Vault technology and Banks

A 1931 ad for a vent that can save Bank Vault prisoners’ lives!

Time to do some thinking about the technology of bank vaults… specifically in the time period I am setting this case in – August 1931.

By the way, the image on the left is from a blog called ModernMechanix that you really should check out for some really cool images from old magazines.

BANKS in 1931
Banking in 1931 as a result of now being a couple years into the Great Depression was a scary place. According to many sources, banks were going under left-right-and-center, and according to the Bank of England site:

In 1931 the United Kingdom left the gold standard; its gold and foreign exchange reserves were transferred to the Treasury. But their management was still handled by the Bank and this remains the case today.

Different banks reacted to this economic downturn in different ways, but out of the so-called ‘big-five’ in the UK, Westminister Bank seems to have fared amongst the best. Westminister Bank no longer exists, having been merged with National Provincial Bank in 1970. According to the RBS history page, “…by 1939 there were 1,100 branches,” so that works for my story well.

Time locks became common in the late 1800s, and by the early 1900s, banks had figured out how to stop robbers from using nitroglycerin to burn through their locks. Interestingly, as a result of the economic crisis, banks in the 1920s began building very thick vaults as much as to deter robbers as to stop the angry mobs of unemployed and indigent.

Despite the new security measures, these vaults were still vulnerable to yet another new invention, the cutting torch. Burning oxygen and acetylene gas at about 6,000 °F (3,300 °C), the torch could easily cut through steel. It was in use as early as 1907, but became widespread with World War I. Robbers used cutting torches in over 200 bank robberies in 1924 alone. Manufacturers learned to sandwich a copper alloy into vault doors. If heated, the high thermal conductivity of copper dissipates the heat to prevent melting or burning. After this design improvement, bank burglaries fell off and were far less common at the end of the 1920s than at the beginning of the decade. – Wikipedia

Surprisingly, there are several Vault and Lock Manufacturers that have been around for a hundred years (much of this is taken from this website called The Definitive List of Safe Manufacturers):

Allied Safe and Vault: This Company’s origins go back to 1902 in Spokane and in 1948 they became Allied Safe and Vault. They were very successful in the postwar banking boom as suppliers of secure technology. Their watchwords are “Peace of mind” and they work hard to keep their customers on the technological edge. For general home-use safes, they have products like; composite safes and their insulated vault doors. For commercial use they offer products like: the TL-15 & 1L-30 burglary & fire resistant safes and the composite TR-30X6/TRTL-30X6. For the hospitality sector they offer hotel safes and related products. Allied Safe and Vault also offers gun safes and products for banks such as deal drawers.

Phoenix Safe: One of the oldest safe manufacturers in the United Kingdom, they can trace their origins back to 1799 in Liverpool where they built strongboxes for merchant fleets. Today they are recognized around the world for their secure products. In their burglary protection line, they have such products as the Phoenix Imperial 980 series and the Saracen 920 series. For fire protection they have such safes as the Fire Fighter 500 series and the Olympian 1200/1230 series. It you’re interested in data protection, they have the DATACARE 2000 series and the DATA COMMANDER 4620 series.

Browning: A household name for American firearms, this company has been in business since 1927. It was founded to market the non-military firearm designs of the world’s most prolific arms inventor, John Browning. It is currently a subsidiary of Fabrique Nationale De Herstal. They also manufacture gun safes. Their Premium line offers the Gold,Platinum Plus, Medallion and Silver series. They also have less expensive Value Safes and Specialty Safes. Browning also offers safe accessories for upkeep and care

Schwab Corp: Founded in 1872 in Lafayette, Indiana; Schwab is a globally respected manufacturer of security products. For over 136 years they’ve been setting the standard for customer service and they have the most respected dealership network in the United States. In 2004 they introduced their patented Insulite insulation process which increased overall protection of fire files by 300%. In 2008 they were acquired by SentrySafe. Their product lines include; record safes, vault & safe room doors, media & data safes and their Schwab fire file cabinets.

I’m leaning towards using the Phoenix safe manufacturers for obvious reasons as they were based in the UK. At the time they were called the “Milners Safe Company of Liverpool” and according to the company website, were “among the best known British safe manufacturers from the 1850’s through to the 1970’s, when rationalisation of the safe industry led to the loss of many of the traditional manufacturers.”

This, my friends, is going to be a fun scene to write. Allons-y!

Writing about suicide

In J-school (I graduated from the University of Western Ontario’s Masters program in Journalism) we spent a few lectures on covering suicides. It was one of those subjects that caused a lot of discussion inside the classroom and even more so after we left it. The basic question of how seriously to take the idea that covering a suicide gave the public the idea that they too could do ‘it,’ was one that continued to be debated in the various newsrooms I was hired in to.

I am cognizant of that [essentially] unanswered question as I start writing this latest casebook for Portia Adams. I am in no way ‘covering’ a suicide since this is fiction, but the basics of the case Portia is working on revolves around suicide and more specifically, a critical look at the psychological profile of a suicidal person.

Virginia Woolf
Virginia Woolf: ‘One day she is “sunk fathoms deep”, another trying to keep afloat in a “great lake of melancholy”.’ Photograph: EO Hoppé/Corbis

In J-school (I graduated from the UWO Masters program in Journalism) we spent a few lectures on covering suicides. It was one of those subjects that caused a lot of discussion inside the classroom and even more so after we left it. The basic question of how seriously to take the idea that covering a suicide gave the public the idea that they too could do ‘it,’ was one that continued to be debated in the various newsrooms I was hired in to.

I am cognizant of that [essentially] unanswered question as I start writing this latest casebook for Portia Adams. I am in no way ‘covering’ a suicide since this is fiction, but the basics of the case Portia is working on revolves around suicide and more specifically, a critical look at the psychological profile of a suicidal person.

An article from the Poynter Institute written a decade ago remains one of the best on the subject if you are interested in reading more, but this is the quote that I always keep in mind when this subject comes up (which thank fully, is not that often, but still happens more than it should):

Mental illness is almost always present in a case of suicide. To report on suicide without discussing the role of mental illness is like reporting on a tornado without mentioning the underlying weather conditions. Tornados don’t whip up out of nowhere, and neither does suicide.

Seeing as Portia suffers from some form of bipolar disorder as I suspect her grandfather did, this seems like a case I can use to delve into some of her issues.

Just because context helps when writing, Statistics Canada and Health Canada obviously follow this subject very closely, and their latest numbers are:

Suicide is a major cause of premature and preventable death. It is estimated, that in 2009 alone, there were about 100,000 years of potential life lost to Canadians under the age of 75 as a result of suicides.

Research shows that mental illness is the most important risk factor for suicide; and that more than 90% of people who commit suicide have a mental or addictive disorder.1,2 Depression is the most common illness among those who die from suicide, with approximately 60% suffering from this condition.

Obviously one of my next steps is to do some research on suicide rates in London in the 1930s and what kind of stigma was attached to mental illness at the time. Also, I will need to know what kind of support people had from their medical community.

By the 1930s, Europe had dropped well into the Great Depression and therefore training for medical staff would have been harder to come by, and the support for institutions would have also dried up as money was refocused on the majority of the public who needed basic survival aid.

If anyone has suggestions on articles or contacts please let me know in the comments below? Thanks!

Friends and Ego

An open book with a page bent in a heart-shape
My heart: my book

I’ve been away from writing and from all of you for some time now, but I swear it’s been a productive month.

In real life, I’ve been launching a new HTML5 website for CBC called The Massey Experience, which is pretty awesome if I do say so myself, AND we’ve been renovating our kitchen – resulting in this fabulous new space to cook and entertain.

Also in real life, my good friend, and prolific writer Mr. Joe Mahoney (@ilanderz) read my first book and did an intensive line-by-line edit of it that I am now applying to my manuscript.

When I gave it to him to read, I confess I did so with more trepidation than usual because he is a perfectionist when it comes to the craft. What’s funny is that I think he approached his resulting edits of my book with equal amounts of uneasiness. His unease came from worrying about hurting my feelings (sweet man!) and the amount my poor ego could take in terms of real criticism.

I have to say (and maybe it’s because I trust Joe and his skills having read and heard his work many times) that I was not in the least bit worried about his suggested edits – I was worried he wouldn’t like it, and that would have stabbed me right through my writer’s heart. It’s not true of everyone who has read my work, but I <think> my ego is tied to the concept of the book series with Portia and her journey through her cases and less tied to the actual words on the page.

What about you guys? Does it stab you straight through your writer’s heart when someone tells you that a sentence is ‘awkward’ or that your writing is needlessly formal in a scene? Or are you separate enough from your words to take the criticism with a grain of salt?

Okay, adding agents to the people I now harass…

Agent Smith from The Matrix
“Hello Mr. Anderson.”

Having now met three rather interesting literary agents, I think I am ready to expand my ring of harassment to include potential agents rather than my previous strategy of sending query letters directly to potential publishing houses.

I admit that I had been swayed by the terrible reports from friends and acquaintances about the members of that group and their dastardly intentions, and that I had never actually met an agent myself.

The three I have met don’t seem to be evil, and since that is 100% of my current experience with the field, I am willing to give them a chance.

And let’s be honest, I’ve now sent query letters to TEN Canadian Publishers and only one has written back and that was 145 days ago (yes, I am counting, and you should all count with me if you are truly my friends!!).

Consider the circle widened! Open for business! Read my book! Or like Lisa says in The Simpsons when the teachers go on strike: “Grade me…look at me…evaluate and rank me! Oh, I’m good, good, good and oh so smart! Grade me!”

NB: If you are looking for a cool online way to count the days between two dates, I recommend


Writing for a specific audience

Card catalogue
Classification is hard!

How do you classify your writing?

In the past, I would have just gone with ‘Fiction’ or ‘Detective Fiction’ for my Portia Adams series, but it seems like we as writers have to take it even further, which makes me think about my audience: who would read this series?

Who would enjoy it the most?

Who would be totally disinterested?

Is it ok to be more than one genre?

Are there some genres that are more popular to be a part of than others? Should that even be a consideration?

When picking potential agents and publishers to send query letters to, this kind of forethought is appreciated, so I want to know, how did you decide?

Jump-starting this truck to blow through the land of DisCourage

Jumper cables
Hook me up people!

My poor purple moleskin notebook that holds CaseBook 7 has become a pariah in my house since I returned from Italy. I’ve been moving very slowly through the evil land of DisCourage.

So far I’ve combated this debilitating landscape by reading more (if you can’t write, at least keep feeding that part of your brain my favorite English teacher once told me), rewriting some dialogue from older case books, and reading all the blogs I follow religiously.

I guess it’s positive that in 50-odd blog post this is the first discouraging one I’ve written, but there you are. My hope is that by getting this out and into written form, it will jump start the writing again. Cross your fingers friends and point the direction out of here please!

The dialogue that moves us

Let’s deepen this dialogue, shall we?

By and large when people suggest I ‘expand upon a scene’ they are asking for more dialogue (as opposed to more action or suspense). It seems to be trademark for me to have key points in the story in my head that I am dying to get to, sometimes at the expense of all that talking and character development.

So this long weekend (YAY MAY 2-4!) I am going to go back into some old scenes in Casebooks 1 thru 3 and expand on the dialogue, hopefully in a positive way.

Needing inspiration of course, I will start my morning with reading some scenes known for their moving dialogue; I’m thinking about:

  1. the back-and-forth between Ophelia and Hamlet in Act 3, Scene 1, when their fathers are hiding behind a tapestry listening in.
  2. the scene in Pride and Prejudice when Lady Catherine de Bourge confronts Lizzie at her parents’ home is some great dialogue.
  3. there is a scene in Firefly: Serenity with the Operative, Captain Mal and Inara in the Temple that I’ve always found super-clever but I couldn’t find a link to post to. If you get a chance, watch it, as I will today.
  4. The scene with Watson and Holmes in the new BBC series in the back of the cab when Holmes gets offended when Watson sniffs and says “The Police don’t consult amateurs” is a brilliantly written little piece of dialogue that I’ve watched over and over again.
  5. I could post any scene from the first three years of the West Wing and you’d get a great example of dialogue to aspire to, but I picked one of the first that really made me laugh (from Season 1, Episode 3):

Josh Lyman: You know what, C.J.? I really think I’m the best judge of what I mean, you paranoid Berkeley shiksa feminista… Wow, that was way too far.
C.J. Cregg: No, no. Well, I’ve got a staff meeting to go to and so do you, you elitist, Harvard, fascist, missed-the-dean’s-list-two-semesters-in-a-row Yankee jackass.
Josh Lyman: Feel better getting that off your chest there, C.J.?
C.J. Cregg: I’m a whole new woman.

And then there is all the internet has to offer us:

Do you guys have any other suggestions? I’m getting some great bubbling ideas from all this already, but I could always use more inspiration!

CaseBook Titles

bunch of books on their sides
a series in order!

Ok, don’t laugh, but as I write casebook 7 of the Portia Adams Adventures, I am forgetting the order. How is that possible you ask? Sigh, editing, re-editing, transcribing, re-reading, and re-ordering… its bound to make a girl confused.
So here is an ordered list of the completed casebooks in the series:

1. Jewel of the Thames
2. A case of darkness
3. Unfound
4. Thrice Burned
5. Box 850
6. Truth be told (title picked by the faithful readers of this blog!)
7. Principessa (tentative)
8. Settling the Score (title picked by the faithful readers of this blog!)