.

Which brings me to the subject of lovely moments.

The other night Mrs. B and I re-watched one of our favorite movies, Lilies of the Field. This 1963 gem was a low-budget production that ended up nominated for five Oscars, including Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay. Sidney Poitier took home the Best Actor prize for his performance. Lilia Skala, the Austrian actress, was nominated for her supporting role (and should have won, in my humble opinion).

It’s the story of an itinerant worker, Homer Smith (Poitier), who is driving his old station wagon across the Arizona desert. His car needs water, so he pulls into the only homestead within miles. It turns out this is the humble dwelling of five nuns who are scraping out their subsistence by growing vegetables, raising chickens, and milking one cow. The nuns do not speak much English. We learn later they escaped over the Berlin Wall and came 8,000 miles to this desolate place.

The iron-willed Mother Superior (Skala) is convinced that God has sent “Schmidt” to them for a very special purpose—to build a chapel for the poor, mostly Mexican locals to attend mass.

Mass for this community is administered outside a local hash house by a priest who works out of a motor home. In a conversation with Homer, the priest admits that when he was ordained he prayed to be called to a majestic cathedral in some wealthy diocese. Now, he notes ruefully, he has to pray that his tires don’t blow out.

Near the end, with the chapel finished, the priest is brought in to see where he will now be saying the mass. He is so moved he can hardly speak. Finally, he says to the Mother Superior, “Many years ago, I made a very vain and selfish prayer. Now He has answered my prayer through you, through many people. I pray now I become worthy of His trust. And yours.”

A lovely moment. It’s with a minor character, but it deepens the emotional impact of the entire film.

So I’ve been thinking about how to add such moments to our fiction. Here are two prompts:

  1. Where can your Lead show mercy?

One of the best examples of this type of moment is from, not surprisingly, Casablanca. A desperate young wife asks Rick to answer the most important question in her life. She and her husband, refugees from Bulgaria, are desperate to get out of Casablanca, but need exit visas signed by the French police captain, Louis Renault. These visas cost serious money. The husband is trying to raise it in the gambling room, but is losing. The wife, however, has been approached by Louis (offscreen) with his standard offer—if she will sleep with him, he will grant the couple their visas.

Casablanca (1942, Warner Bros.)

The young wife wants to know if Renault is a man of his word. Rick knows immediately why she’s asking. He tells her, with cynical disdain, that yes, he’s a man of his word.

Then the wife wants to know something else:

“Monsieur, you are a man. If someone loved you very much, so that your happiness was the only thing that she wanted in the world, and she did a bad thing to make certain of it…could you forgive her?”

Bitterly, Rick says, “Nobody ever loved me that much.”

She goes on: “And he never knew, and the girl kept this bad thing locked in her heart, that would be all right, wouldn’t it?”

“You want my advice?”

“Yes, please.”

“Go back to Bulgaria.”

But a few minutes later Rick goes to the roulette table and suggests the husband bet everything on 22. The croupier picks up the cue, and 22 wins. Rick says, “Leave it there.” And 22 wins again.

Rick tells the husband, “Now cash it in and don’t come back.”

A lovely moment. So lovely that when the Russian bartender hears what Rick has done, he rushes over to give Rick a kiss on the cheek!

This is also what I call a “Pet the Dog” beat, which is where the Lead forgets for a moment his own troubles in order to help someone who is weak or vulnerable. He doesn’t have to do so. Indeed, his action puts him in jeopardy (Louis begins to suspect Rick is not as neutral as he claims to be). But the action bonds us deeply to the Lead, compelling us to read on.

  1. Where can your Lead be shown mercy?

Les Misérables (1935, 20th Century Pictures)

Who can forget the mercy shown to Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables? When the ex-convict is fed by a kind priest, Valjean repays him by stealing a basket of silverware. He doesn’t get very far before the gendarmes nab him and drag him back to the priest’s abode. They have caught him red-handed with stolen silver! Now all the priest has to do is make a complaint and Valjean will be back in prison forever. They are not prepared for what the priest does next:

“Ah! here you are!” he exclaimed, looking at Jean Valjean. “I am glad to see you. Well, but how is this? I gave you the candlesticks too, which are of silver like the rest, and for which you can certainly get two hundred francs. Why did you not carry them away with your forks and spoons?”

Jean Valjean opened his eyes wide, and stared at the venerable Bishop with an expression which no human tongue can render any account of.

“Monseigneur,” said the brigadier of gendarmes, “so what this man said is true, then? We came across him. He was walking like a man who is running away. We stopped him to look into the matter. He had this silver—”

“And he told you,” interposed the Bishop with a smile, “that it had been given to him by a kind old fellow of a priest with whom he had passed the night? I see how the matter stands. And you have brought him back here? It is a mistake.”

“In that case,” replied the brigadier, “we can let him go?”

“Certainly,” replied the Bishop.

The priest then gets the silver candlesticks and hands them to a bewildered Jean Valjean.

“Now,” said the Bishop, “go in peace. By the way, when you return, my friend, it is not necessary to pass through the garden. You can always enter and depart through the street door. It is never fastened with anything but a latch, either by day or by night.”

Then, turning to the gendarmes—

“You may retire, gentlemen.”

This is, of course, the great turning point in Valjean’s life. And an unforgettable moment in a classic novel.

What lovely moments in books or films are memorable to you?


Eugene Francois Vidocq and the Origins of Criminology

Photo credit – Jin Zan, Creative Commons license


By Debbie Burke


While casting about for today’s topic, I ran across an article about the Nigerian Prince scam, mentioning its origins could be traced back to early 19th century to the “Spanish prisoner” confidence game.

Spanish prisoner? What the heck is that?

Down the research rabbit hole I tumbled. 

In that vintage fraud, a con artist would contact a target, claiming a relative was being held prisoner in Spain and needed money to secure the prisoner’s release. If the target turned over money, the fraudster promised that, once free, the grateful prisoner would bestow generous rewards on the benefactor.

Of course, there was no prisoner and the only reward went to the fraudster who convinced the hapless victim to pay him/her money.

In more recent times, the scam evolved and is known as Pigeon Drop, Nigerian Prince, or 419 (the section of the Nigerian Criminal Code that describes that fraud).

What caught my eye in the article was the name Eugene Francois Vidocq, who’d recounted the Spanish Prisoner scam in his early 19th century memoir. I’d previously read about The Vidocq Society, an organization of former law enforcement personnel who reexamine cold cases.

Achille Devéria (1800-1857). Portrait d’Eugène Vidocq (1775-1857), aventurier et chef de la police de sûreté. Lithographie. Paris, musée Carnavalet.

But who was this man behind the group’s name?

Farther down the hole, I veered onto a side trail.

Eugene Francois Vidocq (1775-1857) was a French criminal. He started his dubious career as a teenager by stealing from his well-to-do parents. His father had him arrested and jailed for theft to teach his wayward son a lesson. However, two weeks in the pokey didn’t temper young Vidocq’s propensity for larceny.

A charming ladies man and skilled fencer, Vidocq was smart and wily but also lazy. He wanted money but earning it was too much trouble. He drifted through his misspent youth, deserted from the military, and continued to commit minor crimes.

Prison advanced Vidocq’s education. During his frequent jail stays, he evidently studied techniques from fellow inmates which gave him an in-depth understanding of the criminal mind. He learned forgery (he successfully forged pardons for other prisoners), how to fence stolen goods, and the art of impersonation. For one escape, he stole a nun’s habit to disguise himself and walked out of the prison hospital.

Perhaps the most valuable knowledge Vidocq acquired while incarcerated was human psychology. He understood how to gain someone’s confidence and trust as well as how to play on their dreams, desires, and greed…to his own advantage.

On the run after escaping from prison, he adopted aliases and hid out for several years. His various lovers and his mother helped him elude the authorities. He was a conniving scoundrel who charmed people even though he shamelessly used them for selfish reasons. When cornered or caught, he somehow cajoled them into giving him another chance.

An arrest in 1809 changed the course of Vidocq’s career. To avoid conviction, he offered to become a police informant and was sent to jail as a spy. He became a successful snitch because other prisoners respected his reputation. He’d perfected the ability to gain their confidence and use that trust against them.

Who better to catch a criminal than another criminal?

As Vidocq entered middle age, he’d finally found a niche to put his unique talents to work, eventually becoming known as the father of modern criminology with his revolutionary techniques.

In 1811, Vidocq organized an unofficial plainclothes police unit of secret agents. They soon were granted official status under the name Brigade de la Surete. In 1813, Napoleon proclaimed the state security police group as the Surete Nationale, with Vidocq at the helm.

He recruited agents who were often criminals from his past, sometimes straight out of prison, except now they worked for the law enforcement rather than against it.

Professional ethics were flexible with some agents foregoing a regular salary in lieu of favors, like licenses for gambling establishments they owned. Like his staff, Vidocq also  operated a side business, a private detective agency, likely the first in history. He earned fees for that work in addition to his salary.

According to Wikipedia:

Vidocq persuaded his superiors to allow his agents, who also included women, to wear plain clothes and disguises depending on the situation. Thus, they did not attract attention and, as former criminals, also knew the hiding places and methods of criminals. Through their contacts, they often learned of planned crimes and were able to catch the guilty red-handed. Vidocq also had a different approach to interrogation. In his memoirs, he mentions several times that he did not take those arrested to prison immediately, but invited them to dinner, where he chatted with them. In addition to information about other crimes, he often obtained confessions in this non-violent way and recruited future informants and even agents.

By 1820, Vidocq and his group brought about a substantial decrease in the crime rate in Paris.

However political changes led to friction with his superiors. After official reprimands, he resigned in 1827.

Vidocq had become a wealthy man, now married to his third wife. He bought a paper factory and employed ex-cons, a scandalous practice that caused public outcry. But business problems and his wife’s medical bills led to bankruptcy in 1831. Turns out he was a more successful investigator than an entrepreneur.

He returned to law enforcement work but rivalries with other departments, jealousy, questionable tactics, and political pressure eventually caused him to leave the Surete for good.

In 1833, he founded a combination detective agency and private security force called the Office of Information (Le Bureau des Renseignements). Using index cards, he established what would now be called a criminal database, which recorded personal information, aliases, convictions, and handwriting samples of thousands of people.

Photo credit: George Evans, Unsplash

Vidocq built the foundation for what became the field of criminology. He revolutionized police techniques, introducing undercover operations that included women. He set up a laboratory for scientific experiments, a precursor to the field of forensics. He used plaster casts to preserve footprint evidence. He invented indelible ink and tamperproof paper to prevent check forgery. He developed ballistic testing to prove whether or not a projectile had been fired from a particular firearm.

He also published several memoirs. His exploits and notoriety captured public attention, including that of authors Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Honore de Balzac, and Edgar Allen Poe. All of them modeled fictional characters on Vidocq’s adventures as both a criminal and criminalist. Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert in Les Miserables are the best-known examples.

Despite Vidocq’s success bringing perpetrators to justice, his ongoing connections with criminals and ex-cons kept him under continuous scrutiny by police and politicians. He was arrested and jailed several more times for alleged fraud, corruption of public officials, and pretension of public functions. Ultimately the charges were dismissed.

Additionally, he made poor investments, was involved in expensive lawsuits, and remained a ladies man, further depleting his bank account. At the time of his death in 1857 at the age of 81, he was nearly broke. Nevertheless, eleven women and one stepson made claims on his estate.

The Vidocq Society was founded in 1990, named to honor the man who is widely recognized as the father of modern criminology. The Society meets monthly in Philadelphia to review cold case homicides and offer pro-bono assistance to law enforcement to investigate old crimes.

I originally started down the rabbit hole looking up a con game. But I also stumbled into the history of early developments that shaped modern criminology and forensics.

Research is so darn much fun.


Note: Apologies to French speakers for missing accent marks, cedillas and circumflexes. I don’t know how to insert them in Word Press.

TKZers: What favorite tidbit have you discovered on a side trip that led you astray from your original research quest?


Cover design by Brian Hoffman


In Debbie Burke’s latest thriller, Flight to Forever, investigator Tawny Lindholm tumbles down a hole into danger and death during her search for a pair of aging fugitives hiding out in a remote mountaintop fire lookout.

Buy Flight to Forever at these links:

Kindle                Other online outlets