I suspect most of us have our secrets about how we survived the Pandemic of ’20-’21. Video games, binge-watching movies, reading like a fiend–you get the idea.
My secret was my dog, Tipper. Or should I say my manager. Tip’s a fifteen-pound rescue dog of the Chihuahua meets Terrier variety. Nobody wanted to adopt him because he has bad knees. Really? I’ve had two knee replacements and nobody ever threw me out on the street. Tipper came home to live with me and my better half, Kevin, that very day.
Now, eight years later, it is my dog who has rescued me. Or should I say bosses me around. Thanks to him, I have the next installment of the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series, Four Reasons to Die, later this summer.
This is the schedule Tip put me on from the pandemic’s git-go. First, he begins his slow process of waking–this entails laying beneath the bed covers for at least a half hour after Kevin and I are already up, then he slowly rises like a ghost from the grave because the sheets trail after him as he fights his way out of bed, and finally, he spends another half hour under the bed to avoid the rising sun. His last half hour of officially waking iup is spent in my lap while I finish my morning pot of coffee.
And then he jumps down from my lap, game face on. Enough lolly-gagging on my part. Time to get to work.
We start our day with a three-mile walk. Tip has decided this is the amount of time it takes for me to chew through the scene I have to write that day. When we come home, he demands breakfast, then shoos me upstairs to my office to get to work. No shower. No breakfast. It’s work time. To make sure I stay at it, he takes up residence on the small couch in my office and does not leave it until he hears my husband (who during Covid works in his office downstairs) making lunch. Then Tipper jumps down from the couch and scratches at my leg to tell me to take a break. But does he come downstairs with me? Oh, no. He goes back to his couch where he waits for fifteen minutes while I make my lunch and put some tidbits in his bowl. THEN, he comes down.
I finally get my shower after lunch–remember, he doesn’t let me take it before since he’s sure I will forget what I’ve decided to write during our walk. Only then does he allow me to return to my office to get back to work.
At 4:00, Tipper believes our work for the day is done. This is the time when, pre-pandemic, my neighbors and I used to get together to watch Jeopardy. We couldn’t, of course, during the Pandemic, but Tipper never got the memo. At 4:00, we’re supposed to close up shop. I oftentimes decide to keep on working until Kevin was done with his day, and Tipper thinks this is sacrilege. He leaves his couch to sit by my feet and growls as I type away. He believes its against his contract to work such long hours and has threatened several times to call Animal Rescue to arrest me.
I didn’t understand how serious he was about his managerial duties until he started wearing a tie to work. And proofing everything I write. And working on his own stories.
Lord help me, they’ll probably be better than mine…
Thank goodness for my little Tipper. I wouldn’t have made it through the Pandemic without him.
Coming Soon (Thanks to Tipper)!
Four Reasons to Die
The 4th Book in the Pastor Matt Hayden Mystery Series
When Pastor Matt Hayden steps up to give the Texas Inaugural Ceremony’s benediction after the scheduled minister, Reverend Duff, disappears, he finds himself embroiled in a religious war, a political power-grab, and murder.
The missing Duff, a progressive leftist, is locked in a bitter, public battle with the ultra-conservative Reverend Meade. Duff has also taken on U.S. Senator Womack, a far-right Presidential hopeful whose only love is himself.
Matt joins the search for the missing pastor, but is he prepared to discover the true evil that threatens his family, including the new governor…and his beloved Angie?
Today is Memorial Day, the last Monday in May, when we remember the men and women of the military to whom we cannot say, “Thank you.”
There are many stories about when and where Memorial Day, formerly called Decoration Day, began. Originally, it honored soldiers fallen during the Civil War, and was first officially celebrated in 1868.
Wikipedia, however, points to an earlier beginning: “On May 1, 1865 in Charleston, SC, formerly enslaved African Americans honored hundreds of Black soldiers who were killed in the Civil War but who were buried in a mass grave. They unearthed the bodies and gave each a proper burial and held a parade in the soldiers’ honor. This is the first major honoring of fallen soldiers that is believed to have begun the tradition.”
In honor of the day, I’ve chosen a poem by British poet and novelist Thomas Hardy.
My Boy Jack (Television film based on play by Daniel Haig) (Link leads to complete film on Youtube.) The title My Boy Jack comes from a poem written by Rudyard Kipling for Jack Cornwell, “the 16 year old youngest recipient of the Victoria Cross who stayed by his post on board ship during the battle of Jutland until he died.” The poem “echoes the grief of all parents who lost sons in the First World War. John Kipling was a 2nd Lt in the Irish Guards and disappeared in September 1915 during the Battle of Loos in the First World War.” His body was never found. (Wikipedia). Haig’s play deals with Kipling’s grief at the loss of his son.
Almost every great detective has a great sidekick. Leading the pack, of course, is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s with his team of Sherlock and Watson.
In the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Dr. John Watson is Sherlock’s sidekick and the narrator. The character created by Doyle to support Holmes is modest and intelligent—but not as smart as Holmes. A former military doctor wounded in India, Watson is far from dull. Still, like most readers, he doesn’t share Holme’s detecting capabilities, powers of observation, and lightning-swift reasoning, which is a blessing for readers, for it’s Watson who explains and shows the readers Holme’s admirable characteristics through his narrative and descriptions.
Another of the best-loved investigating pairs are Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin.Wolfe is a New York City private investigator. His sidekick, Archie Goodwin, does the lion’s share of investigating because Wolfe doesn’t like to leave the brownstone, but it’s Wolfe who provides the keen intellect. Archie’s role is to bring wit and a fast-paced narrative to the reader. Rex Stout has published around 80 novels and novellas detailing their various cases. Wolfe and Archie are right up there with Dr. Watson and Sherlock.
Contemporary author Faye Kellerman created the Peter Decker and Rina Lazarus team.Decker is a Los Angeles cop investigating crimes in a conservative Jewish community. His supporting character is Rina Lazarus, with whom he falls in love. He converts to Judaism for her, and they are married. Together they become involved in several mysteries in Jewish communities. Although she isn’t a police detective, she is vital to the investigations for her deep understanding of Jewish culture and faith.
A little outside this norm is Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, who seems to work alone. She is an independent woman of independent means. Elderly, and unassuming Miss Marple uses her advanced years and knitting needles to stay out of the limelight to observe without being noticed. She is a student of human nature and able to solve complex crimes not only because of her shrewd intelligence but because over her life living in St. Mary Mead, she has had the benefit of infinite examples of the nastier side of human nature.
Her friends and acquaintances function in the role of supporting characters, and they are sometimes bored by her frequent analogies. Still, these analogies often lead Miss Marple to a more profound realization about the true nature of the crime. It isn’t until her later years that her companion, Cherry Baker, moves in and makes her first appearance as the sidekick in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side.
Perhaps one of the most unique and unexpected characters in a supporting role is M. Hercule Flambeau, a reformed criminal in the Father Brown series by G. K. Chesterton. Flambeau is always amazed at how a priest could have such a depth of understanding and insight into the criminal mind. The good priest explains that while he must protect the sanctity of confessions and not give specifics, people reveal their sins and show the evil in the human heart.
In the first chapter of The Secret of Father Brown, the priest tries to explain that he doesn’t look at criminals scientifically from the outside.
“I am inside a man. I am always inside a man, moving his arms and legs; but I wait till I know I am inside a murderer, thinking his thoughts, wrestling with his passions; thill I have bent myself into the posture of his hunched and peering hatred; till I see the world with his bloodshot and squinting eyes, looking between the blinkers of his half-witted concentration; looking up the short and sharp perspective as a straight road to a pool of blood. Till I am really a murderer.”
Flambeau was a skilled and highly successful thief with an intellect equal to Father Brown’s. In The Secret of Flambeau, he reveals, “Have I not heard the sermons of the righteous?… Do you think all that ever did anything but make me laugh? Only my friend told me that he knew exactly why I stole, and I have never stolen since.”
There are as many famous sidekicks as there are famous detectives, including Captain Hastings, in the Hercule Poirot books by Agatha Christie and Brother Eadulf in Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma series. In Dashiell Hammet’s The Thin Man, Nora Charlesis a glamourous sidekick to her husband, Nick. But why do authors create these characters?
Like the supporting stage and film actors, the mystery book sidekicks have a vitally important role, both to the principal characters and to the readers or audience.
A good sidekick is usually the polar opposite of the detective. Watson is kind, patient and loyal, and in many ways ordinary. The opposite of Holmes.
Like Watson, Captain Hastings, Hercule Poirot’s supporting character is also ordinary, loyal, and determined but lacks Watson’s military experience.
The sidekicks showcase the detectives’ intelligence but cushion the readers from feelings of inferiority. The sidekick usually seems to be a rather ordinary person, with exceptions, like Flambeau, who is anything but ordinary.
For the sake of storytelling, good detectives have quirks and personality flaws. They allow the sidekick to show opposite and balancing characteristics, provide an avenue for readers to understand what the main character is thinking, ask the readers’ questions, explain the detective’s reasoning and methods and any cryptic or scientific terms. Sometimes, the sidekick inspires the detective to look at a situation in a new way, which wouldn’t be evident without the secondary character’s input. This can provide a stalled plot with an escape valve, but most importantly, the sidekick can never be interchangeable with the main character.
From the outset, Nora Charles is a Nob Hill socialite. Nick Charles is a retired detective who has been exposed to the seedier sides of life. This seemingly incompatible couple marry and combine wits to solve crimes.
In my Housekeeper Mystery Series, Mrs. B. is the leading amateur woman detective. She’s impulsive, willful, nosy, outspoken, likes people, loves to cook, and loves cats.
Father Melvyn Kronkey is her boss and pastor of St. Francis de Sales, Roman Catholic Church. He is a good man and a devout priest who will serve as an anchor for the curious and impulsive Mrs. B.
Even our lovable and independent Miss Marple, who doesn’t have one sidekick, has a group of friends to whom she talks and explains. Still, she too takes on a supporting character, in the person of Cherry Baker, in later mysteries.
An essential part of a mystery writer’s tool kit, the sidekick provides color, contrast, relief, and assistance to the reader. They often help the main characters grow, evolve, and sometimes change course altogether.
We’re always searching for a new adventure, a new love. Have you ever pulled a book from the shelf, glance at the back cover, then (with hope in your heart) the first page, and then pushed the book back on the shelf, sure this one won’t do? I have, so many times. Same drill at the library. We usually know from page one (or at most page two) if we’re going to like a new author. If we don’t like the setting, the protagonist, the voice, forget it. But if we do, if we give that book a chance and like it, we look for a series. Bonus points if we find a new series we like! A series is efficient: we already know the protagonist, the repeating characters, many details of the setting. We plunge straight into the story.
Yet sometimes—even when I really like an author’s book—they run together. I may find them exciting, may remember specific scenes, may like the ending. But often a week after I finish a book, even one in a series with a protagonist who enchants me, I can’t quite remember who died. Now that’s embarrassing. As a murder mystery reader, shouldn’t I remember the victim?
If the victim, stuck there on the page, could talk back, maybe he or she would say, “C’mon, reader, give me a break! Don’t you remember how my body was pulled from the [canal] [truck] [hidden grave]? Don’t you remember how hard I was to find? Don’t you remember how excited the [police team] [sleuth] was to figure out who killed me? Can’t you remember me for at least three minutes? I mean, I’m the one your beloved protagonist investigated! I’m the whole point of the book!” And then in a more querulous tone, “Aren’t I?”
Maybe not. We get caught up in the badinage between DI Dalziel and his sidekick Pascoe. They go off to a pub and suddenly we find we’ve opened the refrigerator. We want to be there with them, sitting at that table near the dart board, sipping beer. Or our protagonist is reviewing the grisly evidence while listening to Madame Butterfly, and we find ourselves humming the first phrase of the aria (the only one we know). Maybe we’re really more interested in a favorite protagonist than in the victim. Sorry, Victim. The Protagonist will be in the next book––but you won’t.
On the other hand, now and then, there’s a death that sticks. One that even haunts me, after the denouement, after the explanation, after I finish saying “aha, I spotted that,” or “Hmm, very tricksy.” After all the figuring-out, occasionally I’m still thinking about the victim.
I started wondering about the ones who stick this week when I read two mysteries from Donna Leon, who just published her 30th book, Transient Desires. The title puns on what Donna Leon terms the “Nigerian Mafia” which she describes as smuggling young African women into Italy, promising them jobs which will let them send needed money home to their families, but instead enslaving them as sex workers or—occasionally—taking their transport money while throwing them into the Mediterranean to drown. In Transient Desires, Leon introduces us first to a young woman who survived the sea crossing but is being driven mad by her enslavement. Then we meet a naïve young Venetian man, desperate to keep a job with his boat-owning uncle which allows him to support his mother. The young man is slowly being destroyed by what his uncle forces him to do. These two portraits stick in my mind.
I also read Leon’s 22d book, The Golden Egg, where her protagonist, Venetian Inspector Guido Brunetti, must determine whether a young deaf man committed suicide by swallowing his mother’s tranquilizers, or was murdered. Which? Brunetti is stunned that the Serene Republic of Venice, which keeps tab of virtually every aspect of every inhabitant’s life, has no record of this young man. He’s unaccounted for: no school, no paying job, nothing. Brunetti learns he toiled his life away ironing clothes in a laundry, unpaid, speaking to no one, with no one speaking to him. He was never taught sign language, never taught how to interact with people. He lived in Venice where people know and speak to their neighbors and shopkeepers…but no one spoke to him. Brunetti doggedly unearths the peculiar cruelty of the people who kept him alive but didn’t teach him to live…parents who never talked to him, never taught him, never allowed anyone to reach out to him. Even worse, if worse is possible, Brunetti discovers the boy had a rare artistic talent—appreciated only by the boy’s doctor—that the boy never knew was worthy of recognition. Donna Leon’s description of one of the boy’s drawings, one the doctor has on his wall, brings home to the reader the two-fold tragedy: that the boy never knew his creations were beautiful, and that the world was deprived of knowing the human being who created such beauty. He was trapped. And he died without ever escaping. That’s a victim I cannot forget.
What aboutThe Nine Tailors(1934), by Dorothy Sayers?. This classic tale, often called her best, has all the charming hallmarks of a carefully constructed village-and-vicar English mystery, including the peculiarly English tradition of bell-ringing. We’ve got it all here: stolen jewels, a letter written in cipher, and an unidentified male body with no hands. The setting: the fens of East Anglia, with drainage ditches, locks, and ever-shifting floodwaters, and the contrasting grandeur of the ancient fen churches whose spires, with their enormous bells, mark the landscape. On New Year’s Eve, with the great influenza raging, Lord Peter Wimsey and his valet Bunter wreck the car and become lost in a snowstorm. They’re rescued by the vicar of Fenchurch St. Paul, who proudly announces that his bell-ringers are going to ring in the New Year with “no less than fifteen thousand, eight hundred and forty Kent Treble Bob Majors”—nine hours of bell-ringing. When one ringer, Will Thoday, is struck down by influenza, the vicar begs Wimsey to take his place. Wimsey later finds a recently buried man with no hands. As to why the victim has no hands, and how he was killed—is it a spoiler to emphasize, reader, that you do not want to be tied up, unable to escape, in a bell-chamber just above those enormous thousand-year-old bells while they ring unceasingly for nine hours? That victim’s death has stayed with me. But also, the circumstances which led to in his entrapment in the bell tower resulted in such grief for three characters that their lives are changed forever. That stayed with me too. No happy Sayers-esque denouement here. Instead, characters are condemned to remember. As to the title, the Nine Tailors are the nine strokes of the tenor bell—three, three, and three more—rung to mark a death in the parish.
Fans of Tony Hillerman will remember The Wailing Wind, where NavajoDetective Joe Leaphorn is hired by Wiley Denton, a wealthy older man recently released from prison for shooting a man named McKay, who had promised Denton a map to a fabled gold mine. Denton wants Leaphorn to find out what happened years ago at Halloween to his beloved young wife, Linda. The convoluted plot takes the reader through numerous twists and turns, but the gold mine convolutions aren’t what I remember. Instead I remember that McKay, all those years ago, drugged Linda and left her in a locked bunker (one of hundreds of identical bunkers in an untravelled area on the vast grounds of Fort Wingate), hoping to use her as leverage to get the deal he wanted from Denton. Denton shot McKay, not knowing that McKay had hidden Linda. So she died, slowly mummified, in a bunker in the Arizona desert. Now that’s one that sticks with me.
I’ve been wondering why I found these particular victims so hard to forget. You’ll have noticed that all were trapped.Transient Desires involves economic entrapment—slavery, really. Both the young Nigerian and the young Venetian have no economic hope, no way to escape doing what they hate. The Golden Egg reveals a young man cruelly trapped by isolation, deprived of human communication, deprived of any way to express an enormous talent. In Nine Tailors and The Wailing Wind, the victim’s death by physical entrapment creates another trap: those involved are trapped by their memories.
I wonder if the rank injustice that Leon depicts is part of the staying power of Transient Desires and The Golden Egg. Particularly in The Golden Egg, Brunetti feels helpless, and we share his frustration, his horror, really, at the young man’s death, and at the society that allowed it to happen. To that extent I’m still identifying with Brunetti, not the victim.
I’ve hidden my murder victims in enclosed spaces. Ghost Cave.
Maybe we identify more with the victim when reading about a death caused by physical entrapment, whether the victim’s tied up in a bell-tower or locked in an isolated bunker, where no one can hear the call for help (the bells are too loud, or the bunker too soundproof). Doesn’t that reverberate with all of us? We’re generally confident we could escape from most situations, could chew off the ropes on our wrist, pick the lock, find a secret passage, get a message to our rescuers. Fool the witch and chop down the beanstalk. But what if there’s no one to hear? No one to help? No way to get out? End of story. Not comfortable. Awfully memorable. Awfully.
Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery series. Her latest novel is Ghost Cat. Read more about her here.
On March 18, 2021, Alice Almendarez, stood before the Texas legislature and testified in support of #HB1419, also known as John and Joseph’s Law. This new law would make it mandatory for all missing people and unidentified body reports to be entered into NamUS (The National Missing and Unidentified Missing Persons).
There are currently 1,660 unidentified bodies and 1,529 missing person reports open for Texas in the NamUS database. This means that there are more unidentified bodies than there are missing persons reports. In short, many families are without answers as to the where their missing loved one is, and this law could be the link that provides an answer. John and Joseph’s Law is named for Alice’s father, John, and Joseph, David Fritts’ son.
Alice understands all too well the pain these families endure. Her father disappeared after spending Father’s Day with her family in June of 2002. One moment he was with them, and then he was gone.
Alice went to the Houston police to file a missing persons report. She followed the instructions of what she was told to do, but adult missing persons cases can be challenging in many ways. Law enforcement officers explained that her father was an adult and that it wasn’t a crime to go missing. In her heart, she knew her father would never walk out on his family in such a way, but small doubts haunted her. What if he had left them? It is a horrible burden to carry as a child.
Alice searched for twelve long years before she would learn the fate of her father.
She later discovered that his body had been found a few weeks after his disappearance, just a few minutes from his childhood home. Early on, she had gone to the morgue asking if they had any bodies matching her dad’s description and was turned away, only to later find out he had been there during the time she was looking for him. The truth had been close, and she had no idea.
It is this trauma and heartbreak that Alice hopes to spare other families and is the driving force behind her working to have this important law passed.
John and Joseph’s Law would support the search in locating missing persons by requiring the use of the NamUS database. Alice explained, “If someone goes missing in Houston, Texas, and his body is found in Austin, Laredo, or somewhere in Louisiana, there is no way to currently make this connection. How would law enforcement in Louisiana know this person is missing if there is no paperwork outside of the missing’s home city?”
Alice makes an important point in that this law will link and share resources to the benefit of both the missing unidentified person’s family as well as law enforcement. She said, “This law will require that police reports like my father’s missing persons report be entered into the NAMUS database. They can then be linked to any of these unidentified bodies, since those, too, must be entered with this new law. Dental, DNA and other sorts of comparisons can then be made, and these reports can be viewed at any time.”
Alice’s personal experience with NamUs was one that gave her answers. “It took twelve years for me to find an answer. Once his information was entered into NamUs, a comparison was made in six months. This law can keep other families from the relentless trauma of searching for a loved one and not finding an answer. I don’t want any other families to endure what we did.”
One of the most remarkable things to note is that Alice didn’t learn about NamUs through any law enforcement agency. She discovered it while watching a television show. “Is this a real thing?” she wondered. She got online and learned that it did, in fact, exist.
Alice has spent the last several years helping other families navigate the fraught and difficult road of searching for a missing loved one. In 2015, Alice attended a missing persons event and realized that even an organized meeting didn’t cover a number of important issues. When she attends an event, she explains the process, including the importance of entering a loved one’s information into NamUs (there is a family section of the database for this purpose), and how critical it is to search outside of one’s own jurisdiction. She has personally assisted several families, including one whose sister had been missing for twenty-one years. After the NamUs entry and the DNA submission, this family, too, found their sister.
Todd Matthews, former Director Case Management & Communications and missing person’s advocate, told me, “I’ve seen Alice resurrect herself from total devastation into a powerful advocate for change. As a father myself – I am positive that her father would be prouder that she can even imagine.” He also added, “As Texas works to pass a state law that strengthens the procedure surrounding the missing and unidentified, there’s some important unfinished business. I want to help make it possible to return Alice’s father to his family for repatriation closer to his family.”
This, too, is Alice’s continued effort—to have her father returned home. Next year will mark 20 years since his body was found. “He has only been dead in my mind for 6 years,” Alice told me. “This is the final step, and it has taken so long. I will get him moved to a respectable grave if it’s the last thing I do.”
When Alice went to the Texas legislature on March 18, 2021, to testify on behalf of passing this law, she felt the full weight of its importance. She said, “It was a bit overwhelming. There are thousands of familes waiting for help that were depending on us. I felt like I needed all the right words and God’s favor to prove to them there was no reason not to pass this law. I heard someone say this was long overdue. That was exactly what I needed to hear.”
Alice’s next step is working with state senator Carol Alvarado, who is sponsoring SB899, the companion bill to John and Joseph’s law. Alice will continue advocating for families and working with the Texas legislature to ensure that NamUs becomes a required part of the missing persons investigative process. Once this law is passed, the next step, Alice says, is to work on back logs. “This law will make it mandatory for cases of missing and unidentified to be entered only AFTER September 1, 2021. The bodies already waiting and reports from people who have lost all hope are still waiting. I plan to work on an amendment to this current bill for the 88th legislation to make all the unsolved missing and unidentified reports to be entered into NamUs. That is the only way we can help those 1,660 bodies left without a name. I can only imagine these families’ pain.”
Alice, in fact, knows their pain all too well, which is why she dedicates so much of her time and energy to supporting other families in their search for missing loved ones. Her future plans include starting a foundation to help families of the missing. “Once you’re in this world and you know your way out, you just can’t leave. I have the tools and knowledge to help, and I’m going to continue to do that.”
When I asked Alice how we, the public, can help support these efforts, she said, “Social media is very useful. Specifically, sharing our posts about John and Joseph’s Law. Also, there is a place to leave comments when there is a hearing. This kind of support is very helpful. Most important, share a missing person’s post or article—no matter how long they have been missing. We have power that can help families. Even if it just shows them their loved one has not been forgotten. Seeing one share of their loved one’s case gives hope.”
I’m working on a mystery novel—I’ve been working on it for years, but now I’m working on it—and am faced with dilemmas too numerous to whine about in only one post, so I’ll move along.
I will instead write about the one pleasure of the writing life: creating and naming characters.
My novel is set in a little town very like my own hometown. I don’t base my plot on real events, and I don’t use real people as characters—with one exception: Steve Dauchy.
Note: One of my readers, Cullen Dauchy, knows more about Steve than I do, especially about his early life, and I hope he’ll feel free to correct any errors.
Steve Dauchy was a career blood donor at Katy Veterinary Clinicin Katy, Texas. On retirement he moved to Fentress, where he lived with his veterinarian-owner’s parents, Joe and Norma Dauchy. Joe and Norma lived next door to me; in local terms, next door meant that my house was on one corner, then there was a half-acre “patch” of pecan and peach trees and grass and weeds, then a street, and then on the next corner, the Dauchy yard and their house. The point being that when Steve visited me, he didn’t just walk across a driveway.
Joe was my dad’s first cousin, so I guess that makes Steve and me second cousins. I have a lot of cousins on that side of the family, although most are human.
Steve is a family name, with a story behind it. As I understand it, back in the ’20s or ’30s, my great-uncle Cull (Joseph Cullen) Dauchy, Sr., enjoyed listening to a radio program about a Greek character who frequently spoke of “my cat Steve and her little cattens.” Uncle Cull was so amused by the phrase that he named a cat—probably one of the barn cats—Steve. And ever after, he always had a cat named Steve.
So when the clinic cat became part of the Uncle Cull’s son and daughter-in-law’s family, he became the latest in a long line of Steves.
How to describe Steve. He was a fine figure of a cat: a big tabby, deep orange, with an expression of perpetual boredom. His reaction to nearly everything translated as, “Meh.” I’ve heard that’s common among clinic cats.
Once when Steve was standing on my front porch, the neighbor’s Great Dane got loose and charged over. I was frantic, shouting at the dog, shouting at Steve. But when the dog hit the porch, Steve just looked up at him. Dog turned around and trotted home.
Some would say Steve was brave, and I’m sure he was. But I believe his grace under pressure had their roots elsewhere.
First, he had experience. He knew dogs. In his former employment, he’d observed the breed: big, little, yappy, whining, growling, howling, cringing, confined to carriers, restrained by leashes, sporting harnesses and rhinestone collars, hair wild and matted, sculpted ‘dos and toenails glistening pink from the OPI Neon Collection. He’d seen them all, and he was not impressed.
Facing down a Great Dane, however, took more than experience. There was something in Steve’s character, an inborn trait that marked him for greatness: his overarching sense of entitlement. He was never in the wrong place at the wrong time. My porch was his porch. The world was his sardine.
Except for the kitchen counter. Steve thought kitchen counters were for sleeping, and Joe and Norma’s maid didn’t. Consequently, he stayed outside a lot. He took ostracism in stride and used his freedom to range far and wide. Far and wide meant my yard.
At that time I had three indoor cats—Christabel, Chloe, and Alice B. Toeclaws—and a raft of outdoor cats. The outdoor cats started as strays, but I made the mistake of naming them, which meant I had to feed them, which meant they were mine. Chief among them was Bunny, a black cat who had arrived as a teenager with his mother, Edith.
One day Bunny, Edith, and I were out picking up pecans when Steve wandered over to pay his respects, or, more likely, to allow us to pay our respects to him. Bunny perked up, put on his dangerous expression, and walked out to meet the interloper. It was like watching the opening face-off in Gunsmoke.
But instead of scrapping, they stopped and sat down, face to face, only inches apart. Each raised his right paw above his head and held it there a moment. Next, simultaneously, they bopped each other on the top of the head about ten times. Then they toppled over onto their sides, got up, and walked away.
That happened every time they met. Maybe it was just a cat thing, a neighborly greeting, something like a Masonic handshake. But I’ve wondered if it might have had religious significance. Bunny was a Presbyterian, and Steve was a Methodist, and both had strong Baptist roots, and although none of those denominations is big on ritual, who knows what a feline sect might entail?
Steve had a Macavity-like talent for making himself invisible. Occasionally when I opened my front door, he slipped past and hid in a chair at the dining room table, veiled by the tablecloth. When he was ready to leave, he would hunt me down—Surprise!—and lead me to the door. Once, during an extended stay, he used the litter box. Christabel, Chloe, and Alice B. were not amused.
Invisibility could work against him, though. Backing out of the driveway one morning, I saw in the rearview mirror a flash streak across the yard. I got out and looked around but found nothing and so decided I’d imagined it. When I got home from work, I made a more thorough search and located Steve under the house, just out of reach. I called, coaxed, cajoled. He stared. It was clear: he’d been behind the car when I backed out, I’d hit him, and he was either too hurt to move or too disgusted to give me the time of day.
It took a long time and a can of sardines to get him out. I delivered him to the veterinarian in Lockhart; she advised leaving him for observation. A couple of days later, I picked him up. Everything was in working order, she said, cracked pelvis, nothing to do but let him get over it.
“Ordinarily,” said the vet, “I would have examined him and sent him home with you the first day. I could tell he was okay. But you told me his owner’s son is a vet, and I was afraid I’d get it wrong.”
Although an indoor-outdoor cat, Steve did plenty of indoor time at his own house, too, especially in winter, and when the maid wasn’t there. One cold day, the family smelled something burning. They found Steve snoozing atop the propane space heater in the kitchen. His tail hung down the side, in front of the vent. The burning smell was the hair on his tail singeing. They moved him to a safer location. I presume he woke up during the process.
At night, he had his own bedroom, a little garden shed in the back yard. He slept on the seat of the lawnmower, snuggled down on a cushion. Except when he didn’t.
Once extremely cold night, I was piled up in bed under an extra blanket and three cats. About two a.m., I woke up to turn over—sleeping under three cats requires you to wake up to turn over—and in the process, reached down and touched one of the cats. It was not my cat.
I cannot describe the wave of fear that swept over me. It sounds ridiculous now, but finding myself in the dark with an unidentified beast, and unable to jump and run without first extricating myself from bedding and forty pounds of cat—I lay there paralyzed.
Unnecessarily, of course. The extra cat was Steve. He’s sneaked in and, considering the weather forecast, decided sleeping with a human and three other cats in a bed would be superior to hunkering down on a lawnmower.
Steve’s full name was, of course, Steve Dauchy. In my book, he will be Steve MacCaskill. MacCaskill was the name of a family who lived next door to my Aunt Bettie and Uncle Maurice. Their children were friends of my father and his brothers and their many cousins. They were a happy family.
“My family had to plan everything,” my dad’s cousin Lucyle Dauchy Meadows told me, “but the MacCaskills were spontaneous. If they decided they wanted to go to a movie, they just got into the car and went to a movie.” When Lucyle and the other girls helped their friend Mary Burns MacCaskill tidy her room before the Home Demonstration Agent came to examine it (I am so glad the Home Demonstration Agent didn’t examine rooms when I was a girl), one of the first things they did was to remove the alligator from the bathtub.
I heard so many delightful stories about the MacCaskill family that I decided they were too good to be true until my Aunt Bettie’s 100th birthday party, when my mother introduced me to Mary Burns MacCaskill, who had traveled from Ohio for the party.
So as an homage to that family, I’ve named my main character Molly MacCaskill. And when choosing a pet for Molly, I couldn’t choose a finer beast than Steve.
Kathy Waller blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. She has published short stories, as well as a novella co-written with Manning Wolfe. She is perpetually working on a novel.
Do we have one brain or two? Technically, we know we only have one, but then it’s divided right down the middle into two, right and left, with each hemisphere more potent for certain behaviors. The hemispheres communicate through a thick band of 200-250 million nerve fibers called the corpus callosum. A smaller group of nerve fibers, the anterior commissure, also connects parts of the cerebral hemispheres. Many learned opinions and schools of thought exist explaining whether or not either hemisphere of this highly complex organ is dominant and determines our strengths. Current neuroscience says the left- brain is responsible for specific functions such as logic, linear thinking, and facts.
Who could be a better example of left-brain strength than Albert Einstein, the German-born theoretical physicist, recognized as one of the great physicists, known for his theory of relativity, the E=mc2. He also made important contributions to the development of the theory of quantum mechanics. Still, he was also an excellent violinist. He was known to perform impromptu concerts and step outside of his home with his beloved violin, Lina, to accompany Christmas Carolers. Not only could he appreciate the music for its mathematical properties, but his right brain heard and appreciated its beauty.
Right-brained artistic genius, Marc Chagall, was considered the master of color. His artworks extended to stained glass and ceramic, but perhaps he’s best known for his canvases reflecting his Russian-French Jewish heritage and life in Vitebsk. In Chagall’s own words, we see the dominance of his right brain.
If I create from the heart, nearly everything works; if from the head, almost nothing.
– Marc Chagall
But can an artist such as Chagall, known for his cubist renditions of his profoundly folk-impressionist style, bring to life his flights of fancy such as La Mariee? (The Bride), without relying on left-brain analysis and calculations for size, space, and symmetry?
Like scientists and artists, novelists, too, use both hemispheres. Each writer has a different method. For some, the story unfolds with facts, figures, characters, and situations growing with almost mathematical precision, but not I.
For me, the story germinates like a movie reel in my head. Different scenery, locations, events, perhaps a piece of music can trigger these images.
In the first book in the Housekeeper Mystery series, I’m Going to Kill that Cat, the story came to me one day while visiting my mother at her apartment in a retirement community. One of her frail, elderly neighbors -let’s call her Jill, screamed at the top of her lungs, “I’m going to kill that cat,” referring to another neighbor’s cat that goaded Jill’s dog, causing the poor doggie to yank the leash making Jill take a tumble. Her screams brought out all the residents, including my mother and me. Once we got the irate Jill up and determined that she wasn’t injured, the scene played in my head.
What if two older women who had a long history were involved in a similar incident? The dog owner became Martha, a sad and bitter woman who lived alone with her two dogs on a limited income.
What if Martha’s nemesis, Velma, lived in the same community and attended the same church. Velma has it all. Wealth, position, and a feisty cat who loved to provoke Martha’s dogs, as Velma loved to needle Martha.
What if Velma is found dead the following day, and an autopsy reveals it was murder by poison? And what if Martha had a garden filled with plants of all kinds – some beautiful but deadly?
And what happens to Velma’s cat, LaLa?
To solve the case, along came my conscientious and stand-offish Father Melvyn Kronkey, the pastor of the Catholic Church to which both ladies belonged. And, of course, such a devoted priest needs a highly competent assistant. She appears in the character of Mrs. B., a caring people person, or one might say nosy.
The conflicts came together in my head like a movie that I set to words. The what-ifs, the characters, the settings, and the personalities became more precise and multi-dimensional as the left hemisphere began to analyze who, what, where, when, and why? How will events unfold logically, with real underlying factors? What was the problem between these women and who killed Velma?
In book two of the Housekeeper Mystery Series, Catwalk Dead, circumstances draw Mrs. B. and Fr. Melvyn Kronkey into a theater murder and the Macbeth curse through her son’s ballet company. They work to unravel whether this was a crime, a curse or both. While the story created itself in my head, I had to take the time to learn about the backstage craft, including set construction, catwalks, logistics, methods, and equipment, so vital to the story’s action.
Every author can speak to their creative side, and the need for the problem-solving skills necessary to create conflicts, then bring them to logical conclusions.
Neuroscience continues to learn more about how each section of the brain operates when confronting different needs and situations. Still, the entire brain must be engaged to create fascinating stories that are scintillating, coherent, valid and clear, and, most of all, satisfying to the reader.
In the back of the closet I recently unearthed my mother’s old Caswell Massey “Gardenia” bubble bath. The resulting bath held astonishing comfort and nostalgia. It smelled like her house.
Mystery writers can use smell to reinforce not only setting and character, but powerful plots. Here are strong examples from the first chapter of Lethal White, the fourth in Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series. Chapter one begins with the wedding of Strike’s former co-detective Robin Ellacott and her long-time (but insufferable) fiancé Matthew Cunliffe, arguing while the wedding photographer tries to get some decent shots. Strike has fired Robin, partly from fear she’ll be killed. Without her job, Robin’s miserable. Matthew’s furious because of the joy he saw on Robin’s face when Strike arrived for the ceremony, heavily bandaged from capturing a killer. And now, arguing with Matthew, how does Robin feel? “The sweet, ticklish smell of hot grass filled her nostrils as the sun beat down on her uncovered shoulders.” The hot smell matches Robin’s itchy misery as she second-guesses her marriage to Matthew.
The country hotel setting smells beautiful, in stark contrast to Strike’s emotions: “For a while he lurked at the end of the bar, nursing a pint…and then repaired to the terrace, where he had stood apart from the other smokers and contemplated the dappled evening, breathing in the sweet meadow smell beneath a coral sky.” Sweet meadow smell; miserable situation.
Robin finally reaches Strike on the stairs as he’s leaving: “They were holding each other tightly before they knew what had happened, Robin’s chin on Strike’s shoulder, his face in her hair. He smelled of sweat, beer, and surgical spirits, she, of roses and the faint perfume that he had missed when she was no longer in the office.” The scene is almost shocking in its sensory overload. We feel their powerful attraction. Galbraith (J. K. Rowling) brilliantly gives us not only the protagonists, but the pain of their predicament, using scent to remind us of Strike’s injury (surgical spirits) and the fact that he has missed her perfume because she’s no longer in the office.
We already know that Chet, the heroic detective dog of Spencer Quinn’s Chet and Bernie series, is a dog of admirable olfactory sensitivity. He feels sorry for his human partner, Bernie (who labors under the misapprehension that he, not Chet, is the detective), because Chet knows human limitations, olfactorily speaking.
Chet and Bernie search for lost young campers in Spencer Quinn’sThe Dog Who Knew Too Much. Chet’s nose moves the plot along: “I smelled ashes, plus chocolate, the way it smells when hot chocolate gets burned in the pot, and….the remains of a not-too-long-ago campfire. I knew fire pits, of course, went over and took some closer sniffs. Burned hot chocolate, yes. There’d also been Spam and something eggy. I stuck my nose just about right into the ashes. They were cold.” Oh, the advantages of a detective dog as protagonist.
Well, Chet, don’t underrate us. Research shows we humans can detect at least a trillion odors! Bill Bryson,The Body, at 90.
Didn’t we already know we can identify the scent of the loved one? Mothers can recognize their newborns by smell (and vice versa). Bryson says olfactory information goes directly to our olfactory cortex, next to the hippocampus, where memories are shaped, which is why some neuroscientists think certain smells evoke memories. Oh, didn’t Proust mention that? Scent brings back the dead, if only for a second. In myGhost Cat,after the death of his wife Holly, Russ confesses that when he walks in the house, he lifts his eyes and inhales: “I always hope for a little whiff of Holly.”
However––some odors fly under our radar. We may feel, but can’t always articulate, how certain smells arouse our emotions. We say fear is contagious but we haven’t known how. Zaraska cites research showing when we smell body odor from a stressed person, we ourselves become more vigilant. When we smell body odor of a close relative, per Zaraska, we can recognize family, and our dorsomedial-prefontal cortext can light up. Maybe some of this we’ve known without really knowing it.
Plus, we apparently have sensory radar for genetic information. For mating! A woman inhaling body odor of a potential mate senses how genetically related the two are––by sniffing a gene family that links body scent and the immune system, called the “major histocompatibility complex” or “MHC.” This capacity is useful: we like our mates to be related enough––but not too much. My protagonist Alice, lawyer and amateur sleuth in the Alice MacDonald Greer Mystery series, is well aware how much she likes the way her love interest Ben Kinsear smells––he “smells good”––but she hasn’t put words to the smell the way Chet the dog has. He defines his own smell as “the most familiar smell in the world: old leather, salt and pepper, mink coats, and just a soupcon of tomato; and to be honest, a healthy dash of something male and funky. My smell: yes, sir.”
Could you define your own smell? With aromatic detail? Probably not. A loved one might be able to.
Smell can deepen a scene, define character, highlight plot. Ann Cleeves, inDead Water(her Shetland series) describes the reception desk in the hotel, a key setting, as “all dark wood, with the smell of beeswax.” The sweet smell, the dark venue.
Elly Griffiths in The Crossing Placesshows us her protagonist, archeologist Ruth Galloway: “Climbing the danksmelling staircase to her office, she thinks about her first lecture: First Principles in Excavation.” Danksmelling…excavation. Her job.
Louise Penny, in A Better Man,uses smell to reinforce the humiliating demotion of her protagonist, Quebec Inspector Armand Gamache. A former subordinate now bosses him. A giant ice storm with crashing ice flows and high water threatens Quebec. Worried the Champlain bridge will break, on the way to a police meeting, Gamache gets splattered with mud trying to see whether the dam will hold.
“I see some of the crap thrown at you today on Twitter has stuck,” said the senior officer from the RCMP, gesturing at Gamache’s clothing.
Gamache smiled. “Fortunately, it won’t stain.”
“But it does smell,” said the Mountie, with a wry smile. “Helluva first day back on the job, Armand.”
A great metaphor for the smelly attacks on Gamache that have led to his demotion.
In A Cinnabar Sky’s opening scene, Billy Kring uses smell to build dread and suspense around the locked trunk his protagonist Hunter Kincaid and her companion Buddy are about to pry open. Buddy says, “Now the smell is more like a really bad swamp, right?” When they pop the trunk, it’s “like an abandoned slaughterhouse gone fetid and rotten in the summer heat.”
The “smells” article sent me to poetry. Back to the bookshelves. Poets, in their compressed genre, seem to convey scent by evocative words, words that already define a smell, name a smell. Wallace Stevens has only to say, “coffee and oranges in a sunny chair” in Sunday Morning and we smell them. Shakespeare has only to write “The rose looks fair, but fairer we it deem/For that sweet odor which doth in it live” in Sonnet 54. He doesn’t have to define the “sweet odor”: he knows we know it. Coffee? Oranges? Cigar smoke? The word itself gives us the smell. Robert Frost, In Neglect: “I smell the earth, I smell the bruised plant…” We do too. Billy Collins, Canada: “O Canada, as the anthem goes,/scene of my boyhood summers,/you are the pack of Sweet Caporals on the table…” The smell of sneaked cigarettes of youth.
Wallace Stevens did try more extensive fragrant description in Approaching Carolina: “Tilting up his nose/he inhaled the rancid rosin, burly smells/Of dampened lumber, emanations blown/From warehouse doors, the gustiness of ropes,/Decays of sacks, and all the arrant stinks…” We sure know what he means. But is this too much? I wonder if he wondered.
In the upcoming Ghost Daughter, seventh in my series, Alice quizzes a young friend about a new boyfriend. Alice blurts, “So he smells good?” She realizes her own standards for a lifetime companion involve “someone who smelled right…” Probably you’ve all had that experience. Maybe that’s how humans perceive certain under-the-radar scents, as “right” or “not right,” as “good” or “threatening.” Based on Zaraska’s article I suppose “good” may mean “right” in terms of the mysterious “major histocompatibility complex.” Not sure that’s how I want to describe it, though.
I was preparing an update to my January 25 post about resolving to read all forty-seven of Anthony Trollope’s novels in 2021. I worked all day yesterday and all day today (with time out to play Candy Crush and Scrabble Online while waiting to think of the next word).
The post was intended to be both light-hearted and erudite—the erudite part was the reason for the Candy Crush time-outs, because although when I was in graduate school I was, at times, extremely erudite, I’m a little out of practice.
And it takes a lot of words to be erudite. The piece kept getting longer and longer, with no end in sight.
So I did what I do. I scrapped it in the interest of a post with no erudition at all.
It begins with a cat bite and ends with a poem.
William the Cat had dental surgery last month. He’s twelve years old and overweight and diabetic, and I spent the day before surgery crying because I was afraid he would be anesthetized and never wake up.
However, he woke up and came home looking just as disgusted as he’d looked when he left home. In the interim, he’d lost five teeth, but he didn’t seem to miss them. In fact, he was downright perky.
Before surgery, David had to lift him onto the bed, where he spent his days monitoring squirrels and sleeping. Now he trips right up those kitty stairs and plops himself down any time he pleases.
He pleases when he smells coconut oil. I rub it on my hands at night for a moisturizer. He licks it off my hands. Sometimes he chases me onto the bed. Sometimes he gets there first and I have to wrestle him out of the way.
Being catlicked feels icky, but he’s elderly and determined, and I tolerate it, up to a point. The encounter usually ends in his getting a head, ear, and throat rub, followed by a tummy rub, accompanied by a rumbling purr (his). Sometimes he then walks across me, threatening to crack a couple of my ribs, to get to the other hand before succumbing to the tummy rub. Then he leaves.
But sometimes he bites. He’s always been a biter—lunge, chomp, lunge, chomp—as part of play. My fingers are toys. But where coconut oil is involved, he becomes the foe—adversary, attacker, assailant. Backbiter.
I’m not talking nips or little love bites. I mean he’s going for a mouthful of flesh and possibly some bone to go with it. And a few puncture wounds.
That’s how I know he still has his fangs. And that they’re in good working order.
Fortunately, the recent dental cleaning has kept me from having to visit the urgent care clinic for antibiotics. A little Neosporin and band-aids have sufficed.
I know about cat bites. Years ago, a stray cat named Perceval (I’d sort of adopted him) bit me when I gave him a tummy rub (not his fault; he turned belly-up, and I thought he wanted a tummy rub, but he’d been down the street chasing other stray cats and was still hyper). I ended up with cellulitis up to the elbow. “My gosh,” said the doctor, “we used to put people in the hospital on an antibiotic drip for that.”
More recently (six years ago, to be exact), while being worked on by a vet tech, William scraped my arm with a fang. Within twenty minutes the scrape was surrounded by a red circle two inches in diameter.
I went to the urgent care clinic. Then I went home and did what writers do: I wrote a poem about the experience.
But before I can talk about that poem, I must talk about another one: Leigh Hunt’s “Jenny Kissed Me.” It’s one of my favorites. To wit:
Jane Carlyle, wife of philosopher Thomas Carlyle, was a quiet woman. She did not show strong emotion. But one day when writer Leigh Hunt, who had been very ill, arrived for a visit, Jane jumped up from her chair, ran across the room, and kissed him. Surprised and delighted, Hunt memorialized the event in a poem.
Jenny kissed me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have missed me,
Say I’m growing old, but add,
Jenny kissed me.
And that is how I came to memorialize the scrape William gave me at the veterinarian’s office:
William bit me at the vet,
Didn’t like the aide’s assistance,
Used his claws and fangs to set
On the path of most resistance.
Say I’m teary, say I’m mad,
Say that pills and needles hit me,
Say my arm’s inflamed, and add,
William bit me.
I was inspired to read The Ebony Swan, after reading Kay Hudson’s, Remembering Phyllis A. Whitney, a master of the mystery genre.
I’d forgotten how much I’d enjoyed her stories, years ago, and I hadn’t read all of her works, which added up to an impressive 77; the last three or four when she was in her nineties—Wow! What an inspiration to us all. Her numerous works included 39 Adult mysteries; 4 On Writing; 20 in Juvenile Fiction, and 14 YA.
Whitney was not only a prolific writer but also a force for advancing women’s recognition in the mystery genre. In the late 1980’s she wrote an open letter to Mystery Writers of America, admonishing them for their refusal to take women in the genre seriously. She pointed out that in their forty-one-year existence only seven women had been awarded the Edgar for best novel. Yes. It was time to become reacquainted with Phyllis Whitney.
I chose one of her last works, The Ebony Swan, a story that encompasses a subject dear to my heart: ballet.
With a light touch, Whitney draws the reader into the worlds she creates. In the Ebony Swan, it is the lush backdrop of the Virginia Tidewater, where we meet Alexandrina (Alex) Montoro, now in her seventies, once a world-renowned ballerina. Alex was married to the late, distinguished author, Juan Gabriel Montoro; they had one child, Dolores.
The mystery: Why was Alex’s daughter dead? Twenty-five years earlier Dolores, died when she fell down a flight of steps, and Alex’s granddaughter, Susan, witnessed the tragedy at a very young age. Ruled an accident, Alex feared the unknown truth and remained silent.
Did Susan, in a fit of childish rage, push her mother? Juan Gabriel, still alive at
the time, was found unconscious on the hall floor above where Dolores’s body lay. Was he somehow responsible, or was there someone else in the house that day?
After Dolores’s death, the unspoken turmoil and competing passions in the Montoro family exploded. Susan’s father took her away from Virginia and forbade her to have any contact with her maternal grandmother, but after his passing, Susan found herself at a crossroads and decided to return to Virginia.
Despite her grandmother’s joy to be reunited with her only grandchild, Susan is not welcomed by all. On the surface, her reception is friendly, but there is an undercurrent of fear and resentment. Could a return to the scene of her mother’s death jog Susan’s memory and what will she remember? Who is friend and who is foe, she wonders, while getting to know Alex?
A hint of romance adds another dimension, but anger, jealousy betrayal and danger drive the story as the impact of one deed crosses two generations.
Some say Whitney’s books start too slow for today’s reading public because she spends time and words immersing us in location, atmosphere, and historical data, making them relevant to her character’s lives and the story; for me, it was a breath of fresh air. Phyllis Whitney’s gift for spinning a yarn with gossamer threads that weave together in beautifully crafted storytelling is still compelling.