Only at the Gaithersburg Book Festival: $10 copies of Freedom City!

You read it. The paperback retails online for $14.99, and I’m marking them down to $10 for the Gaithersburg Book Festival on Saturday, May 19th.

“Why is he doing this?” you ask. “Is Philip Becnel insane?”

Yes, but that’s not the reason, which is actually trifold.

First, my two teenagers will be helping me at the fair, and since I’m not paying them (it builds character) I can afford to be generous. Don’t worry about the kids. I’ll buy them some ice cream. They’ll be fine.

Second, Freedom City is in the midst of a cover re-design by none other than famed illustrator David Foldvari, known for his work in The New York Times and The Guardian, among other places. I therefore need to lighten my inventory of books bearing the indie cover. These first editions are bound to become collector’s items, so it’s a bargain any way you look at it.

Third, the Gaithersburg Book Festival will be my first foray as the author of a vehemently anti-Trump novel outside of New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. Although Freedom City has sold online throughout the world, I’ve done exactly zero outreach or advertising beyond the major metropoles east of the Mississippi River. I therefore thought it fitting to humble myself before the book-loving masses of exurban Marylanders. Besides discounting the book a bit, I plan on dialing back my natural hipster aesthetic to an unpretentious “6.”

Besides a great novel and a couple sullen teenagers, I’ll also bring a few copies of the non-fiction books that helped make me a name in the investigations community: Introduction to Conducting Private Investigations and Principles of Investigative Documentation.

Anyway, I’m super excited about the Festival and am looking forward to shaking a few hands, signing a few books, and otherwise rubbing elbows with many interesting folks.

See you there!

 

 

Back to investigating

I published my anti-Trump satire Freedom City back in December, after about a year of being on a sabbatical from my private investigations business. The buzz over the book has been amazing, the reviews phenomenal. Just in the past few weeks, bloggers have written:

“… a truly unique and one of a kind novel…” – Anthony Avina

“… following in the footsteps of giants…” – Michael Jay Tucker

“Richly descriptive, blunt, poignant, funny, complex, beautifully textured, and brilliantly scripted. How many more adjectives can I throw at this fine novel?!” – Bradley Knox

Despite these amazing accolades, sales haven’t yet afforded me the luxury of prolonging my sabbatical indefinitely, which means it’s back to the grindstone until this book or the next one takes off. In the meantime, I figured it might be fun for fans of Freedom City to know a bit more about what I do when I’m not writing fiction.

I began working as a private investigator in 1999, the year I graduated from college. At that time, I mainly worked court appointed cases for indigent criminal defendants under the Criminal Justice Act. That work primarily involves finding and interviewing witnesses. You meet lots of interesting characters and there is a ton of writing too, as everything must be meticulously documented.

As I gained experience, I stopped accepting court appointed cases and over the next decade or so worked as an investigator on civil cases, primarily plaintiff-side employment litigation and qui tam (whistleblower) claims under the False Claims Act. These cases are fundamentally the same from an investigator’s standpoint: find people, interview them, write reports. I formed a partnership with some other great investigators in 2004, and my little business grew into perhaps the most esteemed private investigations firm in Washington, D.C.

Over the past several years, I returned to working court appointed cases, specifically death penalty defense in Virginia. After nearly 20 years as a private investigator, I know I’m well suited for these high-stakes cases, which are both extremely challenging and also very rewarding. I’m at the top of my game, and I love the work.

But I won’t lie. I’d rather write books and pass my company onto my more junior investigators. I’ve worked on more murder cases than I can remember, not to mention countless other cases involving people doing shitty things to each other. It’s taxing on the soul.

So, I’m hoping that enough people will love my book, review it kindly, tell their friends, and that ultimately I can turn this writing gig into something of a livable wage.

Until then, I’ll continue investigating. There are certainly worse ways to make a living.

 

 

I reject thee, fake history

In a recent blog article titled Daddy issues in the Trump era I explained my surprise at realizing how much the estrangement from my father had seeped into my anti-Trump dystopian novel Freedom City.

FD’s father, who he idolized, died from cancer. Joe simply rejected his abusive father, who he loathed. The common denominator is that both their dads were irrevocably gone. In retrospect, it’s plain how this theme found its way into my story, because I haven’t talked to my own father since before Trump’s inauguration.

Last week I was interviewed on Takoma Radio WOWD-LP as part of the “Walking on the Moon” show hosted by Dr. Danny Griffin—a clinical psychologist—who asked me about the impetus for writing Freedom City. Talk veered to my upbringing in New Orleans, and Danny asked some probing questions, which unearthed memories I had long ago buried.

It was only after I read the following passage from Freedom City, and after Danny asked about my personal relationship with Confederate statues and whether compromise between those who revere and those who detest them is possible, that a troubling memory returned to me:

On the day his father’s eyes closed for the last time, FD spent the night clandestinely painting a mural beneath the John Philip Sousa Bridge. It was a portrait of his father as FD remembered him in the days before his death, before his raspy breathing stopped and the machine keeping him alive began its wailing, futile alarm.

When a cop on the bridge yelled and shone a light down on him, he dove into the Anacostia River. Submerged in the currents that whisked him away, he screamed beneath the water in the agony of sorrow—and continued screaming, barely attempting to swim, until the river dumped him, like a corpse, at Anacostia Park. There, he pulled himself onto the grass, stared up at the sky, and tried to imagine what life would be like without his father. It was unfathomable.

Two years later, it was still unfathomable.

The following day, FD skipped school. He continued skipping for two weeks. His professors called him. He had been on the dean’s list, on his way to becoming a brilliant engineer. Encouraged by his father, FD had once yearned to build something important and beautiful. He ignored his professors’ calls. With his father gone he couldn’t imagine anything more important and beautiful than a simple mural honoring his memory. And he didn’t need to go to school for that.

Now, clad in a white Tyvek suit that covered him from head to toe, he admired his first engineering marvel. Was it beautiful? It was certainly not art, even in a loose sense, but there was beauty in its purpose. Was it important? Well, that depended on whether it worked or not. He was about to find out, for Stanley Congdon’s confirmation hearing was scheduled to start in ten minutes.

Also in a Tyvek suit, mopping perspiration from his forehead with a rag, Beach read off an inventory of their captured Confederate heads. “Four Robert E. Lees, a Jefferson Davis, a John S. Mosby, two Stonewall Jacksons, a JEB Stuart, and a Nathan Bedford Forrest—”

“The Klan’s first goddamned Grand Wizard,” Clare said from atop the wooden ladder, which reached all the way to what had once been the attic.

“Right.” Beach rolled over one of the Robert E. Lees with his Tyvek-shod toe.

“Don’t forget the six anonymous soldiers’ heads,” FD said.

For the past week, Joe had meticulously hollowed out the inside of the heads with a Dremel tool, so each would weigh exactly twenty pounds. This decreased the counterweight they needed. It was Clare who realized, once she climbed the ladder, that from the roof they could see the tip of the slave-built “Statue of Freedom” standing atop the Capitol dome. Using a laser distance finder and a surveyor’s theodolite, they aligned their trebuchet perfectly with the crest of feathers on the statue’s helmet and knew the distance down to a few feet.

“Jack, you copy?” Clare said into the radio.

“Copy,” Joe’s voice replied into their earpieces. “I’m in position. Just give me a heads up—harhar—and fire away.”

FD took another moment to admire his masterpiece. As a counterweight they had used nearly fifty flat, iron plates strapped into a metal harness he had welded together himself. The plates were the kind commonly found in gyms, each weighing forty-five pounds. Altogether their counterweight was over two thousand pounds, which (he thought) was heavy enough to propel the bronze heads into the Capitol dome. The harness was designed so they could take out or add weight, as necessary, to make their missiles fall farther or shorter.

They couldn’t, however, change the trajectory, since the trebuchet was built into the shell of the house. In order to align their payload beam—a repurposed, thirty-foot light pole—with the dome, they had had to build it slightly off kilter from the frame of the house. If any part of his calculations were wrong, they would miss the dome every time, and there was nothing they could do about it.

Clare came down the ladder. “Are you guys sure these things aren’t going to hit someone?”

FD loaded one of Robert E. Lee heads into the trebuchet’s sling. “I’m not sure of nothing, but the dome’s made of cast iron and we’re a long way away.”

“If we kill anyone it will be God’s fault,” Beach said.

“You don’t believe in God.”

“All the same.”

Clare shrugged and walked to the backdoor. Unlike FD and Beach, she was wearing workout clothes. “I’ll take my place now.” She disappeared behind the plywood.

As Clare got settled into her lookout spot down the block, FD and Beach turned the trebuchet’s wench. The arms of the wench were six-feet, steel stop-sign tubes, providing the leverage to lift the great weight. With one person using his bodyweight to pull downward, and the other pushing upward on the other side with all his strength, they painstakingly lifted the counterweight until it was at a forty-five-degree angle from the payload beam. Once there, FD placed a hook onto the end of the beam, which spanned the length of the house.

“Queen in position,” came Clare over the radio. “All clear.”

“Copy that,” Joe said.

FD held the sledgehammer out to Beach. “This was your idea, so you should take the first swing.”

Beach waved his hand. “Please, this is your creation. You go first.”

FD hefted the hammer over his shoulder, preparing to swing and knock the hook loose from the beam. At that, the counterweight would drop, the payload beam would shoot through the roof, and the sling would release the head, which would then soar nearly eight hundred feet—hopefully straight through the Capitol dome…

Danny’s question about compromise over Confederate statues vis-à-vis my family triggered a memory of my grandmother, who died some years ago. When I was around nine years old, she spoke to me with great adoration for the once-prominent statue of Robert E. Lee in downtown New Orleans. The fact that it faced north, she claimed, was controversial, since it appeared Lee was “turning his back” on the South. However, she disagreed with this viewpoint, because to her he appeared to be standing up to (fight) the North. Besides, if they’d constructed it the other way, it would look like he was running away.

If you’re perplexed about how something so ridiculous could be more of a controversy than the fact that Lee fought an armed rebellion against the United States over the right to own human beings, I’m totally with you. The point is that this statue obviously meant a lot to my grandmother and the rest of my family, some of who still jerk off about the Civil War.

Before this statue was ultimately removed last year, after being declared a “public nuisance,” I’d passed by it a thousand times. I took it for granted, never connecting it to my grandmother’s lesson or caring which way it faced. To me it was simply a hunk of metal I passed on the streetcar that signified just a few more blocks to the French Quarter. It was there long before I was nine, and I assumed it would remain there forever.

I don’t want to pick on my grandmother, who was otherwise a warm and amazing woman, but when I think back on that interaction now, as a (somewhat) rational adult, it enrages me that this fake history, unbeknownst to me, occupied real estate in my brain for so long. How many similar statues—and streets, and schools, and other monuments to the Confederacy—do we pass every day, believing that they’re imputable, just part of the landscape? How many other children were indoctrinated to believe that the only controversy is which way the inanimate object faces, and not that it’s an overtly racist symbol?

At Danny’s highly perceptive question, I faltered. It was a lot to process on live radio. As someone partially raised (raised partially?) in the South, I recognize that the topic obviously has deep roots. Thinking about it after the show, however, I regret not simply echoing the sentiments expressed by the courageous characters in Freedom City. No, I don’t think compromise is possible, because white Southerners have had their heads up their asses on this topic since at least 1865. And by “white Southerners,” I’m including my grandparents, just about every member of my father’s family—even me. Fuck those statues. Tear them down.

There’s no reason to equivocate.

The next time I’m asked about Confederate monuments, I’ll paraphrase the words of Beach Sands, notorious King of the Fearless Vampire Killers.

Beach stood clear and held the radio’s button down: “One head of Robert E. Lee, traitor, notorious human trafficker, failed general—we reject thee, fake history. Return to sender!”

 

 

Something good

The brown mouse lived in a hole in the wall beneath the pantry, minding his own business, until one day a man came and patched up the hole with foam. Trapped within the cavity, with no other exits, he chewed the foam. It only made him sick, and thirsty, and so with no water he grew weaker and weaker, collapsing softly in the corner, resigned to die alone.

“Why the gloom snout?” said a cockroach, who had popped her antennae from beneath a miniscule crack along the wall.

The mouse groaned. “The foam. Can’t you see? They’ve trapped me in here, all because they’re too greedy to share their scraps. Do I eat so much that I deserved to die like this?”

The cockroach pulled herself through and put one of her six legs on the mouse’s paw. “There, there. Perhaps I can help in some way. You see, I am smaller and therefore able to slip through the wall.”

“But how could you bring me water. Your feet can’t hold water, which is what I need most. Even talking, like we’re talking now, is making my mouth so dry. I fear it won’t be long now before I shrivel up and turn to dust.”

“You are right, brown mouse, that I can’t bring you water.” The cockroach turned to scurry back through the crack.

“But wait,” said the mouse. “Please don’t just leave me here. I don’t want to die alone. You might keep me company.”

The cockroach chuckled. “Nobody’s ever expressed any interest in my company before. They usually scream and try to kill me. Why, just the other day a woman tried to crush me with a shoe.”

“We are the same, although more often than not people run from me. Running from someone so small! Can you imagine such a thing?”

“It is a cruel world.”

The mouse yawned. “Indeed, a cruel world, and now I’m afraid its time for me to close my eyes.”

“Good night then,” said the cockroach, again turning to leave.

“Before you leave though,” said the mouse, “please tell me something good, something that will make my passing less odious.”

“Well, okay then.” The cockroach came closer and looked into the mouse’s sad eyes. “You were the nicest mouse I’ve ever met. The only one, if truth be told. For the rest of my life, kind mouse—for the next two weeks or so—I shall always remember our time together.” The cockroach wrapped her two front legs around the mouse’s snout and kissed it on the tip of its nose. “You are my friend.”

“And you mine.”

At that, the mouse closed his eyes and fell asleep.

 

 

 

Fuck the NRA

I cried at times during yesterday’s March for Life in Washington, D.C. These kids watched their friends’ bodies get blown apart by a military-style weapon legally purchased by an extremely troubled 19-year-old. It was heartening to witness so much appropriate outrage in the wake of the latest (among far too many) school massacres and other gun-related deaths in America. One teenage Parkland survivor got so nervous reading her speech she threw up on the podium—then pulled herself together and finished anyway.

If that’s not inspiring, then I don’t know the meaning of the word.

Although I’d say I’m very liberal in most ways, I admit that I was a late proponent of stricter gun laws. I own a handgun. My reasons for hedging for so many years on gun control are complicated, but the bottom line is that I’ve now come to see my former position for what it was: the copout of a man who values his toys over the lives of kids I don’t know.

The way I see it, this position is no longer morally tenable.

I live in D.C., where I had to undergo a background check and register my guns. It’s illegal to possess an AR-15 here. I can still shoot recreationally at the range whenever I want to, protect my home—you know, do whatever legal stuff gun owners like to do with their guns.

But the NRA and the cowardly fuck-bags who support them see even these meager limits to gun ownership as deal-breakers. They’re staunchly against registration, they think bans on any particular type of weapon short of fully automatic is an unbearable government infringement, and they insist on leaving gaping loopholes for background checks at gun shows and other private (read, brokered-on-the-internet) firearms transactions.

Their stated reason for holding these positions, based on nothing more than conspiratorial speculation, is that any regulation, no matter how reasonable, must be the first step to banning guns, and therefore the only solution is to allow thousands of Americans to die every year while doing absolutely nothing.

Speaking as a former moron on this topic, if you buy into the NRA’s position, then a) You’re also a fucking moron, and b) You should take a hard look at why those pieces of metal in your closet are so important to you.

I submit that if you’re honest with yourself, as I was, you’ll see that the path forward is abundantly clear.

Fuck the NRA.

 

 

Daddy issues in the Trump era

The other day a journalist asked me what parts of my anti-Trump satire Freedom City are true. Do I advocate violence or revolution? Am I a cuckold like Beach Sands? Was I a skinhead like Joseph Kaline? Do I make bombs in my spare time?

It’s fiction, I told her, but the underlying themes are true.

Asked for an example, I blurted out that two of my characters have “daddy issues”—something I didn’t even realize until the words left my mouth

For one character, Langston “FD” Hamdi, his father’s death upended his education and spurred him to becoming a graffiti artist. “With his father gone he couldn’t imagine anything more important and beautiful than a simple mural honoring his memory. And he didn’t need to go to school for that.”

For Joseph Kaline, a former Nazi skinhead, it was an epiphany about his father that made him turn his life around and renounce bigotry: “[For] the first time in Joe’s life he realized what an ignorant, homicidal asshole he had become, just like his father.”

When I created these characters with such different backgrounds I didn’t recognize what they have in common. FD’s father, who he idolized, died from cancer. Joe simply rejected his abusive father, who he loathed. The common denominator is that both their dads were irrevocably gone. In retrospect, it’s plain how this theme found its way into my story, because I haven’t talked to my own father since before Trump’s inauguration.

I know I’m not alone. With Trump’s most fervent base consisting primarily of white male Baby Boomers—the FOX “News” crowd—many of us born to these men are having our relationships tested. I’ve lost count how many friends have told me that they too have limited or cut off contact with their fathers for the same reason.

I certainly can’t speak for every progressive person who’s in the same situation, but I can describe my own turning point.

A graduate of the Naval Academy, successful, seemingly intelligent, in many ways my father is an admirable man. Now that he’s retired, he brews beer, which he drinks on his porch with a handyman named Rabbit. My father is generous, often funny, and he spoils his grandchildren. He’s also a far-right conservative—always has been—and so when he and Rabbit are drinking beer on the porch you might hear him parroting those FOX “News” taking points we’re all so sick of hearing about: entitlements, Obama, the liberal media, her emails, etc.

There was a time when I believed much of what he said, because he’s my dad and I once looked up to him. I didn’t know any better. By the time I finished college, however, I realized that his political views are more or less insane. Still, I assumed these whacky opinions were harmless. Everyone is entitled to his own beliefs, right? During the Republican primaries, my dad commented that he would vote for “the Donald.” I laughed. I assumed that was the appropriate response.

We all know how the election turned out.

And this is where my father’s beliefs went from being insane hypotheticals to an assault on my family and me. “The Donald”—big surprise—is a monster. The ways in which he’s destabilizing our democracy are countless, and I don’t want to delve into all of them here. The point is that, unlike the mere ephemeral rants of a man brainwashed by FOX “News,” now I have to worry about things like:

  • Will my elderly mother (divorced from my father when I was four), who is on untold medicines to prevent pulmonary embolisms, see cuts to her Medicare that could impact her health or even kill her?
  • Will my son, now fourteen, be drafted into the military in four years to fight whatever war Trump starts with his flippant tweets?
  • Will my partner and I, who live within sight of the U.S. Capitol, be incinerated in a nuclear blast because Trump refuses to read his daily intelligence briefs?
  • Will my son or my daughter, almost thirteen, be murdered at school by some psychopath in a Trump hat who was able to get a gun without a background check?
  • Should either of my kids be gay, will they be permitted to marry their partners? Will they be subject to legally sanctioned harassment and discrimination?
  • Should my daughter ever be raped and become pregnant, will she be forced to raise her rapist’s child because of Trump’s extremist judicial appointments?
  • When or if my kids have children—hopefully a very long time from now—will the United States even be a democracy anymore?

I can go on and on, but you get the point. These were not questions I took seriously before. Now they keep me up at night—and I mean that literally; I literally stare at the ceiling and worry my family is going to die. This is to say nothing about the racism, the sexism, the brazen corruption, and the hypocrisy.

And this takes me back to my father and to all the other white male Baby Boomers who helped carry Trump into the White House. I guess the clincher was my realization that an intelligent man can’t possibly be both a Trump supporter and a good person. For me, Trump’s election was when my perception of my father as an admirable or “good” person, like FD’s father, effectively died. Like Joe Kaline, I’ve chosen to limit my contact with what remains, because I can’t help but see that man as a willing accomplice in the existential threat against my mother, my children, my partner, my friends, my community, and every other thing that I love.

From a strictly emotional standpoint, I suppose, every word of Freedom City is true. Within its pages, my “daddy issues”—among other afflictions—are laid bare. I just didn’t see them until after the book was written.

 

The unusual, the aberrant, the saucy—and the lowbrow? My next reading will be in Chicago!

The adrenaline rush has barely subsided from my D.C. launch in January and my Brooklyn launch in February. Both events had upwards of thirty attendees. Online sales have been fantastic. The enthusiasm for Freedom City has been amazing!

Amid all this excitement, I’m thrilled to announce that my next reading will be at Quimby’s Bookstore in Chicago on June 22nd! They’re located at 1854 W. North Avenue, Chicago, Illinois 60622. The reading will start at 7 p.m. There is a Facebook page for the event here.

“We favor the unusual, the aberrant, the saucy, and the lowbrow,” reads Quimby’s website.

Although I think no novel that uses the word “kakistocracy” in its description can truly be called lowbrow, the other parts—unusual, aberrant, and saucy—certainly describe my book. Freedom City is foremost about an unusual band of rebels who join together in the year after Donald Trump’s death to wage a guerilla war against fascism in America. “But all revolutions are inherently internal,” as pointed out by one of the book’s four main characters, Langston “FD” Hamdi. The characters’ personal and sexual relationships are sticky. These relationships, which manifest in some frank and arguably aberrant sexual encounters, affect their choices throughout the novel.

A couple people who’ve reviewed me on Amazon have felt it necessary to point out some of my book’s, um, saucy content.

One person, who goes by the initials AM, wrote “… Becnel is a talented writer with creative imagination and a sharp wit, making for an entertaining read. Note there is some explicit content, for mature readers.”

“It is a fast read that I couldn’t put down,” wrote another reviewer with the initials JAF. “My only word of caution for some is that there are some graphic sex scenes (although no rape or violence – it is all consensual) that some might find off putting.”

I note, however, that these were both 5-star reviews.

Anyway, I can’t promise lowbrow, but I’m looking forward to celebrating the unusual, the aberrant, and the saucy at Quimby’s Bookstore this summer. If you’re in Chicago and want to come check me out, please follow me on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram for the latest news leading up to the event.

I hope to see you there!